Getting Lost Is Beautiful 

The light and dark world of David Lynch

Wednesday, Oct 17 2001

To talk seriously about Lynch is to begin with his enthusiasms.

“Look at this,” he says one hot August morning. He shows me a photograph of a dilapidated industrial building. “I took it last December in Lodz, Poland. I was at this film festival, Camerimage, and it was so much fun. In the daytime we‘d shoot factories, and at night we’d shoot nudes.”

Factories and nudes, nudes and factories -- of such strange oppositions is Lynch‘s imagination made. His movies are torn between light and dark, blonde and brunette, goofy and primal, avant-garde and retro, the radiantly transcendent and the downright icky. And this sense of duality carries into his daily existence. Lynch jealously guards his privacy but parades his innermost kinks onscreen for the whole world to see. He invariably talks poor -- “David’s so goddamned cheap,” his late friend Jack Nance once laughingly told me -- but has a three-house compound in the Hollywood Hills. Although his twisted style subverts traditional American values, his political attitudes are profoundly conservative: “She‘s a wonderful woman,” he once snapped when I made fun of Nancy Reagan. Where many are swallowed by their contradictions, Lynch gobbles them down like amphetamines. They’re his goad, his fuel, his shivering thrill.

When we first met in the mid-1980s, his big, soft face was immaculately shaven, his hair neatly combed, his crisp white shirt carefully buttoned all the way to the top. He exuded a corn-fed adolescent enthusiasm -- did anyone else, even then, still say “Jeepers”? -- and I understood why he was often compared to Jimmy Stewart. Now, at 55, he still uses the same cracker-barrel lingo, but time has left its handwriting upon him. His eyes are bloodshot, the white shirt looks a tad worn, and bits of gray stubble elude his razor. He still reminds me of Jimmy Stewart, not the Mr. Smith who goes to Washington but the grizzled obsessive from Vertigo. His beaming smile has lost its innocence.

Yet sitting in his studio high above the family bunker (all three houses are made of concrete), he‘s in fine spirits. After years in the artistic wilderness, David Lynch is back with a vengeance. He’s about to launch a pay Web site, DavidLynch.com, and his new movie, Mulholland Drive, has proven an unexpected triumph. A rejected TV pilot that Lynch re-shot, re-cut and re-conceived, Mulholland Drive isn‘t merely his best work in a decade, it may be the best movie set in Hollywood since Sunset Boulevard.

In an essay written around the time of Lost Highway, David Foster Wallace neatly explained why Lynch’s work is so unsettling: Unlike a normal film, a Lynch film gets under your skin because you don‘t know what it wants from you. It enters you like a dream.

This is certainly true of Mulholland Drive, a corrosively beautiful fairy tale that’s as mysterious as the inky shadows that lie just beyond the throw of our headlights. It centers on the apache dance of two wildly different women, one dark and one fair. There‘s the hard-faced brunette sexpot known as Rita (Laura Elena Harring), who is suffering from amnesia, and there’s innocent, blond Betty Elms, played by Naomi Watts, whose breathtaking performance takes her from wide-eyed wonder to a lacerating awareness of human emptiness. Wildly ambitious and wantonly intuitive, the movie is at once a touching love story, a portrait of L.A. illusions, a pomo slice of film noir, a clubfooted satire of the movie business and a radical vision of the human psyche -- not to mention another Lynchian riff on The Wizard of Oz, complete with tiny people. Call it a tale about nudes caught in the Dream Factory.

Like nearly all of Lynch‘s work, the movie began not with a plot line but with a mood, an image, a title, a place -- in this case, Mulholland Drive.

“I picture Mulholland Drive at night,” Lynch says, lighting up an American Spirit cigarette. “Anybody who’s driven on that road knows that there‘s not a lot of traffic, and it’s filled with coyotes and owls and who knows what. You hear stories about things that happen on Mulholland Drive. It‘s a road of mystery and danger. And it’s riding on top of the world, looking down on the Valley and Los Angeles. You get these incredible vistas, so it‘s pretty dreamy as well as mysterious.”

The most instinctive of artists, Lynch has never liked discussing his work and grows instantly leery when you bring up questions of meaning. When I ask how he sees the difference between blondes and brunettes, a classic dichotomy that he returns to fetishistically, his answer’s so deliberately vague that both of us smile -- we know I‘ll never be able to use it. Like a good Middle American (he was born in Montana), he views all manner of analysis with mortal suspicion. He once went to a psychiatrist, and after the first session asked if therapy might damage his creativity. The shrink said yes, and Lynch never went back.

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