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Unbuttoning David Lynch

(Photo Universal Focus/Photofest)

In these publicity-crazed days, more and more filmmakers can talk a great movie but can’t make a decent one. David Lynch is their antithesis: He makes brilliant films (e.g., Eraserhead), but can’t or won’t say much about them — at least consciously. He pleads inarticulateness, takes the Fifth, insists that he works intuitively and denies that he’s seen or read just about everything that you mention. And he does all of this with an affable awareness of just how he’s affecting you. Although he may seem like the Nerd Messiah — he listens to polkas, collects Woody Woodpecker icons, builds prosthetic fingers and talks like a Capote-ized James Stewart — David Lynch is an amazingly sharp guy.

His latest movie, Blue Velvet, entered my head like a nightmare. I knew I had to talk to its creator. Lynch agreed — he’s incredibly agreeable — and we met twice, first at a Westwood coffee shop, later at the De Laurentiis offices on Wilshire. Both times I felt like a high-school guy chasing his date around the back seat at a drive-in: I’d touch on something, he’d push me away, then we’d talk generally about life while the movie played, so to speak, in the background. At the time, I felt incredibly frustrated, but reading our talk later I realized that indirectly I had learned a lot about Lynch’s tastes, his weird belief-system (sort of New Agey Reaganism) and the forces at work in his dazzling movie.

POWERS: When people ask me what Blue Velvet is about, I find it almost impossible to tell them. Can you?

LYNCH: No. If I could, I would. The one line I’ve come up with is: “It’s a mystery of love and darkness. It’s a film about things that are hidden.”

Did you ever read mysteries as a kid?

No, but I love a mystery better than anything, even when it’s not a murder mystery.

Like the darkness in Blue Velvet?.

Darkness is the mysterious thing to me. There can be plenty of mysteries in light too. But darkness is the sickness-and-evil side.

Of what?

Light.

Let me press you on that. Do you think this darkness is something that’s inside people, or is it an external metaphysical force?

Well, in terms of metaphysical things, they say there’s just one force, and it comes out and it divides somewhere down the line, and it divides for a reason. So there’s opposites.

Oh. Who are “they,” by the way?

I don’t know. [Laughs.] The metaphysics people.

Let’s try this from another angle. As Jeffrey gets into the mystery, he gives a speech about the need to seize opportunities for knowledge. Do you believe that?

Oh yeah! [Laughs.] Everybody confronts them every minute. You can confront them numb and blind and deaf and they’ll still happen, but you may not reap any benefits from them. Now, Jeffrey’s getting in there. He’s discovering many things, and he’s gaining knowledge.

Knowledge of what?

A lot of things, some of them obvious. He’s gaining knowledge on the surface of a mystery that’s going on in town, and he’s gaining knowledge of some things that are inside him that he doesn’t realize. When you see certain things, it gives you knowledge of the state of human beings. Maybe you thought everything was pretty nice, then suddenly you say, “Things can’t be nearly so nice as I imagined or hoped for.”

That makes me think of your opening images of small-town America with the waving fireman and the red-white-and-blue flowers. It’s like skewed Norman Rockwell. Is that a parody or a political comment?

I don’t like to say exactly what it is for me, because it doesn’t matter. All the stuff is there, and it’s up to everybody to get hit by it at whatever angle it hits them.

Well, we’re living at a time when lots of people want a return to the old, small-town values. What’s Blue Velvet’s relationship to that?

It’s an American film.

That’s certainly cryptic enough.

[Laughs.] One thing that strikes me — and I don’t like to give my views on these subjects — but in a funny way, people are almost more uncomfortable with corny virtues than they are with the sickest violence. Do you understand what I’m talking about?

Yes, but I’d like you to elaborate.

I’m not going to elaborate, but it is strange to me.

Does love strike you as being a powerful force?

The strongest — the thing that makes the whole trip worthwhile.

Do you think love is something inside people, or is it some larger, transcendent force?

I don’t know what you’re trying to get me to . . . I think it’s a thing that exists and that you usually attach to another person, but it could be a more all-encompassing love for everything.

People don’t know how to take Blue Velvet’s affirmative love theme. When Sandy tells her dream about the robins and the blinding light of love, she’s dead earnest, but at least half the viewers laugh. Do you want us to take this stuff seriously?

That’s what I’m talking about. The scene with Sandy and the robins puts people in a very uncomfortable position. I don’t know why, but Sandy’s speech is almost more uncomfortable than Frank visiting Dorothy and doing bad things to her. There your stomach gets funny and you squeeze your fingers, but when Sandy talks, you get hot and wonder if you should laugh. Because if you take this seriously, you’re admitting to something. You have to check your neighbor. Somehow you get a bit of a fever.

Do you worry that you lessen the power of things if you talk about them?

The more you say what something really is, the more things it isn’t. Here’s something I really feel strongly about: Something can be true and be nailed down and still be done in a way that has bigger meanings, that echoes and reverberates and does something bigger. If you say certain things [about] it, you weaken something else. It hurts things to talk about them too much.

Does that make it hard to get your movies made?

Absolutely. They’ve set up the system in Hollywood so that it’s almost impossible to do something abstract. You have to write it so that everybody gets it — and in the same way. But when everybody gets something in the same way, you haven’t got anything anymore.

Years ago you said, “I felt Eraserhead?, I didn’t think it,” and you talked as enigmatically about it as you now do about Blue Velvet?. With the passage of time, do you feel that we can say something more about that earlier movie?

I feel exactly the same thing now.

Oh. In some ways, The Elephant Man is your most commercial movie, a biopic with a humanistic message. Considering Eraserhead?, I’ve always wondered why you decided to do it.

I heard a noise go off in my head when [executive producer] Stuart Cornfeld said “the Elephant Man,” and I knew I was going to do it. I saw this person, this texture, and a background of smoke, and I saw him living in this industrial age, and I saw this doctor discovering things beneath the surface that nobody else knew about.

But for once, what’s hidden is something positive. Do you think that one often finds good things below the surface?

No.

Dune disappointed just about everybody. But when it came out, you were really crazy about it.

I learned how a person can fool himself. I psyched myself up so high that I thought everything was fine. I became so crazed after three and a half years of working so intensely that I had to like it or I’d lose my mind. I had to get into that mode — or what’s it all for? I mean, I’d start thinking about committing suicide. You can really fool yourself. And because I learned that on Dune, I didn’t know how I’d done with Blue Velvet. Just because I liked it, I still didn’t know if it was anything.

What do you like about Dune?

It’s a good attempt at putting the book on film and being true to it. If each scene were expanded and more mood were put to it, it would’ve worked better. Right now, it’s like the most beautiful car — it has everything that a car is supposed to have — but it’s been put into one of those compactors, so it doesn’t even look like a car. But everything is there and, in a way, it works. You have to let a lot of Dune just wash over you, because it’s not really an understandable picture. I’m planning to re-edit it and make a complete four-hour version for video. Then people will see what Dune really should have been.

Some people have suggested that Dune is reactionary, even crypto-fascist.

You can make Mary Poppins, anything you want, into just about whatever you want. With Elephant Man they said, “How come everybody that’s poor hates the Elephant Man and everybody who’s rich loves the guy?” I mean, it’s not really that way. Some of the nurses are really good to the guy. And I’d keep telling them that, but they get a thing in their brain and they won’t let go.

Still, it’s easier to find the politics in Dune than in Mary Poppins. It ends up with a messianic leader worshipped by crowds while beams of light shoot down from the sky, and this Mussolini architecture is all over the place.

Is that fascist, though? I don’t think so.

What do you think about Reagan?

See, I’m not a political person. When I start talking about politics, it has so little to do with films that it’s better not to discuss it. I never think about the government when I’m making a picture.

But given the intuitive way you claim to work, you don’t need to think about it. There might be important unconscious connections between your politics and the meaning of your work.

You might think that, but it doesn’t happen, not in a political way. Politics and film — they just don’t go together.

Let me change the subject then. Blue Velvet is like Eraserhead in that it’s just crackling with symbolic moments. How, consciously, do you pursue that?

I sort of know what you mean, and it’s that, uh . . . I am . . . bad at talking and at articulating things with words. When I sit down to make a film I don’t decide to make a film about a particular subject, because I don’t even know what that subject is. I go by feelings.

Tell me about the origins of Blue Velvet?.

Blue Velvet is basically a daydream-type film. I had a desire to sneak into a girl’s room and spend all night watching her. I mean, I’d go into Bob’s [Big Boy] or Denny’s and I’d see some girl and I’d want to look at her. But I’d want to look at her, you know, closely. But I can’t, because she’d be ready to call the police. That’s the strange thing about Blue Velvet — it’s about wanting to see things. And from there, I’d go on my feelings about different situations. When they become exciting to me, I know I’m on to something; and I know that I’m not when they become boring to me. It’s so simple.

But surely there’s artistic censoring and ordering.

Yes, the things have to stick together. There has to be a line. Things have to pyramid and come to an end. It’s a complicated process, but it all happens underneath the surface. I don’t know how . . .

I do know one thing: Films have to become more abstract because there are too many ways around now to let people watch them more than once. A film has to be built so that several viewings can be fantastic, so that you can keep falling back into its world. Like, Rear Window has so much going on. Even though it’s got a beginning, middle and end and even though you know what’s going to happen, you still love watching it. There’s some mood that you just love to experience. I don’t mean that you can’t have a story, but a film’s got to create a world or a mood or be complicated or do something to keep you going back.

There’s an affinity between Rear Window and Blue Velvet?? Were you trying for that?

No, but Rear Window is one of my favorite films. It’s got this relationship between Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart with so many things hidden in it. The story on the surface is great, but like lots of Hitchcock, you see holes in it, or see how it’s put together. But still, there’s something that’s timeless and beyond everything.

Well, voyeurism is fascinating.

Yeah, it is! There’s the sexual thing between Kelly and Stewart that centers on their watching someone else, and she’s brought more and more into it. The psychological things happening in Rear Window are great.

But there’s some silly and contrived stuff in Rear Window too, like when “Miss Lonelyhearts” winds up with the composer, who finishes his piano piece.

You say that seems “silly.” What gets me nowadays is that in order to be cool, a whole part of real life gets lopped off just because you might make a fool of yourself. And yet there’s so much there. I think people become narrower and narrower just to play it safe. And in each decade there are things that make people uncomfortable . . . Now there’s a sort of safety in coldness, in keeping cool.

What made people uncomfortable when you were growing up?

In the ’50s, it was radiation.

Now it’s emotions?

Yeah, radiation has turned into emotion.

Talking about different decades — it’s hard to tell whether Blue Velvet takes place in the ’50s or the ’80s. And you don’t seem to care.

I don’t. I remember seeing this film by Renoir, I think. It was set at one point in history, but the way the characters smoked cigarettes wasn’t of the period. And I realized just from seeing this one scene there are no rules. The mood is the most important thing. If you want to use a prop that doesn’t live in that era, it’s okay — if it works for something else.

I really respected Isabella Rossellini’s courage. She lets herself be abused in the movie and photographed in a real unflattering light. A PR guy I know called it “a major career blunder.”

Americans are such goofballs. They want things to be real in a certain kind of way, but then they’re afraid of real things — real ideas, real emotions, real bodies, the real things that bodies do. They want to play it safe, and you can’t do that.

You mentioned Bob’s Big Boy and Denny’s. I’ve always wondered, what do you like about them?

Well, I like cheap, good food . . . just kidding. No, I like a coffee-shop atmosphere. It’s an American sort of thing, and I like to sit in those environments and watch people and get ideas sitting there. For a long time I went to Bob’s every day and had the same thing every day . . . I don’t like it when it becomes too personal. A lot of times, the waitresses would get to know me, then it wasn’t good anymore.

You know there’s a legend that surrounds you.

Because of Bob’s?

Bob’s is the eating component of the legend. It has to do with your “normality.”

I suppose it’s because I look normal.

No, you don’t. For one thing, you always button your top button.

That’s, like, an insecurity thing. I feel vulnerable without that buttoned — I can’t tell you how much. I would like to have an even higher collar, and I like to wrap myself up into my clothes to feel even more protected. [Lynch demonstrates this by pulling his jacket tight across his torso and hiding his hands in his armpits.]

Protected from what?

Just so many things in the air.

I was interested in the legend because when people first discovered your work, you were often described as, oh, this arty American from the sticks who reinvented Eastern Europe.

[Laughs.] I like that! Poland and Czechoslovakia are great — they’re the most surrealistic bunch, although Mexico is close. There’s something about their world . . . It’s bent a little bit different.

I keep thinking that you must read Eastern European writers.

I’m not very well read, but I do love Kafka. Kafka pretty much says it. I hadn’t read him until after [the] Eraserhead days. Then when I did, I said, “This guy could be my brother, the way I feel about him.” I don’t know what other people love about Kafka, but I think Eraserhead is in there somewhere.

Are you happier than Kafka?

I think I must be. [Laughs.] But, you know, I think he must have been pretty happy, because of his work. He must have felt happy about certain paragraphs or combinations of words, which are so incredible . . . Human beings are fantastic things. They try to figure things out. Like Henry Spencer in Eraserhead. People are in confusion, but Henry’s always trying to figure it all out. He’s also worried about what he’s thinking and how he’s doing. He’s very fearful.

You’re describing a paranoiac.

[Laughs.] Yes, that’s right. It is paranoia.

I keep telling people that I feel like I dreamed Blue Velvet?. Do you get ideas from dreams?

I’m not a dreamer in that way; I’ve actually gotten very few ideas from dreams, and I don’t analyze dreams or try to figure myself out with them. I guess that could be kind of fascinating. I like just sitting quietly in a chair, like at Bob’s, and letting my thoughts go off. For me, that takes me places that are as exciting as any dream.

Blue Velvet owes a lot to the small towns of your youth. You’ve said that Eraserhead is about living in Philadelphia. What feeling do you have about L.A.?

I don’t know yet, though I’ve lived here for a long time. L.A. is about my favorite city. It has so many different textures. L.A. is subtler than other cities, and a lot of people, when they first come here, don’t realize all the differences you can discover here. They think it’s just burnt out by the sun and spread out everywhere. I’m glad things are spread out, because it gives people an excuse to get in the car and enjoy driving.

Why do you like driving?

Because I like cars. I love the idea that this gasoline is burning and this machinery is going up and down and there are tremendous temperatures and electricity — all these different things that are there to burn rubber and throw you down the highway. Also, there’s a style and design in cars — or there used to be, back with the cars I really like from the ’50s, back when America was really on top and leading the way. Now it’s sort of sickening, it really is. I can’t stand what’s happening with American cars. It makes me sick. They’re terrible. They’re the worst pieces of crap I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s embarrassing. It’s pathetic. They ought to get some designers in there and use some quality materials and do something. They ought to take the next step and do something good. People keep saying “Buy American,” but they didn’t have to say that in the ’50s. They just bought American because it was cool.

What kind of car do you own?

For one, the car that Jeffrey drives in the film, an Oldsmobile 88. But my favorite car that I own is a 1958 Packard Hawk. And I have a Toyota pickup truck that I drive around in.

Speaking of hobbies, I hear you dissect animals.

Well, I don’t do it often. It’s not like something I do. I have done it, but a lot of people have done it in school. Of course, in school they try to take the fun out of it. [Laughs.] I took a duck apart about a year and a half ago to make a duck kit. And I’ve made a chicken kit and fish kit. It’s all based on the model-airplane kit. When you get a model airplane, all the parts are in the box and you have to assemble them. Sometimes they’ll give you instructions with a layout of all the parts and they’re numbered and you put them together. Now I have photos of chicken parts and fish parts and instructions for putting them together.

Do you put them together?

No, its only a photo. I mean, you could put them together, but the parts have long since . . . You’d have to get your own. [Giggles.]

Blue Velvet will give a lot of people the creeps. Do you think life’s scary?

Ignorance is scary. Not knowing is the scariest thing. Let’s put it this way: You’re in a comfortable living room and the TV’s on Another World and you’ve just finished a job. You’ve got two or three hours just to stay home and relax, and you know you’ve got nothing to do. That’s pleasant, or one kind of pleasant. Now, take exactly the same room again. If it’s night and you know that some men are going to come and do things to you, that kind of knowing is extremely frightening. [Laughs.]

But even beyond that, there’s another way of looking at it — as molecules. There’s one set of molecules coming into another set of molecules to do a bunch of stuff to them . . . Do you have any idea what I’m talking about?

Is this supposed to be a comforting thought?

Well, yeah. I really think that you could get to a point where nothing in life would be frightening.

How would you do that? Who could do that?

That would be a person who was normal.

What’s “normal”?

Well, these metaphysical people, again, they say that human beings are humanoids reflecting the Being. Where most people are dirty mirrors and don’t reflect much, these people would reflect 100 percent. An enlightened human being would have no fear.

And have that all-encompassing love you talked about.

Absolutely.

Do you think your movies enlighten people?

I don’t think so. [Laughs.] Maybe they could be inspiring to artists or someone. Whenever I see something that I really like — a great painting, or something — I almost get a fever. It gets me so crazed, and there’s not one bit of jealousy. I recognize the power that’s coming through that thing, and it revs me up to the point where there are some galleries or museums that I can only go in for so long or I don’t know what might happen to me. I could vibrate apart! Things like that give you so much energy to create something on your own — it’s really cool. The best possible thing you can do is create.

Do you hope that your films might help people . . .

I don’t ever think about making an audience react. I’m saying that inspiring people is one thing that films could do. I don’t think films enlighten people, I don’t think they change people — films aren’t really powerful enough to do that. Though they’re still awfully powerful. They can take you to another place and give you a very powerful experience. And it’s only just started. They could be so powerful, so powerful. But they have to get into this abstract, nonstory, nonlinear thing. Now the payoffs are that Rocky knocks down the Russkie, and people cheer, and it’s powerful — it’s been built to do that and it works. But there’s other things that a film could do. It could open something up inside a person, and you’d say, “I’ve never had this experience.” Maybe it doesn’t make you cry or laugh, but it just thrills you in some way you’ve never been thrilled before. A film could do that.

Has a film ever done that for you?

Only Eraserhead. [Laughs.]

I have a question written down here, but I’m reluctant to ask it.

[Brightens.] What is it?

Were you ever in therapy?

For one day. I really wanted to go to a therapist . . . I was having problems, so I went to him and he was a real good guy, very calm, and I talked to him for about 45 minutes. I think that’s the key to the whole thing — you really solve your own problems if you can just get somebody to talk to sometimes. So I asked him, “If I keep going with this, will it affect my creativity?” And he said, “It could. I have to be honest, it could.” So I thanked him and left, and that was the end of it.


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