In pop culture there has been, for at least a generation, a category of moods and things that we all think of as Lynchian. They’re not happy things, of course: decaying motel rooms; light fixtures that spastically sputter on and off; dark, creepy industrial landscapes; grotesque faces; severed heads; rotting meat … claustrophobic, nightmare stuff. All thanks to a handful of David Lynch creations: Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Mulholland Drive and, of course, the original Twin Peaks.
Lynch himself has been so famous for so long that some of us remember even fashion items that were considered Lynchian, back in the day: the director’s collar always cinched tight at the neck (with no tie) and his huge, flopped-over head of hair, which almost rivaled that of lead character Henry in Eraserhead; Lynch’s look fit in with the New Wave–ish early ’80s quite well.
The cover photo of the new book Room to Dream, a David Lynch biography-slash-autobiography, is a grainy snapshot of little Lynch at about the age of 3, the future enfant terrible as an actual infant, a pudgy little towhead sitting on a porch somewhere in Idaho. His mouth is smeared with … well, it could be chocolate or it could be dirt. He’s smiling.
Hardcore David Lynch fans probably will come to this book hoping to get the dope on where their hero’s creepy artistic vision came from and what it is that’s inside that feverish (non-severed) head. But be warned that Room to Dream, released Tuesday, June 19, is a slow-paced and “granular” biography. It’s co-written by Lynch and his good friend, former L.A. Times journalist and hip culture-hound Kristine McKenna. She has always loved writing about innovative artists who happen to be multitalents (she’s previously written about William Burroughs, Brian Eno and Captain Beefheart, all of them “double-threat” creatives), so here we have McKenna on Lynch, the ultra-famous filmmaker and not-quite-as-famous gallery artist.
In an unusual arrangement, Lynch has written “response” chapters here that comment on and amplify each bio-chapter written by McKenna, whose research is impressive. Readers will feel as if they’re learning practically everything that ever happened to Lynch, from Idaho to his art school days in Philadelphia to his first successes in L.A., where he’s lived, more or less, since 1971.
Aspiring artists of all types will find Lynch’s story inspiring, since he vaulted to the top of his field at a fairly young age. By sticking to his artistic guns, Lynch carved a niche for himself in Hollywood, and it worked. Recall that Mel Brooks signed on as a producer for The Elephant Man after seeing Eraserhead (which the American Film Institute had helped to fund), famously summing up Lynch’s trademark combo of gee-whiz American-ness and grotesque subject matter by calling him “Jimmy Stewart from Mars.”
There’s plenty of gossip-gratification funtime here, including interview quotes from lead actors like Isabella Rossellini, who recalls the making of Blue Velvet and the scariness of her co-star Dennis Hopper (she and Lynch, of course, were an item at the time). There’s cultural nostalgia, too, for those of us who remember the original Twin Peaks, Lynch’s breakthrough into network TV, a series that thoroughly dominated pop culture back in that simpler, pre-gadgets era.
The extreme sense of loyalty expressed by some of Lynch’s former colleagues comes though in certain interesting comments, like Rossellini herself describing the filming of Blue Velvet: “David laughed throughout the shooting of (a) rape scene! I don’t know why, but he was laughing. … There is something about Blue Velvet that is funny, though. But I still don’t know why David was laughing!”
The repetitive tone of these gushing testimonials (“He’s like one of those Renaissance giants capable of creating enormous frescoes”) will strike some readers as an eye-roller, though the consistently positive picture of Lynch-the-person that emerges from them can’t be denied: a soft-spoken director who isn’t bossy toward his actors and tries as much as possible to make the process of moviemaking fun.
“David … never makes actors read,” says actress Charlotte Stewart, who designed lead character Henry’s trademark hair while on the set of Eraserhead. “He’s very private with actors and never gives you direction when other people are listening. He comes up to you very quietly and whispers in your ear. It’s real confidential direction.” This does sound pretty unusual. Further: “He never loses his temper, never raises his voice,” according to Deepak Nayar, an Indian immigrant who shares Lynch’s well-known enthusiasm for Transcendental Meditation, aka TM.
The serene Mr. Lynch is clearly no pushover, though: “I remember an executive taking a list of notes out of his pocket and saying, ‘I’ve got some notes if you’re interested,’” recalls one associate about the making of Twin Peaks. “And David said, ‘No, not really,’ and the guy quietly put the list back in his pocket….”
The delicious grossness of his, ah, tastes is here too, of course. Here’s a quote from a crew member about the props list for Eraserhead: “To get umbilical cords I lied to hospitals and told them the cords would just be in jars in the background in a movie. … I had to find some unusual things.”
“Ah! One feels a chillness, not bodily, but about the heart, and, moreover, a foolish dread of looking behind him, after these pastimes,” to quote Nathaniel Hawthorne. The best of Lynch’s films, such as Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, do feel like a continuation of that old American Gothic lineage, what with all that suburban normalcy hiding all of that weirdness lurking just underneath the surface. It’s the same phenomenon we see on the news whenever some suburbanite’s cellar is being dug up by the police with their corpse-sniffing dogs. The creepy world of David Lynch isn’t unreal at all.
Book Soup presents An Evening With David Lynch and Kristine McKenna, Thu., June 21, 7-10 p.m., at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, downtown L.A. Tickets at axs.com.
Separately, the fourth iteration of the David Lynch Foundation's Festival of Disruption returns to the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 13 and 14. Tickets for the immersive festival, curated entirely by Lynch and presented by Alex + Ani, go on sale Wednesday, June 20, at 10 a.m.; more info here.