The City of Absurdity David Lynch
Interviews & Articles
Icon Article 1997, pt. I

with many thanks to Dominic Kulcsar

David Lynch

Eraserhead marked him as a freak, The Elephant Man clarified him as an artist. Dune made him look like a fluke. Blue Velvet cemented his place in cinema history. Twin Peaks catapulted him into mythology. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me crushed his reputation. Lost Highway, his first film in over four years, could resurrect or bury him.


"Yes Ma'am!" David Lynch enthusiastically shouts in response to an important question: Does he want another coffee? Lynch has a theory about cups of joe: "If you turn away from them for one second, they go cold on you." Simultaneously comic, superstitious, even faintly sinister, the observation is typically Lynchian - it points to a recognizable truth. His ability to expose hidden meaning in the familiar or everyday seems instinctual, as natural to him as it is strange to others. When Mel Brooks famously dubbed Lynch "Jimmy Stewart from Mars," it was incisive shorthand for a complex puzzle. Lynch's work, at times deeply disturbing and darkly hilarious, is even more troubling against the back of his golly-gosh, folksy, clean cut American persona.

"Eagle, Scout, Missoula, Montana" is how Lynch chose to characterize himself to the press in 1990 the year his delirious road movie Wild At Heart won the international film community's greatest honor: the Palme d'Or at Cannes. The same year, TV audiences worldwide were enthralled with the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks. The small-screen series was created by Lynch with Mark Frost. It garnered 14 Emmy Nominations, and won Lynch the covers of Time and The New York Times Magazine.

"I think that David is the Eagle scout from Missoula, Montana who found some tools in his dad's garage," observes Laura Dern, star of Wild at Heart and Blue velvet. "He's the neighborhood boy who always asks "Hey! Whatchya doing?" He probably started to paint some things, and decided he could paint in front of the camera." One of the boys in Lynch's neighborhood was Toby Keeler; Lynch was working on his Eagle Scout merit badges when they first met in 1960."They just don't gov those away," Keeler says. "I think that David achieved the highest level possible, though he doesn't like to talk about it. Even today his ability to make something out of nothing comes from the old motto, "Be Prepared," Despite friendship that has spanned 37 years, Keeler says,"I have no idea where David's dark side comes from. He likes to portray himself as the straightest guy in the world, and obviously he's not."

Sitting in his beloved workshop, surrounded by heavy machinery, tools and a stack of pictures ready to be placed in crates (for an upcoming tour of his paintings and photographs).Lynch is clearly at home. But talking about his work has always filled him with trepidation. his fears that words will only reduce his films to a single, literal meaning. Lynch's own four-word bio is indicative of an ever playful but essentially private personality - one of which defies easy description.

Actress and model Isabella Rossellini was Lynch's lover when practically every American magazine sought his famous, but toned up looks for their covers. In Blue Velvet, he cast her as the disturbed Dorothy Vallens, the masochistic victim of Dennis Hopper's sadistic Frank Booth. "A lot of people thought that Blue Velvet was sick, but for me, it was David's research of the good and the bad," Rosselini says" There is an incredible gentleness and a conflict between good and evil in him that is so moving. It's absolutely the core of his art, and it makes him a profoundly moral person. He's also great fun. I mean, humor beyond the beyond! I laughed a lot in the years that I worked with him. He doesn't make himself into a character. He's just from Montana. " Dennis Hopper revels in the contradiction." He's so straight it's hard to realize that he has such a sick and twisted mind," Hopper says with an evil laugh. "Dear David!"

Lynch is intrigues by what others see as paradox:" We all have at least two sides. The world we live in is a world of opposites. And the trick is to reconcile those opposing things." Lynch's unflinching cinematic engagement with his dark side seems dangerously public for one so private. However, the potential paradox masks a strange innocence. " I've always liked both sides," he says. "In order to appreciate one you have to know the other. The more darkness you can gather up, the more light you can see too." The self portrait "I See Myself" (1992) depicts a strange half-white, half black figure. If the white side is a regular guy sitting here in his painting studio, drinking more coffee and smoking another American Spirit cigarette, is the black side less pleasant? "Well it has to be that way," he says and then laughs." I don't know why but um, er, I don't quite know what to say about that."

Currently, Lynch is bracing himself for the release of his first movie in over four years, Lost Highway. The media attention that inevitably accompanies such an event disturbs him because he has been both praised and vilified in the past. "I like to have a film go out, but not have me go out" he admits. "Respect for, you know, the work - that's success for me."

Mary Sweeney, Lynch's "sweetheart" of many years and the mother of their five-year-old son Riley, is also the editor and producer of Lost Highway. She's experienced Lynch's demons first-hand. "He tries to hold success at arm's length because good reviews are as destructive as bad ones if you start listening to them." she says. "Once you're on the cover of Time, it takes a year or two to recover." Rossellini says it's yet another example of Lynch's duality. " I think David is concerned very much with success, and hates himself for it." she says. " He admires the independence of the artist, and yet knows that without a certain amount of success his freedom would be taken away. But he won't do anything for success. He wants to be successful with his own imagery. I think that David was probably born like that, with vivid images in his head. As an office employee he would probably just be staring out the window, entertained by the images that his brain flashes to him. He wouldn't be good at anything else. His imagination is too strong."

The man possessed of such an imagination was "born like that" in 1946 in the small valley town of Missoula, Montana, Surrounded by lakes, mountains and Native American reservation, Missoula boasts 30,000 inhabitants (smaller than Twin Peaks). His parents, Donald and Sunny, met at Duke University during an outdoor biology class. Sunny had been a language tutor and Don was a research scientist for the Department of Agriculture, both important factors in the making of David Lynch.

Despite what one might conclude from the dark, familial nightmares that trigger so many of Lynch's film narratives, his own childhood memories are of a carefree, idyllic past. "The one thing that disturbs me is that many psychopaths say they had a very happy childhood," He says. "There's some line I read about the longing for the euphoria of forgotten childhood dreams. And it was like a dream. Airplanes passed by slowly in the sky. Rubber toys floated on the water. Meals seemed to last five years and nap time seemed endless. And the world was so small. I can't remember being able to see more than a couple of blocks. And those couple of blocks were huge. So all the details were blown out of proportion. Blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it's supposed to be."

But if Lynch is inclined to romanticize, idealize or even construct an innocent halcyon past at the time he was only too aware of it's other aspect. "But on the cherry tree there's pitch oozing out - some of it's black, some of it's yellow, and there are millions of ants crawling all over it," he says. "I discovered that if one looks a little closer at the beautiful world, there's always red ants underneath."

Peggy Reavy, who married in 1967 when they were both attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, remembers well the young art student. "The first time I saw him was in the cafeteria. "she says" I just thought he was very beautiful. He looked like an angel to me." But Reavey also a painter (Lynch purchased several of her recent pictures and included them in his Lost Highway), would soon discover that what was hiding beneath his angelic surface. "He was a person who was fascinated with anything dark. He told stories about his childhood on Park Circle Drive- all these idyllic rabbit-hunting stories. And yet he seemed determined to puncture artificiality by revealing all this darkness."

Never to be content with appearances is one of the foundations of Lynch's world view. It was through nature that he first encountered darkness beneath the surface."My father had a huge forests at his disposal to experiment on, so I was exposed to insects, disease and growth in an organic sort of world," he says," And it sort of thrilled me. A National Geographic photo of a garden is just the most beautiful thing. But there are a lot of things attacking a garden. There's a lot of slaughter and death, worms and grubs. A lot of stuff going on. It's a torment."

The Lynch family, which included a younger brother and sister, was an itinerant one. They moved with each government transfer: from Missoula to Sandpoint, Idaho to Spokane, Washington to Durham, North Carolina, to Boise, Idaho and Finally to Alexandria, Virginia. By then Lynch was 14 years old. He cherishes the vivid memories of his father walking to work in a ten-gallon hat. "It was so embarrassing to me at the time that he wore this hat, but now I consider it totally cool," he says." It was a grey-green forest service, ten-gallon cowboy hat, and he'd put it on and walk out the door. He wouldn't go in a bus, a car or anything, he'd just walk several miles, all the way across the George Washington Bridge into the city in that hat."

It's Lynch's mental snapshots, such as his image of his sister Margaret, that once captivate and deflect. "She was afraid of green peas," he says " I think it had to do with the consistency and strengths of the outer surface, then the softness of what was inside when you broke the outer membrane. It was a big thing in our family. She'd have to hide them."

While the interpretation is probably exactly how Lynch sees it, the story is a consistent construct. It's an edited version of a past that presents his memories in a way that conveys a greater truth. It also aims to arrest one's desire to pry further. Why didn't his parents simply stop giving Margaret peas? "Well," he says "it was a thing about vegetables." That they're good for you? "Yes" But not if you're scared of them." No, it's not so good. You have to try different vegetables. Something has to work!"

His family's peripatetic lifestyle offers clues to a highly developed, eccentric sense of place in Lynch's work and to the innocent, outsider quality of his cinematic alter egos. "When your'e uprooted, you have to start all over again, "he says" it's hard if you're on the outside. It forces you to want to get on the inside. It's a shock to the system. But shocks are sometimes good. You get a little bit more aware. I had lots of friends, but I loved being alone and looking at ants swarming in the garden."

As a child, Lynch was always drawing and painting "One thing I thank my mother for is that she refused to give me coloring books, because it's like a restricting thing," he says " mostly drew ammunition and pistols and airplanes because the war was just over, and it was, I guess, in the air still, Browning automatic water-cooled sub-machine guns were a favorite." But he had no ideas about a future in the arts. In fact he claims to have had little idea about anything: " I was, like, not thinking at all - zero original thoughts."

But in Alexandria, when Lynch was in the ninth grade, everything suddenly changed." I met my friend Toby Keeler in the front yard of my girlfriend Linda Styles' house" he says" Toby did two things; He told me that his stepfather (Bushnell Keeler) was a painter, which completely changed my life, and he stole my girlfriend."

From that moment that Lynch met Toby's stepfather, he dedicated himself completely to the "art life". He attended classes at Corchran School of Art in Washington on Saturdays and rented studio space from Keeler, who became mentor to Lynch. " He was really a cool guy, "remembers Lynch," not part of the painting world really. Yet he was you know, devoting his life to it, and it thrilled my soul. He also turned me onto a book by Robert Henri called The Art Spirit that sort of became my bible. It helped me decide my course in painting - 100 percent right there." Toby Keeler confirms the change in Lynch. "When he found out about art and painting, he was possessed by it," Keeler says. His time with Bush was very private. He was an artist and I wasn't. In many ways, he had a better relationship with my stepfather than I had at the time"

Lynch all but dropped out of school to paint, spending time in the studio instead of in class. Fortunately his parents seemed to accept this situation. But when Lynch didn't make the grades his brother and sister were achieving, Bushnell Keeler sprang to his defense. After high school, a year at the Boston Museum School was abandoned in a favor of a three year trip to Europe with fellow art student Jack Fisk. The plan was to study with the Austrian expressionist painter, Oskar Kokoshka. "I was 19, and my thoughts weren't my own," he says "They were other people's. There was nothing wrong with that school, but a school is like a house - it's the people in the house that can be a problem. I was not inspired at all in that place. In fact it was tearing me down."

The trip, was thwarted by the non-appearance of Kokoshka, lasted only 15 days. When Lynch returned he was financially cut off by his parents, who were now living in Walnut Creek, California. He went to live with Bushnell Keeler back in Alexandria, and to pay his way, he agreed to help paint the Keeler house. "David started in this second story bathroom and he used a paintbrush that had a one inch head on it!" says Toby Keeler." A teeny little brush. He spent three days painting this bathroom and probably a day painting a radiator. He got into every single nook and cranny, and painted that thing better when it was new. It took him forever. My mother still laughs today when she thinks of David in that bathroom."

Lynch's father and Bushnell Keeler eventually colluded in a plan to trick Lynch into applying for a scholarship at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. "They conspired to make life miserable for me," says Lynch, recalling that Keeler was suddenly too busy for him. " I applied and unbeknownst to me until recently, Bushnell called and gave them the hard sell on me. He told them I had 'the stuff.'" Lynch was accepted and the Academy was a turning point for his painting. "I don't know what prompted it, but he suddenly started doing very dark things," says Peggy Reavey. "Big black canvases." In particular, she remembers a large picture called The Bride. "This painting was a real breakthrough in my opinion. It sounds awful, but it's of an abstracted figure of a bride aborting herself. It was very beautiful and not repulsive in any way. It was hauntingly disturbing and beautifully painted."

Living in Philadelphia filled Lynch with both wonders and horror, and its influence seems to have had a lasting impression on him. It's clear that cities have always disturbed his equilibrium. "When I visited Brooklyn as a kid, it scared the hell out of me," he says. "In the subway I remember a wind from the approaching train, then a smell and a sound. I had a taste of horror every time I went." Lynch's urban angst is not a press release invention, but a form of sensory panic that has survived beyond childhood. "He was so frightened of New York City, "explains Reavey. "I'd have to accompany him. He wouldn't go alone." but Lynch does love a story, absurdity and the powers of surreal imagery. "I visited my grandfather in New York, when he owned an apartment building with no kitchens, " he says." A woman was cooking an egg on an iron. That really worried me."

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