The City of Absurdity Lost Highway
a film by David Lynch
David Lynch's Burning Passions

By Jan Stuart, Staff Writer, Newsday, March 9,1997

with many thanks to Kian for providing the article

The ultimate cult director (andBill Clinton look-alike) talks about two-lane highways, wood, mystery, fire and other things he loves

WHENEVER someone lights a match in a David Lynch movie, the flame whooshes close to your face like a blowtorch. Stuff burns in his picture - cigarettes, houses, people - and it burns big. This is not pyromania, it's pyrophilia: Lynch never merely walks with fire, as the title of one of his movies suggests. He makes love to it.

The fire that engulfs a desert shack in his latest film, "Lost Highway," burns in reverse, sucking the flames back through the doors and windows till the house stands as it was before, intact and unsinged. The image could serve as a metaphor for the implosive bent of such quintessential Lynch epics as the 1990 TV mini-series "Twin Peaks," "The Elephant Man" (1980) and "Blue Velvet," his 1988 chef d'oeuvre.

"Lost Highway," which Newsday's Jack Mathews praised as "easily his best work since `Blue Velvet,' " also reverses the artistic fortunes of a director who had twice come a cropper with the costly, confounding film version of "Dune"(1984) and "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me" (1992), the big-screen prequel to his TV smash.

When Lynch puts a cigarette to his mouth and reaches for a match, it's a natural impulse to lean back, bracing for the flare-up. Even his hair, a leaning tower of blond waves that seems to be a homage to "Eraserhead" (his cultish 1976 debut flick), evokes a flame snapping in the wind. As with everything else about him, however, the eventual act of lighting up seems anticlimactic.

We expect our great film auteurs to somehow personify their work. Disney was cuddly in a paternal way. Hitchcock dripped with portent and irony on his TV shows. Lynch, who along with David Cronenberg is the only other true American original in the suspense genre since the Hollywood days of Hitch, is something else again. His voice is metallic and nerdy in the Mr. Rogers mold. He says "beautiful" a lot and peppers his talk with such "Fargo"-esque euphemisms as "By golly" and "I'll be darned." And once you get beneath the gravity-defying hair, you see a smiling, blandly boyish face that looks oddly like President Bill Clinton.

Mention the resemblance to Lynch and he playfully corrects, "Actually, Bill Clinton looks like me." How delicious to speculate that the president of the United States emulates the director of "Wild at Heart." If you then consider that the 51-year-old Lynch is the same age as our chief executive (and purportedly a political conservative), you can readily imagine them being separated at birth: One grows up to be the most scandal-ridden idealist the White House has ever seen, the other turns out surreal portraits of an America in which innocence and perversion dwell in disconcertingly close proximity.

Innocence is a little harder to pin down in "Lost Highway," in which Bill Pullman is a convicted wife-killer who inexplicably appears to transform into a young auto mechanic (Balthazar Getty). Mystery piles upon mystery: What happened in Pullman's prison cell? Are the dead wife and Getty's lover, both played by Patricia Arquette, the same person? And who is this ghoulish party-pooper played by Robert Blake, smirking from behind a death mask that looks like the one thousand and first face of Lon Chaney?

As in "Twin Peaks" and Antonioni's "Blow Up," Lynch's latest sets up a tantalizing conundrum whose solution is finally less important then the getting there, if not entirely beside the point. At the mention of "Blow Up," the director coos with pleasure. "That was a great film," he offers. "It's about abstractions, and perception, and understanding what you see. Or not understanding. And happening into a mystery. All the things I love.

"Human beings are like detectives. They love a mystery. They love going where the mystery pulls them. What we don't like is a mystery that's solved completely. It's a letdown. It always seems less than what we imagined when the mystery was present. The last scene in `Blow Up' is so perfect because you leave the theater still dreaming. Or the end of `Chinatown,' where the guy says `Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown.' It explains so much but it only gives you a dream of a bigger mystery. Like life. For me, I want to solve certain things but leave some room to dream."

Lynch attributes the abrupt departure of his "Twin Peaks" series to network demands that had the effect of closing off that dream space. "When the murder of Laura Palmer was solved, the thing was basically over. It just ran on its past power and had to end. We never meant for that mystery to end - it could have receded into the background - but it should never have ended. We were forced to end it. And that killed it."

Lynch resisted the impulse to provide any tidy answers to the multiple mysteries of "Lost Highway." Ask him if he can explain what really happened to the Bill Pullman and Balthazar Getty characters, and he shoots back, without hesitating, "I know exactly what happened to them. Yeah. But it doesn't matter what I know. Because the film is itself whole. Nothing should be added, nothing should be subtracted."

Lynch is similarly reluctant to explain where some of his screwier notions come from, like the log lady in "Twin Peaks," the ear in the grass in "Blue Velvet," and perhaps creepiest of all, a trick cellphone call that Bill Pullman makes at the urging of Robert Blake's Mystery Man. To ferret out the source of this last bit is like asking a painter - one of the many hats Lynch wears - why he chose a particular brush stroke.
"It came from an idea," he says cryptically. "I make films about ideas I fall in love with."

The painterly side of Lynch comes to the fore in "Lost Highway," possibly his most visual film, given its long stretches of nightmarish, nonverbal images. "There's a thing about film that's a lot like music," he explains. `It can be abstract in places or anchored to reality. Some things are beautifully and economically said in words, and words are like instruments in an orchestra. They have to be a certain way, like a clarinet solo. If you play it too fast, or its not warm enough, it doesn't work as well. But it's talking to you. "Film is a different language. And I'm happy in that language. But in words I have a big problem."

Bill Pullman attempts to illustrate the method behind Lynch's language, using an early scene in which his character receives an unnerving videotape.

"The way he describes and sets up a shot is immediately the beginning of his direction. He won't say, `You've come back home and you're feeling very troubled.' Rather, `You come in the room' - He waits for a long time - `You look at the VCR' . . . Then suddenly he'll throw in a musical term like, `Let's do it very mysterioso.' Or `Do it more Kabuki,' as in a more heightened sense of reality. As an artist he rejuvenates not just your sense of looking at the script but your sense of looking at the world."

David Lynch movies are manna for psychotherapists, rife with dreamlike images of midgets, highway dividing lines as glimpsed speeding by through the front windshield of a car and, of course, fires. The director proves to be alternately evasive and expansive when subjected to a round of self-analysis regarding some of his screen obsessions.

On speeding highways: "I love two-lane highways. They say something about the way things used to be, and about areas that don't have a lot of people. On those two-lanes at night you get the sense of moving into the unknown, and that's as thrilling a sense as human beings can have."

On the physically challenged: "I don't know. I saw Richard Pryor on a talk show, talking about his life and his unbelievable experience, what he's learned coming out on the other side. [Pryor, in a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis, plays a garage worker in "Lost Highway."] I just loved hearing him talk, and wanted to work with him. I put him on the phone in the office at Arnie's garage and set up a premise and he ad-libbed for nine solid minutes. It was beautiful. And a portion of that ended up in the film."

On fire: "I haven't set any. I love building fires in a fireplace. It's startling what a unique texture it is. Fire is almost ethereal. There are so many things it causes to happen inside you when you're watching a fire. I think for human beings, always, when you get down to the pure things that exist, like lightning and fire and rock, each one holds so much. It's just closer to the source or something. Wood is beautiful stuff. I could talk a long time about wood."

Lynch, who admits to being heavily influenced by the writings of Franz Kafka and the paintings of Francis Bacon, would appear to be a likely advocate for the symbolic interpretation of dreams. Does he put much stock in dreams?

"Not in dreams, but in abstractions. In things that you can feel within but can't see, kick or touch. Like detectives, who'll listen to what a person is saying but they're feeling way more: their sense that a person is lying to them, or is very nervous, or could kill me."

Does Lynch truck with psychoanalysis?
"There is a group of doctors that analyzed `Blue Velvet' - it kicked in something. I went into a psychiatrist one time. I sat down and said, `I have to ask you upfront if this process could in any way affect my creativity.' And he looked at me and said, `David, I have to be honest with you. It could.' And I had to leave.

"It's a tricky business. People always say artists need to suffer, but they're not suffering when they are creating. The struggle can teach you something you can use when you are healthy, you can share that experience in some medium, but while you are in a depression, it doesn't free you to create. I think [psychiatrists] can help you to a point if you've stopped moving, but if you're moving about, then I'd say, if it's not really badly broken, don't fix it."

In fact, Lynch had stopped moving artistically for a time. "Lost Highway" is his first film in five years, only two of which were involved in the writing and shooting of that picture. After the phenomenal impact of "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks" (which was nominated for 14 Emmy awards), critics were less kind to "Wild at Heart" and positively merciless to "Fire Walk With Me." What was he up to in the interim? Was he affected by the backlash?

"I wrote a comedy with my friend Bob Engels called `Dream of the Bovine,' which was a really dumb, really stupid, meant-to-be-pitifully-bad-quality budget thing. Not too many people were interested in that. I've been doing a lot of painting. And I'm building some furniture, you know [Lynch designed much of the furnishings in "Lost Highway"], trying to catch ideas.

"I think you could say the backlash played a part. But there was also something in the air around the time that 'Fire Walk With Me' came out that was not good for me. That's part of the three years of doing nothing. It took about two years for this cloud to lift. And I could feel it lifting, for sure. So it's a better time now."

Lynch's downturn coincided with the aftermath of his breakup with "Blue Velvet" star Isabella Rossellini, a falling out that witnessed the actress publicly playing the role of the wronged woman in the media. "I can't say enough good things about Isabella," he says, nipping that particular sore spot in the bud. "We're friends, and hopefully we'll always be friends."

His current partner, Mary Sweeney, also is the editor and one of the producers on "Lost Highway." During the past three decades, the twice-divorced Lynch has sired three children in intervals that rival his protracted film projects, ending with a 4 1/2-year-old by Sweeney. Lynch concedes they are all artistically inclined. "I think everyone in the beginning is artistically inclined, and then at a certain point it can drop off. It didn't for my 28-year-old daughter, who is working on a script, and I don't think it will for my 14-year-old son, either. They all have their own way."

Family holds a special lure for Lynch. Recently he found himself standing in front of his mother's ancestral home in Park Slope at 11 p.m. and decided to ring the doorbell. "I saw the lights on. The guy who bought it from my mother and her two brothers still lives there. He was still awake, but he didn't appreciate me showing up quite that late. But he said he would give me a tour of the place if I came by another time."

There is something endearing in the naivete - some might call it chutzpah - that would free Lynch to knock on a New York City door just before the witching hour. This provincial mind-set may stem from his Eagle scout youth in Idaho, Washington and birthtown of Missoula, Mont., where he was raised the son of a research scientist. The dark side of Lynch's night-owl visit is that it may have emerged from the same voyeuristic impulse that informs his movies, as if he hoped to catch someone in the act of doing something forbidden.

"I'm convinced we all are voyeurs," he admits. "It's part of the detective thing. We want to know secrets and we want to know what goes on behind those windows. And not in a way that we would use to hurt anyone. There's an entertainment value to it, but at the same time we want to know: What do humans do? Do they do the same things as I do? It's a gaining of some sort of knowledge, I think."

Now that Lynch has let go of "Lost Highway," he will return to his home in the Hollywood Hills to pursue knowledge through his painting and hopefully catch a few ideas for his next picture. "Painting is something that is always changing and expanding. And the only way to evolve is through the act of painting. You can think about it, but it's not the same as being there. So when you return to painting after a break, you start up in a very strange place. It's very discombobulated and takes quite a while to get back into where you are solidly evolving. The thing I find is that I have a long way to go. But it's a great trip."

At that last thought Lynch removes the cigarette from his lips and holds it erect in front of his nose, peering at the ash intently as it burns slowly downward and falls to the floor.

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© Mike Hartmann