|Interviews & Articles
I want a dream when I go to a film
By Michael Sragow, Salon Magazine, October 28, 1999
I know where David Lynch lives a three-piece concrete compound in the Hollywood Hills but I can't describe the layout. When I arrived on Friday morning I inadvertently went up a back stairs and ran into him and two assistants in a kitchen, where he was getting his necessary coffee. We swiftly moved into not a carport, but what I would call an art-port a cluttered office next to an open-air studio for painting. He is currently working on a diptych; his materials include abused baby dolls.
The instant impression Lynch gives is a mix of intensity, kindness and enthusiasm. With fingers fluttering like an ant's antennae (as if responding to vibrations at his core), he immediately begins to talk about his predilection for minimalism, and his belief that abstraction in movies intensifies an audience's participation. That belief bleeds into his conversation, where he loves to use words as simple as "thing" and as cosmic as "beautiful." I don't think he's coy or evasive, and when he exclaims "That's great!" for anything that delights him, whether a clear day or a fresh cup of coffee, it isn't a put-on. He wants to protect his own sublime feelings and communicate them to you without vulgarizing them. Watching Lynch gesture with his hands is the aesthetic equivalent of seeing Carlton Fisk nudge his left field shot into home-run territory in Game 6 of the '75 World Series.
Similarly, Lynch's buttoned-up white shirt and rolled-up chinos seem less a trademark outfit than a way of deflecting attention from anything except art and the potential materials for art. When he's engaged he's like a human tuning fork he must sense my sincerity when I tell him that I love the subject of our conversation, his latest film, "The Straight Story." It's based on the true tale of Alvin Straight, a 73-year-old resident of Laurens, Iowa, who in 1994 hitched a makeshift trailer to a riding lawnmower and trekked over 300 miles to see his estranged brother in Mount Zion, Wis. Lynch's treatment of the material is open and multilayered; his teamwork with his star, Richard Farnsworth, is empathic and total. Together they have made the rare "movie for all ages" that's also a movie for the ages. It's more about the importance of acquiring wisdom than dispensing it even for Alvin Straight, who's lived three score and 13 years.
Farnsworth, now 80, gives new meaning to the phrase "face value": Entire silent epics pour out of his eyes. And that mature enfant terrible Lynch, now 53, knows just what to do with them. Like Lynch's darker, weirder dreams say, "Blue Velvet" or TV's "Twin Peaks" "The Straight Story" gives off the thrill of discovery from the get-go. Anyone sensitive to mood, sound and sensation, and to the complex presences of Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek as Alvin's daughter Rose, and Harry Dean Stanton as his brother Lyle, will find themselves shaken and honestly uplifted. "The Straight Story" is a testament to following one's own light to the end and making movies the same way.
Of course, legends have sprouted around Lynch's roving individuality. How he bopped around from state to state as a kid (his dad was a research scientist for the Department of Agriculture) and from art school to art school as a young adult. How a traumatic stint of urban life in Philadelphia while attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts affected him as profoundly as child labor did Charles Dickens. And how, for five years, he turned the stables at L.A.'s American Film Institute into his living quarters and the studio for his debut feature, "Eraserhead" (1976). No director alive has a more distinctive signature than the man who went on to make "The Elephant Man" (1980), "Blue Velvet" (1986) and "Twin Peaks" (1989) popular masterworks with a nonpareil mix of fabulism, eroticism, terror and cheek.
But Lynch is the first to tell you that much of his art derives from inspired collaboration. "A lot of the time, life is combos," he says when reminiscing about his late pal Alan Splet, the genius sound designer of his major films up through "Blue Velvet." "The Straight Story" is no exception. To name the most obvious and important example: The woman who found the story, then co-wrote, co-produced and edited the movie is Mary Sweeney, Lynch's longtime companion. Continuing the movie's family theme, Lynch was happy to be able to invite his parents to the premiere of this film, and his kid sister, too, a financial advisor in Coronado, Calif. (His younger brother was busy in Washington state, where he's responsible for the electrical wiring in prisons.) "My mother and father were not allowed to see most of my films actually, I think my father has seen all of them, and that the last one, 'Lost Highway,' really disturbed him."
Now that a proposed wild L.A. noir for ABC TV, "Mulholland Drive," has gone into limbo, Lynch has been devoting himself to painting and to making music with his "Straight Story" sound mixer, John Neff, in an elegant studio down the hill from his painting digs. The painting and the music-making are for Lynch catalytic and elating activities that won't necessarily produce anything for public consumption. "I'm not a musician, but I love the world of music; I play the guitar but I play it upside down and wrong-way," he says. "But the music talks to me, does something good for me, and it's good to work with John; we've almost got 10 songs. Like the painting, it could go somewhere but that's not what it's about."
Lynch doesn't see many contemporary films "sometimes they just seem to be, you know, what they are." But he's reading "A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies" (the book that came out of the director's idiosyncratic documentary series) and Antoine De Baecque and Serge Toubiana's Truffaut biography ("a great book I can't believe Truffaut's early life"). And he says "there are films I would see every other day if I had the time: '8 1/2,' Kubrick's 'Lolita,' 'Sunset Boulevard,' 'Hour of the Wolf' from Bergman, 'Rear Window' from Hitchcock, 'Mr. Hulot's Holiday' or 'My Uncle' from Jacques Tati, or 'The Godfather.' I want a dream when I go to a film. I see '8 1/2' and it makes me dream for a month afterward; or 'Sunset Boulevard' or 'Lolita.' There's an abstract thing in there that just thrills my soul. Something in between the lines that film can do in a language of its own a language that says things that can't be put into words."