There is a house on fire in a park in the desert just below a dam. The lights are on. Standing outside, looking through wide picture windows the way no neighbor's supposed to look into someone else's home especially at night we see the man stumble through the kitchen and toward the living room, his clothes in flames, spreading the fire everywhere. He grabs at the curtains, knocks over the table, lurches to the piano, and collapses on the floor as the fire takes the house. The pyrotechnicians extinguish him first, then spray the curtains, the table, the piano. When the smoke and the dense fog from the fire extinguisher clear, they'll prepare the house for another burn. It's cold in the desert. People are drinking coffee and hot chocolate.
When David Lynch was a boy in Boise, Idaho, he blew things up and burned things down. "We were all, um, heavily into making bombs at that particular place and time." The time was the 1950s, and Idaho was the idyllic Pacific Northwest, pines and cedars and alders, wild blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries. His father was in the U.S. Forest Service. David had a friend down the street who blew his foot off with a homemade rocket. "Kinda stupid in a way, but he was tamping the match heads down with a metal rod, just to keep 'em packed. And his mother was pregnant..." -all this has the offhand, somewhat nasal sound of a David Lynch plot, macabre and matter-of-fact- "and it went off, the rocket went off, and these match heads had such a force that it drove the rocket through his ankle and it blew fire and burnt match heads all over the porch. He fell down because he couldn't stand up, and he was in a pool of blood with these little burnt match heads and smoke all around him. When his mother saw that, she almost lost the baby." The boy's brother was at the swimming-pool when he heard about the accident, and passed out and had to be saved. An orderly row of dominoes tumbled, and then, even more mysteriously, order fell back in place. "They took him and sewed his foot back on, and he was OK after that."
And when David Lynch was in art school, he built a machine. It was during the 1960s, and painting was wildly considered an archaic and outmoded practice, lacking conceptual rigor. David's machine was an orderly contraption, a Rube Goldberg art operation. A ball rolled down a pipe, was routed along a series of ramps, rode teeter-totters, tripped hair-triggers, and completed electrical connections that caused the mouth of a sculpture woman to fly open and a red light to come on. Then a match would strike and light a firecracker. The firecracker would blow up and the sculpted woman would scream. Then David could reset all the triggers and do it again.
It's wrap day, the last day of shooting David Lynch's next movie, Wild at Heart, his first since Blue Velvet, and Laura Dern is handing out gifts, small, southwesterly adobe huts made to burn tiny cedar logs from inside. Parting gifts to the crew from Nick -Nicolas Cage- and herself. This is her second David Lynch movie. Is there a better way to feel? Is there a more respected director today than David Lynch? Directors are a debased currency in today's Hollywood -producers count, studio heads are stars, stars are social philosophers, agents inspire fear, but instead of wielding the staff of power as they once did, directors stand in line now for a chance to kiss it. In our day, David Lynch seems to be a genuine exception, seems almost accidental. He may well be. In any case, Laura feels just wonderful. She's gifted everyone now and cuddled in alongside David. "David," she calls him, accent on both syllables. She wants him to hear about her shopping trip. "David, I want to shop for you! Let me shop for you!"
Most of the boutiques on Melrose are likely to be fresh out of long-billed fishing caps like the one David is wearing, though smart money suggests they'll be available at The Gap by next fall. Lynch takes the businessman's slant on the Artist of the Eighties look: shirt buttoned up against the Adam's apple, mildly anonymous khaki pants when at work, hair left thoughtfully long at the crown and trimmed severely at the sides. A charter member of Esquire magazine's very embarrassing "Register" of yuppie achievers, Lynch did, after all, in his 1977 film Eraserhead, successfully predict the fashionable art guy's hair architecture for the eighties. So far, he's managed his look without Laura Dern's help.
Eraserhead began in film school, where Lynch landed after art school, - he's something like the quintessential grad student. He attended the prestigious American Film Institute on a fellowship from the Center for Advanced Film Studies, which placed him prominently among the first generation to receive academic training in filmmaking. A boxed set of wonderful stories from this period is available: he supported himself with a paper route that paid forty-eight dollars a week; he lived secretly on the Eraserhead set at the mansion that housed the AFI; and, in what could be viewed as a perfectly executed conceptualist's joke about grad student thesis-release anxiety, he spent five years completing Eraserhead. The movie went on to enduring success on the midnight movie circuit, assembling Lynch's core audience from hipsters who had grown past The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
His next movie, The Elephant Man, did nearly as much to help his artistic case as it did that of the producer, Mel Brooks. A critical and financial success, nominated for eight Oscars, it left Lynch established. Hollywood had been waiting, it appeared, for someone exactly like David Lynch, someone with vision and taste and the nerve to make his own kind of movie. Critics adored him if only for giving them the chance to use the term "painterly"; studio heads loved the idea of making money and art and awards all at once.; producers loved the idea of happy studio heads. Any direction David Lynch turned, a door opened before him.
Someone asks about Pepino, Lynch's dog. Pepino has wandered off into the Hollywood hills behind Lynch's Frank Lloyd Wright home, out Lynch's forbidding yard of cacti to the hills where the coyotes prowl. He's worried, he says, about what might have happened to Pepino. He wonders. And then he wonders aloud, "How many times can we burn the house down?"
Something rotten is out there, corrupt, diseased, only just hidden by the smoothest surfaces, the most placid of facades. If hip taste in our time is embodied by David Lynch -and there is no other creative figure as uniformly admired by those with even the least claim to hipness - the queasy imagery that invariably appears in each of his films, the secret shocking squirmier that stirs beneath the mundane, is surely a source of his power. Giant intestine-like sandworms, malformed bodies, vicious, bruising sex, membranous tissue in a slick and sticky-wet state -these occur in Lynch's films as predictably as other movies avoid them. Rather than truly upsetting anyone -for only those who know nothing of David Lynch are really shocked by such stuff- the images confirm the faultless taste of his audiences. They are his peers, after all: graduate students and the art-inclined, city dwellers who need make no leap of the imagination when confronted with the idea that something icky is going on out there in the woods. Partly the classic modernist tactic of shocking the bourgeoisie while elbow-nudging the hepcats, it's also a case of making aesthetically sophisticated gross out movies - films that will make even the most icily urbane date squeeze your hand with Saturdaynight drive-in dithers.
"Because of his AFI background, he's a classically trained director," says Mark Frost. "He just applies for it in unconventional ways. But if you were to put up his work against any major director of the last thirty years, the strength of his visual work is every bit as good as theirs, in a structural or formal sense." Frost and Lynch are partners, collaborators, friends. Frost types, Lynch doesn't. Together they wrote One Saliva Bubble, a script that acquired a certain legendary status as it made the rounds and managed to stay unmade, and they wrote and directed Twin Peaks, an episodic television series debuting on ABC prime time as a midseason replacement. Twin Peaks is an ambitious multistoried melodrama, compared in its own publicity to Dickens, Peyton Place, and Blue Velvet. However much Frost, who wrote for Hill Street Blues in its palmy early days, had to do with it, Twin Peaks feels like nothing so much as David Lynch's sensibility stretched at full length, hour upon hour of oddities piled on banalities piled atop non sequiturs. It can't miss, at least as far as the converted are concerned it's nothing if not Lynchian while more typical television viewers have yet to be consulted.
What may be most fascinating about Twin Peaks is the degree to which the show acknowledges actor Kyle MacLachlan as the director's alter ego. MacLachlan, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, looks like Lynch's younger brother, and just as he was an impromptu investigator in Twin Peaks he plays an FBI agent mysteriously endowed with the abstract mannerisms of Inspector David Lynch. "In a way," says Lynch, "Agent Dale Cooper and Kyle would admit it takes some things from me, you know. It may be a bit of an influence." He'd really rather talk about detectives. "To me, a detective is the most magical type of character, because mysteries are to me the greatest thing. Puzzles and things like this are thrilling, clues, things like finding money. Everything is a mystery and we're all detectives. Even scientists are detectives and they're all looking for clues to solve the big mystery. There are so many detectives going around, and so many mysteries."
Dune was intended to be a blockbuster among blockbusters in the Christmas season of 1984. An extravagant special effects epic in the science fictional mode, Dune was supposed to be Star Wars, actually, but with the mark of Lynch's hand on it the merchandising deals called for Dune toys, T-shirts, vitamins, sleeping bags. After The Elephant Man, Lynch had signed a multipicture deal with Dino De Laurentis: he would make Dune, then a picture called Blue Velvet and another called Ronnie Rocket, and then he was obligated to do Dune II and Dune III.
Dune was a disaster. Hazily remembered these days by Lynch aficionados as something of an art film hurt by unsympathetic editing. Dune was merely a wildly ambitious mainstream movie gone bad. Everything went wrong - it had all been a mistake. As in any David Lynch movie, something rotten, diseased and corrupt squirmed just below the surface, but in this case, it was giant lampreylike sandworms and an evil warlord whose pustular boils were popped as part of the action the plot failed to supply. It wasn't the sort of thing that sells sleeping bags.
"In retrospect," Lynch says, "I can see that I started getting into trouble on Dune early on, and it wasn't just the final editing that did it, although I think the film could be way, way of better. I still worry that I don't know if it could ever be a great film, or even a real good film. I don't know. I forget so much about it."
"Like they say, nobody sets out to make a bad picture. And when you make a picture that's very successful but you don't that's not successful and you don't like it both that's a devastating thing. Devastating. What's amazing to me is how you can play tricks on your mind, or your mind can play tricks on you, and it keeps you from seeing what's really happening. I don't know. I really suffered a huge...you know, kind of...depression, and filmmaking was no longer fun at all. It was filled with fear and I questioned everything. All the great things you have with success, I felt the opposite in every category and it was bad news. You don't trust yourself. You don't trust anything. It's very bad." There was every reason to believe his career in Hollywood, his career as a director, was entirely over. It had all been a mistake. The doors had closed.
In the days of Dune, the art student in Lynch had created the very conceptual Fish Kit and Chicken Kit, made up of actual animals that had been dissected and disassembled and labeled so as to resemble the kits sold to kids to make model planes or cars. After Dune, he painted. He has been working with oils for the past two years. Art school was twenty years ago, and painting is perfectly acceptable now. Lynch's work has little dabs of paper stuck onto a lightly underpainted surface, with little hand-done block-type capital letters inked out to say things like "WHEN I RETURNED THERE WERE BUGS IN THE HOUSE AND FIRE AND BLOOD IN THE STREETS BY GOLLY," "IT'S A GREAT BIG WONDERFUL WORLD," and "ON A WINDY NIGHT A FIGURE WALKS TO JUMBO'S KLOWN ROOM." (Jumbo's is a reasonably sordid topless bar in a seedy section of Hollywood.) Just to make certain no one mistakes the work for mere abstraction lacking in irony, sketchy elements like house shapes are etched onto the cake-frosted surface, and sometimes there are oddly shaped clouds. These are paintings that could hang over the bed in any tasteful postmodern hotel room.
He's a cartoonist as well, in an appropriately conceptual sort of way. For the last seven years, his four-panel cartoon has run in the weekly Los Angeles Reader - the same relentless four panels. The strip's title is "The Angriest Dog in the World." Each of the panels features a growling dog shaped much like a pollywog: "The dog is so angry he cannot move...Bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches the state of rigor mortis." Word balloons appear in one or two of the panels, with the words phoned in each week from Lynch and printed by one of the paper's staff. A few month's back, the paper's art director whimsically added a bone and then more bones and at last a pile of bones directly in front of the dog, explaining instantly why it had been so rigorously straining against its leash for so long. It took several weeks for anyone to notice, and when it at last came to Lynch's attention, he was more than a little miffed. Seven years, week upon week, of precisely nonlinear conceptual rigor ruined. It was bitter.
He starred in the film Zelly and Me with his girlfriend, Isabella Rossellini. His album, Floating into the Night singer Julee Cruise has her name on it, but it's a David Lynch project was released last fall. Already known for this role in helping revive Roy Orbison's career with Blue Velvet's masterfully incongruous use of "In Dreams," Lynch has attempted cloudy, atmospheric mood music in the manner of Orbison, although if there is anything that David Lynch seems unlikely to achieve, it is the grand unfettered emotion available in any Roy Orbison hit. Something seems a little frantic about all this ultrabusy creativity, about a maker of movies doing television shows and comic strips and paintings and chicken kits and albums, and that's even without mentioning Industrial Symphony o.1, a sort of dream-sequence performance-art experience with music that he's racing off to stage at the New Music America festival. Even in today's Hollywood, where every star leads a Renaissance existence, no one has more irons in the fire of Art. His coffee-table book of writings, sketches, and photographs is forthcoming from Harper & Row.
His own home, The Frank Llyod Wright dwelling in the Hollywood hills, has no coffee table. That's because, said one journalist, paraphrasing Kafka's "A Hunger Artist," "he's never found any furniture he likes." He lacks a dog now as well, since Pepino has never returned. "He's gone now. Pepino was a mutt, given to me by Isabella. When she met Pepino, she said, 'Aha, this is a dog for David.' I didn't really want a dog that much. I had a dog, Sparky, that was the love of my life. I got him on The Elephant Man. I think Spark died of old age - that's what we're hoping. Anyway, Pepino was a smiler. He really and truly smiled. And it was out of happiness. A real smile, not one that you think because you' re the parent dog is smiling. Everyone saw it. Big smiles. Sometimes just on one side, sometimes a full smile, and it depended on what was going on. But Pepino was shaping up to be one of the all-time great dogs, and then one day he disappeared. For the next two days, I saw coyotes in front of the house. This coyote really looked guilty. Skulking, skulking. And almost...I, I, you know. I knew. And the coyote knew that I knew."
When David Lynch was growing up in Boise, in the idyllic timber green woods of the Northwest, and one of the boys nearly blew off his foot, did the others learn their lesson at last? "No. We blew up South Lake Junior High swimming pool. I was arrested. We made the Salt Lake City papers and the Boise papers, four of us. We didn't blow it up, we set off a bomb in there actually for safety reasons. The pool was built off the ground. These bombs we were making were pipe bombs, and they would hit the ground and not explode until they were about eye level. And they would explode with such a force that the pipe would just completely turn inside out, and shrapnel would blow. We threw it in the pool so that the shrapnel would hit the side of the pool. We threw it in around ten o'clock Saturday morning, and the smoke came up shaped like the pool. This thing rose up just instantly shaped like the pool. Just for a moment, till the wind blew it." In his pause, you can see it too, a cloud in the shape of a pool. "It filled the pool with smoke and it just took that shape. And you could hear it for, I don't know how far, but it shook windows supposedly for five blocks. It was a big bomb."
The last scene, the last shot on the last day of David Lynch's next movie. A house is on fire, all lit up behind plate-glass picture windows, living room walls painted swimming-pool aqua green. Flames are moving everywhere now, first small and almost too slowly, then almost too quickly. Much too quickly, far too quickly, much too quickly. Technicians yell, "Save it!" There is no saving it. One of the front window cracks, goes gray with smoke, shatters. It's hot. There is nothing inside but flame now. The other windows explode with the heat. The heat is a wall, solid, moving out from the house. David Lynch and the cameramen are pushed back, pushed away from the house. They run away, they leave the cameras behind. The fire roars. Lynch stands and watches the cameras standing alone watching the flames swallow the house. A cloud of smoke is overhead. He has his hands in his pockets.
This article is copyrighted by Bart Bull. Used by permission.