1. WHAT MOVIE THIS ARTICLE IS ABOUT
DAVID LYNCH’s Lost Highway, written by Lynch and Barry Gifford, featuring Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, and Balthazar Getty. Financed by CIBY 2000, France. An October Films release. Copyright 1996, Asymmetrical Productions, Lynch’s company, whose offices are near Lynch’s house in the Hollywood Hills and whose logo, designed by Lynch, is a very cool graphic that looks like this:
Lost Highway is set in Los Angeles and the desertish terrain immediately inland from it. Principal shooting goes from December ’95 through February ’96. Lynch normally runs a closed set, with redundant security arrangements and an almost Masonic air of secrecy around his movies’ productions, but I am allowed onto the Lost Highway set on 8-10 January 1996. (This is not because of anything having to do with me or with the fact that I’m a fanatical Lynch fan from way back, though I did make my proLynch fanaticism known when the Asymmetrical people were trying to decide whether to let a writer onto the set. The fact is I was let onto Lost Highways set mostly because there’s rather a lot at stake for Lynch and Asymmetrical on this movie and they probably feel like they can’t afford to indulge their allergy to PR and the Media Machine quite the way they have in the past.)
2. WHAT DAVID LYNCH IS REALLY LIKE
I HAVE NO IDEA. I rarely got closer than five feet away from him and never talked to him. You should probably know this up front. One of the minor reasons Asymmetrical Productions let me onto the set is that I don’t even pretend to be a journalist and have no idea how to interview somebody, which turned out perversely to be an advantage, because Lynch emphatically didn’t want to be interviewed, because when he’s actually shooting a movie he’s incredibly busy and preoccupied and immersed and has very little attention or brain space available for anything other than the movie. This may sound like PR bullshit, but it turns out to be true, e.g.:
The first time I lay actual eyes on the real David Lynch on the set of his movie, he’s peeing on a tree. This is on 8 January in L.A.’s Griffith Park, where some of Lost Highway’s exteriors and driving scenes are being shot. He is standing in the bristly underbrush off the dirt road between the base camp’s trailers and the set, peeing on a stunted pine. Mr. David Lynch, a prodigious coffee drinker, apparently pees hard and often, and neither he nor the production can afford the time it’d take to run down the base camp’s long line of trailers to the trailer where the bathrooms are every time he needs to pee. So my first (and generally representative) sight of Lynch is from the back, and (understandably) from a distance. Lost Highway’s cast and crew pretty much ignore Lynch’s urinating in public, (though I never did see anybody else relieving themselves on the set again, Lynch really was exponentially busier than everybody else.) and they ignore it in a relaxed rather than a tense or uncomfortable way, sort of the way you’d ignore a child’s alfresco peeing.
What movie people on location sets call the trailer that houses the bathrooms: “the Honeywagon.”
3. ENTERTAINMENTS DAVID LYNCH HAS CREATED AND/OR DIRECTED THAT ARE MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE
Eraserhead (1978), The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), two televised seasons of Twin Peaks (1990-92), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), and the mercifully ablated TV show On the Air (1992).
3(A) OTHER RENAISSANCE MAN-ISH THINGS HE’S DONE
HAS DIRECTED music videos for Chris Isaak; has directed the theater teaser for Michael Jackson’s lavish Dangerous video; has directed commercials for Obsession, Saint-Laurent’s Opium, Alka-Seltzer, a national breast-cancer awareness campaign, (Haven’t yet been able to track down clips of these spots, but the mind reels at the possibilities implicit in the conjunction of D. Lynch and radical mastectomy….) and New York City’s Garbage-Collection Program. Has produced Into the Night, an album by Julee Cruise of songs cowritten by Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, including the Twin Peaks theme and Blue Velvet’s “Mysteries of Love.” (“M.o.L.,” only snippets of which are on BV’s soundtrack, has acquired an underground reputation as one of the great make-out tunes of all time-well worth checking out.) Had for a few years a comic strip, The Angriest Dog in the World, that appeared in a handful of weekly papers, and of which Matt Greening and Bill Griffith were reportedly big fans. Has cowritten with Badalamenti (who’s also cowriting the original music for Lost Highway, be apprised) Industrial Symphony #1, the 1990 video of which features Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern and Julee Cruise and the hieratic dwarf from Twin Peaks and topless cheerleaders and a flayed deer, and which sounds pretty much like the title suggests it will. (I.e., like a blend of Brian Eno, Philip Glass, and the climactic showdown in-an-automated-factory scene from The Terminator.) Has had a bunch of gallery shows of his abstract expressionist paintings. Has codirected, with James Signorelli, 1992’s (’92 having been a year of simply manic creative activity for Lynch, apparently.) Hotel Room, a feature-length collection of vignettes all set in one certain room of an NYC railroad hotel, a hoary mainstream conceit ripped off from Neil Simon and sufficiently Lynchianized in Hotel Room to be then subsequently ripoffablc from Lynch by Tarantino et posse in 1995’s Four Rooms (Tarantino has made as much of a career out of ripping off Lynch as he has out of converting French New Wave film into commercially palatable U.S. paste-q.v. section). Has published Images (Hyperion, 1993), a sort of coffee-table book of movie stills, prints of Lynch’s paintings, and some of Lynch’s art photos (some of which are creepy and moody and sexy and cool, and some of which are just photos of spark plugs and dental equipment and seem kind of dumb). (Dentistry seems to be a new passion for Lynch, by the way-the photo on the title page of Lost Highway’s script, which is of a guy with half his face normal and half unbelievably distended and ventricose and gross, was apparently plucked from a textbook on extreme dental emergencies. There’s great enthusiasm for this photo around Asymmetrical Productions. and they’re looking into the legalities of using it in Lost Highway’s ads and posters, which if I was the guy in the photo I’d want a truly astronomical permission fee for.)
4. THIS ARTICLE’S SPECIAL FOCUS OR “ANGLE” W/N/T ‘LOST HIGHWAY.’ SUGGESTED (NOT ALL THAT SUBTLY) BY CERTAIN EDITORIAL PRESENCES AT ‘PREMIERE’ MAGAZINE
WITH THE SMASH Blue Velvet, a Palme d’or at Cannes for Wild at Heart, and then the national phenomenon of Twin Peaks’ first season, David Lynch clearly established himself as the U.S.A.’s foremost commercially viable avantgarde-“offbeat” director, and for a while there it looked like he might be able to single-handedly broker a new marriage between art and commerce in U.S. movies, opening formula-frozen Hollywood to some of the eccentricity and vigor of art film. Then 1992 saw Twin Peaks’ unpopular second season, the critical and commercial failure of Fire Walk With Me, and the bottomlessly horrid On the Air, which was cuthanatized by ABC after six very long-seeming weeks. This triple whammy had critics racing back to their PCs to reevaluate Lynch’s whole oeuvre. The former object of a Time cover story in 1990 became the object of a withering ad hominem backlash.
So the obvious “Hollywood insider”-type question w/r/t Lost Highway is whether the movie will rehabilitate Lynch’s reputation. For me, though, a more interesting question ended up being whether David Lynch really gives a shit about whether his reputation is rehabilitated or not. The impression I get from rewatching his movies and from hanging around his latest production is that he really doesn’t. This attitude-like Lynch himself, like his work-seems to me to be both grandly admirable and sort of nuts.
5.A QUICK SKETCH OF LYNCH’S GENESIS AS A HEROIC AUTEUR
HOWEVER OBSESSED with fluxes in identity his movies are, Lynch has remained remarkably himself throughout his filmmaking career. You could probably argue it either way-that Lynch hasn’t compromised or sold out, or that he hasn’t grown all that much in twenty years of making movies-but the fact remains that Lynch has held fast to his own intensely personal vision and approach to filmmaking, and that he’s made significant sacrifices in order to do so. “I mean, come on, David could make movies for anybody,” says Tom Sternberg, one of Lost Highway’s producers. “But David’s not part of the Hollywood Process. He makes his own choices about what he wants. He’s an artist.” This is essentially true, though like most artists Lynch has not been without patrons. It was on the strength of Eraserhead that Mel Brooks’s production company allowed Lynch to direct The Elephant Man in 1980, and that movie earned Lynch an Oscar nomination and was in turn the reason that no less an ur-Hollywood Process figure than Dino De Laurentiis picked Lynch to make the film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, offering Lynch not only big money but a development deal for future projects with De Laurentiis’s production company.
1984’s Dune is unquestionably the worst movie of Lynch’s career, and it’s pretty darn bad. In some ways it seems that Lynch was miscast as its director: Eraserhead had been one of those sell-your-own-plasma-to-buy-the-film-stock masterpieces, with a tiny and largely unpaid cast and crew. Dune, on the other hand, had one of the biggest budgets in Hollywood history, and its production staff was the size of a Caribbean nation, and the movie involved lavish and cuttingedge special effects. Plus, Herbert’s novel itself was incredibly long and complex and besides all the headaches of a major commercial production financed by men in Ray-Bans, Lynch also had trouble making cinematic sense of the plot, which even in the novel is convoluted to the point of pain. In short, Dune’s direction called for a combination technician and administrator, and Lynch, though technically as good as anyone, is more like the type of bright child you sometimes see who’s ingenious at structuring fantasies and gets totally immersed in them and will let other kids take part in them only if he retains complete imaginative control.
Watching Dune again on video, (Easy to do-it rarely leaves its spot on Blockbuster’s shelf.) you can see that some of its defects are clearly Lynch’s responsibility: casting the nerdy and potatofaced young Kyle MacLachlan as an epic hero and the Police’s unthespian Sting as a psycho villain for example, or-worse-trying to provide plot exposition by having characters’ thoughts audibilized on the soundtrack while the camera zooms in on the character making a thinking face. The overall result is a movie that’s funny while it’s trying to be deadly serious, which is as good a definition of a flop there is, and Dune was indeed a huge, pretentious, incoherent flop. But a good part of the incoherence is the responsibility of the De Laurentiis producers, who cut thousands of feet of film out of Lynch’s final print right before the movie’s release. Even on video, it’s not hard to see where these cuts were made; the movie looks gutted, unintentionally surreal.
In a strange way, though, Dune actually ended up being Lynch’s Big Break as a filmmaker. The Dune that finally appeared in the theaters was by all reliable reports heartbreaking for Lynch, the kind of debacle that in myths about Innocent, Idealistic Artists in the Maw of the Hollywood Process signals the violent end of the artist’s Innocence-seduced, overwhelmed, fucked over, left to take the public heat and the mogul’s wrath. The experience could easily have turned Lynch into an embittered hack, doing effects-intensive gorefests for commercial studios. Or it could have sent him scurrying to the safety of academe, making obscure, plotless 16mm’s for the pipe-and-beret crowd. The experience did neither. Lynch both hung in and, on some level probably, gave up. Dune convinced him of something that all the really interesting independent filmmakers-the Coen brothers, Jane Campion, Jim Jarmusch-seem to steer by. “The experience taught me a valuable lesson,” he said years later. “I learned I would rather not make a film than make one where I don’t have final cut.” And this, in an almost Lynchianly weird way, is what led to Blue Velvet. BV’s development had been one part of the deal under which Lynch had agreed to do Dune, and the latter’s huge splat caused two years of rather chilly relations between Dino and Dave while the former clutched his head and the latter wrote BV’s script and the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group’s accountants did the postmortem on a $40 million stillbirth. Then De Laurentiis offered Lynch a deal for making BV, a very unusual sort of arrangement. For Blue Velvet, De Laurentiis offered Lynch a tiny budget and an absurdly low directorial fee, but 100 percent control over the film. It seems to me that the offer was a kind of punitive bluff on the mogul’s part-a kind of be-carefulwhat-you-publicly-pray-for thing. History unfortunately hasn’t recorded what De Laurentiis’s reaction was when Lynch jumped at the deal. It seems that Lynch’s Innocent Idealism had survived Dune, and that he cared less about money and production budgets than about regaining control of the fantasy and toys. Lynch not only wrote and directed Blue Velvet, he had a huge hand in almost every aspect of the film, even coauthoring songs on the soundtrack with Badalamenti. Blue Velvet was, again, in its visual intimacy and sure touch, a distinctively homemade film (the home being, again, D. Lynch’s skull), and it was a surprise hit, and it remains one of the ’80s’ great U.S. films. And its greatness is a direct result of Lynch’s decision to stay in the Process but to rule in small personal films rather than to serve in large corporate ones. Whether you believe he’s a good auteur or a bad one, his career makes it clear that he is indeed, in the literal Cahiers du Cinema sense, an auteur, willing to make the sorts of sacrifices for creative control that real auteurs have to make-choices that indicate either raging egotism or passionate dedication or a childlike desire to run the sandbox, or all three.
Like Jim Jarmusch’s, Lynch’s films are immensely popular overseas, especially in France and Japan. It’s not an accident that the financing for Lost Highway is French. It’s because of foreign sales that no Lynch movie has ever lost money (although I imagine Dune came close).
5(A) WHAT ‘LOST HIGHWAY’ IS APPARENTLY ABOUT
BILL PULLMAN is a jazz saxophonist whose relationship with his wife, a brunet Patricia Arquette, is creepy and occluded and full of unspoken tensions. They start getting incredibly disturbing videotapes in the mail that are of them sleeping or of Bill Pullman’s face looking at the camera with a grotesquely horrified expression, etc.; and they’re wigging out, understandably. While the creepy-video thing is under way, there are also some scenes of Bill Pullman looking very natty and East Village in all black and jamming on his tenor sax in front of a packed dance floor (only in a David Lynch movie would people dance ecstatically to abstract jazz), and some scenes of Patricia Arquette seeming restless and unhappy in a kind of narcotized, disassociated way, and generally being creepy and mysterious and making it clear that she has a kind of double life involving decadent, lounge-lizardy men. One of the creepier scenes in the movie’s first act takes place at a decadent Hollywood party held by one of Atquette’s mysterious lizardy friends. At the party Pullman is approached by somebody the script identifies only as “The Mystery Man” (Robert Blake), who claims not only that he’s been in Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette’s house but that he’s actually there at their house right now.
But then so driving home from the party, Bill Pullman criticizes Patricia Arquette’s friends but doesn’t say anything specific about the creepy and metaphysically impossible conversation with one guy in two places he just had, which I think is supposed to reinforce our impression that Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette are not exactly confiding intimately in each other at this stage in their marriage. This impression is further reinforced by a creepy sex scene in which Bill Pullman has frantic wheezing sex with a Patricia Arquette who just lies there inert and all but looking at her watch (A sex scene that is creepy partly because it’s exactly what I imagine having sex with Patricia Arquette would be like).
But then so the thrust of Lost Highway’s first act is that the final mysterious video shows Bill Pullman standing over the mutilated corpse of Patricia Arquette-we see it only on the video-and he’s arrested and convicted and put on death row. Then there’s a scene in which Bill Pullman’s head turns into Balthazar Getty’s head. I won’t even try to describe the scene except to say that it’s ghastly and riveting. The administration of the prison is understandably nonplussed when they see Balthazar Getty in Bill Pullman’s cell instead of Bill Pullman. Balthazar Getty is no help in explaining how he got there, because he’s got a huge hematoma on his forehead and his eyes are wobbling around and he’s basically in the sort of dazed state you can imagine somebody being in when somebody else’s head has just changed painfully into his own head. No one’s ever escaped from this prison’s death row before, apparently, and the penal authorities and cops, being unable to figure out how Bill Pullman escaped and getting little more than dazed winces from Balthazar Getty, decide (in a move whose judicial realism may be a bit shaky) simply to let Balthazar Getty go home.
It turns out that Balthazar Getty is an incredibly gifted professional mechanic who’s been sorely missed at the auto shop where he works-his mother has apparently told Balthazar Getty’s employer, who’s played by Richard Pryor, that Balthazar Getty’s absence has been due to a “fever.” Balthazar Getty has a loyal clientele at Richard Pryor’s auto shop, one of whom, Mr. Eddy, played by Robert Loggia, is a menacing crime boss-type figure with a thuggish entourage and a black Mercedes 6.9, and who has esoteric troubles that hell trust only Balthazar Getty to diagnose and fix. Robert Loggia clearly has a history with Balthazar Getty and treats Balthazar Getty (11 I know Balthazar Getty’s name is getting repeated an awful lot, but I think it’s one of the most gorgeous and absurd real-person names I’ve ever heard, and I found myself on the set taking all kinds of notes about Balthazar Getty that weren’t really necessary or useful (since the actual Balthazar Getty turned out to be uninteresting and puerile and narcissistic as only an oil heir who’s a movie star just out of puberty can be), purely for the pleasure of repeating his name as often as possible) with a creepy blend of avuncular affection and patronizing ferocity. When Robert Loggia pulls into Richard Pryor’s auto shop with his troubled Mercedes 6.9, one day, in the car, alongside his thugs, is an unbelievably gorgeous gun moll-type girl, played by Patricia Arquette and clearly recognizable as same, i.e., Bill Pullman’s wife, except now she’s a platinum blond. (If you’re thinking Vertigo here, you’re not far astray, though Lynch has a track record of making allusions and homages to Hitchcock-e.g. BV’s first shot of Kyle MacLachian spying on Isabella Rossellini through the louvered slots of her closet door is identical in every technical particular to the first shot of Anthony Perkins spying on Vivian Leigb’s ablutions in Psycho-that are more like intertextual touchstones than outright allusions, and anyway are always taken in weird and creepy and uniquely Lynchian directions.)
And but so when Balthazar Getty’s new blue-collar incarnation of Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette’s apparent blond incarnation of Bill Pullman’s wife make eye contact, sparks are generated on a scale that gives the hackneyed I-feel-l-know-you-from-somewhere component of erotic attraction new layers of creepy literality.
It’s probably better not to give away much of Lost Highway’s final act, though you probably ought to be apprised: that the blond Patricia Arquette’s intentions toward Balthazar Getty turn out to be less than honorable; that Balthazar Getty’s ghastly forehead hematoma all but completely heals up; that Bill Pullman does reappear in the movie; that the brunet Patricia Arquette also reappears but not in the (so to speak) flesh; that both the blond and the brunet P. Arquette turn out to be involved (via lizardy friends) in the world of porn, as in hardcore, an involvement whose video fruits are shown (at least in the rough cut) in NC-17-worthy detail; and that Lost Highway’s ending is by no means an “upbeat” or “feel-good” ending. Also that Robert Blake, while a good deal more restrained than Dennis Hopper was in Blue Velvet, is at least as riveting and creepy and unforgettable as Hopper’s Frank Booth was, and is pretty clearly the devil, or at least somebody’s very troubling idea of the devil, a kind of pure floating spirit of malevolence like Twin Peaks’ Bob/Leland/Scary Owl.
At this point it’s probably impossible to tell whether Lost Highway is going to be a Dune-level turkey or a Blue Velvet-caliber masterpiece or something in between or what. The one thing I feel I can say with total confidence is that the movie will be…Lynchian.
6. WHAT ‘LYNCHIAN’ MEANS AND WHY IT’S IMPORTANT
AN ACADEMIC DEFINITION of Lynchian might be that the term “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” But like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Porter Stewart-type words that’s ultimately definable only ostensively-i.e., we know it when we see it. Ted Bundy wasn’t particularly Lynchian, but good old Jeffrey Dahmer, with his victims’ various anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk and Shedd Spread, was thoroughgoingly Lynchian. A recent homicide in Boston, in which the deacon of a South Shore church reportedly gave chase to a vehicle that bad cut him off, forced the car off the road, and shot the driver with a highpowered crossbow, was borderline Lynchian. A Rotary luncheon where everybody’s got a comb-over and a polyester sport coat and is eating bland Rotarian chicken and exchanging Republican platitudes with heartfelt sincerity and yet all are either amputees or neurologically damaged or both would be more Lynchian than not. A hideously bloody street fight over an insult would be a Lynchian street fight if and only if the insultee punctuates every kick and blow with an injunction not to say fucking anything if you can’t say something fucking nice.
For me, Lynch’s movies’ deconstruction of this weird irony of the banal has affected the way I see and organize the world. I’ve noted since 1986 (when Blue Velvet was released) that a good 65 percent of the people in metropolitan bus terminals between the hours of midnight and 6 A.M. tend to qualify as Lynchian figures-grotesque, enfeebled, flamboyantly unappealing, freighted with a woe out of all proportion to evident circumstances … a class of public-place humans I’ve privately classed, via Lynch, as “insistently fucked up.” Or, e.g. we’ve all seen people assume sudden and grotesque facial expressions-like when receiving shocking news, or biting into something that turns out to be foul, or around small kids for no particular reason other than to be weird-but I’ve determined that a sudden grotesque facial expression won’t qualify as a really Lynchian facial expression unless the expression is held for several moments longer than the circumstances could even possibly warrant, until it starts to signify about seventeen different thin sat once.
When Eraserhead was a surprise hit at festivals and got a distributor, David Lynch rewrote the cast and crew’s contracts so they would all get a share of the money, which they still do, now, every fiscal quarter. Lynch’s AD and PA and everything else on Eraserhead was Catherine E. Coulson, who was later Log Lady on Twin Peaks. Plus, Coulson’s son, Thomas, played the little boy who brings Henry’s ablated head into the pencil factory. Lynch’s loyalty to actors and his homemade, co-op-style productions make his oeuvre a pomo anthill of interfilm connections.
7. LYNCHIANISM’S AMBIT IN CONTEMPORARY MOVIES
IN 1995, PBS ran a lavish ten-part documentary called American Cinema whose final episode was devoted to “The Edge of Hollywood” and the increasing influence of young independent filmmakers-the Coens, Carl Franklin, Q. Tarantino, et al. It was not just unfair, but bizarre, that David Lynch’s name was never once mentioned in the episode, because his influence is all over these directors like white on rice. The Band-Aid on the neck of Pulp Fiction’s Marcellus Wallace-unexplained, visually incongruous, and featured prominently in three separate setups-is textbook Lynch. As are the long, self-consciously mundane dialogues on foot massages, pork bellies, TV pilots, etc. that punctuate Pulp Fiction’s violence, a violence whose creepy-comic stylization is also Lynchian. The peculiar narrative tone of Tarantino’s films-the thing that makes them seem at once strident and obscure, not-quite-clear in a haunting way-is Lynch’s; Lynch invented this tone. It seems to me fair to say that the commercial Hollywood phenomenon that is Mr. Quentin Tarantino would not exist without David Lynch as a touchstone, a set of allusive codes and contexts in the viewers midbrain. In a way, what Tarantino has done with the French New Wave and with Lynch is what Pat Boone did with rhythm and blues: He’s found (ingeniously) a way to take what is ragged and distinctive and menacing about their work and homogenize it, churn it until it’s smooth and cool and hygienic enough for mass consumption. Reservoir Dogs, for example, with its comically banal lunch chatter, creepily otiose code names, and intrusive soundtrack of campy pop from decades past, is a Lynch movie made commercial, i.e., fast, linear, and with what was idiosyncratically surreal now made fashionably (i.e., “hiply”) surreal.
In Carl Franklin’s powerful One False Move, his crucial decision to focus only on the faces of witnesses during violent scenes seems resoundingly Lynchian. So does the relentless, noir-parodic use of chiaroscuro lighting used in the Coens’ Blood Simple and in all Jim Jarmusch’s films … especially Jarmusch’s 1984 Stranger Than Paradise, which, in terms of cinematography, blighted setting, wet-fuse pace, heavy dissolves between scenes, and a Bressonian style of acting that is at once manic and wooden, all but echoes Lynch’s early work. One homage you’ve probably seen is Gus Van Sant’s use of surreal dream scenes to develop River Phoenix’s character in My Own Private Idaho. In the movie, the German john’s creepy, expressionistic lip-sync number, using a handheld lamp as a microphone, comes off as a more or less explicit reference to Dean Stockwell’s unforgettable lamp-sync scene in Blue Velvet. Or consider the granddaddy of inyour-ribs Blue Velvet references: the scene in Reservoir Dogs in which Michael Madsen, dancing to a cheesy ’70s Top 40 tune, cuts off a hostage’s ear-I mean, think about it.
None of this is to say that Lynch himself doesn’t owe debts-to Hitchcock, to Cassavetes, to Robert Bresson and Maya Deren and Robert Wiene. But it is to say that Lynch has in many ways cleared and made arable the contemporary “anti”-Hollywood territory that Tarantino et al. are cash-cropping right now.
8. RE: THE ISSUE OF WHETHER AND IN WHAT WAY DAVID LYNCH’S MOVIES ARE ‘SICK’
PAULINE KAEL has a famous epigram to her New Yorker review of BV. She quotes somebody she left the theater behind as saying to a friend, “Maybe I’m sick, but I want to see that again.” And Lynch’s movies are indeed-in all sorts of ways, some more interesting than others-sick. Some of them are brilliant and unforgettable; others are almost unbelievably jejune and crude and incoherent and bad. It’s no wonder that Lynch’s critical reputation over the last decade has looked like an EKG: It’s hard to tell whether the director’s a genius or an idiot. This, for me, is part of his fascination.
If the word sick seems excessive, substitute the word creepy. Lynch’s movies are inarguably creepy, and a big part of their creepiness is that they seem so personal. A kind and simple way to put it is that Lynch’s movies seem to be expressions of certain anxious, obsessive, fetishistic, oedipally arrested, borderlinish parts of the director’s psyche, expressions presented with little inhibition or semiotic layering, i.e., presented with something like a child’s ingenuous (and sociopathic) lack of self-consciousness. It’s the psychic intimacy of the work that makes it hard to sort out what you feel about one of David Lynch’s movies and what you feel about David Lynch. The ad hominem impression one tends to carry away from a Blue Velvet or a Fire Walk With Me is that they’re really powerful movies, but David Lynch is the sort of person you really hope you don’t get stuck next to on a long flight or in line at the DMV or something. In other words, a creepy person.
Depending on whom you talk to, Lynch’s creepiness is either enhanced or diluted by the odd distance that seems to separate his movies from the audience. Lynch’s movies tend to be both extremely personal and extremely remote. The absence of linearity and narrative logic, the heavy multivalencc of the symbolism, the glazed opacity of the characters’ faces, the weird, ponderous quality of the dialogue, the regular deployment of grotesques as figurants, the precise, painterly way the scenes are staged and lit, and the overlush, possibly voyeuristic way that violence, deviance, and general hideousness are depicted-these all give Lynch’s movies a cool, detached quality, one that some cineasts view as more like cold and clinical.
Here’s something that’s unsettling but true: Lynch’s best movies are also the ones that strike people as his sickest. I think this is because his best movies, however surreal, tend to be anchored by well-developed main characters-Blue Velvet’s Jeffrey Beaumont, Fire Walk With Me’s Laura, The Elephant Man’s Merrick and Treves. When characters are sufficiently developed and human to evoke our empathy, it tends to break down the carapace of distance and detachment in Lynch, and at the same time it makes the movies creepier-we’re way more easily disturbed when a disturbing movie has characters in whom we can see parts of ourselves. For example, there’s way more general ickiness in Wild at Heart than there is in Blue Velvet, and yet Blue Velvet is a far creepier/sicker film, simply because Jeffrey Beaumont is a sufficiently 3-D character for us to feet about/for/with. Since the really disturbing stuff in Blue Velvet isn’t about Frank Booth or anything Jeffrey discovers about Lumberton, but about the fact that a part of Jeffrey gets off on voyeurism and primal violence and degeneracy, and since Lynch carefully sets up his film both so that we feet a/f/w Jeffrey and so that we find some parts of the sadism and degeneracy he witnesses compelling and somehow erotic, it’s little wonder that we (I?) find Blue Velvet “sick”-nothing sickens me like seeing onscreen some of the very parts of myself I’ve gone to the good old movies to try to forget about.
9. ONE OF THE RELATIVELY PICAYUNE ‘LOST HIGHWAY’ SCENES I GOT TO BE ON THE SET OF
GIVEN HIS movies’ penchant for creepy small towns, Los Angeles might seem an unlikely place for Lynch to set Lost Highway. Los Angeles in January, though, turns out to be plenty Lynchian in its own right. Surreal-banal interpenetrations are every place you look. The cab from LAX has a machine attached to the meter so you can pay the fare by major credit card. Or see my hotel lobby, which is filled with beautiful Steinway piano music, except when you go over to put a buck in the piano player’s snifter or whatever it turns out there’s nobody playing, the piano’s playing itself, but it’s not a player piano, it’s a regular Steinway with a weird computerized box attached to the underside of its keyboard; the piano plays 24 hours a day and never once repeats a song. My hotel’s in what’s either West Hollywood or the downscale part of Beverly Hills; two clerks at the registration desk start arguing the point when I ask where exactly in L.A. we are. They go on for a Lynchianly long time.
The location also helps make this movie “personal” in a new way, because L.A. is where Lynch and his S.O., Ms. Mary Sweeney, (Mary Sweeney is one of Lost Highway’s three producers. Her main responsibility seems to be rushes, the rough cut and its storage, and organization. She was Lynch’s editor on Fire Walk With Me.) both live. Corporate and technical headquarters for Asymmetrical Productions is a house right near his. Two houses down on the same street is the house Lynch has chosen to use for the home of Bill Pullman and brunet Patricia Arquette in the movie’s first act; it’s a house that looks rather a lot like Lynch’s own, a home whose architecture could be called Spanish in roughly the same way Goya could be called Spanish.
A film’s director usually has a number of assistant directors, whose responsibilities are different and firmly established by Hollywood convention. The first assistant director is in charge of coordinating details, shouting for quiet on the set, worrying, and yelling at people and being disliked for it. This allows the director himself to be kind of a benign and unhassled monarch, occupied mostly with high-level creative concerns and popular with the crew in a kind of grandfatherly way. Lost Highway’s first assistant director is a veteran named Scott Cameron who wears khaki shorts and has stubble and is good-looking in a kind of beleaguered way; he looks like a person who takes a lot of Tagamet (One Lost Highway Crewperson described Scott Cameron as ‘the Mozart of stress,’ whatever that’s supposed to mean). The second assistant director is in charge of scheduling and is the person who makes up the daily call sheet, which outlines the day’s production schedule and says who has to show up where and when. There’s also a second second assistant director (Not ‘third assistant,’ for some reason), who’s in charge of interfacing with the actors and actresses and making sure their makeup and costumes are okay and going to summon them from their trailers when the stand-ins are done blocking off the positions and angles for a scene and everything’s ready for the first string to come on.
Part of the daily call sheet is a kind of charty-looking précis of the scenes to be shot that day; it’s called a “one-line schedule” or “one-finer.” Here is what January 8’s one-liner looks like:
(1) SCS 112 INT MR. EDDY’S MERCEDES /DAY/ I PGS MR. EDDY (Robert Loggia) DRIVES MERCEDES, PETE (Balthazar Getty, about whom the less said the better, probably, except maybe to say that he looks sort of like Tom Hanks and John Cusack and Charlie Sheen all smunched together and then emptied of some ineffable but vital essence. He’s not particularly tall, but he looks tall in Lost Highway’s footage because he has extremely poor posture and Lynch has for some reason instructed him to exaggerate the poor posture. As a Hot Young Male Actor, Balthazar Getty is to Leonardo DiCaprio roughly what a Ford Escort is to a Lexus. His breakthrough role was as Ralph in the latest Lord of the Flies, in which he was bland and essenceless but not terrible. He was miscast and misdirected as a homeless kid in Where the Day Takes You (like how does a homeless kid manage to have fresh mousse in his hair every day9), and surprisingly good in White Squall. To be frank, it’s almost impossible for me to separate predictions about how good Balthazar Getty’s going to be in Lost Highway from my impressions of him as a human being around the set, which latter impressions were so uniformly negative that it’s probably better not to say too much about it. For just one thing, he’d annoy the hell out of everybody between takes by running around trying to borrow everybody’s cellular phone for an ’emergency.’ For another thing, he was a heavy smoker but never had his own cigarettes and was always bumming cigarettes from crewpeople who you could tell were making about I percent of what he was making on the movie. I admit I eavesdropped an some of his cellular-phone conversations, and in one of them he said to somebody ‘But what did she say about me?’ three times in a row. I admit none of these are exactly capital offenses, but they added up. Okay, fuck it: The single most annoying thing about Balthazar Getty was that whenever Lynch was around, Getty would be very unctuous and over-respectful and ass-kissy, but when Lynch wasn’t around Getty would make fun of him and do an imitation of his distinctive speaking voice that wasn’t a very good imitation but struck me as being disrespectful and mean.) LISTENS FOR CAR TROUBLE.
(2) SCS 113 EXT MULHQLLAND DRIVE /DAY/ 1/8 PGS MR. EDDY TAKES THE CAR FOR A CRUISE, INFINITI MOVES UP FAST BEHIND THEM
(3) SCS 114 EXT MR. EDDY’S MERCEDES /DAY/ 1/8 PGS MR. EDDY LETS INFINITI PASS AND FORCES IT OFF THE ROAD
These car-intensive scenes are, as was mentioned, being shot in Griffith Park, a roughly Delaware-size expanse out in the foothills of the Santa Monicas, kind of a semiarid Yellowstone, full of ridges and buttes and spontaneous little landslides of dirt and gravel. Asymmetrical’s advance team has established a “base camp” of about a dozen trailers along a little road in the park (17 There are trailers for Lighting, Props, Effects, Wardrobe, grippish stuff, and some for the bigger stars in the cast, though the stars’ trailers don’t have their names or a gold star on the door or anything. The Effects trailer flies a Jolly Roger. Hard grunge issues from the Lighting trailer, and outside a couple of other trailers tough-looking crewpeople sit in canvas chairs reading Car Action and Guns & Ammo. Some portion of the movie’s crew spends just about all their time in Base Camp doing various stuff in trailers, though it’s hard to figure out just what they’re doing, because these crewpeople have the kind of carnyesque vibe about them of people who spend a lot of time with their trailers and regard the trailers as their special territory and aren’t very inviting about having you climb up in there and see what they’re doing. (This is a long way of saying I was scared of the guys in the trailers and didn’t ask them what they were doing.) But a lot of it is highly technical. The area closest to daylight in the back of the Lighting- or Camera-Related trailer, for example, has tripods and lightpoles and attachments of all lengths and sizes lined up very precisely, like ordnance. Shelves near the tripods have labeled sections for ‘2 X MIGHTY,’ ‘2 x 8 JUNIOR”2 X MICKEY MOLES,”2 X BABY BJs,” on and on.) and security has blocked off areas of several other streets for the driving scenes, burly guys with walkie-talkies and roadie-black T-shirts forming barricades at various places to keep joggers and civilian drivers from intruding into the driving shots or exposing the production to insurance liability during stunts. L.A. civilians are easygoing about being turned back from the barricades and seem as blase as New Yorkers about movies being filmed.
Griffith Park, though lovely in a kind of desiccated, lunar way, turns out itself to be a kind of Lynchian filming environment, with perfusive sunshine and imported beer-colored light, but a weird kind of subliminal ominousness about it. This ominousness is hard to put a finger on or describe in any sensuous way. It turns out that there’s a warning out today for a Santa Ana Wind, a strange weather phenomenon that causes fire hazards (18 LAFD inspectors were all over the set glaring at you if you lit a cigarette, and nicotinic conditions were pretty rugged because Scoff Cameron decreed that people could smoke only if they were standing near the sand-filled butt can, of which there was apparently only one, and Lynch, a devoted smoker of American Spirit all-natural cigarettes, tended to commandeer the bun can, and people who wanted to smoke and were not near Lynch pretty much had to chew their knuckle and wait for him to turn his back so they could steal it.) and also a weird but verifiable kind of high-ion anxiety in man and beast alike.
L.A.’s murder rate is apparently higher during Santa Ana Wind periods than any other time, and in Griffith Park it’s easy to confirm that there’s something Lynchian in the air today: Sounds sound harsher, breathing tastes funny, and the sunlight has a way of diffracting into knives @t penetrate all the way to the back of the skull. The air smells of sage and pine and dust and distant creosote. Wild mustard, yucca, sumac, and various grasses form a kind of five o’clock shadow on the hillsides, and scrub oak and pine jut at unlikely angles, and some of the trees’ trunks are creepily curved and deformed, and there are also a lot of obstreperous weeds and things with thorns that discourage much hiking around. The road where the set is is like a kind of small canyon between a butte on one side and an outright cliff on the other.
Basically what happens all morning is that Robert Loggia’s sinister black Mercedes 6.9 and the tailgating Infiniti and the production’s big complicated camera truck go off and are gone for long stretches of time, tooling back and forth along the same barricaded mile of what is supposed to be Mulholland Drive. While the car filming is going on, the other 60 or so members of the location crew and staff all perform small maintenance and preparatory tasks and lounge around and shoot the shit and basically kill enormous amounts of time. There are grips, propmasters, sound people, script people, dialogue coaches, camera people, electricians, makeup and hair people, a first-aid guy, production assistants, standins, stunt doubles, producers, lighting technicians, on-set dressers, set decorators, ADs, unit publicists, location managers, costume people, continuity people, script people, special-effects coordinators and technicians, LAFD cigarette discouragers, a representative of the production’s insurance underwriter, a variety of personal assistants and foctota and interns, and a substantial number of persons with no discernible function at all. The whole thing is tremendously complex and confusing, and a precise census is hard to take because a lot of the crew look generally alike and the functions they perform are extremely technical and complicated and performed with high-speed efficiency, and it takes a while to start picking up on the various distinguishing cues in appearance and gear that allow you to distinguish one species of crew personnel from another, so that the following rough taxonomy doesn’t start emerging until late on 9 January: Grips tend to be large, beefy blue-collar guys with walrus mustaches and baseball caps and big wrists and beer guts but extremely alert, intelligent eyes; they look like very bright professional movers, which is basically what they are. The production’s electricians, lighting guys, and effects guys, who are also as a rule male and large, are distinguished from the grips via their tendency to have long hair in a ponytail and to wear elaborate tool belts and T-shirts advertising various brands of esoteric high-tech gear.
None of the grips wear earrings, but more than 50 percent of the technical guys wear earrings, and a couple have beards, and four of the five electricians for some reason have Fu Manchu mustaches, and with their ponytails and pallor they all have the distinctive look of guys who work in record or head shops; plus in general the recreational-chemical vibe around these more technical blue-collar guys is very decidedly not a beer vibe.
A lot of the camera and sound and makeup crew are female, but a lot of these, too, have a similar look: thirtyish, makeupless, insouciantly pretty, wearing faded jeans and old running shoes and black T-shirts, and with lush, well-conditioned hair tied carelessly out of the way so that strands tend to escape and trail and have to be chuffed out of the eyes periodically or brushed away with the back of a ringless hand-in sum, the sort of sloppily pretty tech-savvy young woman you can just tell smokes pot and owns a dog. Most of these hands-on technical females have that certain expression around the eyes that communicates “Been there, done that.” A bunch of them at lunch won’t eat anything but bean curd and don’t regard certain grips’ comments about what bean curd looks like as in any way worthy of response. One of the technical women, the production’s still photographer, has on the inside of her forearm a tattoo of the Japanese character for “strength,” and she can manipulate her forearm’s muscles in such a way as to make the ideogram bulge Nietzscheanly and then recede.
A lot of the script people and assistant wardrobe people and production assistants are also female, but they’re of a different genus – younger, less lean, more vulnerable, without the technically savvy self-esteem of the camera or sound women. As opposed to the hands-on women’s weltschmerzian serenity, the script and PA females all have the same pained I-went-to-a-really-good-college-and-what-am-l-doing-with-my-life look around the eyes, the sort of look where you know that if they’re not in twice-a-week therapy it’s only because they can’t afford it. Another way to distinguish different crewpeople’s status and function is to look at what kind of personal communication gear they have. The rank-and-file grips are pretty much the only people without any kind of personal communicative gear. The rest of the hands-on and technical crew carry walkie-talkies, as do the location manager, the people in touch with the camera truck, and the burly guys manning the road’s barricades. Many of the other crew carry cellular phones in snazzy hipside holsters, and the amount of cellular-phone talking going on more than lives up to popular stereotypes about L.A. and cellulars. The second AD, a thirtyish black lady named Simone, whom I get to interact with a lot because she’s always having to politely inform me that I’m in the way of something and need to move, has an actual cellular headset instead of just a bolstered cellular phone, though with Simone the headset isn’t an affectation-the headset leaves her hands free to write stuff on her clipboard.
The sees true executive class-line producer, publicist, underwriter, DP-all have pagers that sometimes will all sound at once but just slightly out of sync, producing in the weird ionized Santa Ana air a sound blend that fully qualifies as Lynchian. (The exception to every rule is Scott Cameron, the first AD, who bears with Sisyphean resignation the burden of two walkie-talkies, a cellular phone, a pager, and a very serious battery-powered bullhorn all at the same time.)
So about like once an hour everybody’s walkie-talkies start crackling a lot, and then a couple minutes later Lynch and the actual shooting team and cars come hauling back into base and everybody on the crew springs into frantic but purposeful action so that from the specular vantage of the roadside cliff the set resembles an anthill that’s been stirred with a stick. For a particular shot inside the moving Mercedes, some of the grips construct a kind of platform and secure it to the hood of the car with clamps and straps, and then various other technicians attach a 35mm Panavision camera, several different complicatedly angled mole and Bambino lights, and a three-by-five-foot bounce to various parts of the hood’s platform. This stuff is locked down tight, and the second-assistant camera, a breathtaking and all-business lady everyone addresses as Chesney, fiddles complexly with the camera’s anamorphic lens and various filters. When sunlight off the windshield is a problem, (19 There’s one very young guy on the crew whose entire function seems to be going around with a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels and Windexing every glass surface blindingly clean) the director of photography and a camera guy in a pith helmet and Chesney all huddle and confer and decide to brace a gauzy diffusion filter between the camera and the windshield. During the crew’s frantic activity-all of it punctuated with loud bullhorn commands from Cameron-the technicians from the camera truck and the stand-ins from the cars take their own turns standing around and talking on cellulars and rooting through the baskets of corporate snacks on the snack table looking for stuff they like. The exterior driving shots all have stand-ins in the cars, but usually when the shooting team returns to base the actual name actors will emerge from their trailers (20 Name actors on location spend truly massive amounts of time in their trailers, and yet it’s totally unclear what they do in there all that time, and I think PREMIERE magazine could get a really interesting article out of even a casual probe into the whole mystery) and join the roil. Robert Loggia in particular likes to come out and stand around chatting with his stand-in, who’s of the same meaty build and olive complexion and strand-intensive balding pattern and craggy facial menace as Loggia, and of course is identically dressed in mobster Armani, so that from the distance of the roadside hill their conversation looks like its own surreal commentary on parallel identity.
Lynch himself uses the downtime between takes to confer with ADs and producers and to drink coffee and/or micturate into the undergrowth, and to smoke American Spirits and walk pensively around the camera truck’s technical fray, sometimes holding one hand to his cheek in a way that recalls Jack Benny. Now 50 years old, Lynch looks like an adult version of the kind of kid who gets beaten up a lot at recess. He’s large, not exactly fat but soft-looking, and is far and away the palest person anywhere in view, his paleness dwarfing even the head-shop pallor of the lighting and effects guys. He wears a black long-sleeved dress shirt with every possible button buttoned, baggy tan chinos that are too short and flap around his ankles, and a deep sea-fisherman’s cap with a very long bill. The tan cap matches his pants, and his socks are both the same color, suggesting an extremely nerdy costume that’s been chosen and coordinated with great care-a suggestion that, with Lynch, seems somehow endearing rather than pathetic. The stiff quality, of his stride and posture suggest either an ultradisciplinarian upbringing or a back brace.
Lynch’s face is the best thing about him. In photos of him as a young man, Lynch looks rather uncannily like James Spader, but he doesn’t look like James Spader anymore. His face is now full in the sort of way that makes certain people’s faces square, and his eyes-which never once do that grotesque looking-in-opposite-directions-at-once thing they were doing on the 1990 Time cover-are large and mild and kind. In case you’re one of the people who figure that Lynch must be as “sick” as his films, know that he doesn’t have the beady or glassy look one associates with obsessive voyeurism or OCD or degeneracy-grade mental trouble. His eyes are good eyes: He looks at stuff with very intense interest, but it’s a warm and fullhearted interest, sort of the way we all look when we’re watching somebody we love doing something we also love. He doesn’t fret or intrude on any of the technicians, though he will come over and confer when somebody needs to know what exactly he wants for the next setup. He’s the sort who manages to appear restful even in activity; i.e., he looks both very alert and very calm. There might be something about his calm that’s a little creepy-one tends to think of really high-end maniacs being oddly calm, e.g. the way Hannibal Lecter’s pulse rate stays under 80 as he bites somebody’s tongue out.
10. WHAT SEVERAL DIFFERENT MEMBERS OF THE CREW AND PRODUCTION STAFF, SOME OF WHOM HAVE BEEN TO FILM SCHOOL, HAVE TO SAY ABOUT ‘LOST HIGHWAY’
DAVID’S IDEA is to do this, like, dystopian vision of L.A. You could do a dystopic vision of New York, but who’d care? New York’s been done before.”
“If s about deformity. Remember Eraserhead? This guy’s going to be the ultimate Penishead.”
“I’m sure not going to go see it, I know that.”
“This is a movie that explores psychosis subjectively.”
“It’s some reflection on society as he sees it.”
“This is his territory. This is him taking us deeper into a space he’s already carved out in previous work-subjectivity and psychosis.”
“He’s doing a Diane Arbus number on L.A., showing the, like, slimy undersection of a dream city. Chinatown did it, but it did it in a historical way, as a type of noir history. David’s film’s about madness; it’s subjective, not historical.” ” It , s like, if you’re a doctor or a nurse, are you going to go buy tickets to see an operation for fun in your spare time, when you’re done working?”
“This film represents schizophrenia performatively, not just representationally. This is done in terms of loosening of identity, ontology, and continuity in time.”
“Let me just say I have utmost respect-for David, for the industry, for what David means to this industry. Let me say I’m excited. That I’m thrilled and have the utmost respect.”
“It’s a specialty film. Like 7he Piano, say. It’s not going to open in a thousand theaters.”
“Utmost is one word. There is no hyphen in utmost.”
“It’s about L.A. as hell. This is not unrealistic, if you want my opinion.”
“It’s a product like any other in a business like any other.”
“David is the Id of the Now. If you quote me, say I quipped it. Say ‘ “David is the Id of the Now,” quipped______, who is the film’s_____.
David, as an artist, makes his own choices about what he wants. He makes a film when he feels he has something to say. Some are perceived as better than others. David does not look at this as his area of concern.”
“He’s a genius; you have to understand that. He’s not like you and me.”
“The head-changes are being done with makeup and lights. No CGIs.” (21 ‘Computer-generated images,’ as in Jumanii).
“Read City of Quartz. That’s what this film’s about right there in a nutshell.”
“Some of them were talking about Hegel, whatever the hell that means.”
“Let me just say I hope you’re not planning to compromise him or us or the film in any way.”
11. A SECTION THAT’S A MIX OF EXTRAPOLATIONS FROM OTHER SECTIONS AND IS IMPOSSIBLE TO COME UP WITH A UNIFIED HEADING FOR
THE WORD postmortem is admittedly overused, but the incongruity between the peaceful health of his mien and the creepy ambition of his films is something about David Lynch that is resoundingly postmodern. Other postmodern things about him are ‘his speaking voice – which can be described only as sounding like Jimmy Stewart on acid-and the fact that it’s literally impossible to know how seriously to take what he says. This is a genius auteur whose vocabulary in person consists of things like okey-doke and marvy and terrif and gee. When a production assistant appears with the tuna-fish sandwich he’s asked for, he stops in the middle of his huddle with the Steadicam operator and tells her “Thanks a million.” David Letterman says this kind of stuff too, but Letterman always says it in a way that lets you know he’s making fun of about 400 things at the same time. With Lynch it’s not at all clear that this is what he’s doing. Another example: After the last car-filming run and return to base, as people are dismantling cameras and bounces and Chesney is putting the unused film under a reflective NASA blanket, Lynch, three times in five minutes, says “Golly!” Not one of these times does he utter “Golly!” with any evident irony or disingenuousness or even the flattened affect of somebody who’s parodying himself. (Let’s also remember that this is a man with every button on his shirt buttoned and high-water pants.) During this same tri-“Golly!” interval, though, about 50 yards down the road, Mr. Bill Pullman, who’s sitting in a big canvas director’s chair getting interviewed for his E.P.K.,(i.e., ‘Electronic press kit,’ a bite-intensive interview that Lost Highway’s publicists can then send off to Entertainment Tonight, local TV stations that want Pullman bites, etc.) is leaning forward earnestly and saying of David Lynch: “He’s so truthful-that’s what you build your trust on, as an actor, with a director” and “He’s got this kind of modality to him, the way he speaks, that lets him be very open and honest and at the same time very sly. There’s an irony about the way he speaks.”
12. THE ONLY PART OF THIS ARTICLE THAT’S REALLY IN ANY WAY “BEHIND THE SCENES’
ASYMMETRICAL Productions’ headquarters, as mentioned, is a house right near Lynch’s house. As in much of the Hollywood Hills, Asymmetrical’s street is more like a canyon, and people’s yards are 80-degree slopes, and the HQ’s entry/kitchen is actually on the house’s top level, so that if you want access to the rest of the house you have to go down a vertiginous spiral staircase. This and other stuff satisfies all expectations of Lynchianism w/r/t the director’s working environment. The HQ’s bathroom’s 11 cold” knob doesn’t work and the toilet seat won’t stay up, but on the wall next to the toilet is an incredibly advanced and expensive Panasonic XDP phone with what looks like a fax device attached. Asymmetrical’s receptionist, Jennifer, is. a statutorily young woman who’d be gorgeous if she didn’t have vampirish eye shadow and navy-blue nail polish on, and she blinks so slowly you have to think she’s putting you on, and she declines to say for the record what music she’s listening to on her headphones, and on her desk next to the computer and phones is one copy of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia and one copy each of Us and Wrestling World. Lynch’s own office-way below ground, so that its windows must look out on solid earth-has a big solid gray door that’s closed and looks not only locked but somehow armed, such that only a fool would try the knob, but attached to the wall right outside the office door are two steel boxes labeled OUT and IN. The OUT box is empty, and the IN contains, in descending order: a 5,000count box of Swingline staples; a large promotional envelope, with Dick Clark’s and Ed McMahon’s pointillist faces on it, from the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, addressed directly to Lynch at Asymmetrical’s address; and a fresh shrink-wrapped copy of lack Nicklaus’s instructional video Golf MY Way (your guess here is as good as mine).
PREMIERE’S industry juice (plus the niceness of Mary Sweeney) means that I am allowed to view a lot of Lost Highway’s rough-cut footage in the actual Asymmetrical Productions editing room, where the movie itself is going to be edited. The editing room is off the kitchen and living room on the house’s top level, which could have been either a master bedroom or a really ambitious study. One wall is covered with rows of index cards listing each scene of Lost Highway and outlining technical stuff about it. There are also two separate KEM-brand flatbed viewing and editing machines, each with its own monitor and twin reel-to-reel devices for cueing up both film and sound.
I am allowed to pull up a padded desk chair and sit there right in front of one of the monitors while an assistant editor loads various bits of footage. The chair is old and much used, its seat beaten over what have clearly been thousands of hours into the form-fitting mold of a bottom, a bottom quite a lot larger than mine-the bottom, in fact, of a combination workaholic and inveterate doughnut eater-and for an epiphanic moment I’m convinced I’m sitting in Mr. David Lynch’s own personal film-editing chair.
The editing room is dark, understandably, its windows first blacked out and then covered with large abstract expressionist paintings. The paintings, in which the color black predominates, are by David Lynch, and with all due respect are not very interesting, somehow both derivative-seeming and amateurish, like stuff you could imagine Francis Bacon doing in junior high. Far more interesting are some paintings by David Lynch’s ex-wife that are stacked canted against the wall of Mary Sweeney’s office downstairs. It’s unclear whether Lynch owns them or has borrowed them from his ex-wife or what, but in Lost Highway’s first act, three of these paintings are on the wall above the couch where Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette sit watching creepy invasive videos of themselves asleep.
WHETHER LOST HIGHWAY is a smash hit or not, its atmosphere of tranced menace is going to be really good for Bill Pullman’s career. From movies like Sleepless in Seattle and While You Were Sleeping and (ulp) Casper and Independence Day I’ve formed this view of Pullman the actor as a kind of good and decent but basically ineffectual guy, an edgeless guy. I’ve thought of him as kind of a watered-down version of the already pretty watery Jeff Daniels. Lost Highway-for which Pullman has either lost weight or done Nautilus or both (he has, at any rate, somehow grown a set of cheekbones)-is going to reveal edges and depths in Pullman that I believe will make him a True Star.
The most controversial bit of casting in Lost Highway, though, is going to be Richard Pryor as Balthazar Getty’s boss at the auto shop. Meaning the Richard Pryor who’s got muscular dystrophy that’s stripped him of what must be 75 pounds and affects his speech and causes his eyes to bulge and makes him seem like a cruel child’s parody of somebody with neurological dysfunction. In Lost Highway, Richard Pryor’s infirmity is meant to be grotesque and to jar against all our old memories of the “real” Pryor. Pryor’s scenes are the parts of Lost Highway where I like David Lynch least: Pryor’s painful to watch, and not painful in a good way or a way that has anything to do with the business of the movie, and I can’t help thinking that Lynch is exploiting Pryor the same way John Waters exploits Patricia Hearst, i.e., letting an actor think he’s been hired to act when he’s really been hired to be a spectacle, an arch joke for the audience to congratulate themselves on getting. And yet at the same time Pryor’s symbolically perfect in this movie, in a way: The dissonance between the palsied husk onscreen and the vibrant man in our memories means that what we see in Lost Highway both is and is not the “real” Richard Pryor. His casting is thematically intriguing, then, but coldly, meanly so.
13. WHAT EXACTLY DAVID LYNCH SEEMS TO WANT FROM YOU
MOVIES ARE AN authoritarian medium. They vulnerabilize you and then dominate you. Part of the magic of going to a movie is surrendering to it, letting it dominate you. The sitting in the dark, the looking up, the tranced distance from the screen, the being able to see the people on the screen without being seen by the people on the screen, the people on the screen being so much bigger than you: prettier than you, more compelling than you, etc. Film’s overwhelming power isn’t news. But different kinds of movies use this power in different ways. Art film is essentially teleological; it tries in various ways to “wake the audience up” or render us more “conscious.” (This kind of agenda can easily degenerate into pretentiousness and self-righteousness and condescending horsetwaddle, but the agenda itself is large-hearted and fine.) Commercial film doesn’t seem like it cares much about the audience’s instruction or enlightenment. Commercial film’s goal is to “entertain,” which usually means enabling various fantasies that allow the moviegoer to pretend he’s somebody else and that life is somehow bigger and more coherent and more compelling and attractive and in general just way more entertaining than a moviegoer’s life really is. You could say that a commercial movie doesn’t try to wake people up but rather to make their sleep so comfortable and their dreams so pleasant that they will fork over money to experience it-the fantasy-for-money transaction is a commercial movie’s basic point. An art film’s point is usually more intellectual or aesthetic, and you usually have to do some interpretative work to get it, so that when you pay to see an art film you’re actually paying to work (whereas the only work you have to do w/r/t most commercial film is whatever work you did to afford the price of the ticket).
David Lynch’s movies are often described as occupying a kind of middle ground between art film and commercial film. But what they really occupy is a whole third kind of territory. Most of Lynch’s best films don’t really have much of a point, and in lots of ways they seem to resist the film-interpretative process by which movies’ (certainly avant-garde movies’) central points are understood. This is something the British critic Paul Taylor seems to get at when he says that Lynch’s movies are “to be experienced rather than explained.” Lynch’s movies are indeed susceptible to a variety of sophisticated interpretations, but it would be a serious mistake to conclude from this that his movies point at the too-facile summation that “film interpretation is necessarily multivalent” or something-they’re just not that kind of movie. Nor are they seductive, though, at least in the commercial sense of being comfortable or linear or High Concept or “feel-good.” You almost never from a Lynch movie get the sense that the point is to “entertain” you, and never that the point is to get you to fork over money to see it. This is one of the unsettling things about a Lynch movie: You don’t feel like you’re entering into any of the standard unspoken and/or unconscious contracts you normally enter into with other kinds of movies. This is unsettling because in the absence of such an unconscious contract we lose some of the psychic protections we normally (and necessarily) bring to bear on a medium as powerful as film. That is, if we know on some level what a movie wants from us, we can erect certain internal defenses that let us choose how much of ourselves we give away to it. The absence of point or recognizable agenda in Lynch’s films, though, strips these subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t. This is why his best films’ effects are often so emotional and nightmarish. (We’re defenseless in our dreams too.)
This may in fact be Lynch’s true and only agenda-just to get inside your head. He seems to care more about penetrating your head than about what he does once he’s in there. Is this good art? It’s hard to say. It seems-once again-either ingenuous or psychopathic. It sure is different, anyway.
13(A). WHY THE NATURE AND EXTENT OF WHAT LYNCH WANTS FROM YOU MIGHT BE A GOOD THING
IF YOU THINK about the outrageous kinds of moral manipulation we suffer at the hands of most contemporary directors, (Wholly random examples: Think of the way Mississippi Burning fumbled at our consciences like a freshman at a coed’s brassiere, or of Dances With Wolves’ crude smug reversal of old westerns’ ‘White equals good and Indian equals bad’ equation. Or just think of movies like Fatal Attraction and Unlawful Entry and Die Hards I through III and Copycat, etc., in which we’re so relentlessly set up to approve the villains’ bloody punishment in the climax that we might as well be wearing togas….) it will be easier to convince you that something in Lynch’s own clinically detached filmmaking is not only refreshing but redemptive. It’s not that Lynch is somehow “above” being manipulative; it’s more like he’s just not interested. Lynch’s movies are about images and stories that are in his head and that he wants to see made external and complexly “real.” His loyalties are fierce and passionate and entirely to himself.
I don’t mean to make it sound like this kind of thing is wholly good or that Lynch is some kind of paragon of health or integrity. His passionate inwardness is refreshingly childlike, but I notice that very few of US (Michael Jackson notwithstanding. (Actually the one definite Lynch project on my own private wishlist is a Crumb-type documentary by Lynch on Jackson-I have the feeling that one or both of them might just spontaneously combust in the middle of doing it) choose to make small children our friends. And as for Lynch’s serene detachment from people’s response, I’ve noticed that, while I can’t help but respect and sort of envy the moral nerve of people who truly do not care what others think of them, people like this also make me nervous, and I tend to do my admiring from a safe distance.