This might be the story of a fallen idol – a once-brilliant film director whose talents went astray and who lost his standing and esteem. Or it might be the story of a renewed hero who overcame loss and disdain to do the bravest work of his life. Given that the filmmaker we are talking about is David Lynch, perhaps it's fitting that we don't know how the story will turn out.
A few years ago, David Lynch was at the height of his achievements. He had become the first avant-garde film artist to receive two Academy Award nominations as Best Director, and he had brought some of his unsettling style and vision to the recalcitrant medium of network television with Twin Peaks – a grand-scale murder mystery that became a pop-culture phenomenon. That same year, 1990, Lynch won the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes for Wild at Heart (a film most American critics hated), and he landed on the cover of Time magazine. "It was a pretty high time," he says. "But in a high time, there's plenty of danger."
It has been five years since Lynch's last movie, the much-maligned Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The director has been relatively quiet in the interim, making commercials (Alka-Seltzer Plus, Adidas) and trying his hand at a couple of other TV efforts, which almost nobody saw. Now, however, Lynch is about to release a new feature film, Lost Highway, and it is something truly startling – a work that gives structure to the interior reality of psychosis in much the same way that Lynch's earlier movies gave form to the intangible logic of dreams. For my tastes, Lost Highway – a film about betrayal, sex, murder, deception and tortured memory (a good list, wouldn't you say?) – may be the best movie David Lynch has ever made, though it may also prove to be a major test for whatever mainstream audience he still commands. In any event, there is nothing else like Lost Highway out there, and there is no easy way to prepare an audience for its experience.
Lynch lives in the lower part of a hill canyon just outside Hollywood. He owns three houses in a row on the same street, and one of these houses figures prominently in Lost Highway – in fact, the house may be the film's most unnerving character. In Lynch's mind, the house had to be a certain way. He remodeled its exterior so the front featured eerie-looking slot windows, and he also added a tunnellike hallway to the place. The changes were worth the effort. The scene in Lost Highway where Fred Madison (played by Bill Pullman) walks down the house's hallway into pitch darkness is a pivotal moment: It's a portrayal of man walking into the darkness of his own destiny.
Much has been made over the years of Lynch's homey manner – the way he wears button-down shirts, speaks in a Jimmy Stewart-style twang and punctuates his conversations with phrases like "golly," "righto," "you betcha" and the like. This is all true, at least as far as I could tell. There's no question that there's a profound darkness somewhere inside David Lynch, if only in his own power to imagine, but it probably doesn't come to the surface easily.
On the afternoon I meet Lynch, he is dressed in a nice black shirt (buttoned to the neck) untucked over khaki slacks. While we talk, we sit in the carpentry studio that is located in Lynch's middle house. The room is full of big, gleaming machines and little items of woodwork. Lynch is 51 years old now. There are crinkles around his gentle eyes, and as he listens and speaks, his delicate fingers sometimes flutter unconsciously.
Lynch doesn't seem bitter about the failure of his last two movies. "When you love something," he says, "and feel you've done it correctly, then negative criticism doesn't hurt so bad. I love those movies. But in order to say you're successful, a film has to make quite a lot of money, and I haven't really done that. If I was successful in that way, I'd be . . . I don't know, making pictures maybe more within the system."
Lynch pauses and flashes a smile. "I can see how it's nice to be entertained," he says. "But there are different kinds of films. I hope it would be possible to make a film that has some depth to it but that still has a strong story and great characters, and that people would really appreciate. That has happened in history – a film made by a director where there is no compromise, and when the film was released, it worked for huge numbers of people. And when that happens, it's thrilling to the soul."
It is true that Lynch's movies have never been major commercial successes. They've generally done better with critics than with audiences – that is, until Wild at Heart and Fire Walk With Me, when they didn't do too well with either. At the same time, in the 25 years that he has been making films, David Lynch has had a considerable impact on modern cinema. He has influenced not only the way films look but also how filmmakers tell their stories and how their characters speak and behave. When you watch the films of Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant, Tim Burton, the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Jane Campion and Todd Haynes, you are seeing talented directors working with a sense of permission and stylistic nerve that David Lynch helped make possible.
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