David Lynch, driven by a unique vision

Do not annoy David Lynch when he's driving.

"It's not one bit pleasant to be tailgated," warns the director of the cult film Blue Velvet and co-creator of TV's Twin Peaks. "It doesn't speed things up; it only causes anxiety and anger."

In Lynch's latest film, Lost Highway, a gangster called Mr. Eddy (played by Robert Loggia) is bothered by an impatient tailgater. He crashes into the offending car, drags the driver out and beats him to a bloody pulp while bellowing rules on safe stopping distances.

At a recent Los Angeles screening, the audience went wild with wish fulfillment at Eddy's response. A poker-faced Lynch says he's now mulling a driver's ed film with Eddy instructing.

"As Mr. Eddy would say, 'Everyone will get where they're going quicker and safer if they obey the rules of the road.' "

But Lynch's controversial Highway, which he calls a "21st century noir horror film," isn't about driving or rules. The chaotic film careens down the buckled blacktop of human existence, exploring life's dark alleys and hairpin turns.

Lynch fans are turning out in big numbers for his first film since 1992's poorly received Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Highway was the No. 1 independent release when it opened Feb. 21 in New York and Los Angeles. The film expanded to 30 cities Friday.

Co-written by Lynch and Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart), Highway is the tale of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman, looking eerily like Kyle MacLachlan), a depressed jazz musician with a brooding brunet wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), whom he suspects has another life. She begins finding videos left at their door, creepily filmed inside as they slept.

When Renee is brutally killed, a video is left revealing Fred as the murderer. He's convicted and imprisoned. But when guards open his cell one day, Fred has vanished, replaced by a dazed young mechanic, Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty).

Tumbling into this parallel universe, Arquette reappears as Alice Wakefield, Mr. Eddy's blond moll, who swiftly seduces Dayton. An ominous Mystery Man (Robert Blake) haunts both worlds.

In true Lynchian fashion, the film's wild ride into paranoia, sexual obsession and the flux of identity makes viewers feel decidedly edgy.

Meeting the director produces the same effect.

At first glance, Lynch, 51, appears inexplicably normal, wearing a rumpled black jacket and a tousle of surprised hair, now faded to silver. He speaks in a Midwestern monotone peppered with enthusiasms such as "Beau-tiful!" or "Fan-tastic!" He is, as Mel Brooks has described him, "Jimmy Stewart from Mars."

His early success with freakish films such as Eraserhead and Dune helped directors with intensely personal visions enter the mainstream: Tim Burton, Gus Van Sant, Joel Coen. But critical reaction to Highway has been mixed. Alternative film magazine Film Threat reported in February that one critic sniffed that Lynch should have his director's license revoked.

But Mikal Gilmore, who interviewed Lynch for the March 6 cover of Rolling Stone, applauds Lynch's new blackened vision. "There is something heartening about witnessing one of America's most inventive artists allowing his art to grow darker, especially at a point where he has everything to lose."

Still, an interview with the hard-to-decipher Lynch raises the same persistent questions as do his films: What on earth did that mean?

Lynch wants to chat "in the shop," actually his woodworking shop, in the belly of the Hollywood Hills compound where he lives and works. Amid dusty saws, dismembered chairs and half-stripped tables, he counters critics' snipes that Highway is manipulatively disturbing.

"It has disturbing elements," he admits. "But you follow the ideas you have fallen in love with. In the beginning, you get a fragment of an idea, but if you fall in love with a fragment, something strange happens, and it becomes a magnet for others."

Is he annoyed when people ask what his films are about?

"It doesn't annoy me. But I think they really do know what it's about. Maybe it's hard to say in words, or they're afraid to say it."

He mulls a moment. "Film can do amazing things with abstraction, but it rarely gets a chance. People are treated like idiots, and people are not idiots. We're hip to the human condition, the human experience, and we love mysteries."

Lynch does concede that Highway may be the most imbalanced film he has made. "It's imbalanced by the fact that there's not really much of a way out. In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey goes in but he comes back out, and he's learned something, and in this, Fred is pretty much caught."

Lynch uses the medical term "psychogenic fugue" to clarify Highway's circular plot. "It's when a person gives up one identity and takes on a completely different one, new friends, new places, new everything. There's lots of people inside of us."

Lynch, born in Missoula, Mont., the son of a U.S. Department of Agriculture research scientist, adapted to different places and friends early on. The family moved often, and by high school, Lynch was in Alexandria, Va., where he began taking art classes at Washington's Corcoran Gallery School of Art. He later studied painting at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Then he made a one-minute animated film that led him to the American Film Institute, where he began Eraserhead (1978).

Lynch's love of art can be seen in his visually stunning films. "Film brings all the elements, so many mediums together, and it deals with time, so it's a lot like music and painting and sound and light."

Perhaps it would make more sense to chat about something concrete. What does he make in his shop?

"Furniture. I'm designing furniture for a Swiss company that is going to produce it." Lynch made Fred's ominous VCR case in Highway, and his unique floating beam table made of Douglas fir and metal will premiere at Milan's Salone del Mobile in April.

He'd like to make more. "You think during the process, and it somehow holds together."

Back to abstract. It has been said Lynch's films are his dreams, our nightmares. What scares him?

"Many things," he admits. "I feel like I live inside fear and darkness and confusion. . . . But there's another whole thing that I feel, too. That's that there are many positive things."

For comprehensible insight into Lynch, it's best to go back to driving.

"If someone wants to come into traffic, we should let them come in. Instantly, you feel better, the other person feels good, and it uplifts the entire driving environment."

Now that makes sense.

By Elizabeth Snead, USA TODAY

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