PROFILE: Filmmaker, junk-food gourmet and gee-whiz genius, David Lynch launches a new Twin Peaks season
From his early cult films to a hit soap opera, he has traveled a road as unique as his obsessions. He has already proved that an eccentric film artist can change the way America looks at TV. Can Twin Peaks now become a mainstream habit?
Czar of Bizarre
As his haunting Twin Peaks begins a new season, David Lynch tests whether a brilliantly eccentric film artist can move into the mainstream
By RICHARD CORLISS
A peg-legged woman walks past David Lynch's table. She might be a victim from Blue Velvet or local color from Twin Peaks. But the man who dreamed up both of those nightmare entertainments pays her no heed. In the woodsy main dining room of Musso & Frank's, Hollywood's oldest eatery, the 44-year-old multimedia auteur concentrates on ordering his usual lunch: "A Swiss cheese, real Swiss cheese, on whole wheat. A side order of steamed broccoli. And a Coke." In his soft tenor voice, he discusses nutrition: "Do you like it when your sandwich is burned like that? That's not supposed to be good for you. But it sure tastes good, though." He chats with the waiter: "Does this bread get thrown away? It could go to the homeless. They'd only have a little-bit-later lunch."
Some people want to know who killed Laura Palmer, the Twin Peaks homecoming queen with a past, the identity of whose murderer has been kept secret nearly as long as that of Jimmy Hoffa. More people, it seems, want to know about David Lynch's eating habits. How many damn fine cups of coffee (lots of milk, gobs of sugar) does he drink each day? Does he share the cherry-pie fixation of his TV hero, Special Agent Cooper? On the Tonight Show, Jay Leno quizzed Lynch about his Guinness Book-worthy consumption of chocolate milk shakes at the Bob's Big Boy chain in Los Angeles. The astounding stats: one every day at 2:30 p.m. for seven years, 1973-79.
So let's break the big news first: David Lynch's current favorite liquids are red wine, bottled water and coffee. "I like cappuccino, actually. But even a bad cup of coffee is better than no coffee at all. New York has great water for coffee. Water varies all around. We've got to drink something. Do you just drink water, sometimes? It's very good for you." And, stop the presses, David Lynch doesn't cook at home. "No, ma'am! I don't allow cooking in my house. The smell. The smell of cooking—when you have drawings, or even writings— that smell would go all over my work. So I eat things that you don't have to light a fire for. Or else I order a pizza. The speed at which I eat it, it doesn't smell up the place too bad. The smell doesn't last too long."
In Hollywood nothing lasts long—except the work. Lynch has earned his 15 minutes of celebrity with 15 years of the strangest characters and most hallucinogenic images an American filmmaker ever committed to celluloid. His early career traced a paradigmatic arc of hotshot movie eminence, from a $20,000 underground classic (Eraserhead in 1977) to a $5 million Oscar nominee (The Elephant Man in 1980) to a $50 million sci-fi dud (Dune in 1984). Each film had segments of bafflement and spectral beauty. But Hollywood, looking at the escalating price tags and plummeting ticket sales, wrote the director off. So Lynch made Blue Velvet (1986), a magnificent revenge drama—his revenge on fettered movie conventions—about small-town life and lust, drugs and death. Twin Peaks, you could say, is only the TV domestication of that warped masterpiece.
Only! Long before the series' April premiere, ecstatic critics were priming TV viewers to expect the unexpected. Lynch's two-hour pilot didn't disappoint. It was frantic and lugubrious in turn, a soap opera with strychnine. In one night, the show had hip America hooked. Twin Peaks stoked a media frenzy unseen since the Dallas heyday. But this time the director, not the star, was the prime beneficiary. David Lynch was J.R.
Suddenly, like a high-cult Larry Hagman, Lynch was everywhere. The director whose pre-l 990 oeuvre comprised just four features—eight hours of public film—will have more than matched that total this year. Two two-hour and three one-hour episodes of Twin Peaks. The rambunctious road movie Wild at Heart, winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and now in theatrical release. Four TV commercials for Obsession perfume. A 50-minute video, Industrial Symphony No. 1, featuring a dwarf, prom teens, a floating topless lady, a skinned deer and ethereal warbler Julee Cruise singing from a car trunk; it's Lynch's most brazenly avant-garde work. If that's not enough, how about a weekly David Lynch comic strip called The Angriest Dog in the World? Or a book of his own photographs? Or a flurry of Twin Peaks merchandise, including the unexpurgated Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, written by Lynch's daughter Jennifer?
He has proved that an eccentric artist can toil in American TV without compromising his vision, and in doing so he helped loose the bonds of the prime-time straitjacket. Who was the last fellow to pull off that parlay—Ernie Kovacs? And what filmmaker as inimitable as Lynch has ever sponsored other directors to clone his style? The quirky outsider is close to becoming David Lynch Inc.
But even Lynch must know that every fad must fade. Any enthusiasm with the velocity of Twin Peaks mania is bound to boomerang. "Fame is all unnatural thing," says Mark Frost, Lynch's TV partner and Twin Peaks co-producer. "There is no equivalent to it in the animal kingdom." A director on the edge gets critical indulgences when he steps into the mainstream; a director on top is ripe for a raspberry. The trick for Lynch is to keep the ebb of acclaim from affecting either his work or his attitude toward it.
So as Twin Peaks fall season begins next Sunday with another of the two-hour episodes he directed, Lynch arrives at a perplexing crossroads. He is too familiar to some admirers of his early movies, yet too weird for the Hollywood establishment—or for the American couch potato.
Wild at Heart, which sends a pair of loser lovers (Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern) on a trip into the dark night of the Southern Gothic soul, is a tonic for the senses and an assault on the sensibilities. Heads splatter, skulls explode biker punks torture folks for the sheer heck of it, and a pair of loopy innocents find excitement in a side trip to hell. Pretty much like Blue Velvet. Yes, it's different, but the same kind of different Lynch could no longer shock by being shocking. Many critics figured they had solved the mystery of his visual style and thematic preoccupations. Next mystery, please. By August, when the film opened in the U.S., the Lynch mob was more like a lynch mob.
Barry Gifford, on whose novel the film was based, blames the critics for the film's lukewarm reception. "The faux intelligentsia can jump on or off a bandwagon," he notes. "André Gide said that writers should expect to lose 50% of their audience with each new work, that the rest never understood it in the first place. Perhaps that has happened to David."
"I can't try to second-guess the critics," the director says. "The world is changing, and we are changing within it. As soon as you think you've got something figured out, it's different. That is what I try to do. I don't try to do anything new, or weird, or David Lynch. But I'm real happy with the picture. See, I love 47 different genres in one film. I hate one-thing films. And I love B movies. But why not have three or four Bs running together? Like a little hive!"
Even on the Twin Peaks front, the entrails from last week's Emmy Awards make for cautionary reading. The show, nominated for 14 Emmys, was virtually shut out, winning only technical prizes for editing and costume design. Lynch, up for the Best Director citation, lost out to Thomas Carter (Equal Justice) and Scott Winant (thirtysomething). The Twin Peaks cast put its best face on defeat. "We kind of like the idea that we didn't get any Emmys," maintains Ray Wise, who plays Laura Palmer's spectacularly bereaved father. "We're not about winning awards; we are about doing what we do. If the great American public accepts it, fine. If they don't, we will still have our core audience. And even if we don't have our core audience, we know we have done it right."
But will Twin Peaks be done in by ABC's Saturday-night graveyard slot, where the show will run after Sunday's premiere? Will the mass TV audience still care about (or keep track of) the town's residents, their loves and fetishes? Will viewers have grown weary of the show's cliff-hanging teases, as when Special Agent Cooper gets shot in the chest, only to revive in the next episode, or when he determines Laura's murderer in a dream and then forgets the name the next morning? Can they submit to the pleasures of texture, the luxury of the show's somnambulist pace, the comic-opera grandeur of the performances? Most important, will they keep watching Twin Peaks when it is no longer culturally compulsory to do so?
For the first clues to these answers, tune in to next week's Nielsen ratings. And attend to the show's spiritual leader as he considers his delectable career crisis. "I'm real busy," Lynch says. "And I'm busy not always on things that I think are important. Making a new film is important. Making each episode of Twin Peaks is important. And painting and music. But there's a lot of things in between that take a lot of time. Take this day: I haven't shot a scene, I haven't written anything, I haven't done anything. It's really frustrating." He pauses between bites of broccoli. "The good side of failure is you've got plenty of time to work."
These days he has little time for a primo passion: painting. "A guy told me that in order to get one hour of good painting done, you need four hours of uninterrupted time." He describes a recent favorite, Oww, God, Mom, the Dog He Bited Me: "There's a clump of Band-Aids in the bottom corner. A dark background. A stick figure whose head is a blur of blood. Then a very small dog, made out of glue. There is a house, a little black bump. It is pretty crude, pretty primitive and minimal. I like it a lot."
Lynch doesn't analyze his dreams much; his consciousness percolates plenty provocatively, thank you. But he remembers being depressed once because "in my dream, I see these fantastic paintings that were done by somebody else. And I wish that I had painted them. And I wake up, and after a while the impression wears off. I say, wait a minute, those are my paintings. I dreamt them; they're mine." Another pause. "Then I can't remember what they were."
This courtly man doesn't stay depressed for long, though. He has seen too much. Life, to him, is an endless search, one long lesson. He is proof of the notion that every artist is a scientist, obsessed with discovering how things and people work. His eyes go electric as he skims the subjects of his forthcoming photography book. "I've got a real lot of beautiful industrial landscapes. And I'm real interested in dental hygiene, so I'm going to have a chapter on that. Maybe something on fictitious archaeology: I'd like to bury some things, then wait a little while and dig them up. I like to photograph plastic people in little scenes. Then I might have a chapter on spark plugs. Kind of amazing things, spark plugs; our lives revolve around them.
"This is good food today."
Lynch brings this canny naiveté, this promiscuous curiosity, to every aspect of his life and work. It could be a trait bred from childhood—a sylvan youth of eagle-scout badges and family camping trips, spent amid the Pacific Northwest trees that today looms over Twin Peaks. "My father was a scientist for the Forest Service," Lynch says. "He would drive me through the woods in his green Forest Service truck, over dirt roads, through the most beautiful forests where the trees are very tall and shafts of sunlight come down and in the mountain streams the rainbow trout leap out and their little trout sides catch glimpses of light. Then my father would drop me in the woods and go off. It was a weird, comforting feeling being in the woods. There were odd, mysterious things. That's the kind of world I grew up in."
A different world greeted Lynch when, in his early 20s, he and his young wife were in Philadelphia to study art. (Lynch has been married twice, each union producing a child, and had a four-year bicoastal relationship with actress Isabella Rossellini.) The neighborhood was hairy, hostile, especially for a lad trying to fit his bucolic vision into the urban nightmare around him. Lynch says Eraserhead sprang fully formed from nights in that "crime-ridden" city. "My original image was of a man's head bouncing on the ground, being picked up by a boy and taken to a pencil factory. I don't know where it came from." Some movie folk didn't know where Eraserhead was going either; it was twice rejected by the New York Film Festival. Could it have been the picture's grim gray palette that put the festival off? Or the man with seared skin? Or the snakelike creatures in the radiator? Or the hideous mutant baby in the bureau drawer?
Lynch made Eraserhead at the American Film Institute in Beverly Hills, with financial help from his boyhood pal Jack Fisk (a talented production designer) and Fisk's wife, actress Sissy Spacek. Around him the first-time director gathered technicians and players he has used ever since: cinematographer Frederick Elmes, sound-effects ace Alan Splet and, as Eraserhead's high-haired Henry Spencer, actor Jack Nance. "It seemed like we were never going to finish the film," recalls Nance, who plays henpecked Pete Martell in Twin Peaks. "We had to scrap an awful lot, and we failed an awful lot. But we were kids then. Now we're old." Fortunately, the film found an audience. With its loping internal logic and its unapologetic otherness, Eraserhead soon became a hit on the midnight movie circuit.
Then everything started coming up robins in springtime. Mel Brooks, looking to produce films other than his own, saw Eraserhead and determined that Lynch should direct The Elephant Man. The film, cued by the parable of physical deformity as a kind of saint's sackcloth, embellished by Lynch's phantasmagoric direction and anchored by John Hurt's delicate performance as John Merrick, won the director big-studio notice. He could do anything now—anything but turn Frank Herbert's daunting science fantasy into a movie Dino De Laurentiis would like. "I sold out on Dune," Lynch says today.
"I was making it for the producers, not for myself. That's why the right of final cut is crucial. One person has to be the filter for everything. I believe this is a lesson world; we're supposed to learn stuff. But 3 1/2 years to learn that lesson is too long."
A character in Dune says, "Let me teach you the weirding way." In 1981 Lynch took moviegoers the whole way with Blue Velvet (also, ironically, made for De Laurentiis). "I started with the idea of front yards at night," Lynch says, "and Bobby Vinton's song playing from a distance. Then I always had this fantasy of sneaking into a girl's room and hiding through the night. It was a strange angle to come at a murder mystery." The murders were the least mysterious element in this feral, fertile inversion of It's a Wonderful Life. Each shot was crafted with the off center elegance and pristine passion of a modernist painter. But with its mix of battered beauties and severed ears, Blue Velvet might have been his drop-dead letter to Hollywood. Instead, it made the maverick bankable. His next big project would find takers on network TV.
"We were in exactly the right place," says Mark Frost, "at the right network, at the right time. The end of the Reagan era, a new decade— there were a lot of pointers." So who deserves credit for Twin Peaks? Movie people, knowing Lynch, may think it is his miraculously conceived love child. TV people, knowing Frost as a gifted graduate of the Hill Street Blues team, may see him as the Tom Cruise character in Rain Man, artfully manipulating an idiot savant. Neither legend fits the facts. Frost is Mr. Inside, Lynch Mr. Outside, and together they make an ideal odd couple. The show's pilot and atmosphere are clearly vintage Lynch. Frost runs the show day to day. Both fabricate the major story lines. "Mark is very straightforward and supportive," says Tina Rathborne, who directed the finest non-Lynch episode last season (Laura's funeral). "He is brilliant in his own right."
"David is the keeper of the flame," says Kyle MacLachlan, who plays Dale Cooper. "This is his world." Ever since Dune, when Lynch plucked him out of anonymity in Seattle, MacLachlan has been the director's onscreen face. It is a startling visage, as pure of line as an art deco vase, with soft, all-American features and a comic-book hero's jutting chin—you could park a Packard on it. Blue Velvet needed his reckless innocence; Twin Peaks profits from his daft righteousness. "The show is unique because of the combination, the balance, of Mark and David," MacLachlan notes. "That uniqueness is not necessarily transferable. It may madden the staff when David directs a segment, because he throws the rules out. But to us actors that freedom is an elixir, a magic potion. It's hard to have it watered down once you've tasted it."
Lynch directs, his actors suggest, through osmosis. "He might say, 'A little more,' then 'Peachy-keen,' but that's it," says Dennis Hopper, the actor-director who was the memorable sicko Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. "However grotesque or violent or weird one of David's scenes may be, the whole is coming from a place in his brain that I trust," says Grace Zabriskie, the spikily hysterical mother of Laura Palmer. "It's that razor's edge of knowing and not knowing what he's doing."
Right now Lynch and Frost are walking that edge even as they hone it. They want Twin Peaks to keep surprising its audience while they defer surprises. They want the show that couldn't be made to be the hit that keeps on coming. And when they get bored or exhausted, they want to get out. "We own the show," Frost notes. "There is no studio around that can milk this thing until it drops dead." Lynch, with his tunnel-vision focus, is the last Hollywood figure one could imagine extending a project just to pick up a paycheck. He doesn't want to stay around: he wants to stay young.
Lynch's films shout that sentiment in every frame, of course. But listen to him on the subject of aging—which, as so many things do, attracts and repels him. "Scientists are working right now, while we are having lunch, to give us a better life. I hope they make some big breakthroughs soon. If you could only reconcile the mental with the physical, then throw in the emotional! These growth hormones, where can I get a bunch of them? Is there some way that, with electricity, you could stimulate your own growth hormones? Plug yourself in for five minutes, there'd be a little jolt, but you'd get used to it. It wouldn't be bad at all; in fact, you'd get to enjoy it, probably. Then away you'd go, and youth wouldn't be wasted on the young anymore. You'd be 25, with a 95-year-old mind. Granddad would start breaking into liquor stores and staying out late. Hope we have it soon!"
David Lynch has finished his meal. A $20 tab, cheap at twice the price for lunch with a gee-whiz genius. "Do you mind to take me home?" he asks. "It's only a five minute drive. But you can't come in!" And up he goes into the Hollywood Hills, where the entertainment industry's most beguiling outsider can find refuge in the daydreams and nightmares—the forests and Philadelphias—of his pinwheeling mind.
--Reported by Elizabeth L. Bland/Los Angeles
Copyright 1990 Time Magazine. Reprinted without premission.
Back to the Lynch articles page