Paul Holdengräber, the Director of Public Programs at The New York Public Library and founder and director of LIVE from the NYPL, is an elegant man who has an air of the European intellectual about him, with a tendency to quote obscure works from 22-year-old German writers from ages ago in a continental accent. He is a great interviewer, trying to get into the psychology of the artist and the mystery behind their work. David Lynch, the greatest and most influential film director of the past 30 years, is an elegant man in a three-piece suit with a plume of white hair reaching towards the sky; he is like a Sunday funnies newspaper cartoon of a Midwesterner, with a squeaky voice, impeccable manners, and a genial folksiness that would make the average grasping politician jealous. When Lynch says “guys,” “girls,” and “folks,” he means it, and doesn’t sound coached to death (unlike any Obama speech). Things are “magical,” “beautiful,” “amazing,” and are about “dreams,” in his world, in perfect sincerity.
When these two men met on the stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music last night, the result was absurdist comedy that had the ghost of Andy Kaufman looking on in approval. Holdengräber’s erudite Europeanness clashed brilliantly with Lynch’s zen, chill, Midwestern politeness and the tension between the two men’s approaches to an interview was palpably hilarious. Holdengräber had a job to do, to get Lynch talking for a paying crowd, and Lynch is very comfortable in silence. (He was notably the most animated when talking about bliss, creativity, and other ideas stemming from his recent speeches on Transcendental Meditation.) I can’t remember the last time I laughed this hard at a comedic situation, certainly not at any movie of recent vintage.
Lynch was speaking before a crowd that was primed to appreciate his simplicity. He received a standing ovation when he entered the theater, telling the crowd that he was very familiar with Brooklyn since his grandparents lived there.
Holdengräber said, “I hope I will follow you down a maze.”
Lynch replied, “And it will be amazing.”
After showing the opening minutes of Blue Velvet, Bobby Vinton’s voice echoing through the theater, Lynch talked a bit about how the film came to be. He never liked the 1962 Bobby Vinton cover of the song, but “one time I heard it and images started coming from this song.” The film is about how “everybody realizes there’s more going on that meets the eye.”
At one point he said, “I think as a child… ” and Holdengräber ran with it: “You think, as a child,” the interviewer clarified. Lynch continued, talking a bit about inspiration: “The window needs to be open free. It’s good to leave the window open for a bit.” The director said that “children see the same things, but it’s very magical. Hopefully it’s like a dream, but a very beautiful dream.”
For Lynch, the power of words is that “[language] changes things, as soon as you know what something is,” or what the word is for an object. He gave an example of how sores can be beautiful, but “sore” is not a beautiful word.
Lynch went to art school in Philadelphia (the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which will have a Lynch show in September 2014), where he first encountered the idea that “it’s a strange world,” to quote Blue Velvet. “I got a lot of ideas in Philadelphia,” he said. “It was kind of a birth for me of organic phenomenon.”
“Say more,” Holdengräber urged.
“I fell in love with organic phenomenon.” Lynch replied. “How mother nature reclaims things, decay, the human figure. The organic phenomenon infused with fear and torment.”
When it comes to interpretation of his work, Lynch was less ready to say anything: “Some people like to have a meaning, and some people don’t care, because it allows you to dream.”
Holdengräber admitted, “It’s treacherous talking with you.”
Lynch said, “The words, they’re not really necessary.”
Holdengräber: “It puts me in a place of slight discomfort.”
Lynch continued, “Eraserhead may be my most spiritual film, but no one has written it to that side which I understand it, or what it means to me.” Cinema is a beautiful language to Lynch, and the words that people write around it can be limiting. “There’s a comfort when ideas are realized. It’s all working together. It’s complete and correct. It’s done. Then it goes out into the world, and it is what it is.”
Holdengräber switched over to Lynch’s art and photography, showing his black-and-white studies of factories. “I love factories. I love smoke. I love fire. I love metal. I love glass. I love plaster. I love bricks. And I love nature going to work on these things,” Lynch said. “In the 1800s, they built these factories like cathedrals. They were a dream of texture and mood.” He said yes to going to Poland’s Camerimage film festival. “The guys and gals who ran [it] came to visit me and asked me if I’d [go] and I started thinking, do you think it would be possible for you to get me into some of these factories so I can photograph them. And do you think you can get me nude women at night?”
Lynch then explained how smoke and clouds can be the greatest texture in a picture. In response to an artwork of his that featured matchstick, he said, enigmatically: “It’s amazing. Discovering the world and discovering fire.”
When it comes to other artists, Lynch is passionate about Edward Hopper’s work: “It causes a person to dream and wonder. It’s really magical.” He also loves Francis Bacon: “His compositions are just beyond the beyond, extraordinary. A real painter. There’s torment in his work but such beautiful torment.” When it comes to music, he’s currently enjoying Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves,” and recommended a YouTube clip of Neil Young and Daniel Lanois’ “Love and War.”
It was a beautiful night in a beautiful theater, a theater that “stopped me in my tracks,” according to Lynch. It was a chance to see a visual, subconscious genius speaking about his work from an angle with which he wasn’t necessarily comfortable, and the results were a beautiful mystery, something I’ll be thinking about for awhile.
But perhaps it’s best to leave it with a Lynchian insight: “When things are blurred, getting into darkness and distractions gives you way more room to dream.”