Discovering ‘The Man from Another Place’: Dennis Lim on His Book About David Lynch’s Labyrinthine Works

Dennis Lim, the director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the former Village Voice film editor, leaves a breadcrumb trail for us to discover David Lynch’s oeuvre in his new book The Man from Another Place. “Lynch himself often warns against overinterpretation. And accordingly, this is not a book that seeks to decode his art or annotate his life,” the back-cover synopsis advises.

David Lynch by Dennis Lim

Lim’s allusive exploration invites us to gaze upon the soot-stained cylinders of the Philadelphia skyline, wonder at the insects and disease hidden within the forests of the Northwest, and imagine dark paintings that move under a young artist’s brush. The Man from Another Place is a skeleton key to Lynch’s origins, obsessions, creative struggles, and transcendent works.

Flavorwire recently spoke with Lim about “the primitive artist of our most modern art,” revisiting Blue Velvet for the first time since he was 14, and Twin Peaks Season 3 as the ultimate Lynch film.

Flavorwire: I appreciated that you jumped right into the term “Lynchian.” Over the past few years, in particular, it’s become such a part of the way we talk about dark, complicated, surreal movies. You offer a few explanations from others and some of your own theories about what “Lynchian” means. I know you wanted to remain suggestive and leave things open to interpretation. But have you come to any concrete definitions?

Dennis Lim: No. I don’t know that I expected to come to anything concrete or definitive in writing this book. It was always about remaining suggestive and open-ended, but there are a few ways to look at Lynch’s life and work that I wanted to explore in depth. I understood some of those things a little more in the process of writing the book, but I don’t know that I would pick any one of them over the other. I like using the complementary lenses and thinking about him in many different ways, instead of closing off interpretations.

David Lynch and Jack Nance on the set of 'Eraserhead'
David Lynch and Jack Nance on the set of ‘Eraserhead’

You discuss Eraserhead and its link to Philadelphia, which I really appreciate. I went to the same school as Lynch, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Ah, you know it well. It’s a very different city these days, obviously.

It is in many ways.

Did you see the exhibit there?

Yes, David Lynch: The Unified Field curator Bob Cozzolino did an amazing job. During my time there, my professors and mentors would sometimes talk about him. I had no idea Lynch went there when I applied to their grad school, but discovering that, and considering my love of his films, it was exciting. It was interesting to see the themes of his work come together in that space.

I especially love the student work, which I hadn’t seen before. His other art shows were more focused on his recent paintings and lithographs. The student work is incredibly precocious and fascinating.

David Lynch with film reels, ca. 1966-70, Photo: C. K. Williams
David Lynch with film reels, ca. 1966-70, Photo: C. K. Williams

In the book you discuss how Eraserhead is less a depiction of Philly and more about how the city got under his skin. But at the same time, there’s something grounded in the realities of those neighborhoods that preexists Lynch. Still, people conflate them with Eraserhead. That part of the city is nicknamed the “Eraserhood.” How was Lynch was able to take something literal, the parts of these neighborhoods, and internalize something so specific to transform it into this mythic location?

One factor may be distance. He was already living in LA when he made Eraserhead. He was going off a certain sense memory of the place and certain emotions that it provoked. He talked about it very excitedly as a place that was very frightening to him, as somebody who never lived in cities and had never really confronted violent crime. And he was living in a fairly rundown part of Philadelphia at the time. Nobody would ever mistake Lynch for a realist or naturalist artist. He was always interested in expressionist ideas, which you see even in his early paintings and films. The idea of translating something very real into something more fantastical has always been part of his process.

That reminds me of the quote you mention from Lost Highway. You tell the story of Lynch seeing Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie for the first time and how when he stumbled across it later in life, he wouldn’t watch it on TV. You quote Bill Pullman’s character from Lost Highway: “I like to remember things my own way. . . . How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.” Keeping that snapshot quality and distance in mind, how does it affect the way we see things in his films? How does it enhance the work?

It’s interesting. I went back to many of these films when I was writing the book. I was surprised at how well they held up. The thing with films that have really visceral impressions or are shocking in some way, you expect that to wear off. But they didn’t for me — at least the films that meant the most to me or the ones that I watched most often. Blue Velvet is maybe the best example of that. It’s the first Lynch film that I saw. I was very young. And going back to it when I was writing this more than 28 years later, it’s a film that not only shocked me again, but also seemed no easier to comprehend in some way. It was very much the Blue Velvet experience I remembered, strangely enough, from watching it when I was 14 years old.

David Lynch and 'Dune' author Frank Herbert
David Lynch and ‘Dune’ author Frank Herbert

You write that Lynch is “the primitive artist of our most modern art.” You discuss how words never came easy to him, which obviously mirrors the way his films are so undefinable. You talk about sound, texture, and place compensating for the lack of a verbal component. He’s turned these things into his own cinematic language. I don’t think of dialogue when I think of a Lynch film. How does that work in terms of the way Lynch has collaborated on bigger studio pictures like Blue Velvet, Dune, or something like Twin Peaks? Here’s this artist with a non-verbal approach, working with people who don’t necessarily understand or work that way. How is it possible for Lynch to make these very eccentric movies through a style the typical movie process requires him to do the opposite?

It wasn’t easy. I think that accounts for why he no longer does that. It was also a different time for American movies. There was a greater sense of risk. The idea that the studio could possibly make a film like Blue Velvet today is unthinkable. But he did make that work. He was already coming off of his biggest flop, Dune, at the time. But he made a reasonably commercial, accessible film with The Elephant Man, which he often describes as his most difficult film, for him. It doesn’t come naturally to him. I don’t think he’s the kind of person who can fit well within these studio strictures. You can see that even today with Twin Peaks season three and how he was so adamant about being able to make it on his own terms and being ready to walk away from Showtime if he didn’t get exactly what he needed. It’s these early challenging development processes and shoots that have made him very savvy. At this point, and for many years now, he’s not going to jump into something unless he’s sure he can do it his way.

How does that nonverbal approach affect his process during filming? What do we know about working with Lynch on a movie? We know that actors are often left in the dark. Does that say he’s improvising a large part of his work?

He may be very good at withholding information, but he does not seem to be at all like an artist who in any way just improvises things. Even though the films mirror the workings of the unconscious, there’s nothing free-associative about how they’re made — even during his process of discovering a film, which he did more so with Eraserhead and Inland Empire. When he’s finally putting a film together, he knows exactly what he’s doing — even if some stage of the process is more exploratory. In terms of Lynch on set, I’ve never had the privilege of watching him work. There’s a nice David Foster Wallace essay that describes being on the set of Lost Highway and Wallace not even wanting to talk to Lynch. That captures a pretty good sense of what he’s like on set — somebody who is very much in his own world at that moment, which is not unusual. It’s how a lot of filmmakers work. In terms of working with actors, I think it varies. With a film like Eraserhead and Inland Empire, they’re finding it as they go. He’s certainly capable and is an excellent director of actors. He has a knack for casting. Also, he’s somebody who can make bad acting work. Stilted acting is very Lynchian. You can get away with a lot when that kind of stiffness contributes to the tone and effect of your film.

'Lost Highway'
‘Lost Highway’

His sets seem so rigorous. You write a story about someone on set saying, “We don’t move props here.” It’s strikingly different from his freeform attitude.

I think a lot of that comes from Lynch being a studio artist and having complete control. When you’re standing in front of the canvas, you are in full control of it. And then you move from this solitary endeavor to a collaborative one, and you have to work with other people. But Lynch’s control is so extremely important. The times he struggles are when he loses control. You see that whether it’s the making of Dune or in the second season of Twin Peaks. When he is, for whatever reason, forced to step away from something, that’s when the films are less realized. That’s also when he’s less happy with them.

Roger Ebert’s critical review of Blue Velvet comes up in the book. How have film critics changed their minds about Lynch with the passing of time?

Blue Velvet definitely had its champions. It had major critics in its corner. Pauline Kael, Janet Maslin, and J. Hoberman were all big fans of it. Even a film as radical and out there as Blue Velvet was a cultural earthquake. I think what people have come around to a bit more are the films from the second half of his career. Wild at Heart is still a very polarizing film. In some ways, it’s one of Lynch’s most self-conscious films. It’s the one where you can really feel Lynch doing Lynch. I looked at a lot of contemporary reviews overall to see how they were received at the time. The reviews were beyond terrible for Fire Walk with Me. They were very, very dismissive for Lost Highway. I think people actually take these films seriously now. Those are the films that have been rehabilitated much more. Mulholland Drive has always been a huge critical favorite. That’s a really interesting period of his career, after the backlash of Twin Peaks‘ second season and Wild at Heart. The backlash was so severe and extreme, I think people just wrote him off. With Fire Walk with Me, people just didn’t know what to expect. It’s such a strange idea to make a prequel, and the film is so harrowing. It’s very, very different in mood and tone from the kind of jokey things people enjoyed in Twin Peaks. But if you look at the film on its own terms, it’s remarkable. It’s a very devastating film. I understand why people were so shocked and put off when they saw it, but I think people who have come back to it in the years since are much more sympathetic to it.

'Wild at Heart'
‘Wild at Heart’

Lynch’s portrayal of women has been controversial at times. You use Laura Palmer and Twin Peaks as one example of that. How does Lynch want us to feel about his female characters when he shows them being incredibly humiliated in something like Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart?

I think they’re troubling scenes, the ones you mention. But I also don’t know that they’re all the same. I don’t know that Dorothy’s psychology in Blue Velvet is really all that similar to Laura Palmer’s. You can read Fire Walk with Me as a film that turns Laura Palmer, who is a corpse or an absent center of the whole series, into this living center of a film. I find that quite a moving gesture. Lynch really loves her. You can feel that in the film — so what happens is terrible. The impulse to bring her to life and see her living, which you didn’t get  in Twin Peaks, is a very profound gesture.

I was very interested in your comparison of Lost Highway to Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. I had never considered that. It’s really rare that Lynch’s movies are compared to a particular work. There are often comparisons to genres or time periods, but we don’t talk about Lost Highway as Lynch’s Kiss Me Deadly, for example. And we don’t usually discuss Lynch in relation to his contemporaries like Malick or Scorsese. Fans and critics seem to go along with Lynch’s refusal to psychoanalyze his films by looking at them in terms of tropes, genres, and forms rather than specific allusions or influences. Is that simply because they’re so singular?

I’m not sure that’s entirely the case. You can certainly look at Lynch and think of Hitchcock or Buñuel. There are references to Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder. It is a testament to how singular he is. He’s not like anybody else of his generation, probably because he wasn’t a film brat. He wanted to be a painter. He came to it from a different angle. He’s not a cinephile. I don’t think he really consumes movies. He probably went through that stage when he was an art student, but I tend to believe him when he says that he’s happy creating more so than he is consuming other art.

'Mulholland Drive'
‘Mulholland Drive’

You write that Mulholland Drive, is “a reflection on the pleasures and risks of believing in an illusion.” Do you think Lynch, as an artist, believes in the illusion of the Hollywood we see in Mulholland Drive?

Mulholland Drive is an exquisite film. It’s a really beautiful love story. It was his last film shot on 35mm. It’s rich and extremely pleasurable, but it’s one of his saddest films. It’s a film that you can read as marking the death of a certain romantic idea of Hollywood — a disillusionment with Hollywood. You see that, obviously, in the figure of the main character, Betty, but I think that’s reflected in Lynch’s own experiences, too. I don’t think he’s necessarily wrong, if you look at where American movies have gone and what studios tend to make these days. Mulholland Drive is also a film that came out his experience with Hollywood. He was coming out of a pretty rough decade, having a hard time getting films made. His experience with studio and money people after Twin Peaks and the Mulholland Dr. TV pilot were not great. But Mulholland Drive is this great elegy. It’s right on the cusp of the 20th and 21st century, about the death of the Hollywood romance and the death of celluloid.

Throughout the book you build a sense of place for us and show how cities, architecture, and environments come into play with Lynch’s work. You write about your experience watching Inland Empire in Lynch’s house, which was a great story. What other things did you note about his environment or the way he interacted in his environment that struck you?

Lynch’s compound, which I was fortunate enough to visit when I was writing about Inland Empire, is set up like a place that’s really conducive to working. There’s a quote I use in the book from Isabella Rossellini about how he set everything up to optimize working conditions. He has his house, office, recording studio, and screening room. You see art on the walls. I’m sure there are meditation spaces. Right at the top of the property, he had this beautiful studio where he works. You can see that in the weather reports he used to do and the documentaries about him. He obviously hasn’t made a film in a long time, but he’s been extremely prolific. I was surprised when I went to the Philly exhibition how much he had produced in the last ten years — new paintings and all kinds of work.

His music, too.

Yes. Not to mention all the various work-for-hire things like the Dior commercial with Marion Cotillard and the Duran Duran concert film. He’s produced a lot of work. I think he’s happy doing all that. I think he just needed everything to do right before he returned to filmmaking.

'Twin Peaks'
‘Twin Peaks’

Will he make another movie?

As I see it, he’s making a 12-hour movie right now. Season three of Twin Peaks could very well be the ultimate Lynch film. He’s waited a long time. Television has finally caught up with him. It’s not the television of before when people were completely freaked out by what he was trying to do. There’s a sense that commercial American television is a better place for risk-taking artists than commercial American cinema. It makes sense for Lynch to be working in that environment. The fact that he’s working with Mark Frost and has written everything and is directing everything . . . it sounds like he’s directing a 12-hour film. I think it’s really going to be something special.

You write that Lynch spending more time in the Twin Peaks cosmos in Fire Walk With Me allowed him to reduce things to the essentials. What does that mean for the Twin Peaks we’ve yet to see?

Given how little he’s said about Twin Peaks and how few morsels are out there about it, it’s hard to know. One interesting thing about Lynch, he’s become freer as an artist over the years. It’s sometimes true of artists as they age, but I don’t think it’s necessarily common. The films have become more radical. Inland Empire is a pretty crazy film for somebody at that stage of his career to be making. It’s also, I think, the film that’s most in touch or overt with its spirituality or at least in its references to Lynch’s spirituality, in terms of meditation and Hindu thought and all that. I’m guessing here, but I would expect this Twin Peaks to be much more narratively daring than the Twin Peaks that was on ABC 25 years ago. I think it’ll be even more Lynchian.

twinpeaks2

Did you see the Twin Peaks Blu-ray set and the interviews he did with the cast of Twin Peaks? It was so strange and very minimal. I’m picturing an hour of this . . .

It could very well be. The fact that he has full creative control is pretty exciting. He’s also a savvy artist. I don’t think he’s going to be completely experimental. Part of the pleasure of Twin Peaks is narrative. I think Lynch is, in his own strange way, very interested in narrative, despite not being interested in dialogue necessarily or plotting in the conventional sense. I’m very interested to see what he does with a canvas of this size, trying to map out a narrative on that scale. That’s going to be really exciting.