I’ve been wrestling now and again to figure out where exactly to begin on my year-long look into the career and life on one of my favorite filmmakers and a heavy artistic influence on myself, David Lynch. It’s obvious that my enthusiastic jumping into this is based on the announcement less than a year ago of the imminent return of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s landmark television series, for a short while on the Showtime network. I was so enthusiastic that I didn’t entirely plan out what the hell I was going to land on both feet with in this thing once I jumped. Ideally, I started with his earliest artistic work, but that would involve talking about his physical fine art pieces and I would like to give myself a bit more time looking into those pieces before I speak up on it. In the meantime, Eraserhead could hardly be considered the beginnings of Lynch’s abstract method of cinematic storytelling when he has so many fine short films under his belt that proved to AFI what a keen filmmaker they had under their sleeve. But those short films still wouldn’t make an adequate introduction in my mind.
No, instead, I decided to go into the very beginnings of what made David Lynch who he was and post about that instead. My reasoning is a lot more complex than simply telling an origin story: I was astonished to find a lot of things within Lynch’s early life actively making a presence into his work as an artist. It’s not exactly thematics of his work so much as the overall atmosphere and landscape of most of his well-known stories. Let’s look at the basic facts of who he was as a person and get those out of the way:
- Born 20 January 1946 in Missoula, Montana
- Didn’t stay in Missoula for long. His father worked for the Dept. of Agriculture and so the family moved a lot around the country – Including residing in Spokane, Washington, not too far off (3 hour drive) from Yakima, the hometown of Lynch’s constant collaborator/actor Kyle MacLachlan.
- Raised Presbytarian
- Oldest of three children.
- Eagle Scout.
Now, between these details, I want to take a brief moment to look into Lynch’s childhood moving around. Lynch would constantly have to find himself in a new environment due to his father’s profession and the demands of it, making his childhood an extremely transitionally based one. One would have some trouble being able to adjust oneself to a life that is never exactly rested where it is.
Except according to Lynch in his book (co-authored with Chris Rodley), Lynch on Lynch, he really didn’t have that much trouble with making himself at home anywhere he went. He would get along with the people at every new school and quickly make new friends, even as an “outsider”. This may not sound familiar, but the moment I read this part, I thought of Agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan) of Twin Peaks. A man who is in Twin Peaks on business, who has no immediate residence within Twin Peaks, and probably will not stay, and yet has no trouble getting along with absolutely everybody in the town who is open to his presence.
Of course, there’s a lot of facets of Cooper that are ripped straight out of Lynch’s own being (indeed, MacLachlan made such a good actor for Lynch’s films out of practically being his surrogate into the film worlds), but the fact that something from his early youth could be applied to arguably the most famous character Lynch has come up with yet makes me grin a bit.
Now, there doesn’t seem to have been much of Lynch’s life that is worth bringing a frown on a child’s face. And while we would show that Lynch is just as capable of pleasance with his film works upon his making of the 1999 Disney film The Straight Story, it just takes a bit of a dig into the world to find what really made Lynch tick as an artist, as shown in this excerpt from Lynch on Lynch.
“My childhood was elegant homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it was supposed to be. But then on the cherry tree would be this pitch oozing out, some of it black, some of it yellow, and there were millions and millions of red ants racing all over the sticky pitch, all over the tree. So you see, there’s this beautiful world and you just look a little bit closer and it’s all red ants”
Sound familiar? That’s right… It’s exactly how the opening montage of his film Blue Velvet plays out. The nice, smiling cheerful, colorful suburban neighborhood absolutely eager to add to all of the joyous landscape you find yourself in, but underneath the dirt, you find the disgusting, the intense, the affrontive presence of all of these ugly bugs in our face. You’d have to have little imagination to understand the metaphor of an ugly sinister reality underneath every pleasant facade of any community. Of course, this isn’t something exactly limited to Lynch’s style or themes anymore. It’s been a constant work of tv series since Twin Peaks to shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, Rian Johnson’s Brick, and even before Twin Peaks, with Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man probably being my second favorite usage of that atmosphere of pleasant evil behind Twin Peaks itself. And while those all have a bit more subtlety than Lynch’s representations of suburbia in Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet, Lynch’s obnoxious exaggerated showcase of these things actually only makes me love his works more in their directness to the matter. You don’t need much imagination to understand these themes, whether you like what he’s saying about them or not.
It’s also not the only thing of Lynch’s childhood that made an appearance in Blue Velvet but of the infamous scene where Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) – many references to The Wizard of Oz appear in Lynch’s work and while I’d like to speculate that he watched it as a child, I really don’t have any source on that – appears naked and battered at the doorstep of Jeffrey (MacLachlan again!) was based on a childhood incident that traumatized Lynch as he and his brother witnessed a woman walking naked onto the street at night. And that trauma still carries itself to an uncomfortable in the scene itself when we reach it in the film.
Despite all of this happiness and nourishing childhood atmosphere and in spite of his status as highest-ranking Boy Scout (one who was able to actually attend the inauguration of John F. Kennedy), Lynch was still a dark young man. If not for the fact of his attitudes towards the wormy underblanket of the cities he lived and played in, the fact that he remained rebellious to his environment. He and his friends would begin making bottle rockets, but soon become bored and create pipe bombs to use around the city – eventually leading to their arrest. You could say Lynch was wild at heart.
Or how his high school interest in the Beat generation took a cinematic form within the character of Bill Pullman in Lost Highway. Or even, to the smallest of degrees, Lynch’s own early agoraphobia as a child would play part to the home lives of many many characters in Twin Peaks themselves, most certainly in the character of Harold Smith.
The reason I bring all of these facets up to introduce Lynch’s career is not simply as something to go on about his beginnings (this is hardly too incomplete of a post to do that), but to largely point out that, like him or not, Lynch was a very inspired filmmaker. Maybe the most inspired of us all. He digs deep into places, some seen, many unseen, of himself to figure out how best to communicate the stories he wants to tell with us. These are only the immediate sources of his works’ genesis, as we go further and further into his career, we will be discovering just where – in other aspects of his life – did he come to creating works such as Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr., and Inland Empire in their whole. But those will be discussed for another day.
In the meantime, to tie into the next chapter to come on The Straight Story, art was never a stranger of a subject for Lynch to take interest in. His father would constantly provide him with spare paper to draw and paint on (his drawing usually darkly based on war but in the same interest that most children of the culture of the American hero would have) and, by age 14, Lynch was acquainted with the artist Ace Powell – heavily influenced by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. The prolonged exposure to art influenced a still-doubtful-of-art-as-a-career Lynch into rooming with his friend (and another collaborator) Jack Fisk and enrolling in Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts.
From there came the kickstart to Lynch’s artistic sensibilities and intuitions, his fruit of which we will get into next week…
Thank you for reading so far.