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Anatomy of the Lynchian

Lee aquí la versión original en español de la entrevista / Read here the spanish version of the interview

Dennis Lim

The book mixes carefully David Lynch’s life, production stories and critical commentaries on his films. From the first sentence, the focus is set on the creative life of David Lynch. Why did you use this approach? Why not one with a bigger focus on biographical notes or maybe the movies themselves?

There is a fair amount of biography in the book, but only as it relates to his book. I suppose that, for me, the starting point is the sensibility of Lynch, the work of Lynch. Maybe the book is more an anatomy of the sensibility of David Lynch than a biography of a life. I didn’t want to go through every aspect of this man’s life, because I feel that the most interesting thing to me is the work and the effect of the work and how the work produces these effects. That was the guiding point. So, I bring biography in the sense of his childhood, his interest in art, his interest in meditation, but I think all those things are very relevant to his work.

I try to suggest a few things, but I don’t want to be too definitive with any of those things. I don’t go beyond what he said that affected his work. I think you run the risk of being too presumptuous, too psychological. I did not wanna look inside of Lynch’s head, I think people make that mistake too often, Lynch himself thinks it’s a mistake. To ask him what his films mean, to ask him to explain things, to ask him to describe his process. To me the work exists as a product of this man, but also in the culture… There are different ways to think about Lynch, to think about his work, and not all of them have to do with what’s going on inside his head.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of your book has been its precision. You always work on a particular detail, production anecdote or an element of a movie, never jumping to the abstract realms of theory. Is that a strategy to make the book more clear and easy to read or a core decision on how to approach David Lynch?

Probably the latter. It is too easy to write abstractly about Lynch. He deals with abstract themes and complicated and contradictory emotions, which are easier to write in vague terms, and I wanted to try to be a bit more precise. What he is actually doing and how we are actually experiencing the films. What are they tapping in us and why do they have the effect they do in us. So, yeah, I think there was a sort of strategy to always go back to what’s on the screen, to always go back to something concrete and to use that to develop from there.


Does that help to decipher Lynch’s movies when his movies already give you the way to read them?

Not everyone would agree to that… I think Blue Velvet is the best example of this, it’s a film where everything is on the surface. What more do you need to decode? It decodes itself. I think that Lynch’s later films are the ones that invite the viewer to be a bit more of a detective or a puzzle solver because the narratives are becoming more fragmented. People try to look at the symbolism, try to look for cause and effect, and I’m not sure that’s that productive. Starting from Twin Peaks onwards, his films become puzzles within films, that’s what people are drawn to and that’s what people are frustrated about. I think that Lynch has an interesting relationship to that, I think he can be very generous to people that want to interpret his films, but he can also be very willing to frustrate their expectations.  I think he does that in Lost Highway, in Mulholland Drive… There is this tension between giving you a puzzle where maybe there is a solution but also pointing away from that.

One of my favorite chapters is the one regarding Blue Velvet. In that chapter, through the movie, you stablish the main aspects of “what’s Lynch”: the mixture of macabre and ordinary, the militant naivete, the binary oppositions and the nostalgic construction of America. However, with the movies after Lost Highway you tend to focus more on other elements like the manipulation of time and space and the importance of Hollywood’s icons and archetypes. How do you think these changes affect those traits already present in Blue Velvet, like the blend of candor and irony or the portrayal of America?

I think that was also a decision to deal with certain ideas of Lynch in certain films and avoid being too repetitive. You are right, Blue Velvet is the one where I present those themes because, for me, that’s the film where Lynch becomes Lynch. I think that the other films have complicated that as he goes. I think that’s the film that more clearly introduces Lynchian tone, which I think is a difficult thing to describe and a very complicated thing to parse.

I think that I deal a lot with the representation of America in Blue Velvet is because it’s the quintessential eighties, Reagan-era, postmodern… It gives so many ideas of America. I think that the later films are more self-conscious, like Hollywood films, starting from Lost Highway, the California trilogy of films, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, all have to do with Hollywood, or at least the show business.

I don’t think that Lynch is an artist that consciously deals with culture and society, but he does pick up on certain currents. Lost Highway is a film about this encroaching darkness in pre-millenial anxiety, that was very much in the culture at the time.  Every single film since Twin Peaks has to do with trauma, how it’s processed. That evolved with time, he started talking about memory and trauma. Lost Highway is inspired by O. J. Simpson case, nobody would mistake that for a social commentary, but it has a connection to real world.

By the way, I think that Twin Peaks: The Return is a portrait of America, specially as it contrasts with Twin Peaks of 91, when it was still acceptable to engage in this nostalgia of small-town America. It also has a heart of darkness within, but it’s still possible to indulge in those comforts. In The Return it is not, at all, and I think that’s a political gesture. The Return self-consciously removes these elements, the cozy environment of the original Twin Peaks. That’s specially exciting because it is a resurrection, a sequel, I think it’s a really radical act to make this thing completely devoid of nostalgia. If you look at the cold, anonymous spaces where The Return plays out, that’s a portrait of America today.

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In that regard, Lynch has become darker, more brutal, but do you think he is still as ironic as he was?

The question of irony is never easily resolved with Lynch, and one the defining characteristics of him is that he is at the same time ironic and not ironic, ironic and sincere.

It’s like previous balance was between candor and irony. Is it now between naivete and darkness?

I’m not so sure it’s so easy to delineate, for me at least. I feel like there has always been varying degrees of… I also think that irony is a word that is sometimes misused in relation to Lynch. He has a real sense of humor, he is an absurdist, he has a surrealist sense of humor and that’s not necessarily the same thing as irony. I don’t think the balance has shifted all that much.

When you talk about Blue Velvet and reaganism you put very well into context the complex ambiguity of Lynch’s position. Where do you feel Lynch stands now, not regarding nostalgia but the new technologies, the liquid society, do you think he is celebratory or is he becoming critic?

I don’t think there is anything celebratory happening (chuckles). Regarding new technology, on an obvious level, he has certainly embraced digital, especially in Inland Empire, he embraced streaming media like web episodes, web narratives, much more than any filmmaker of his generation. I think he does embrace technologies in the service of his art. I don’t’ see anything celebratory on his work, I perceive an increasingly tenuous grasp of reality. The films are now much more volatile.

Twin Peaks: The Return

Maybe, a celebration in the way of the forms?

The forms are more liberated, they are free. I don’t think they are about disintegrating selves or psychosis. There is something that clicks on him after Fire Walk with Me, a liberation in his work. He is such a formalist, I don’t think he is dealing, consciously at least, with the culture. He is obviously someone who lives in the world, who absorbs, but we can only guess the effect on him, and how the technology and the new society and all that… But he is not a Cronenberg, someone who verbalizes that.

To end on a lighter note, ¿do you want to add something more about The Return?

I think it’s extraordinary, it’s an amazingly sustained achievement. I never expected him to do this. I think it’s a pretty radical, an 18 hour film that defies everything we think about quality television. It shows that what we perceive as good tv is actually very conservative. I think it refines a lot of themes in his works, it’s like a self-portrait, a self-curated retrospective in one film. All of Lynch is there, 18 hours of Lynch. You see the Lynch of the short films, the Lynch of the visual art, the musician… It’s all in there, and he pushes even further everything that he is trying to do. The question of trauma, the question of revisiting the past resurfaces here. Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, these are all films about returning to the past and failing to rewrite the past. What is so amazing about The Return is that he does that again, agent Cooper needs to rewrite the past, but while in previous Lynch films this has been a doomed enterprise, you cannot rewrite the past, here he tries to think what would happen if you could actually rewrite the past. It’s even more terrifying, something new and profound that has happened in The Return.


David Lynch


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