David Lynch is a tough interview subject. Reticent and reluctant, he doesn’t want to vaguely spell out anything and the filmmaker/artist is much more interested in your response to his work. New York Public Library's director of public programs Paul Holdengräber is also a bit of an odd individual. So as the host of Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)’s rare conversation with David Lynch, the duo made for a strange match.
Over the course of an hour and a half, punctuated by long uncomfortable silences and laborious pauses, Holdengräber tried to elicit insightful answers from the filmmaker about his movies, his art, his appreciation for painting and his music. But Lynch disinclined to ever engage too deeply, seemingly content with one sentence answers that the moderator then had to pry and dig for more elucidation. Case in point: when the moderator said it was “treacherous” to interview him, Lynch simply answered. "Words... they're not really necessary” (much to the chagrin of the curious audience).
To be sure, it made for a very amusing and entertaining evening, but certainly a frustrating one and a little low on information and true insight into Lynch’s process (though arguably, it's perhaps better left a mystery).
Meaning was what Holdengräber was seeking. The meaning in Lynch’s works, be it photography, film, certain frames of film or particular artistic choices. But it appears that meaning, or at least explaining it, is an anathema to the artist. "It limits it," Lynch said when asked about meaning and explaining himself. "It stops people from intuiting and thinking on their own. Nothing should be added. Nothing should be subtracted. A film, a book, a painting— it’s done, and this is it.”
Lynch suggested that the work should speak for itself. In a matter of words anyhow. “There’s a comfort when your ideas are realized,” he stressed. “You’ve worked so that all the elements are working together and it feels complete and correct. Then you say it’s done. Then it goes out into the world but it doesn’t need any more explanation. It is what it is. In cinema, cinema is such a beautiful language—as soon as people finish a film, people want you to turn it into words. It's kind of a sadness for me, the words are limiting. Whereas this language is the language that you love. The language of cinema. It's about love, is what it’s about."
What did become clear over of the course of the evening, was Lynch’s love/hate dichotomy informed much of his vision of the world. He spoke of Philadelphia where he went to school as both a horrific place and one that gave him endless amounts of artistic inspiration. “There was tremendous fear in the air. There was corruption in the city. There was filth. There was a kind of insanity, and there was not a lot of 'brotherly love.' And it affected me and inspired me somehow. I got a lot of ideas from Philadelphia."
Similarly, he seemed to love the mix of ugly industry with beautiful nature and the mix of two. "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 those things. In the old days, in the 1800s, they started building the most beautiful factories that were like cathedrals. I've visited many of these factories and photographed them. For me, it's like walking into a dream – a dream of textures, shapes and mood…. The factories, more often than not, today are very boring."
Other highlights included Lynch’s unexpected fears – dingy New York Subways – and surprising loves – Kanye West and the track “Blood On The Leaves,” Jimi Hendrix (especially his Live At Monterey Pop performance), the Daniel Lanois-produced Neil Young track, “Love And War” (the video of which he encouraged everyone to watch, see it below), incandescently-lit diners (that help him think and create) and sugar ("It's granulated happiness”). Other minor revelations were that Lynch’s mother grew up in Brooklyn (he called the borough a “hell hole” in the 1980s), he loved smoking as a child, and that he gave up his addiction to Chocolate Milkshakes after dumpster diving behind a “Bob's Big Boy” (he read the ingredients and discovered that “There was no word that didn't end in '-ate' or '-zine.' I stopped drinking those”).
Lynch did veer somewhat closely to revealing his intentions for “Blue Velvet,” albeit circuitously, "I think everybody's a voyeur," he said, vaguely addressing Kyle MacLachlan’s character’s desires and motivations in the film. "And looking into windows is something so fantastic. It's like cinema, and a glimpse into another world, other lives. So beautiful." And as for “Eraserhead,” he gave an hilarious anecdote about how the Lady in the radiator came to be.
"I was in the food room, which was across the hall from [Jack Nance's character] Henry's room. And I did a drawing of a little lady, and I thought, 'This lady lives in a radiator.' And I thought, 'This lady lives in a radiator in this film.' I bought a radiator. I couldn't picture it in my mind. I ran into Henry's room and I looked at this radiator and, unlike any other radiator I've ever seen, it had a place – like a theater – for her to live in. True story."
Lynch did lighten up somewhat when discussing the works of Edward Hopper and Francis Bacon, two painters he loves, but often was either recondite about his feelings or fell back on contingency answer of seeing the “beautiful” in (every) things.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his love for transcendental meditation the most animated and effusive Lynch ever got was when he was discussing anything that hovered near a state of transcendent grace. He even said that he’d gone to see sandstone sculptures from the Far East at an L.A. exhibit and when coming across a Buddha in a room all by himself a “white light…shot out and filled me with bliss.” In case you’re wondering, he was dead serious.
The elephant in the room however was Lynch’s film career. The filmmaker has said several times in the past that he’s done with cinema and having gone back to art and put out several albums, it surely feels as if his artistic interests have moved elsewhere. But how do you have David Lynch in the room – an artist primarily defined by his immense contributions to cinema – and not ask him if he truly believes he’ll never make a film again?
Holdengräber, sadly did not even ask (and I don’t want to get too critical, but he has interviewed him before and kind of knew what to expect). In fact, the entire evening only two films were ever addressed, “Eraserhead” and “Blue Velvet.” The evening was really about David Lynch, the artist, all the mediums he loves, has worked within and how he sees the world through his various endeavors. But for me at any rate, frustratingly missing – beyond Holdengräber inability to coax much out of the director – was the lack of retrospective film talk. And certainly if Lynch is ever going to deign to make another film, that question was left very open and unanswered.
5.9.14 Update: A short clip from the talk has come online thanks to the folks at BAM.