In 1979, Richard Barney was just beginning graduate school in Ohio. One night, he and a group of friends decided to check out a cult film that had recently come to town after a two-year run on the midnight movie circuit in New York City. He didn’t know what to expect but had heard the film was the bizarre brainchild of an eccentric filmmaker who’d spent seven years toiling in obscurity to get the thing just right. Some viewers considered the film unwatchable, an abomination, others a singular work of genius.
“We went,” Barney says, “and the thing, well, it was indescribable.”
The movie was Eraserhead, a cinematic fever dream that follows a nervous fellow with buoyant hair through the unexpected birth of his baby (“The doctors are still not sure it is a baby!”), fantasies about a tumored girl in his radiator, and to his eventual demise whereby his severed head is used to manufacture pencil erasers. The filmmaker, David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Dr.), is the subject of David Lynch Interviews, a new book that Barney, a University at Albany English professor, has compiled of interviews spanning the filmmaker’s career.
“I came out [of Eraserhead],” he says, “and said to my friends, ‘that is probably the strangest and most original movie ever made.’ I knew I’d been disturbed. I knew I’d seen amazing images. I knew the guy knew what he was doing at a very profound level. It was only later that I was able to think about what was going on, but this is very often what happens with a Lynch movie. You sort of absorb it, almost through the skin, let it do whatever it does, then later you can see what you may think about it. And that hooked me. This book just gave me a more official venue to explore what this relationship is about.”
The book is number 69 in the Conversations with Filmmakers Series, put out by the University Press of Mississippi. The series editor approached Barney with the opportunity to compile a volume, but Barney expected that, at this point, all “the good ones” were taken. When he discovered that Lynch was up for grabs, he jumped at the opportunity without realizing he had picked one of the most challenging living directors to interview. The book features 24 interviews, beginning with Lynch’s very first interview with the Soho Weekly News in 1977, just when word of mouth was spreading about Eraserhead, and culminates in the second of two interviews Barney himself conducted with Lynch in 2008 following the release of his latest feature film, Inland Empire. In between, Barney has included articles from both American and international film journals, the transcripts from press conferences and radio shows, even a piece from the design magazine Form exploring Lynch’s passion for painting, architecture and furniture building.
“A rough estimate is that a quarter of the interviews published are records of non-events,” Barney says. “He’s notorious for being hard to interview, which I didn’t realize at the time [of the book deal].”
It isn’t that Lynch is cagey or secretive about his work, in fact, by Barney’s account and others, the Missoula, Mont., native is an amiable “chatty Kathy” who loves to tell stories, philosophize off the cuff, and pepper his monologues with folksy expressions like “golly,” “you betcha,” and “peachy keen.” Instead, Barney describes the way Lynch discusses his films as “enigmatic,” a description that might apply equally to Lynch’s films.
“He could be a neo-realist director and just be the kind of guy who refuses to tell you what he meant,” Barney says. “The fact is that the very phenomenon his films are about is what’s ‘unseen’ or ‘unknown.’ ” This aesthetic of the “unsaid” or “un-show-able,” then, carries with it a requirement that Lynch not attempt to elucidate concrete ideas that might collapse all of the intended infinite subjective viewing experiences into one singular “theme” or “point.” “In a way,” Barney says, “he thinks of himself as delivering things to us rather than having thought everything through and then presented it. He said in one interview, ‘it’s often not good to know actually what you’re doing.’ ”
This fact has, over the years, stymied interviewers who haven’t been able to enter into Lynch’s “revelatory and obfuscating” vocabulary. As a result, Barney has deliberately included some unsuccessful interviews in the collection for what they reveal about Lynch’s use of language. The early interviews take place during a time (’70s and early ’80s) that some friends, partners and wives have dubbed Lynch’s “preverbal phase,” a time when Lynch himself admitted he “didn’t understand the concept, really, of speaking about a thing.” A former partner, the actress Isabella Rossellini, describes asking Lynch a question and receiving instead hand gestures and whooshing sounds. In 1992, a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival turned hostile as Lynch danced around the frustrated questions of journalists following the premier of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. His demeanor even posed a momentary hang-up for Barney, when in the first of their interviews Lynch grew quiet upon learning that Barney was a professor. “Academics make Lynch nervous,” Barney explains, “because he thinks they’re going to make him intellectualize everything. Or they’ll insist on some declarative statement about all of his movies.”
Instead, Barney’s book charts a compelling chronology through the course of Lynch’s career. As the interviews proceed, Lynch grows noticeably more comfortable in the interview setting, and as his reputation evolves from oddball genius (“Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” as Mel Brooks called him), to indie-film darling, to mainstream celebrity, to bizarro auteur, Lynch is able to push past the stigma of his oddity to reveal the greater depths of his genius.
Barney’s own interviews with Lynch offer some of the most probing insight into his process and philosophy. This fact is perhaps most evident when, in Barney’s second interview, the topic turns to Transcendental Meditation, a spiritual practice Lynch has been involved with since 1973 but had been reluctant to discuss until the ’90s. In recent years, Lynch has toured the country extolling the virtues of the practice and recently started the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. For years, Lynch has used the metaphor of “fishing” to account for the way ideas and plot elements come to him, but Barney was interested in the way his meditation practice facilitates this fishing. In both his films and his meditation, there are levels, dimensions and spheres beyond the ordinary to which we can have momentary access. “When he talks about TM,” Barney says, “it is the most positive, expansive, joyful experience he can describe. But that doesn’t sound anything like the experience of most of his characters when they come into contact with some other dimension. The common link is that, since the ’70s, Lynch has been interested in practices and stories that explode the ego-based sense of human identity and purpose.” Whether it’s Agent Cooper entering the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks, Diane Selwyn’s dreamy doppelganger in Mulholland Dr., the presence of the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, or Lynch’s own pursuit of “pure bliss consciousness,” Barney says, “his first priority is to explore, radically challenge, and displace that ego-centered sense of the world, regardless of what comes after, whether it’s terror, disorientation or pleasure.”
A similar process, it seems, was required to simply access Lynch. Like many famous directors, he maintains many “protective layers.” Just to arrange a meeting, Barney had to go through Lynch’s lawyer, business office, a fleet of personal assistants, and finally the man himself. Barney refers to Lynch’s residence as a “three-house compound” in the Hollywood hills, where he keeps his offices, editing and sound studios, as well as space for painting and furniture building. (One of these houses functioned as Bill Pullman’s character’s house in Lost Highway.) Interviews take place in Lynch’s art loft, amid some of his unfinished projects.
“I was sitting in his studio for one of these interviews,” Barney says, “and on the floor there’s this plastic doll with missing limbs. You might see this sort of thing in a lot of places, but this one was four-feet tall and you had to step over it when you came in. I couldn’t help looking at it and thinking about it during the interview.”
Far from dark or ominous, Barney says this aspect of Lynch’s art and character actually reveals the childlike wonder that underlies his films. During the interview, Lynch went on at great length about the best gift he’d ever received: a box of dead bees given to him by the late Jack Nance (Henry in Eraserhead). He used the bees to create an art piece called “Bee Board,” where he tacked the bees in a row and assigned them names like Bob, Joan, and Nancy. The project is not unlike the infamous “animal kits” Lynch keeps, which consist of real fragmented animals and instructions on their assembly.
“The reason I never felt weirded out by any of this,” Barney says, “was that I listened to the comments made by his children who grew up when he was doing this stuff. They entered into it as a childlike activity, with the kind of awe and sense of fun that’s true for Lynch, but not a lot of adults.”
For most viewers, the notion of something being “Lynchian” usually connotes fear, disorientation and oddity, but evidenced by his films and the interviews collected in Barney’s book, it’s a commitment to mystery (in the general, not genre, sense) that might best describe Lynch’s work and character. For Barney, this “indescribable” quality was both his project’s greatest challenge and core subject.