David Lynch: Odd man out

Lust, decapitation, decay - Lynch is the king of strange and sinister things on celluloid and his new film is no exception, says Jonathan Romney. But what are the origins of his particular nightmare vision?
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The Independent Culture

On the homepage of David Lynch's fancy new website the film-maker stares out at you, looking haggard in polarised black and white. Underneath is his signature and his disarmingly cheery invitation, "Let's have some fun!"

The prospect of fun à la Lynch is as creepy and cordial as Alfred Hitchcock's avuncular introductions to his TV suspense show of yesteryear. Indeed, more than any film-maker since Hitchcock, Lynch has succeeded in turning himself into a brand name, one to chill your blood and make you crack a smile of anticipatory relish. It doesn't matter who stars in a Lynch film (his latest, Mulholland Drive, features unknowns), or what it's about (assuming you can precis it at all). What matters is that you pay your bucks for a trip to Lynchville, which lies way off the edge of American cinema's usual easy-navigation maps.

Twenty-five years after his unnerving debut feature Eraserhead, Lynch shows no sign of veering back onto the main road. He surprised the world briefly with his last film The Straight Story, which perversely lived up to its name: a folksy, optimistic true-life tale about an old-timer driving a tractor across the Midwest. But the film felt above all like a tender gift to its co-writer Mary Sweeney, Lynch's partner and his regular editor.

With Mulholland Drive, Lynch has returned to the nightmare world that is authentically his. Lynch's films teem with mad lust, decay and decapitation, but perhaps that's just one way of taking life seriously. He once protested, "I'm absolutely not just in love with violence or sexual perversion. It's just that when things are a matter of life and death, you pay a little more attention."

To judge from recent interviews, Lynch's own temperament may be similarly dark. In the five-year hiatus following his critically-mauled Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (the movie spin-off from his hugely successful TV anti-soap), he claimed, "I felt this black cloud roll in." This summer, promoting Mulholland Drive in Cannes, he explained how the creative process works for him: "You fall in love with the ideas, do your best to translate them, you do your best with each element, but then one day you see the whole thing – and that usually is a day of depression. And next door to suicide."

Work, of the most pragmatic sleeves-rolled variety, seems to be what keeps Lynch going. He experiments with sound recording, writes incidental music, takes photos based on sculptural work with self-explanatory titles like Clay Head with Turkey, Cheese and Ants. He's a keen carpenter and designer of experimental, not always practical, furniture, and his website features an animated self-portrait busy sawing a log. "Whenever you can build a shed," he once said, "you've got it made."

An old friend of his once remarked that Lynch was best summed up by the Boy Scout motto "Be Prepared". It must have been a handy watchword for Mulholland Drive. The film started life as a pilot for a planned TV series, but ABC hated it and turned it down. Then French producers at Studio Canal wanted to resurrect it, so Lynch rethought the whole and gave it a new ending which does anything but tie the loose ends up. The result brilliantly winds up a story that Lynch started without knowing where it would lead. Everything started, he says, from just an image, "from the words 'Mulholland Drive'. When you say some words, pictures form, and in this case what formed was what you see at the beginning – the sign at night, headlights and a trip up the road. Maybe a wind. And this makes me dream. And sometimes when you get ideas that make you dream, they are like magnets and they pull other ideas."

Lynch's vagueness may be a self-defensive routine, but by all accounts, it corresponds to the way he works. When Patricia Arquette, star of Lost Highway (1997) asked whether her character was a doppelganger, a dream or a ghost, Lynch replied, "I don't quite know, Patricia." That film's co-star Bill Pullman has explained Lynch's difference in terms of his art school background: "He puts a splash of red paint against a blue wall and then says, 'What's the story? What person walks in front of that?'

Lynch truly is one of a handful of artists currently working in American film, in that his celluloid productions have always felt like art objects or installations, pitch-black tone poems rather than mere narratives. Eraserhead took five years to make; Lynch, filming at night, appears to have immersed himself in his own hermetic environment for the duration.

Mythology is rife: acolytes fantasise about the strange personal films Lynch never got round to making (exotic-sounding numbers such as Ronnie Rocket and Dream of the Bovine), or the mainstream projects he might have ended up directing (The Return of the Jedi, Manhunter). Critics, especially in France, and obsessive exegetes puzzle endlessly over his arcana: the internet magazine Salon.com has been running a head-scratching correspondence on Mulholland Drive's Mysterious Blue Box, an enigma guaranteed to run and run. "Clues are beautiful things," says Lynch, "because I believe we're all detectives. We mull things over, we figure things out, we're always working this way." Lynch's mysteries don't always repay the investigator, not in literal terms at least: who remembers now who killed Laura Palmer, and why? But even in the mirror-walled fun-house of Mulholland Drive, Lynch insists there are no loose ends, or blind alleys. "All the ties are tied up. People's minds hold things and form conclusions with indications – it's like music. Music starts, a theme comes in, it goes away, and when it comes back in, it's so much greater because of what's gone before."

In Mulholland Drive, the chief sleuth is a Doris Day-like ingenue called Betty, who ends up investigating the psychosexual netherworld of Hollywood itself. We know she is bound for trouble when she arrives beaming with radiant hope at LAX, but this may conceivably be a true autobiographical touch on Lynch's part. "I came to LA in 1970 in August, in the night," Lynch remembers, "and I woke up in the morning and I'd never seen the light so bright. A feeling comes with the light, of creative freedom."

Prone to old-world cornball exclamations ("Good deal!"), Lynch has always seemed to mirror, or parody, himself in his clean-cut protagonists, shiny straight-edgers like Betty or Twin Peaks' java-guzzling Agent Cooper. Lynch is known to be a conservative at heart: US critic John Powers remembers being upbraided by him for taking Nancy Reagan's name in vain. He likes to highlight his regular Mr Jones aspect in touches like a concise biographical note, giving only his birthplace (Missoula, Montana) and former occupation (Eagle Scout). But it was Lynch's love of shiny Formica-top normality, of summer lawns and bubblegum pop, that in 1986's Blue Velvet kick-started the entire genre of the Suburban Surreal, making it impossible thereafter to use the phrase "white picket fences" without evoking "America's dark underbelly".

Reviewing Blue Velvet on release, Pauline Kael accurately predicted that Lynch would be "the first populist surrealist – a Frank Capra of dream logic." What remains mysterious is how much that logic is a brilliant illusion which Lynch can summon up at will, and how much might remain elusive to himself. Eraserhead seemed to be dredged directly from a febrile unconscious that knew no censorship. Since then, Lynch's work has sometimes seemed to be trying too hard to recreate that effect, using smoke and mirrors to hide the stitching between oddball vignettes: as far back as Wild at Heart (1990), critics have disparaged such moments as Lynch doing Lynch. But then there are the films that fall somewhere between the two poles, where Lynch keeps you wondering whether the movie made itself, or whether there is a cynical hidden master plan. These tend to be his best, and the brilliant, perplexing Mulholland Drive is one of them.

However, Lynch sees himself as anything but a Hitchcockian puppeteer, pulling the punters' strings: "The word 'manipulation' is sort of sickening – the idea that someone would try to manipulate an audience." He's no Caligari, no Main Street Mabuse – just American cinema's last, strangest, most hands-on boy scout, and he just wants us to have some fun.

'Mulholland Drive' is out on Friday

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