February 18, 2008

Hail to the Crazy

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Van Gogh cut off his ear. Sylvia Plath stuck her head in an oven. David Lynch counts down the days till Bastille Day.
Maybe it’s premature to place the director of Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr. and more in the company of those great artists. But the man certainly acts as if he belongs. And in saying that, I mean he acts weird — really weird. Lynch, playing this Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at Cornell Cinema, puts this weirdness on display, and it’s not to be missed.
Maybe you’re familiar with Lynch’s work, and maybe you’re not. Bottom line, it’s strange stuff: unintelligible plot lines, bizarre dialogue and creepy atmospherics. Even Twin Peaks, his one foray into network television, stands as the emblematic oddball of its genre. Given the self-conscious peculiarity of Lynch’s films then, it’s easy to dismiss them as pretentious and ostentatious. No matter how great the presentation, you might not buy what’s going on underneath. I admit that I myself was rather suspicious.
Lynch quieted most doubts. It’s not that the documentary provides any answers — if anything, it only obfuscates even more the meaning of the man’s oeuvre — but it does convince the viewer that there’s at least one filmmaker in Hollywood who’s pursuing a genuine artistic vision. And it does so by quietly and unobtrusively following Lynch as he pulls together Inland Empire, his latest film. This is the barest of documentaries: no narration, scarcely any supplementary clips — just the man himself at work. Shot in digital, it imitates the style of Inland Empire, and in just over an hour, presents a tantalizing view of the mad artist at work.
And what work it is. Lynch distinguishes himself from his colleagues by getting involved in the dirty business on the set — carving holes in the walls, plastering the floors and crafting props. And he’s one hell of a manager. Barking commands and swearing at his minions, he gives free rein to his creative impulses and orders others to see them through. In fact, he’s a giant asshole. Whether he’s ashing a cigarette on the carpet of his office or demanding “a one-legged Japanese girl … and a pet spider-monkey” (one of the best scenes in the film), he’s in his element as the genius in charge, and to hell with everyone else.
The crux of the film is Lynch’s early declaration that “I never really knew that it was possible to be an artist in the modern world.” A devout practitioner of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation, he finds his creativity in “the absolute” and builds his films off impulses rather than solid ideas. At one point during the making of Inland Empire (which he describes as “scene-by-scene not-knowing, but shooting”), he falls into “a hair of a funk”, his creative juices stymied to the point that he is ready to abandon the film. “Every bit of suffering cuts into your creativity,” he pontificates: it’s all about the flow. Maybe it is possible to be an artist in the modern world, and maybe this is him.
Still, there’s a lingering hint of charlatanism in the air. You have to be skeptical when a director tells you that he reads the Bible to figure out the meaning of his work, or when he accepts donations from extras for the “David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace.” And the documentary, though revealing, certainly does not tell the full story: its subject is cast in the light of idol-worship, and potentially problematic details — like the fact that the director just shot a commercial for Gucci — are omitted. Plus, the origins of the documentary itself are rather sketchy — somebody had full access to this guy for over two years in his home and workplace, and yet the director remains anonymous? Could it be D.L. himself? We’re never told.
The greatest pleasure of Lynch, though, is discovering that the director is as strange as one would expect. Even if it’s an act (which is rather hard to believe), it’s a magnificent one. There’s some solace in knowing that there are artists out there so self-consumed with the bizarre outlook evidenced in their work — I for one would have been disappointed if the guy was anything less than nuts. Only David Lynch would order his assistants to “meditate per usual,” write down the names of three leading men, and present their findings on his power walk. It may be all smoke and mirrors, and the “abstractions” of the director’s work may be no more than meaningless drivel, but Lynch is a fun ride with one of the strangest and most intriguing popular artists at work today. Just don’t get on his bad side.