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David Lynch: "Sammy. I never talk about themes."

I sure do miss David Lynch movies. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, when he appeared as Jack Dall, the CBS late-night talk show producer and relative of his FBI man Gordon Cole, on a couple episodes of "Louie," and again when I read this piece by Roger Ebert about movies and meanings, featuring the fantastic interview clip (from the Japanese DVD of "Mulholland Drive"), below. Lynch hasn't made a movie since his deeply disturbing internal epic "INLAND EMPIRE" in 2006. Lynch works in multiple media, and in 2011 released his "debut solo album" with the delightful title of "Crazy Clown Time," the title song for which accompanied by a hellish video that would not have been out of place in "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me" (the Road House after-party, perhaps), "Lost Highway" or any number of other Lynchian nightmares.

"I'm seeing something that was always hidden. I'm involved in a mystery. I'm in the middle of a mystery. And it's all secret." -- Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLaughlin), "Blue Velvet"

I've heard Lynch talk about his love of curtains (think of that dream-room in "Twin Peaks" or the credits of "Blue Velvet" or the theater in "Mulholland Dr." -- or a talk show set or a movie palace). They conceal something; what's behind them is a mystery and there's a thrill when they open or you go through them and see what's behind them. Although I'm by no means an uncritical follower of Lynch ("Blue Velvet" still suffers from too much wink-wink cuteness in my opinion, as if it's afraid of fully committing), I'm drawn in to his mysteries. As I wrote about "Twin Peaks" in 1990:

The mysteries of "Twin Peaks" aren't there just to be solved or explained away. Their primary function is to pique (or, uh, Peak) your curiosity. As series co-creator David Lynch told US magazine: "It's human nature to have a tremendous letdown once you receive the answer to a question, especially one that you've been searching for and waiting for. It's a momentary thrill, but it's followed by a kind of depression. And so I don't know what will happen. But the murder of Laura Palmer is... It's a complicated story."

"Twin Peaks" is about the very idea of mysteries, and how we can never be certain that we know everything there is to know about anything -- or anyone. You may think you know someone, but everybody has their secrets.

The thing I've always loved about Lynch is his intuition: he knows exactly what he wants, or is willing to push himself (and others) to discover it -- but he doesn't necessarily need to know why. What matters is how it feels. And that's as true for him as a filmmaker as it is for the audience. Lynch is more intuitive than analytical, and I've always admired the way he seems to take images directly from his subconscious and throw them up (pun intended) on the screen with a splat. He works hard to find the images in his head, to dig down and discover them, and then to get them looking and sounding just the way he wants them.

And he's really good at talking about his ideas (I suppose, as above, "mystery" can be considered an idea; his answer to those who ask what "Inland Empire" is about was the movie's tagline: "A Woman in Trouble") and where they come from. This is from an interview on the Japanese DVD of "Mulholland Dr.," which Roger recently reposted:

Oh, Sammy, Sammy, Sammy. He keeps asking versions of the same question over and over: "What is the theme of this movie?" "What was the most important statement you wanted to make in this movie?" "What are the highlights of this movie?" "This is a movie which is difficult to interpret or to understand. Could you elaborate on this?" And Lynch handles it wonderfully (he must be used to it by now), as he did when he brought "Inland Empire" to Seattle's Cinerama Theatre in 2007.

Listen to his voice, and watch his expression when he says, "Sammy." [Full stop.] "I never talk about themes." Some directors can talk about their work thematically and some can't. Some are willing to and some aren't. I've long thought that Oliver Stone talks a better movie than he makes. He can lay out what he wanted to "say" -- while seeming unaware that the experience of the movie on the screen isn't consistent -- and, perhaps, undermines -- what he claims he wanted to do. This is an example of why I'm so wary about trying to divine a filmmaker's "intentions." Whatever the intentions are, they're expressed in the film.

You can often intuit what a movie seems to be trying to do, because you feel it working or not working in some way, and because you've seen other movies that you can compare it to. But I sympathize with artists like Lynch who don't want to deny or dismiss the feelings and interpretations of those in the audience. As Lynch says, he may do interviews to help sell the film, and it may be interesting to talk about what's in the film and what it does, but once the film is done, it's done, finished, complete. It's not up to the filmmaker to put it into words because, if it could be put into words, there'd be no reason to make a film: "It never will go back into words and be what the film is.... Some films might have a theme, but even if it's a theme it might be a different thing for different people who see it. So, it's better to let people conjure up their own ideas, having seen and experienced the film."

This is not to say that just anyone is entitled to make any claim whatsoever about a movie and its meanings; any interpretations still have to be rooted in what's there, in the film itself. I'm reminded of the superbly uncomfortable scene in Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret" in which a student in a lit class offers his own interpretation of lines from "King Lear": "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport." The teacher, John (Matthew Broderick), asks the class what they think "Shakespeare" meant by that -- and the first thing I thought was, thank god Shakespeare isn't around for TV interviewers and critics and academics to ask him what he "meant."

As one of the sharper students says, we should remember that it's not Shakespeare who's saying it but Gloucester; we have no assurance that this is a "message" straight from the author's mouth. It's a character's point of view, and that "Maybe another character would have a different point of view." (Indeed, Edgar says the fault is not in our gods but in ourselves: "The gods are just, and of our peasant vices make instruments to plague us.") Another boy says that Shakespeare might be saying that "our perception of the gods is so meager that we can't even tell what they're doing" -- like flies trying to understand human consciousness. Which is an intriguing way of looking at it, though not necessarily supported by the text. Finally, John asserts his authority (and that of "scholarly opinion") to insist "[that's] "not what Shakespeare meant."

What I appreciate so much about Lynch's approach to the "theme" situation is, more or less, that he doesn't pretend to understand what he's made any more than anyone else. And why should he? I don't think he's being disingenuous, either. He may or may not have been consciously aware of what he was doing when he was writing, shooting, editing, mixing the movie. He knows the ideas and images he's "caught" (he says Transcendental Meditation has been a big creative influence), but what does it all "mean"? Well, as he indicates in the interview clip here, if he could summarize or synopsize it, there'd be no reason to make a film: "I wanted to make the movie."

I always say that you should be aware of what questions you're asking (as well as how you're feeling) as you watch a film, because that's the experience you're having. If the movie is evoking those feelings and questions, then it's up to you to see where that takes you. Does the movie do something with them or not? Lynch expresses it this way:

It's a lot like music. Music, they say, is an abstraction. It is very far away from words.... People want to have an easy understanding of a film. Whereas with music they don't have that problem. There's not an intellectual thing going on; it's just an experience. But film has those same elements of just experience. Plus, film can say abstractions which can be intuited, and then an understanding comes inside you, and I think that people should trust the understanding that comes to them from the experience.

That, as Lynch says, is beautiful.

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