David Lynch with his school teacher. Image from Room to Dream

Sculptor of nightmares: David Lynch's memoir offers a glimpse behind the curtain

New memoir Room to Dream, co-authored with Kristine McKenna, suggest just being David Lynch is an art in and of itself
August 20, 2018

Fans of the director David Lynch can be divided roughly into two categories: those who see the man and his work as a puzzle to be solved; and those who see him as a mystery to be embraced. Any book about Lynch—who seems to relish being a professional enigma—is likely to disappoint at least one set of his admirers. And while Room to Dream, a blend of memoir and biography co-written by the filmmaker, does shed some light on a man who, both professionally and personally, is drawn to darkness, it is unlikely to fully satisfy either camp.

The book explores Lynch’s creative process by tracing the threads of his childhood inspirations into the fabric of his adult work. However, it does little to unpick the knottier aspects of his oeuvre. Anyone who has seen Lynch interviewed in public will know that he is a master of the art of evasion. In conversation—and in his films for that matter—he is given to making gnomic statements which could mean anything, or nothing. His answers in person are well-trodden paths that lead back to his safe spaces: his fondness for transcendental meditation, for example. And while writing a memoir forces him to delve deeper than he would normally be comfortable with, the protective walls built up over a lifetime are not easily smashed down.

Of course, Lynch’s idea of a safe space isn’t everybody’s: in one of the early chapters about his childhood there is a jolly interlude in which he steers us through a greatest hits of memorable animal deaths.

Elsewhere, readers might be surprised at the banality of some of the anecdotes related by this sculptor of nightmares. In place of wisdom about the art of filmmaking we get him wibbling on at length about a really nice cake. Banality has always been present in Lynch’s work, except it’s usually juxtaposed with violence or some throbbing hint of menace.

This kind of duality, which has been an abiding theme in Lynch’s films and television shows, informs the structure of the book. Co-written with critic Kristine McKenna, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, it is presented as a dialogue with two alternate perspectives. McKenna writes a chapter, usually anchored to a film or television project, based on exhaustive research and interviews with the filmmaker’s collaborators. Then Lynch answers with a chapter of his own, written in a kind of folksy stream of consciousness, where he riffs on his memories (or in some cases his complete lack of them) about that same period of his life.

The mirrored chapters are a neat device—up to a point. But while in Lynch’s creative work the dualities are strikingly contrasted, in this book Lynch and McKenna are too often on the same page. Lynch circles around McKenna’s anecdotes but doesn’t always fully engage with them. The result can, at times, be rather repetitive.

What isn't said

What he recalls and what he doesn’t, though, is pretty revealing. He has no memory, for example, of being offered the chance to direct American Beauty (the 1999 film that later went on to win an Oscar for Sam Mendes), nor the US remake of the hit Japanese horror film The Ring. But he can remember being in Mexico City at night and seeing “little funnel shapes of colour where the light hit the walls.” He can also remember the quality of light in a sky glimpsed decades earlier and the sound of a pilot’s voice as he radioed ahead to air traffic control. He captures these moments beautifully: vivid little flashes of memory that puncture Lynch’s usual soothing voice.

Other subjects on which you might expect him to have something to say, he ignores completely. There’s a wrenchingly candid interview by McKenna with Lynch’s ex-girlfriend Isabella Rossellini—whom he met after casting her in Blue Velvet—in which she talks about the anguish of their split. She speculates about the possible reasons for being abruptly cut out of his life (he broke off the five-year relationship with a phone call telling her he never wanted to see her again) and nearly 30 years later she wants some kind of clarification or closure. Lynch offers none, or at least not within the pages of the book.

The idea of a personal space, as the title alludes to, is central to the book and to Lynch himself. It goes beyond the notion of privacy, although that is certainly part of it. Lynch the artist—who is not only a filmmaker but also a painter, sculptor, photographer, cartoonist, musician and dissectionist, all of which are discussed in the book—can only function if he is somewhat insulated from the world outside. This involves physical space: he lives in a separate building to his fourth wife, Emily Stofle, and their daughter; and emotional space: by his own admission, he is not exactly a hands-on parent to his four children.

Lynch also prefers to be unmoored within temporal space—as demonstrated by the indeterminate time zones in which many of his film and television projects unfold. And it is also the reason, we learn, for his aversion to graffiti. Artist and collaborator Anna Skarbek notes that “David hates graffiti… it dates things. When he lived in Philadelphia he could walk down an empty street and feel like it was 1940, and graffiti erases that possibility.”

Finally, and most importantly for him, there is the spiritual space offered by transcendental meditation. Lynch has practised this since the early 1970s. “When I started meditating the anger went away,” he writes. Before then, he says, inadvertently revealing his obsession with control and detail, “If I didn’t have my cereal exactly right I would make life miserable for [his first wife] Peggy.”

No matter how difficult this insulation might be for those around him, McKenna suggests that it allows him the space to nurture a purity of vision, unpolluted by other people’s ideas. It results in skewed enthusiasms and a typically off-kilter view of everyday objects. Here’s Lynch on curtains: “I love curtains. Are you kidding me? I love them because they’re beautiful in and of themselves, but also because they hide something. There is something behind the curtain and you don’t know if it’s good or bad.” Tables, meanwhile, he views with suspicion. They are mostly too big, too high and cause “unpleasant mental activity.”

Death and violence

Keeping the rest of the world at arm’s length means that, when Lynch does decide to engage with current affairs, he can seem out of touch, or at least naive about the workings of the media. During a recent interview with the Guardian, he mused that Donald Trump could go down as one of America’s greatest presidents “because he has disrupted the thing so much. No one is able to counter this guy in an intelligent way.” After the first half of his answer was taken out of context, Lynch issued a further comment stepping back, possibly the only time in a lifetime of baffling statements—artistic and otherwise—that he has felt the need to clarify himself.

One area with which he does engage politically is the environment: he worries over GM crops and industrial agriculture. Another theme is the change in the countryside. “When I was growing up in Boise, the forests were healthy and rich and the way it smelled walking through the woods was incredible.” Now “there’s global warming and the bark beetle... That world of nature I grew up in isn’t really there anymore.”

Lynch was born in Missoula, Montana, the oldest of three children, in 1946. His family moved around to facilitate his father’s studies in entomology and agriculture, but settled in Boise, Idaho. It was this period which, the book suggests, seared the 1950s into Lynch’s psyche. In his films, Lynch has a typically dualistic view of the 1950s: it’s partly idealised—glinting with chrome and optimism; rich with a kind of gilded innocence and boundless potential. But draw back the curtain, and there’s a corrupting rot which leaves shadows on his pristine Technicolor memories.

McKenna suggests that his father’s work with diseased trees—nature spoiled from the inside—connected with the young David’s fascination and fear of “the wild pain and decay” beneath the surface of things. He talks of being enthralled by houses in which “the lights were dim… I’d get a feeling from these houses of stuff going on that wasn’t happy.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lynch’s childhood memories are coloured by death and violence. He describes an arresting incident in which he and his younger brother witnessed a naked, beaten woman walk out of the darkness. It’s a scene that lodged itself in Lynch’s memory and later appeared in Blue Velvet, with Rossellini playing the distressed woman.


Becoming David Lynch

Another formative aspect of childhood was his parents’ open attitude towards creativity. The Lynch children were encouraged with their “projects”—something which instigated a self-sufficiency evident in Lynch’s can-do approach to everything from building a garage for his landlord, to his (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt at designing prosthetics for The Elephant Man.

Lynch’s first love, artistically speaking, was painting. But he has never felt constrained to just one medium. Writing and directing, which have earned him the kind of celebrity that he never wished for, are only part of a creative continuum. Lynch doesn’t delineate between disciplines; he just makes things. The Twin Peaks actor Dana Ashbrook, who describes him as “the truest artist I’ve ever met,” tells how Lynch invited him back to his hotel room after a day of filming to see a poster he was working on. “After 12 hours of shooting, he was going back to his room and making more art—I love that about him.”

The point isn’t laboured by McKenna but this almost spiritual, holistic way of thinking about art as an interconnected realm, rather than a neatly defined collection of activities, is something that chimes with Lynch’s transcendental meditation. Likewise, his often fatalistic approach to the creative act. He is a firm believer in what he describes as “happy accidents.” A chance encounter with the singer Rebekah Del Rio, for example, led to a whole new scene in Mulholland Drive. And a degree of luck might be at play elsewhere in Lynch’s career, certainly in the celebrity achieved by a filmmaker whose work is deemed challenging even by arthouse audiences.

Yet celebrity he is. And as McKenna observes, the level of fame he enjoyed following Twin Peaks and Wild At Heart had its downsides. “When you permeate popular culture completely it responds by absorbing you, then assuming it knows you, then assuming it has rights where you’re concerned.” All of which is an anathema to someone who best creates in his own dreaming room. Perhaps, given all the clutter and noise that comes with being this famous, just the act of being David Lynch is itself an artwork. It might just be the most important work of his career.