David Lynch, creator of Eraserhead, Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, and the 1990s television series Twin Peaks, has been considered a top-tier Hollywood director for decades, but much of his work carries a quirky, edgy quality often associated with independent "art" films.
Lynch was born in 1946 in the western state of Montana. Unlike many directors, he did not have a childhood dream of becoming a filmmaker. Lynch says his love affair with movies began with a vision he had as a 20-year-old student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
"I was in my little cubicle painting a painting of a garden at night," he recalls. "And I was looking at it and it's mostly black with the green of these plants coming out of the black. And all of a sudden from the painting I hear a wind. And the green starts moving. So I thought 'oh! This is a moving painting!'"
This led to "Six Men Getting Sick," Lynch's first film, which he did on a sculptured screen, an effort for which he shared first prize at the experimental painting and sculpture contest at the end of that school year.
Over the next decade, Lynch continued to paint, and made several short, low-budget films. His first major career breakthrough came in 1980, when he was asked to direct Elephant Man, a period film starring John Hurt as a tragically deformed patient with a scabrous head like an elephant's, but with the soul of a gentleman, and Anthony Hopkins, who played his doctor. Elephant Man was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Director.
But an even more profound turning point in Lynch's creative life occurred when he was introduced to Transcendental Meditation, or "TM," the technique for expanding consciousness first popularized by the Indian ascetic Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
In his recent book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity, Lynch likens consciousness to an ocean, and the search for creative inspiration and ideas in any field to fishing. "You put your hook in," he explains. "If it goes in just shallow [water] you're going to get little fish, or fish coming to the surface. But you are not going to get those big huge fish deep down." But by expanding consciousness, he says, "you've got a chance of catching big, big ideas way down deep!"
The ideas concerning the shadow dimensions of human nature he has explored in his films come to Lynch, as he puts it, "complete, but in fragments."
"The analogy there is a guy in another room with the whole film, but it's in puzzle parts. And he flips in one piece at a time to me. I don't have a clue what they are. I just fall in love with these little pieces, write them down, save them, and more come in."
Lynch cites the example of Blue Velvet, his surrealistically violent 1986 classic set in a picture-perfect all-American town. He says the inspiration for the movie came when he happened to hear the song "Blue Velvet," a 1963 Bobby Vinton hit he had never even liked.
"But hearing it again on this particular day, it held something. And I started thinking about that. And then I see green lawns, freshly cut green lawns at night, red lips of a woman in a car window and I start thinking about those things."
The next thing to "swim in" he says is an ear, "a severed ear, in grass, in a field, a vacant lot, and the ear is crawling with ants." The image of that ear is indeed one of the film's central, if grisly, central images.
Blue Velvet landed Lynch another Oscar nomination for Best Director, an honor he received yet a third time for Mulholland Drive, about a loosely related set of characters in Hollywood, included an aspiring film actress played by Naomi Watts and an amnesiac played by Laura Harring.
Much of Lynch's other work has been called enigmatic and strange. Tops in this genre is Twin Peaks, his 1990s network television series about the aftermath of a young woman's murder in a small town, starring Kyle McLachlan as the brilliant and quirky chief investigator.
But don't ask David Lynch to explain either his film's characters or the meaning of his films themselves. When asked about the plot of his dark 2006 film Inland Empire, for example, this famously taciturn director merely quotes a Hindu scripture:
We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives in the dream. This is true of the entire universe.
Whether fans find that analogy helpful or not, one thing is clear: David Lynch's universe will continue to challenge, disturb, entertain and beguile audiences for years to come.
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