Lynch Mob Returns?

Former fans uncertain of the new direction for a dynamic director

Pay attention now, because there seems to be some confusion about this:

David Lynch is a serious person -- a strange person, yes, but a serious person, and a very serious artist. He is not something cute and adorable, like Alfred Hitchcock, the jovial emcee of our collective nightmares. Nor is he just another director eager to make a deal and happy to be working. Nor is he half Andy Warhol, half Andy of Mayberry, or any of the other easy handles that have been stuck on him over the years.

It's true he makes entertainingly bizarre comments in a thin, flat, always polite voice, comments such as: "There is always the surface of something, and then something altogether different going on underneath the surface." Or when describing his past: "Growing up, I had a lot of friends. But I loved being alone and looking at insects swarming in the garden." When he talks this way, everyone thinks that he's being ironic in a harmless, homey, neighborly sort of way. But Lynch isn't being ironic. This cannot be stressed enough: He is not being ironic.

David Lynch's The Straight Story is a major departure for the director known for darkness. Could it be a metaphor for the country's optimism?
Billy Higgins
David Lynch's The Straight Story is a major departure for the director known for darkness. Could it be a metaphor for the country's optimism?
Lynch with writer/producer Mary Sweeney of The Straight Story.
John Churchill
Lynch with writer/producer Mary Sweeney of The Straight Story.

And he's definitely not trying to be cute. Perhaps this is a misconception born during the time of Twin Peaks, when a lot of people jumped on the Lynch bandwagon because they thought he was cool and weird without really knowing anything about him beyond this new strange TV show. Or maybe it was all those interviews where he talked about going every day to Bob's Big Boy and drinking all those milk shakes and all that coffee with lots of sugar, which he called "granulated happiness."

Whatever the source of the misconceptions, they persist to this day. And they're not true. David Lynch is a serious filmmaker who gets paid serious money to be one, sometimes by large multinational corporations that ask him for something far-out -- but later lose their nerve and try to renege.

Just ask the French production company CIBY 2000. It signed a contract to back three Lynch movies. It funded the first one, Lost Highway, then finked out on the other two. In U.S. district court, the judge, in one of the largest judgments ever given to a director for breach of contract, awarded Lynch more than $6.5 million. The judge thought Lynch was a serious person.

When Lynch is not making movies, he is painting, or working in his sound and music studio, where he can mix an entire film or record an entire sound track. Or he is in his woodshop making furniture, or designing and building an elaborate mousetrap that leaves the captured creature alive and well for release at someplace far away.

He is in his painting studio on one recent cloudless day, waiting, reluctantly, to talk about his new movie and other matters. The studio is part of a compound of three modern-looking concrete-and-glass buildings in the Hollywood Hills overlooking the city. At an open end of the studio, four canvases, thick with dark paint, are baking in the sun.

Lynch is wearing his now familiar uniform: a long-sleeved white cotton shirt buttoned all the way up to the top, a pair of baggy khakis and scuffed black shoes. Except for the shirt, everything is splattered with paint. At 53, Lynch retains a touch of that clean-cut, all-American boyishness that so amazed the first round of journalists and profile writers who met him in 1976, when his legendary first feature, Eraserhead, began to pop up on the midnight movie circuit. They weren't expecting some fresh-faced Midwestern kid who looked liked Jimmy Stewart and who said things like: "Let a smile be your umbrella." Recent events, especially a struggle with ABC television over a prime-time TV project called Mulholland Drive, have left Lynch looking worn out and rougher around the edges than he did during some of those earlier profiles. His once sandy hair is now a tarnished gray.

Lynch's new movie, The Straight Story, is a poignant, real-life tale of reconciliation between two brothers. One of them (Alvin Straight) travels hundreds of miles by lawn mower to effect a reunion.

To some people this isn't just Lynch's most conventional film, it is also his most soulful, accessible movie. For others -- some of them Lynch's most rabid fans -- no movie with a G rating is a real David Lynch movie. They want to know what happened. Was his soul stolen away by pod people? How could this master of dark perversion have created this squeaky-clean celebration of Midwestern banality? The way they see it, Lynch was right the first time, when he said this was a good story but just not his cup of tea; that he should stick to doing what he does best, not make patriotic, pro-family-values movies for Michael Eisner at Disney. His job is to say "no!" in thunder, not succumb to smiley-face America.

However, for its supporters, The Straight Story is a David Lynch movie from first frame to last. It feels like a Lynch movie, moves like a Lynch movie, breathes like a Lynch movie. They say that the film is the most complex, multifaceted and fully realized work of the director's career.

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