An avant-gardist’s essential niceness

David Lynch returned to the Bible and discovered that ‘everything is beautiful’ (Getty)

Room to Dream
by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna, Canongate, 592pp, £25

While promoting his new book, the American film director David Lynch told the Guardian that Donald Trump “could go down as one of the greatest presidents in history”. This wasn’t the first time Lynch had spoken positively about a Republican leader, and in the book he describes going to the White House to discuss movies and dance with Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

But because of the difference in the culture now – and perhaps Lynch’s greater cultural weight – the quotation had a more dramatic impact. It was commented on approvingly, albeit taken out of context, by Trump. Lynch then wrote an open letter to the president, telling him that in order to truly be one of the greatest presidents, he would need to change his behaviour.

In the brief period between the interview and the open letter, Lynch’s publishers went on Twitter to encourage people to see his words in context. And it was clear that Lynch wasn’t coming out in uncritical support of Trump. Even so, his comments were troubling for those dismayed by the president’s behaviour. Lynch was undecided about Trump’s presidency, but he was expressing straight-forward admiration that Trump had “disrupted” the political process.

Being able to “disrupt” things is a virtue in Lynch-land: he holds a Festival of Disruption in Los Angeles every year. He was also expressing disenchantment with the political process. Many share this, but there’s a danger that it can shade over into the distrust of experts that populists use to their advantage.

Many Lynch fans (and I’ve liked him since I saw The Elephant Man aged six) were amused by the idea that Trump’s delight at Lynch’s approval would soon evaporate if he sat down to watch one of his films. But it’s not hard to imagine Trump enjoying many of Lynch’s movies. Don’t forget that Trump has cameoed in all manner of peculiar pictures (from Ghosts Can’t Do It to Home Alone 2: Lost in New York to Woody Allen’s Celebrity). It’s not that hard a stretch of the imagination to picture him among the parade of ferocious oddballs in Wild at Heart or (especially) Lost Highway.

Still, this is a time when it’s important to be clear about one’s beliefs, even if you’re an artist who loves abstraction, and Lynch’s clarification was welcome. His comments seem driven not just by a cynical desire to sell books, but also Lynch’s essential niceness, something Kristine McKenna, the co-author of Lynch’s memoir, is keen to point out, even when Lynch himself doesn’t always want to let himself off the hook (he believes that his father was a better dad than he is, for example).

The book has an unusual, but successful structure, alternating between sections of straightforward biography (written by McKenna, a former Los Angeles Times journalist with full access to Lynch’s friends and associates) and responses to these chapters written by Lynch himself.

Lynch is sometimes surprised by what he reads, but doesn’t appear to have censored anything. We’re treated to surprising revelations, such as that Lynch is so devoted to smoking that sometimes he would rather share a bed with his cigarettes than his wife.

Lynch’s position as one of the greatest American directors is assured. He once complained to Steven Spielberg that the ET director was much luckier than him because his interests were shared by millions of people, while Lynch’s were shared by only thousands. Spielberg responded that by now as many people had seen Eraserhead, Lynch’s incredibly influential debut movie, as had seen Jaws – especially film studies students.

What may come as a surprise to Catholic readers – given the darkness of some of the director’s films – is that the Bible has at times played a central role in his thought and work. Lynch had a Catholic girlfriend as a teenager and notes here that Eraserhead was inspired by a sentence in the Bible that seemed to sum up not only everything he was feeling but also the existence of the universe. Although he won’t reveal what the sentence is, and abandoned organised religion in favour of Transcendental Meditation early on, he still has theological interests and was comforted when the leader of the TM movement, Dr John Hagelin, told him that “the Bible is written in a code, and under incandescent light it’s one thing but under a spiritual light it’s something else”. This explanation allowed Lynch to return to the Bible and discover that “everything is beautiful”.

Given Lynch’s opaqueness in interviews, I wasn’t expecting much from this book. But it’s an essential text, as important to film studies as Truffaut’s interviews with Hitchcock. Lynch concludes by saying he hopes he’s conveyed a “very abstract Rosebud”. A generous ambition, admirably fulfilled.