October 29, 2015

Transcendental Meditations on David Lynch

Listening to S. Brent Plate’s insights on the comparison between religion and film, and in particular on the role of planning in film, calls to mind the work of the filmmaker David Lynch.

Lynch is an adherent of Transcendental Meditation (TM) -a spiritual discipline and movement founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, best-known in the West for his association with the Beatles. Lynch has been an enthusiastic proselytiser for TM, insisting on its profound benefits not only for its practitioners, but for the world generally. The more people practising TM, Lynch suggests, the calmer and happier everyone will be.

Based on his interest in this Deepak Chopra-approved road to serenity, one might reasonably make assumptions about the kind of films David Lynch makes. Gauzy, cheerily psychedelic, filled with vague New Age truisms about living life to the full and treating the environment with respect –the kind of film that Chris Cotter, in the interview, balefully refers to as ‘uplifting’.

This assumption would be incorrect, however. With a single exception (The Straight Story), David Lynch makes films that are nightmarish in the truest sense of the word, in that they evoke the suffocating, claustrophobic sense of unease that real nightmares do. Rather than New Age wisdom, characters express themselves either in awkward, stumbling commonplaces, sometimes punctuated by sudden and unpredictable explosions of rage, or sinister parables and mantras, and even the occasional, often ambiguous, visions of goodness and beauty that do feature in his films could not be more square or Establishment: white picket fences, robins, angels, an indestructibly chipper FBI agent.

In fact, David Lynch’s beliefs have had a clear effect on his filmmaking, although not in the direct way one might imagine. Lynch uses meditation to draw straight from the well of his own subconscious. He never appears to try and censor the ideas and images he receives, or fret about what they may reveal about him or the positions they may appear to endorse (witness his indifference to the critical furore over Blue Velvet, a film in which an abused woman has become aroused by her own degradation). He simply transmits the messages he receives through his mystic techniques.

Likewise, the act of directing itself takes the form of a ritual for Lynch. Actors seem to respond enthusiastically to his eccentric charisma, to his offbeat but perceptive comments on the nature of the characters they’re playing. More than this, Lynch’s faith in the cosmos gives him a strange confidence, a willingness to allow accidents to happen. In his RSP interview, Plate talks about the intentionality of films, comparing a director’s obsessive care and attention to detail and symbolism to that of the architect of a temple or a cathedral. Kubrick is the most notorious filmmaker in this respect, but every film director can be assumed to have a certain amount of control freak in them.

Lynch is certainly as meticulous as any of his peers but he is also at times uniquely comfortable with simply allowing things to happen. One of the most visually distinctive scenes in the Twin Peaks pilot takes place in a mortuary lit by a flickering fluorescent light. It wasn’t scripted –the light on set just happened to be on the fritz and Lynch left it in. In the same scene, there is an awkward and confusing exchange between Agent Dale Cooper and the extra playing the morgue attendant, in which the latter breaks character and gives his (real) name. The actor had simply misheard Kyle MacLachlan’s line, but Lynch chose to leave his mistake in (I often wonder if the extra got his SAG card this way).

Of course, the most significant of the pilot’s happy accidents was the accidental appearance of set dresser Frank Silva’s image in a mirror during the filming of a scene set at the Palmer house. Lynch once again interpreted this as not an accident at all (after all, the Palmer household has very much become a haunted place), and kept it in, even giving Silva an important recurring role as the demonic spirit Killer BOB.

Obviously, Lynch’s craftsmanship, instincts, and judgement allow him to make these things into something powerful and haunting, as opposed to simply the jumbled mess that they might be (and some critics argue, particularly of his later films, that he has not always done so successfully). But it is Lynch’s TM-inspired confidence, his faith in the cosmos, that allows him to see the potential in them in the first place.

Despite Lynch’s evangelising efforts, I do not think the majority of his fans give a great deal of credence to his peculiar beliefs. All but the most worshipful tend to view Lynch’s excessive claims for the benefits of TM with scepticism. A particularly telling and much-discussed point is the contrast between Lynch’s contention that TM has brought him unassailable happiness and calm, and the tremendously personal and immediate understanding of anxiety and depression that is evident in his work. But in a different way, Lynch’s films make up a surprisingly compelling apologia for TM in themselves. The TM mind-set may not foster an entirely coherent worldview, to put it mildly, but it has certainly helped a strange and brilliant artist shape order out of chaos.


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