Room to Dream by Kristine McKenna and David Lynch

Reviewed by Harriet

David Lynch’s films are certainly not for everybody. Almost all of them are strange, dark, and increasingly hard to pin down to a plot summary, let alone an interpretation. But they have a huge number of avid admirers. They have won many prizes, including the Palme d’Or for Wild at Heart; and The Elephant Man acquired eight Oscar nominations. Those who admire his work consider him to be one of the greatest directors living today. I discovered him in the 1980s when I fell in love with the admittedly strange Eraserhead, his first full length film, and I’ve loved his work ever since. So I was really looking forward to reading this new biography, and raced through it with huge enjoyment.

The structure of the book is unusual – at almost 600 pages, it consists of alternate chapters, one from critic and journalist Kristine McKenna and the other by Lynch himself, so it’s best described as part biography, part memoir. Moving forward chronologically, in her chapters McKenna outlines the facts about the particular era or project and includes interviews with Lynch’s friends, family, collaborators and ex-wives, while in his, Lynch provides an informal, free-wheeling commentary on her research and on his own thoughts and feelings during the period in question. There are many photos, and a satisfyingly full end section provides notes, a filmography, and more besides. The structure works well – McKenna’s interviews and comments are full and wide-ranging, so you get a clear idea of what was going on and how people reacted to it, while Lynch’s sections allow you to hear his distinctive voice. ‘What you are reading here is basically a person having a conversation with his own biography’, Lynch writes in the introduction.

One thing I had never fully taken on board was the fact that film is only one of the media in which Lynch expresses himself: ‘David’s a multi-faceted artist who happens to use film for some of his work’, says one of his friends and collaborators. In fact he was at art college when he started making films, and has continued to create visual art – painting and sculpture – all his life, having important solo exhibitions both in Europe and the US. He’s a musician, too, and has sung on various recordings, and of course he acts from time to time as well. He’s a photographer, and he’s designed furniture. It’s helpful to see him in this way, I think, as it allows for a much freer appreciation of his more elusive film work to see it as another abstract version of his tangible fine art.

Where did all this extraordinarily explosive creativity come from? That’s an unanswerable question. Born in 1946 to an ordinary middle-class family in Montana, Lynch showed a talent for art from an early age. He wasn’t interested in school work and didn’t do well academically – he said in an interview that school was ‘a crime against young people. It destroyed the seeds of liberty’. He was much happier at Philadelphia College of Art, where people were serious about art, and it was here that he made his first short film, Six Men Getting Sick, born of a desire to see his paintings move. From here he got a scholarship to the American Film Institute, where he began filming Eraserhead.  The grant he got was not enough, so the filming went on for several years, with Lynch partly financing it by doing a paper round. Although the film was initially greeted with incomprehension, it quickly became a cult classic and led to Lynch directing the hugely successful The Elephant Man. From there he went from strength to strength, his only real failure being the only massively budgeted film of his career, Dune. In 1990 he moved to television, with the much loved and admired series Twin Peaks. Altogether he has directed ten full-length feature films, including Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire; numerous shorts; and TV programmes and commercials. He shows no sign of slowing down his seemingly inexhaustible creativity.

So much for his working life. But of course this book is far more than a list of his many achievements. We also learn about his personality and his habits, including his love of smoking and drinking large amounts of coffee. The many quoted interviews convey a sense of how Lynch is seen by his friends and colleagues, and despite his eccentricities, nobody has anything but praise for him. He’s made actors of a number of people, sometimes ones he’s just spotted in the street or in the studio and offered a part to in a film – most of whom have said that they never considered the possibility of acting before. He seems to have an extraordinary ability to inspire love. Whoever he is talking to gets his full attention, and people say they feel as if he really knows them for their true selves even at a first meeting. He’s kind and generous to everyone he works with.

If you asked Lynch for the secret of his apparently unstoppable energy and creativity, he would almost certainly tell you that he owed much of it to Transcendental Meditation. He learned this in his early twenties and has been practicing it ever since. In the book he recounts several instances of having solved a problem in his working life as a direct result of a meditation session, and he believes that the practice is capable of bringing peace to the world. In 2005 he founded the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and Peace, which is dedicated to helping schoolchildren achieve better results and to helping veterans and others recover from post-traumatic stress. He has toured the world lecturing to huge crowds on the benefits of the programme, and the Foundation offers scholarships to students interested in pursuing it. The book is dedicated to the founder of TM, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and ends with a prayer for world peace.

It’s fascinating to consider the apparent discrepancy between Lynch’s frequently disturbing films and paintings and his optimistic, spiritual world view. This question is never fully addressed in this book, but that doesn’t make it any less worth reading. I enjoyed every minute of it and so will anyone with an interest in  Lynch himself or in any of the broad range of issues covered.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

David Lynch and Kristine McKenna, Room to Dream (Canongate, 2018). 978-1782118381, 580pp., ill. Hardback.

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