extensive interview with David Lynch by Mark Cousins

What a strange, inscrutable genius is David Lynch. There is no artist like him in the world, not even close. His mind has generated so many scenes of such visceral demented horror that sometimes you can’t help but wonder a little about the soundness of their creator … but then – later in the same film – suddenly a moment, or a stretch, of unimaginable beauty. Above all his films display an endlessly astonishing inventiveness that keeps me riveted to them even when they are – as they often are – exceptionally uncomfortable to watch. And a degree of almost unmatched cinematic purity which makes talking about them seem almost sacrilegious.

Certain scenes in Lost Highway or the Twin Peaks series, very much including the prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and one scene in particular in Inland Empire (I think those who have seen it will know which one I mean) have terrified me more than just about anything I’ve witnessed on the screen.

At the same time, Mulholland Drive (also not without its heartpounding moments and atmospheric dread) is one of the most extraordinary and thoroughly fascinating movies I will ever see: inexhaustibly rich on multiple levels, exquisitely designed and filmed down to the last detail, still not quite (after seven or eight viewings) 100% narratively explainable, yet all the more satisfying for that. A luscious, deeply mysterious, ultimately sacred journey for me – and at least once every time its beauty reduces me to tears (very often during the scene at Club Silenzio, for example).

I can’t say I love everything of his. Lost Highway is one disturbing nightmare… Full of brilliance, no question, but also about as deranging a cinematic experience as one can have. Blue Velvet is another work of real artistry but I always walk away from it feeling a little queasy, if that’s the right word. The nastiness is so vivid while the 50s-esque small-town-American innocence with which it is contrasted never convinces to the same degree, so I’m invariably left with a sense of vertigo at the end – of a manichaean world tilted the wrong way, as it were. Whereas at the end of Mulholland Drive, which for me is unquestionably his masterpiece, I emerge in awestruck wonder at a perfectly realized artistic vision.

Then there is Eraserhead … and Inland Empire … about which I still can’t say much (having seen each only twice thus far) because they are both sui generis and so unutterably, stupendously weird – even for Lynch! – that they almost defy commentary. (For anyone interested in a superb – though ultimately, inevitably, inadequate – Lacanian perspective on Lynch’s whole oeuvre, I can recommend Todd McGowan’s The Impossible David Lynch, though this was published before Inland Empire came out.)

Then there is the tenderness and warmth of The Elephant Man, unlike anything else Lynch has produced apart from The Straight Story. But contrast that with a recent music video he has released for his own song “Crazy Clown Time” (and yes that is his own eerie singing), and I find myself wondering about him all over again, because, I’m afraid, that video is one of the creepiest, most nihilistic things I’ve seen in quite awhile… (Such cognitive dissonance watching that a second time: can this man I know to be a great artist really be producing something so pointless and seemingly juvenile, or am I truly missing something somewhere?)

So who on earth is this guy? From time to time I try to find out more with some biographical querying, but he remains an enigma. An extra on the Inland Empire DVD films him preparing one of his favorite meals (quinoa and broccoli, which I’ve made by the way and can recommend, although you have to reduce the amount of vegetable bouillon down to about an eighth of what he suggests unless you really, really, really love the taste of salt…). A nice homey insight into his daily life you might think, except that even that ends up being rather spooky to watch!

However, I was pleased to just discover a long interview he did in 1999 with Mark Cousins (and yes, that fish tank, presumably in Lynch’s own home, is full of sharks). Famously averse to talking about his films, he says more there about them than I’ve ever come across, so if you are a big Lynch fan like me you are in for a treat…

Mark Cousins interview at Watershed

And speaking of The Story of Film, there’s an interview with Mark Cousins here about the series at the Watershed in Bristol (a place I used to live down the road from). Cousins’s passion for the cinema really comes across.

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One nice moment:

I’m really interested in this idea of how you build an appetite for something. When I was writing the book of The Story of Film, I was desperate to see this Ethiopian film – Harvest: 3,000 Years. It took me about two months, and $170, to get my hands on this. And now it’s literally a click away. So I think the longing for cinema, the desire for cinema – you know it’s similar to eros in some way – people don’t need to long for it in the way that they did previously, so there’s not that difficulty anymore….

I first heard about Citizen Kane nine years before I could get to see it, so that was nine years of expectation and imagination. And boy does that add something. There’s a kind of suspense in that, you know. So that’s gone. But something else has replaced it, which is a kind of ultra-availability, and that has its own pleasures and its rewards. And you can sort of binge in a way that you couldn’t previously.

So I think just the culture has changed, and what the role – I don’t need to tell you this, because Watershed is such a beacon for this kind of thing – but the role of Watershed and places like this is to put on Carl Theodor Dreyer films at lunchtime, which you’ve done – beautiful idea – and say to people: look at this splendid thing. And the fact that Adrian can do a score for one of the greatest films ever made, The Passion of Joan of Arc. This is a way of saying to people, within all that blurry, overwhelming, smorgasbord plenitude of what’s out there: look at this thing, look how splendid it is.

That’s why we’ve got Lars von Trier in here saying: Dreyer is the greatest. Trier says Dreyer’s films are like a good soup when you boil them down and down to their essence, which is a lovely way of putting it.

And I think I’m quite an optimist about people and audiences. People want enriching experiences and they want connective tissue. And they want to go away from a lunchtime screening, having felt: wow, I saw something – that lovely phrase that Fenner Brockway, the politician, said: see the flame and go towards it. That’s what people want, you know. But there’s lots of stuff and noise in the way, cultural noise.

Mark Cousins – The Story of Film

It’s a 15-part, 15-hour documentary on the entire history of film, and very enjoyable.

Easy to take apart this kind of project. Are Cousins’s choices idiosyncratic in places? Of course – but how could they not be? Is any individual person going to agree with each of his sentences that begins “this is the greatest x, y, or z in the history of film”? Obviously not. Will some people find him insufficiently theoretical, or whatever else? No doubt.

“The story of film” is going to be a subjective one no matter who is telling it, and Cousins doesn’t try to pretend otherwise. What you find in this series is a very nicely organized narrative touching upon (necessarily briefly) an enormous range of highlights in the history of cinema. Each episode averages 35 or 40 or so clips (a list can be found here), and on the whole they are beautifully chosen. Cousins also often juxtaposes two scenes from quite different times and places as visual echoes – sometimes explicit inspirations for the director under discussion, sometimes not.

One of the crucial choices for the series – and the book which preceded it – was to re-orientate our usual focus upon Hollywood and American film more generally. Instead, Cousins spends greater time than is the norm on other continents – with East Asian, Latin American, African, Iranian film. So I am guessing the series will provide at least a few discoveries for all but the more widely-travelled filmgoer.

(from Wikipedia)
Episode 1. Introduction; 1895-1918: The World Discovers a New Artform; Thrill Becomes Story
Episode 2. 1918-1928: The Triumph of American Film…; …And the First of Its Rebels
Episode 3. 1918-1935: The Great Rebel Filmmakers Around the World
Episode 4. The 1930s: The Great American Movie Genres…; …And the Brilliance of European Film
Episode 5. 1939-1952: The Devastation of War…and a New Movie Language
Episode 6. 1953-1957: The Swollen Story: World Cinema Bursting at the Seams
Episode 7. 1957-1964: The Shock of the New – Modern Filmmaking in Western Europe
Episode 8. 1965-1969: New Waves Sweep Around the World
Episode 9. 1967-1979: New American Cinema
Episode 10. 1969-1979: Radical Directors in the 70s Make State of the Nation Movies
Episode 11. 1970s and Onwards: Innovation in Popular Culture Around the World
Episode 12. The 1980s: Moviemaking and Protest Around the World
Episode 13. 1990-1998: The Last Days of Celluloid Before the Coming of Digital
Episode 14. The 1990s: The First Days of Digital – Reality Losing Its Realness in America and Australia
Episode 15. 2000 Onwards: Film Moves Full Circle – and the Future of Movies; Epilogue: The Year 2046

I’ve only just begun watching it and will probably say more over time. Am skipping around for some reason – have so far seen episodes 1, 3, 8, 10, and 13.