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Jeff Simon: David Lynch is no joke

My story about David Lynch and me begins with another great American film director entirely--Jonathan Demme who, sadly, just died at the age of 73.

In the late 1970's, Gerald O'Grady's Media Study was such a charismatic concern on Delaware Avenue that its film curator Bruce Jenkins got Demme to come to Buffalo to show some movies and talk about them. He had already been in our neck of the woods filming some scenes for his thriller "The Last Embrace" in Niagara Falls.

Demme and I were able to schmooze privately a little bit. He was a delightful man in every way but mostly to talk movies with. He was adamant to me about one thing--David Lynch's film "Eraserhead" which was just beginning to become a midnight movie presence around the country. "Whatever you have to do, see it," said Demme. "I've never seen anything like it. It's the most original American film I've seen in years."

Advance the story a couple years. 1980. Demme's "Melvin and Howard" will change his status in a major way but not nearly as much as Lynch's status will instantly change with the release of Lynch's "The Elephant Man."

It is an extraordinary film. Somehow he had teamed up with Mel Brooks' company to make it. Brooks had immortally described Lynch as "Jimmy Stewart on Mars."

I interviewed Lynch on the phone before the release of "The Elephant Man." I tell him how bowled over Jonathan Demme was by "Eraserhead" and ask about where such originality could possibly come from.

Lynch's answer is artfully naive and disingenuous. He claims it was solely from the weirdness of the Philadelphia neighborhood he lived in when he was an  art student. Anyone who has seen the film-- which is full of human weirdness unseen before (including the all-too-liquid sound of people rubbing their eyes)--is willing to cede Lynch his traumatic relationship to his neighborhood but knows how very much deeper his movies go.

"The Elephant Man" is one of the greatest movies about being a freak. Lynch, it seems clear on the phone, isn't entirely comfortable leading an exposed life if other people are doing the exposing.

Advance the story to 1986 and the Toronto Film Festival. I'm one of a small group of film critics just barely making the screening of "Blue Velvet," after a three-block dead run down Bloor Street from seeing Bertrand Tavernier's "Round Midnight."

None of us would dream of missing "Blue Velvet." None of us could disagree that, whether we were in favor of the film or not, we had never seen anything like it. It is now clear to many, if not most, that Lynch is the greatest public dreamer we have in American film.

He and co-creator Mark Frost prove it in 1991 when they defang "Blue Velvet" somewhat and give America "Twin Peaks," a TV hallucination which expands on the small-town surrealism of "Blue Velvet." Even so, no one had ever seen anything like "Twin Peaks" either. After "Twin Peaks," some of us wondered "what isn't possible on TV anymore?"

In 2001, I was at the Toronto Film Festival to see, among others, Lynch's "Mulholland Drive"--which many consider his greatest film--and also to interview him. The usual practice for such things is that a journalist waits at a studio hospitality suite until it is time to be led to a hotel room where the interview will take place.

Usually, the rooms are rather ordinary hotel suites. When I was given an audience alone with Madonna before the release of "Truth or Dare," on the other hand, she was sitting on a large couch on a platform raised a foot higher than the large couch I was sitting on. I was a supplicant at the throne of the queen, clearly.

Lynch was something else. The way I described it in 2001:

"There is a previously unseen small door off to the right side of the suite. I' m through it and through a short, dark, S-shaped tunnel into what looks like a banquet room that has temporarily been turned into an empty, brilliantly lit storage room. Sitting at a table with a perfectly pressed, gleaming white table cloth is a perfectly composed, perfectly white-haired David Lynch showing his right profile to whoever has been permitted through the tunnel. Behind him is an elegant set of white mirrored doors. He is wearing an immaculate polo shirt, buttoned to the top and an expensive sports jacket. He half-stands to greet his newest interviewer and to shake hands. Then he sits back down in unruffled right profile.

"He will now presumably talk. But he will also perform in the role of David Lynch in a scene that would be perfect in a David Lynch movie about David Lynch. I have, it seems, become a performer in that movie.

"Coffee, spoon and cigarettes have been arrayed with great art around a table" that is otherwise empty....His is almost a cartoon voice, something that Mel Blanc might have invented for a distant cousin of Elmer Fudd."

Any temptation to find him comic ends the minute he talks. He often seems wounded by questions which weren't in the least intended to be prickly. He seems, for instance, genuinely wounded, by the ABC network's refusal to consider "Mulholland Drive" for a new prime-time version of "Twin Peaks."

And when I ask about one of my favorite Lynch movies--the utterly anomalous "The Straight Story"--he says it was so radically different from everything else because of his romantic partnership at the time with the woman who was the film's producer. With great sadness, he tells me that relationship was now over. The implication was clearly he'd be unlikely to make anything again like it.

At the end of the interview, I understand something about the greatest public dreamer we have in American movies.

He is no stranger to the fact that we all tend to take Mel Brooks' tack with him. We make jokes about what we don't understand. So we think of him as being as wildly comic as his work so often is.

But he's not. Its origins within are deeply felt in a way that leaves its creator vulnerable to a world which can enjoy, even love, his work without ever quite thinking it shares the same species with him.

As you watch the first of 18 new episodes of a new Lynch "Twin Peaks" at 9 p.m. Sunday on Showtime, or go to the North Park Theatre to see any of the Lynch films they're showing next week, it's crucial to remember we do indeed share a species with David Lynch.

Which is, in fact, our enormous luck, no matter how this new "Twin Peaks" turns out.

But sometimes when you look at his face, you understand that our feelings of luck are not at all his.


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