David Lynch & Kristine McKenna – Room To Dream (2018, Random House, $29.95 U.S.) Purchase this book (Amazon)
In 2017, there were a number of red letter days for David Lynch fans. The third season/reboot of the Twin Peaks series made its debut in May and episodes aired roughly every week until the conclusion in September. The 18 episode “return” to the fictional town that was a phenomenon in the early 1990s got a second life after a deal with Showtime gave Lynch the freedom to create the series in whatever way he and Mark Frost envisioned it. It wasn’t quite a smooth road, however, as negotiations over the budget of the series got stuck, and Lynch abruptly quit the project after the money allocated was too little. All sides eventually came to an agreement, but the “F*ck it” attitude Lynch displayed was a recurring example of his relationship with Hollywood. These kind of conflicts are detailed Room To Dream, a biography written by Lynch and Kristine McKenna. In a unique (or maybe Lynchian) twist, the book is one part standard biography and one part reaction to that biographical depiction. In other words, every other chapter is devoted to Lynch recounting his version of what was detailed in previous pages by McKenna. It makes for sometimes funny, sometimes baffling rejoinders, but that’s Lynch. Nothing is straightforward. There are always other roads, other explanations, other versions of events. That’s abundantly clear in his work, where the dual nature of humanity is expressed in metaphorical and literal ways in his films — which he’s mostly known for. But Lynch is an artist who expresses himself in a number of ways: sculpture, photography, painting, woodwork, music, and film. Ever since he showed an interest in painting while in high school, Lynch’s fascination with darkness and grotesque shapes has never waned. He finds beauty in things that most find abhorrent. Rotting carcasses, vomiting dismembered heads, disfigured faces, and bodily fluids are all colors and textures for his canvas. The fact that he’s been able to make a pretty successful career with interests like this is more than surprising.
If it wasn’t for an offer to study at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, David Lynch, or maybe the term “Lynchian” wouldn’t be part of the pop culture. But, Room To Dream, while largely about Lynch’s film career, dedicates the first quarter of the book to his childhood, high school years, and his time at art school in Philadelphia. Why these moments are important to his work is evident when recounting those formative years. For those who recall the film Blue Velvet when Dorothy Vallens (as played by Isabella Rossellini) shows up battered, bruised, and naked in Jeffrey Beaumont’s front yard, it was one of many shocking moments in the film. But that scene was inspired from a time in his childhood when he and his brother were playing outside as a naked woman walked past them in a state of shock. Lynch said his brother started crying because he knew something was wrong, and Lynch himself was haunted by the sight. During high school, Lynch was kind of a square. He was a member of a fraternity, dated a wholesome girl who, along with him, were voted cutest couple in their school yearbook. However, David was attracted to girls who had a bad streak. He’d call them “Wow women” and they were very much like Dorothy Vallens, Lula, and Laura Palmer in Lynch’s films. Then there’s Eraserhead, a thinly veiled nightmare about fatherhood that’s a distorted version of how he felt fathering a child at a young age while studying art in Philadelphia. Many of the events in his formative years become fodder for his expressions in film decades later. Indeed, one could make a parlor game of all the characters in Lynch’s movies to see which one is an offshoot of him, or some major influence in his life. For example, a minor character in Twin Peaks was Harold Smith, a shut-in who was hiding pages of Laura Palmer’s diary in his house. What’s notable about the character is that Lynch is kind of a shut-in. His current wife, Emily Stofle, speaks about Lynch’s difficulties in leaving his house in Room To Dream. He doesn’t have that many friends, he doesn’t like to go to parties, or to dinner, or…well, anywhere. He likes staying at home and working on various projects. As I was reading this, I kept thinking of Smith and figured Lynch was writing from his own experience while working on Twin Peaks.
Where Room To Dream shines is in the details that are revealed in the first quarter of the book. Those early chapters paint a detailed picture of his life, his struggles, and his early successes in the film world. It’s after the chapter on Blue Velvet where the book starts to get a little tedious, and light on the details. Oddly enough, the more recent projects tend to lack the specificities the early chapters excel in. Films like Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, The Straight Story, and INLAND EMPIRE certainly have anecdotes and good stories about the making of those films, but there’s a rushed quality to the retelling of the tales. His music projects and art exhibits do get a fair amount of ink, but those aren’t as interesting as what’s been his bread and butter.
Overall, Room To Dream is a good — but not a great — biography of an artist who should have never been popular in the first place. He is revered and reviled by many. He also embodies the kind of duality that he depicts in his films. For example, he’s prone to fits of rage against Hollywood’s studio system but very gentle with actors and his crew. He’s an absent father and husband whose single-minded devotion to his work makes him emotionally and physically unavailable. Yet, he’s the first person to be there to help out his kids with their careers or financial needs. Also, despite the fact that he’s on his fourth marriage, none of his ex-wives has horrible things to say about him. Indeed, his third wife, Mary Sweeney, wasn’t even married to Lynch until they started talking about splitting up. In order to make sure she didn’t get stiffed in the breakup, he asked her to marry him and then filed for divorce shortly after that so she could legally get money and other assets under California state law. However, Lynch isn’t a guy who’s rolling in the dough. His films, artwork, and music don’t make much money. Where he seems to get infusions of cash is through directing TV commercials — mostly in other countries. He’ll sometimes complain that he’s never lucky with money, but when lucrative film deals are presented to him, he generally says “no” because he doesn’t want to put his name on anything that he can’t control from beginning to end (e.g., he has to have final cut on all his films — something few Hollywood producers allow). But, that’s Lynch. He hates the machine but often has to work in it to get cash so he can immerse himself in his art.
It’s difficult to say if this is the end of Lynch’s film career. Twin Peaks: The Return really took a lot out of him in terms of his health. His cigarette habit, coupled with the fact that he’s 72-years-old, meant the 12 to 14-hour film shoots were very difficult for him to do at times. Indeed, his wife recounted how sick he was during parts of the shoot, how he rarely had a day off, and how messed up his knees were after a fall on the set. Through it all, though, she said she never heard him complain that much. Now, whether he can fall in love with a project that’s not as ambitious as the 18-hour film he created in Twin Peaks: The Return remains to be seen. But what comes through in the pages of Room To Dream is that in Lynch’s long career — even through phases where he was becoming a parody of himself — he rarely compromised on his artistic creations. That has made him an American original as an artist — and perhaps one whose prolific multimedia talents could be a rarity in a culture that often ignores exploring the dark underbelly of its sunny optimism.