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For David Lynch, nothing was scarier than his dear old dad

A new documentary, The Art Life, explores the renegade filmmaker’s early years.

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Note: This review reveals who killed Laura Palmer.

David Lynch has returned. In two weeks Showtime will premiere the first part of Lynch's 18-hour sequel to Twin Peaks, the short-lived mystery series (1990-'91 on ABC) that introduced network television to the avant-garde. This past week Music Box presented a complete retrospective of Lynch's big-screen work, from his nightmarish 16-millimeter shorts of the late 60s and early 70s to his grandly impenetrable digital-video opus Inland Empire (2006). And this Friday brings the first Chicago run (following a premiere screening at the retrospective) of Rick Barnes, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, and Jon Nguyen's new documentary David Lynch: The Art Life. According to a directors' note, the filmmaker agreed to sit for a series of audio interviews after the birth of his daughter Lula in 2012 left him feeling reflective. His stories about his own youth, illustrated with images from his otherworldly paintings and framed by footage of him and Lula puttering around his studio compound in the Hollywood Hills, form sort of a portrait of the artist as a young weirdo.

Lynch tries to keep the focus on his professional development, first as a painter and then as an experimental filmmaker, but his occasional anecdotes about his family may provide more insight into what he calls "the art life." Born in 1946 in Missoula, Montana, Lynch grew up in a straitlaced western home, and many creative people will identify with the anxiety that creeps into his flat, folksy voice on the soundtrack when he speaks about his parents, who couldn't really understand his chosen calling. For all the dark and chaotic imagery in Lynch's canvases, the most intimidating figure in The Art Life may be his father, Donald Lynch, whom he recalls with great affection and even greater dread. By every objective measure Don was a kind, supportive father, but for young Dave, struggling to find his artistic voice and gain a professional foothold, every word of disappointment or discouragement fell like a lash.

"You really couldn't ask for a better father," Lynch reports in The Art Life. "He didn't have any kind of deviousness in him. He was really pure. And he was superfair, just naturally honest and fair." A research scientist for the U.S. Forest Service, Don transferred frequently, moving the family four times before settling down in Alexandria, Virginia, to take a desk job in D.C. In the movie Lynch remembers his father's many agricultural experiments, which bred in Dave a fascination with the innards of insects, and credits his father's industrious nature for inspiring him to pursue his own projects. Dave became a Boy Scout and then an Eagle Scout, racking up merit badges. Interviewed by Chris Rodley for the book Lynch on Lynch, the director remembers that when he told his father he was tired of the Eagle Scouts and wanted to quit, Don replied, "One day, you'll be proud you did that." Years later Lynch would list his membership in the Eagle Scouts as the sole credential in his professional biography.

Lynch has always characterized his childhood as idyllic, and he resists autobiographical readings of his films. Yet The Art Life includes at least one traumatic incident that marked young Dave for life and would inspire one of his greatest works. As Lynch recalls, his father would emerge from their house every evening to call him and his younger brother in for bed, but one evening, right around that time, the boys were stunned to see a nude woman emerge from the dusk. "She had beautiful, pale white skin, and she was completely naked," says Lynch. "I think her mouth was bloodied. . . . She came closer and closer, and my brother started to cry. Something was bad-wrong with her, and I don't know what happened, but she sat down on a curb crying." Lynch would stage the scene in all its perverse horror near the end of Blue Velvet (1986), when the half-crazed heroine, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), appears naked after escaping from her kidnappers and throws herself upon the hero, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan).

If you've seen Blue Velvet, you might remember the twist Lynch added to this memory: Jeffrey and Dorothy have shared a sadomasochistic sexual episode, which Dorothy reveals to Jeffrey's virginal girlfriend, Sandy (Laura Dern), by blurting out, "He put his disease in me!" Certainly Lynch was no stranger to shame; in The Art Life he remembers his mother telling him innumerable times, "I am so disappointed in you." His regard for his parents borders on reverence, and the memory of their disapproval is still devastating to him. Once, he recalls, he got into an argument with his father over staying out late on a school night to paint, and his father cut him short with the chilling declaration, "Fine—you are no longer a member of this family." Only a phone call from Bushnell Keeler, a local painter and the boy's first artistic mentor, persuaded Don Lynch that Dave was serious about his work and ought to be indulged.

Actually The Art Life tells a very common story, of a father and son knocking heads because they're so alike. Lynch remembers how embarrassed he was as a child (and declares how proud he is now) that his father would walk to his job in D.C. every day wearing his Forest Service uniform and ten-gallon hat. "He was his own guy—he didn't give a shit about what was going on," Lynch says. Once Dave began to emulate this single-mindedness, however, the two men found it easier to love than to understand each other. Lynch remembers his father visiting him in Philadelphia, where he had earned his art degree and was living with his girlfriend, Peggy Lentz (she had to clear her things out of the house so Don Lynch wouldn't know). During the visit, Dave took his dad down to the basement to show off some of his "experiments"—rotten fruit, dead birds, and a mouse wrapped in plastic, all of whose decomposition he was carefully recording. He caught a pained expression on his father's face, and later his dad remarked, "Dave? I don't think you should ever have children."

At that point Peggy was already pregnant, and she and Lynch were married by the time she gave birth to their daughter, Jennifer, in 1968. By that time Lynch had discovered cinema, and his father fronted him half the production funds for The Alphabet, a creepy combination of animation and live action starring Peggy as a chalk-faced woman having a nightmare about the ABCs. The short won Lynch a grant from the newly established American Film Institute to produce his next short, The Grandmother (1970), and you have to wonder what his father thought when he saw it. In the opening scene, a man and woman are mating out on a lawn, making guttural noises, and to the man's dismay, sprouting up out of the ground comes a little boy, a pale, Dickensian figure in a suit and bow tie. Whenever the boy wets his bed, the father hauls him into the bedroom to rub his face in the big orange stain on his sheet. The parents bark at the boy constantly, but the only word they utter is mud. "I'm sure they've often wondered where this stuff comes from," Lynch told Chris Rodley when asked about his own parents' reaction to the film.

Now a father himself, Lynch was presented with a life-changing opportunity in 1971 when he was admitted to the AFI Conservatory; with his wife and child in tow, he moved to LA, took up virtual residence in a collection of stables on the conservatory grounds, and spent the next five years developing the project that would become his midnight-movie sensation Eraserhead (1977). A terror of fatherhood pervades the film; who could forget the scene in which the steel-wool-crowned hero, Henry (Jack Nance), is left alone by his wife one night to care for their newborn child, a pale, slimy, hairless, limbless, reptilian little beast wrapped tightly in a white blanket and covered in a nasty rash. At the climax, Henry snips through the baby's blanket to expose a mass of raw organs inside; he punctures a bladder at its center, goo spurts out, the baby coughs blood, and from its center erupts a mass of gray sludge.

The Art Life also climaxes with a confrontation between father and child. As Lynch recalls, he had divorced Peggy and was living at the stables when his father and younger brother sat him down for a talk. "The whole thing was, 'Give up this film and get a job, because you've got a child, and this film isn't gettin' made, and you're wasting your time,' this kind of thing. And it got me really in a deep, deep way, 'cause they didn't understand. I just couldn't believe what they were saying to me, and they were totally serious." With the benefit of hindsight, one might easily side with Lynch, but how could a father have known that something as grotesque and off-the-charts crazy as Eraserhead would make his son an internationally acclaimed filmmaker with a 40-year career? The story is blunted somewhat by Lynch's vindication, but central to many artists' lives is the pain of being driven by a creative vision even as those you love the most fail to grasp it or even lose confidence in your ability.

Fatherhood hardly figures prominently in the rest of Lynch's filmography. In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey Beaumont has returned to his hometown to care for his ailing dad, but the father character is peripheral to the action and so flat he barely registers. There's a warm father-daughter relationship in The Straight Story (1999), but that atypically wholesome drama, which Lynch directed for Disney, was written by other hands. Apart from Henry in Eraserhead, the most notable father figure in Lynch's oeuvre would have to be Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), the easygoing small-town businessman in Twin Peaks and its big-screen prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). An earthly vessel for the demonic Killer Bob, Leland sexually assaults his teenage daughter, Laura (Cheryl Lee), stabs her to death, wraps her in plastic, and tosses her in a lake. Lynch's art is filled with frightening images, but there's nothing scarier in his work than a father's wrath, whether it's expressed in rape, murder, or just the silent shake of a head.  v

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