What happens to someone who, over the space of a few months, watches all the Twin Peaks seasons, six David Lynch feature films, many of his short films and a couple of documentaries about him into the bargain?
Last summer I was informed that the main star of the next Teema Film Festival would be David Lynch. I had a few months before the festival actually went into production and decided to take a look at his works.
I’d seen Blue Velvet when it was first released, and left the cinema feeling bewildered and maybe uneasy. I tried to watch the Twin Peaks series in the 1990s, but I found it too scary. I did, however, watch it enough to taste doughnuts and fancy a good coffee whenever the words Twin Peaks were mentioned.
The fact that I wasn’t really familiar with Lynch’s output was, I felt, a big gap in my education. I decided to put this right.
The first thing I watched was the documentary David Lynch: The Art Life, which describes his work as an artist and is also on the programme for the Teema Film Festival. I was enchanted. I possibly didn’t know, or had at least forgotten, that Lynch first studied art and arrived at film via animation. I watched him working and listened to his intriguing way of telling stories.
Lynch describes his realisation as an art student: “I had this idea that you drink coffee and you paint, and that’s it. It’s the incredible happiness of working and living that life.” I dug out the art-school pens and paper I had shoved to the back of my cupboard. I, too, wanted to do something with my hands, to drink coffee and mess around in my workroom.
I started watching Twin Peaks. It was still scary. The first season was gripping, the second was partly mind-numbing, the third charmingly odd. I admired the disjointedness and audacity of the third season that leave the viewer at the end of snippets of plot wondering just what happened.
I established a viewing rhythm, a dosage that suited me: not too late at night, preferably only one episode at a time. If I wolfed down too much, I slept badly and had nightmares. Because it was still scary in places, I allowed myself to watch some of the worst bits without the sound. That was a pity, because Lynch’s soundscapes are inventive, in a league all of their own.
Next I watched Eraserhead, Lynch’s first feature film. I knew it would be one of the main films in the forthcoming festival and possibly the basis for the festival’s visual identity.
The film had taken years to make, due to problems of financing, and Lynch had considered finishing it as an animation. The idea was tantalising. The final version has some animated sequences, too: the chicken moves its truncated wings on the plate, the deformed baby cries and drools, the main character’s severed head rolls around on the floor. There’s something appealing in them all, despite their being nauseating.
I decided to try moulding the Eraserhead characters. The idea was to make little fridge magnets of Henry Spencer, the Lady in the Radiator and the baby. A fridge magnet seemed suitably banal and crazy. At this stage, I didn’t know whether there was any use for them. As prizes in a viewer competition, perhaps?
In the run-up to Christmas, while others were making gingerbread, I was backcombing Henry Spencer’s hair, moulding the Lady in the Radiator’s cheeks and shredding an eraser. In fiddling around with these little figures, I felt I was travelling a road inspired by Lynch. I recalled The Art Life documentary showing him moulding, gluing and painting.
I sort of got immersed in the subject. There was, I was told, an “odd atmosphere” in the Christmas cards I was making at around the same time. “Too much Lynch,” reckoned my somewhat worried friends.
The moulding clay proved unpredictable. I tried to make the figures recognisable, despite being stylised. But the clay shrank as it dried. Overnight, the figure of Henry Spencer was transformed! (This was probably accompanied by low rumbles, electric sizzles and lightning.) The eyes nevertheless still had Henry’s astonishment and anguish.
I decided to use only the top of his face, his eyes and his frizzy hair. In the hair was the naïve, typographically modified melody In Heaven Everything is Fine – the only thought that consoles the hapless Henry.
The first printed products were to go out in the week we shot Festival Talk. Many great Lynch fans came to the studio to talk about their experiences. It was terrific hearing their analyses, their amusing anecdotes and speaking backwards. Lynch is an endless topic and the studio days were packed with group enthusiasm.
The set design worked well, and I realised there should be a red curtain in the printed products, too. A curtain is a recurring element in Lynch (as are electricity, smoke, telephones and boils!), leading to other realities.
The heavenly Lady in the Radiator and her cheeks ended up on a postcard. The deformed baby, wrapped in gauze was possibly the most successful of the three, but the festival director was not totally overwhelmed. I understand completely.
If I were to make a list of my favourite films, not many of Lynch’s would be on it. But if I were to make a list of inspiring directors, David Lynch would be one at the top. I admire his ability to create atmosphere, to construct characters, to combine darkness and humour.
I especially like the way Lynch speaks of his work. He categorically refuses to explain his films, but he does describe his creative process and his working methods in a way that is fascinating. Intuition is what guides his work.
Right now, it seems to me that we’ll never again find such an inspiring, versatile and ambiguous star for our Teema Film Festival.
The writer is a graphic designer at Yle, Finnish Broadcasting Company, and AD of Teema Film Festival, a yearly five day film event on Finnish television.
To me, every film, every project is an experiment.””
This article was first published on Yle's website in Finnish in March 2018. It was translated by Susan Sinisalo.