David Lynch: Artist & Reluctant Yogi

15 mins read

When the name David Lynch is mentioned, the words “dark” and “disturbing” are typically conjured up alongside memories of his films, including Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive, or his game-changing 1990s television series Twin Peaks. Two documentaries that played in Montreal this fall — David Lynch: The Art Life, at RIDM, and Shadows of Paradise, shown during the Festival du Nouveau Cinema — offer up different aspects of the man’s life beyond his filmmaking. But neither film answers the question most people probably want to ask Lynch: Where does all that dark and disturbing imagery come from?

David Lynch: The Art Life has a trio who share director credit: Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm, who also served as editor of the film. Nguyen was also co-producer on the 2007 documentary on Lynch, Lynch (one); both films were shot and co-produced by Jason S. While the first film focused on his films, this one is about Lynch’s life up until he began making films. It grew out of conversations Jason S. had with Lynch about the director’s past while living in Lynch’s home. Eventually, they decided to start recording them, which they continued to do over the course of the next three years. The result is a very “friendly” documentary—perhaps too “friendly.”

The film is essentially Lynch narrating the story of his life. He tells us of a bucolic childhood in Montana, and then Idaho. His mother was a “warm and good person,” and “You couldn’t ask for a better father.” Two stories that might give us a clue in to Lynch’s darker side appear here, but are shot-circuited. First, we hear about a naked, bloody-faced woman who wandered onto their street—but the filmmakers ask no further questions beyond those facts. In the second, Lynch begins to tell a story about a neighbour who came out of his home to bid them farewell as they were moving, but he stops himself, saying he can’t finish it. As you listen to these two brief anecdotes, you wonder why the filmmakers didn’t return to these stories over those three years as they seem relevant to understanding their subject. But they didn’t.

The family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, just before Lynch entered 9th grade and something happened there. Again, the filmmakers don’t pry too deeply. There’s something about “strange intestinal spasms” and “dark, dark dreams.” There’s something about hanging with some “bad” kids, cutting school, going into nearby Washington, D.C., and drinking heavily. But by 10th grade, whatever that was is over and done with and Lynch discovers, through an artist father of a school friend, that one can become an artist and do that for a living. Lynch explains this artist’s life that he imagined for himself as one where, “You drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes and you paint. That’s it. And occasionally, a girl enters it too.” Eventually, he goes off to art school, meets a girl, has a child, has an idea for doing “paintings that moved, with sound,” and gets a grant to go to Hollywood where he begins working on Eraserhead at the American Film Institute. End of film.

Mixed in with these interviews are clips of Lynch working on his paintings, which he has apparently been busy making since his last feature film, Inland Empire (2006); photos of the artist over the years; photos of friends and family; and photos of himself spending time with his baby daughter. The paintings are as dark and disturbing as his films, but Lynch offers no comment on them. Rather, the filmmakers cut to some of his work that may or may not connect to a particular Lynch anecdote and so only serve as illustrations, not necessarily insights.

With all that said, Lynch has a great story-telling voice; that, together with the opportunity to spend some time in his studio watching him work and to see his paintings, makes the film worthwhile. One only wishes he would have revealed more back story to his back story.

Moving to Shadows of Paradise by Montreal-based filmmaker Sebastian Lange, Lynch is not really the main subject of the film, but because of who he is, it is his presence which will drive people to see it. The film has two intersecting storylines. One follows Lange, whose parents raised him in Transcendental Meditation (“TM”) founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s spiritual citadel in small town Iowa during the 1980s. TM was first introduced to Westerners thanks to the Beatles in the 1960s, who spent time with the Maharishi in India learning about the practice of meditation. Today, there are millions of people in the West who practice some form of meditation, whether attached to a religious/spiritual aspect or not. But regardless of what form is takes, the spread of the practice for most Westerners can certainly be traced to that meeting of the Fab Four and the Maharishi. Near the end of high school at the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment (MSAE), Lange had a crisis of faith after his best friend wound up in a coma due to an accident and, after graduation, he split off from the community. When the Maharishi passed away in 2008, Lange decided to go to the funeral in India to seek answers to some of his spiritual doubts and make a film.

The second storyline follows Lynch, who is arguably the most famous adherent of TM today. Lynch was inducted into the practice of TM in 1973, “and [ I ] have not missed a single meditation ever since,” he has written. “Twice a day, every day. It has given me effortless access to unlimited reserves of energy, creativity and happiness deep within.” Then in 2005, inspired by seeing how powerful meditation could be in aiding inner-city children, war veterans, and others suffering from post traumatic stress, Lynch formed a partnership with another devotee and TM teacher, Bobby Roth, to create the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. Its goal is “to ensure that every child anywhere in the world who wanted to learn to meditate could do so.”

It was at the Maharishi’s funeral where Lange met Lynch, realised the foundation’s role in the future of TM, and decided to also explore the fate of the movement post-Maharishi. After a brief introduction to his own story, Lange then disappears behind the camera for the next 30 or so minutes until we nearly forget about him.

Meanwhile, Lynch and Roth put on a benefit for the Foundation at Radio City Music Hall featuring former Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, raising $1.3 million. One quickly grasps that both Lynch and Roth are sincerely committed to the belief that TM can, and will, change the world. But there is a moment in the benefit’s planning where Roth watches a short video Lynch has made to show there. Roth obsesses on the final moment of the video, when the camera zooms in close on the Maharishi’s hands. In a phone conversation with Lynch, he expresses his concern that this close-up shot may infer a religious aspect which he wants to avoid suggesting. Lynch promises to shorten it. Not long afterwards, as Roth watches old clips of the Maharishi on Maharishi TV (yes, it’s a thing), there’s an image of Ganesha in his elephant-like manifestation floating across the screen.

TM has long struggled not to be considered a religious practice, even while a little digging reveals its Hindu roots. A quick Google search will reveal many discussions of whether TM is a cult or not. Lange shows us here that this “religion, but not a religion, spiritual, but not spiritual” conflict is still a troubling factor within the David Lynch Foundation and will be a part in determining the success of and future of TM itself. And while he makes no overt judgments in the film, Lange succeeds in transmitting his concerns and doubts to us.

We also get to fly around the world with Lynch and Roth as they tour with an exhibition of Lynch’s paintings (several paintings from The Art Life reappear here), and Lynch gives speeches to fans and news cameras about the wonders of Transcendental Meditation. Lynch tells us that he would prefer to stay home and paint. Roth calls him a “reluctant yogi.”

Then there’s another benefit – a private affair featuring TM-practicing celebrities Jerry Seinfeld and Hugh Jackman. The attendees have donated $50,000 a table to help the foundation sponsor TM teachers. Seinfeld asks Roth who all the people in the room are, and Roth answers: “Hedge fund managers and people in the entertainment industry.” In fact, the foundation’s board of directors is populated by several Wall Street types. And here again, Lange makes his doubts and concerns our own. As sincere as Roth is, it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine these millionaires sharing his vision that their money, to be used to teach meditation to needy children, will bring forth an era of world peace and consciousness enlightenment.

As if this whole story wasn’t enough for one picture, the film also returns to Lange’s personal story and journey. He gives us some history of Vedic City, the small town founded by the Maharishi’s followers in Iowa. There’s even a clip of his graduation speech at MSAE. Later, he joins up with Lynch and Roth as they return to India to explore making a documentary about the Maharishi. Expressing his continued spiritual doubts to them, Lynch suggests Lange seek a mysterious cave, protected by killer bees, where the Maharishi supposedly meditated for some time. Perhaps, Lynch says, Lange can find his answers there. This seems like a mad quest, something one might find in one of Lynch’s movies, but Lange takes the challenge. And there the film ends, with Lange having found the cave and sitting at its entrance, surrounded by bees, contemplating his doubts.

“[The film] didn’t resolve things for me in any neat kind of fashion,” Lange explained during a conversation we had. “It’s easy to make fun of [the movement] or see it as some kind of freak show. For me, that’s a bit of a musty story. There are just so many aspects to this whole thing and it’s more about me creating a space to experience all those different aspects and contradictions and what’s good about it and maybe not so good about it and let people come to their own conclusions. Hopefully, I’ve revealed some of the human nature that exists around this whole experience. But it’s also a comment on where it came from and what it’s become in this Western capitalist context. It’s definitely morphed and changed, and it says a lot about our society. In probably 10 or 15 years, I think the David Lynch Foundation will become the TM movement.”

Without Lange’s personal story, Shadows of Paradise might have become the kind of stereotypical exposé that he wanted to avoid making. Ultimately, though, telling two stories proves too tall a task for Lange. A better edit might have made the film mesh better, answering some unanswered questions.

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