07.20.09

David Lynch's American Dreams

The acclaimed director’s latest work is a fascinating low-key documentary Web series celebrating hardscrabble American lives. Lee Siegel on David Lynch’s elegiac Interview Project.

If you want to see one of the most affecting instances of documentary journalism since Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—James Agee and Walker Evans’ famous book, by turns lyrical and dispassionate, about white sharecroppers living through the Depression—go to interviewproject.davidlynch.com. That’s right. David Lynch, the creative force behind bare-knuckle surrealist films like Wild at Heart, Mulholland Drive, and his masterpiece Blue Velvet, as well as the equally weird and original Twin Peaks television series.

For Lynch, the reality of the American dream is in marginal and vulnerable American places, where rough mobility and desperate sexuality collide and down-and-out people have no buffers between themselves and life’s hard knocks.

Lynch’s Interview Project is like the elementary materials of his movies before they become fictions. He describes it as “a 20,000-mile road trip over 70 days across and back the United States,” although so far most of the eventual-121 interviews on the site are with people who live in the Southwest. His subjects are never doctors or lawyers, poets or novelists, accountants or professors. They are always people with what more sophisticated types like to call “humble” lives, or sometimes with lives that are hard and anguished, too storm-tossed to be merely humble. They are mostly older white men, with a few older white women and a handful of younger (white) men appearing here and there. They are the sort of people that every four years spring into the minds of pundits and commentators as riddles to be solved, and then disappear from the commentariat’s consciousness until they return in conundrum form four years later.

Lynch’s subjects have solid American names: Palmer Black, Doc Whitman, Lynn Goodwin, Jim Carter—the kind of names that in a different setting you’d find on the Social Register. Most believe in God; a lot of them profess that loving their children is more important to them than anything else; a surprising number say they want only to be remembered as people who made other people happy. Many of them are impoverished or living just above the poverty line.

Some are sad and seem beaten by life. “I’m broken… broken I guess,” says 42-year-old Lynn Goodwin, whose blond hair ends just above blue eyes surrounded by dark circles of pain. “I just want my kids to be happy,” she continues, barely able to hold back tears. Others possess something like a Buddhist calm about their “humble” lives. “I love little kids and puppies,” says dignified, cheerful, sneakered 68-year-old Palmer Black, a retired Naval officer—his white bangs boyishly askew over his forehead with not the slightest touch of vanity—who says that he would like to be remembered “as a happy person who cooked a real good barbecue, and made people laugh and that people were happy around.”

All of Lynch’s artistic creations seem to take as their starting point Norman Mailer’s remark that the essence of America is the smell of gasoline and cheap perfume. For Lynch, the reality of the American dream is in marginal and vulnerable American places, where rough mobility and desperate sexuality collide and down-and-out people have no buffers between themselves and life’s hard knocks. Getting knocked around is dreamlike, and Lynch always seems to be saying, through his surrealist devices, that in its hidden core, the American dream is dreamlike, unreal in both its giddy highs and its heart-in-the-stomach lows. In Lynch’s work, people are more exposed to life’s naked elements in America than they are just about any place else.

I don’t know what Lynch’s motive was behind his choice of subjects for the Interview Project. By speaking mostly to white people with hardscrabble existences, was he trying to make some understated exposure of the futility of Red State existences, of lives lived blindly in quiet desperation? I hope not, but even if that were Lynch’s banal and ignominious (and Borat-like) purpose, his team’s self-effacing, even gentle camerawork and editing would belie any such plan.

Susan Sontag once described the camera as “the ideal arm of consciousness in an acquisitive mood.” Photography is a “tool of power,” she continued, and there is “an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.” As cellphone-wielding mashup artists know, there is nothing like capturing someone in an image or series of images if you want to subject him or her to humiliation. That applies even more to the camera of a documentary filmmaker, especially when it takes as its subject a person talking about his or her life.

Lynch’s filmmakers and editors seem keenly aware of their predatory potential—it’s remarkable how completely they surrender themselves to the human being situated in the center of their viewfinder. There is never a moment when the camera puts people’s sincerely uttered words at an ironic, sardonic, or facetious angle. Even those occasions when the camera cuts away from the person to an image—a dripping outside faucet, a blackbird flying off a telephone wire—are less lyrical intrusions than documentary facts that amplify the subject’s humanity.

So when 85-year-old Clara of Montrose, Colorado,  says “that’s what I was put here to do, to have a family,” you are not slyly led to question a wasted, deluded life. The camera is so steady, so true to her human presence that you are instead made to want to share her capacity for love. And when she warmly, yet without nostalgia, recalls her childhood on a farm and says simply—but with the force of a verdict—that she “got up at daybreak and went to the fields and worked,” you are reminded of what the camera’s blessing is: to find the hidden seam between your story and the story of the world. Lynch’s Interview Project is fine and beautiful—it’s also brave. Watch it, and you may never enjoy the poetic cynicism of Lynch’s Blue Velvet again.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.