David Lynch has haunted me for years. Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive are two of my favorite films. Where most filmmakers succeed or fail on their strength as narrators, Lynch’s films are streams of rich archetypes that transcend the usual demand for beginning, middle and end. A single frame may have more emotional impact than an entire scene from a lesser auteur.
I was curious to get a peek inside the creative process behind landmarks like Blue Velvet, and provocatively honorable failures like INLAND EMPIRE. When a friend lent me Catching the Big Fish, I had high hopes.
The book’s subtitle, Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, encapsulates Lynch’s agenda in descending order of importance. There’s a modicum of shop talk here for film buffs and student filmmakers, but Lynch is much more interested in proselytizing Transcendental Meditation. Lynch has been practicing TM every day without fail since he discovered the technique in 1973. The book is dedicated to His Holiness, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who trademarked “Transcendental Meditation” and introduced the method a half century ago.
TM has been controversial for its insular, proprietary instruction, consisting of four days of private two-hour sessions. Some advocates of mantra meditation, like Dr. Herbert Benson in his book, The Relaxation Response, take issue with TM’s need for assigning a personal mantra to each student via paid consultation. Benson claims that any repeated sound — a vowel or even a prayer — suffices to relieve stress and “expand” consciousness as effectively as TM, and supports his claim with biofeedback studies.
Breathing the water
The book’s cover image is the cross-section of a current of water. The title is overlaid beneath the water’s surface. Water is a central metaphor and medium throughout the book. Within the water, there are fish, which Lynch likens to ideas. “If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.” Transcendental Meditation is the way to dive deeper, into Pure Consciousness. “The more your consciousness — your awareness — is expanded, the deeper you go toward the source, and the bigger fish you can catch.”
Nowhere in the book are the details of TM described, and considering how much insight and creativity he attributes to the practice, the void is palpable. The unitiated reader is forced to take the method’s value on faith. The frequent appeals to meditation without further describing the process make much of the book tantalizing but unsatisfying.
The structure of Catching the Big Fish is spare and delicate, comprised of 84 “chapters” that are better thought of as vignettes. Most chapters run one or two pages, some run one or two paragraphs, and a couple run one or two sentences. On first glance, the preponderance of whitespace cultivates the expectation of Zen-like profundity in the string of short passages that make up the book. Let’s examine a few representative chapters.
The Art Life
Lynch discusses the impact of reading Robert Henri’s influential book, The Art Spirit. Henri introduced him to the notion of living the art life: of dedicating oneself completely to painting, and making everything else secondary. Work-as-identity is a more socially accepted romanticism in the arts than other fields of endeavor, like business — probably because artists have to work harder to be taken seriously in industrial cultures. Lynch also discusses his boyhood encounter with Bushnell Keeler, an accomplished artist who happened to be the father of David’s friend, Toby. “If you want to get one hour of good painting in,” Keeler told the budding artist, “you have to have four hours of uninterrupted time.” Lynch agrees, pointing out the need to allocate time for gathering materials, stretching canvases, and other preparations. He then discusses how he builds on the smallest ideas. An idea just needs to be enough to get started. He’ll put something on the canvas, or on film, study the result, and develop the work from there based on his response. “Whatever follows is a process of action and reaction.”
Garden at Night
Lynch recounts his migration from painting to film — or rather, his expansion into another medium. While he was working on a painting of a garden at night, he claims that the painted plants in the foreground began to move. “I wasn’t taking drugs!” He entered an experimental painting and sculpture contest with the idea of submitting a moving painting. He built a sculptured screen and projected a crudely animated stop-motion film on it, titled “Six Men Getting Sick.” The project set him back $200, a king’s ransom for a student in the 1970′s, but on the strength of the presentation he received a commission from an older student to build a similar work for his home. “After that, I just kept getting green lights.”
“Desire for an idea is like bait,” argues Lynch. He views the creative process more as being receptive to ideas rather than proactively generating them. “You put the bait on the hook, and then you wait.” Once you catch one fragment of an idea, however small, it will gradually attract others. Before long, you’ll have enough fragments to build a whole. He illustrates the process in an earlier chapter where he mentions how Blue Velvet originated as a few fragments: the image of red lips, the image of green lawns, and the Bobby Vinton version of the eponymous song.
The Fourth State
The transcendental state is the interstice between the three states of consciousness we’re more familiar with: sleeping, waking, and dreaming. “When you go from one state of consciousness to another — for instance, from sleeping to waking — you pass through a gap. And in the gap, you transcend.” He erects the analogy of a white room covered with yellow, red and blue curtains. Between the curtains is the pure white of the Absolute, pure bliss.
Ask the Idea
The idea has its own responsive order, an integrity. An artist developing upon an idea can attend to the idea to know if its development is on or off track, sensing its inherent rightness or discord. “It’s an intuition: You think-feel your way through.” This reminds me of Eugene Gendlin’s essay, “Thinking Beyond Patterns,” where he uses the analogy of a poet stuck in middle of a poem. The poet is trying to find the precise word that expresses what the poem needs to say. Several words come to mind, but the poem rejects them; they are not the right word, but approximations. Gendlin refers to this think-feel feedback as the “felt sense.”
An artist should show suffering, Lynch argues, not “be” suffering. It’s unfortunate how many artists need to identify so closely with the emotional underworlds they explore. “Let your characters do the suffering.” He dismisses the notion that artists liberated from suffering (through TM or otherwise) will lose their “edge.” He believes that the oft-cited tortured artist, Van Gogh, would have been even greater and more prolific had he been able to let go of his demons.
Having a Setup
Artists need to have the tools of their trade, and a proper workspace, close at hand whenever possible, in order to respond immediately to a new inspiration before it grows stale. The combination of tools and workspace Lynch refers to as a “setup.” It could be argued that having a better protocol for collecting ideas — a sketchbook, for instance — obviates the need for having one’s apparatus ubiquitously available, assuming one has the discipline to review the collected ideas to find which ones are compelling and actionable.
The Death of Film
Last night I saw a big budget action film from England, The Bank Job, with a Q-and-A session afterwards with its director, Roger Donaldson, where he mentioned that the entire film was shot digitally. A year or two from now, this will be the rule rather than the exception with mainstream films; it’s already the rule in independent film, and David Lynch sees no reason to reverse course. “I’m through with film as a medium.” After shooting INLAND EMPIRE on DV, he insists that he will only shoot on digital from now on. Digital gives 40 minutes tapes to shoot with instead film’s 10-minute reels, meaning fewer reloads to interrupt the flow of actor-director interaction. The cameras are usually much lighter (except the ones that replace 35mm cameras, as on The Bank Job) making setups and handheld work more fluid. Playback is instant, whereas film requires a day of lab time before the “rushes” can be viewed. He continues the case for digital video in the next couple of chapters
A good catch?
I’ve actually cherry picked the chapters that I felt with the most informative or insightful. Catching the Big Fish is a slim volume in more ways the one. Some chapters are amusing anecdotes or matters of taste, some are advice that’s either obvious or uncontroversial, some are advocacy for a meditation regimen that would probably be compelling if more specifics were shared. Lynch completists and TM practitioners will probably find the material in this book more engaging. For myself, the Lynch’s genius lies elsewhere. He has bigger fish to fry.