Right around my 17th birthday I moved to Toronto. And although I was happy to escape Sudbury, the mid-northern Ontario mining city where I grew up, the summer I moved to Toronto was sorta depressing: I missed my old friends and the only apartment my Mom was able to find was a basement flat that could charitably be described as a shithole. At least it was in the Bloor West Village, a sort of Toronto version of Greenwich Village which boasted, among other things, the Bloor Cinema. I went there a lot, mostly to get out of our smelly damp apartment. And this is where I really began to love movies, and when it started to dawn on me that film is an art. Not that I was very selective: the Bloor Cinema showed dozens of repertory and cult movies each month and I went to whatever was showing. One night what was showing was Blue Velvet, followed soon by Eraserhead. Both films rattled me so much I wandered around Toronto for hours into the small hours of the morning, trying to understand what I had just seen and calm down a bit.
Since then I have made a point of seeing every David Lynch film as soon as it comes out, with the exception of Wild At Heart, which for me is the only really bad Lynch movie. (You can’t exactly count Dune as a Lynch movie, even though Lynch directed it.) I’ve been lucky to see most of his movies in really cool, old-fashioned, somewhat Lynchian movie-palace-type theatres: Lost Highway at the Uptown in Minneapolis, Mulholland Drive and The Straight Story at the Riverview Theatre, which was a three-minute walk from my old house in south Minneapolis. And, on Wednesday, I saw Inland Empire at the Paramount Theatre in Austin:
Although a film is not a performance, the theatrical experience — seeing a film in a real theatre, with a responsive audience and good sound and a big screen and popcorn with real butter and a glittering gilded upholstered bespangled lobby — adds a great deal to the pleasure of watching film. As Lynch pointed out, this experience is something worth preserving when you can now watch a film on your phone. Lynch himself was there to introduce the film and answer questions. This was a big deal for me — in a way, the culminating point of a twenty-plus-year devotion to a particular artistic vision. Lynch didn’t say anything that I hadn’t heard in some form or other in his interviews, but it was sort of inspiring to hear him say them. He gave his standard answer to the old where-do-you-get-your-ideas question: you go fishing in your head, with desire as the bait. This has been a maxim I have taken over in my own writing (what goes for filmmaking can go equally for academic research). Fishing is a metaphor for watchful stillness, a stance from which you catch ideas at they rise unbidden from . . . wherever it is. Lynch respects the fundamental mystery of ideas; it’s what gives his films their particular strange mood. He had a wonderful metaphor for the creative process: it’s like there’s a guy in the next room who has a jigsaw puzzle that makes a whole picture, and he’s flipping pieces one by one into my room. And I look at these pieces as they come in, and I don’t quite know how they fit together yet, but each piece is so beautiful, and I love each one for itself, and I start putting them together in different ways.
And this, too, is a really good description of how I feel about the various ideas that start to emerge as I’m starting to work on some historical problem. Today I’m thinking about Beat Girl, an exploitation movie from 1960 with a surprisingly good cast: Christopher Lee plays a sleazy strip-club owner, Oliver Reed plays an angry young beat, and David Farrar, probably best known from the wonderful film adaptation of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus, plays the father of the titular Beat Girl.* This is an odd movie, at once a threadbare genre piece and yet radioactive with a surplus of detail and energy. Things that were probably invisible at the time have begun to emerge from the dark and ask mutely to be understood. I can sense, but not exactly see, threads of idea and emotion stretching out from this object to others, making patterns within a larger history of ideas and sensibility that is still partly obscure to me. What are those patterns? You start with pieces of the jigsaw and start moving them around. But the larger pattern doesn’t — or shouldn’t — detract from the pleasure one takes in each individual fragment. Beat Girl has a beauty and mystery to it that the larger quest for intellectual coherence and classification never erases. Maybe it sounds weird to say that a piece of trashy old pop culture is beautiful: am I making some kind of arch pomo ironic “point” of finding value in kitsch? No. You take beauty where you find it, and you can find it in all kinds of strange places. You can never determine in advance the neighborhoods where beauty lives, or doesn’t, although intellectuals always try. Beauty is everywhere but hidden, omnipresent but rare. It’s not that anything is beautiful: it’s that anything can be beautiful but usually isn’t. But you can always have a pleasant surprise. You never know. The one with your name on it you never see coming. Just sit there, quietly, and wait.
*Pointless namedropping: Rumer Godden is my first cousin, twice removed.