Wide Angle

David Lynch’s MasterClass Is As Surreal and As Banal As You’d Expect

Is it sincere? Is it performance art?

David Lynch, seated, in a still from his MasterClass.
David Lynch teaching his MasterClass. © 2019 MasterClass

Meet Your New Instructor. It’s a familiar command at this point. You see it every time you scroll through feeds: a parade of names, each more famous than the last, until it begins to seem like a parody, or a running joke from the boys in the back office at MasterClass, the educational startup where famous people teach you the tricks of their trade via short videos. Gordon Ramsay, David Mamet, Serena Williams (?!), Natalie Portman (?!?!), Martin Scorsese (?!?!?!)—the names go on and on, and the totality of them begins to feel, dare you admit it, maybe a little scammy. Not Trump U scammy (God forbid), but still. How the heck is Scorsese going to teach you anything of value in a series of video interviews? But this New Instructor you’re supposed to Meet is a bit different. Somehow, the people at MasterClass have landed David Lynch.

Hooking in Lynch makes a certain kind of sense. As a subscription service beholden to growth targets, MasterClass requires more and more people to subscribe every year and then to keep their subscriptions going. In order for that to work, they have to offer multiple masters in each discipline for which there are classes and, like Netflix with its million original series, keep you coming back with ever shinier content. Their stable of filmmakers thus includes an iconoclastic genius (Spike Lee), an elder statesman (Scorsese), a mainstream superstar (Judd Apatow), and a hack (Ron Howard). All they need to complete the set is a weirdo or two, and in Lynch, they appear to have found one.

When you hit play, Lynch gazes out at you. Well, not actually at you—most of the time he’s looking directly above the camera, presumably at an interviewer, or at the space up and to the left that people look to when they’re trying to remember something. He sits at a desk, either caressing a rarely used sketch pad or watching a scene from one of his movies. His fingers flutter like they’re ears of wheat being harassed by a breeze when he’s talking about something delicate, and when he mentions ideas, his hands wave like he’s asking an invisible orchestra for vibrato. At times, he scrunches his eyes tight, extra tight, particularly when talking about tension or negativity. He smokes cigarette after cigarette, and you can hear the effects of a lifetime of chain-smoking on his breath—the low wheeze as he inhales is at least as scary as anything in his movies.

In the first few episodes, you watch Lynch talk about where ideas come from. His reverence for ideas makes you think they should be capitalized. Ideas float about like fish in a pond. Your job as an artist is to have the patience of a fisherman and to use your desire to have an idea as bait, and then, once you’ve hooked one, your job is to capture it by writing it down. So far so good, you suppose, but also so far so not especially practical. Episode 3, however, promises a bridge from the philosophical to the practical right there in its title: “Creativity and the Writing Process.” Here it comes, baby! Instructions on how to cook that delicious fish you caught!

Except in Episode 3, Lynch is clearly struggling. Whereas before, his sentences flowed together as much as sentences uttered in his Midwestern Marlborough drawl can, now he’s pausing and doubling back on himself. The subjects don’t always agree with the verbs, or they go missing entirely. “Schools,” he says, looking at the top left-hand corner, “have developed a formula. This word … formula … in the department of writing … is … like … death penalty … crime.” On the word crime, he looks directly at the camera. Writing should come naturally, he asserts. And it should feel good. Because it’s the Ideas talking to you. But he still hasn’t said anything about the actual process of writing and, more importantly, rewriting.

Finally he seems poised to provide an answer, of sorts: “When it comes to writing, I. Like. To. Write,” he says. And then he smiles, and a woman somewhere behind the camera laughs, and he laughs, and you begin to wonder, Is David Lynch slamming into the impossibility of explaining what he does, or is he doing a bit?

David Lynch is almost certainly not doing a bit, but the question of whether he is joking or not is one that often hovers over your consideration of his work, those gnomic films and TV shows with their unique dream rhythms, whose oddity is only matched by the pronounced banality of their creator. Unlike with most artists you’ve met, you’re pretty sure if you ran into David Lynch at a party, you’d assume he was, like, a high school principal or something. This contrast is part of what makes his work simultaneously appealing and confounding. How could so normal-seeming a guy, a guy who is so affable and sincere, create so many nightmare worlds where narrative logic goes to die, where your search for meaning is itself a trap, where your head might explode revealing the head of a much younger man in its place?

Perhaps Lynch’s personal banality is a performance. We live in an age where we like to know as much about how a thing was made and who made it as possible, and this knowledge, and the pursuit of it, often comes at the cost of an actual inquiry into the work itself. It could be that Lynch, by casting himself as the Mister Rogers of the avant-garde, has figured out a way to protect the art he makes from himself while still giving you the kind of access you crave. Maybe, then, this MasterClass is another installment of that performance, another way of talking about his art and his process without revealing anything of real value or substance. Lynch, who famously wanted to leave Laura Palmer’s death unsolved forever, has refused thus far to solve the mystery of himself for you, and he’s certainly not going to do it for an app.

Thus: How does he work with actors? He just does, he says. It’s natural. You try to get them to understand the Idea, and then when they understand it, they do it right. Laura Dern can do anything and is like family. Kyle MacLachlan is also like family. Bob from Twin Peaks is Kyle’s “bad person.” Frank Booth from Blue Velvet was Dennis Hopper’s “bad person.” With a good actor, all of the characters are inside of them, and your job is to “help them bring it out to the fullest.” But how you are supposed to help them is never explained.

He comes closest to describing an actual process when speaking about a scene from The Straight Story where the brothers played by Harry Dean Stanton and Richard Farnsworth reunite and cry. Stanton, it turns out, had a letter written by Sitting Bull describing the mistreatment of Native Americans that he would read to make himself cry. And Lynch brought Farnsworth into the moment by having the actors improvise the beginning of the scene before the scripted moment he recorded. Using objects (or the memory of objects) to trigger emotions and using improvisation are two shopworn techniques for getting actors into the moment. They’ve been with us since at least 1908, when Konstantin Stanislavski began using them. But Lynch cannot grasp these as tools or as technique. He seems to almost marvel at the way the actors summoned that moment into being.

As you watch Lynch over the 13 lessons of his MasterClass, ranging from three minutes to 25, you begin to realize something about him. He’s not joking, and it isn’t a performance, or at least not any more of one than the performances we all give in our everyday lives. His opacity comes to feel less deliberate and more a result of his values, and, whether he meant for this to happen or not, those values are slowly revealed over the course of the class. Lynch experiences neither his art nor his art-making as entirely his. He instead creates the space to be inspired. He calls this process of inspiration “catching ideas,” rather than coming up with them. The ideas aren’t his; they come from outside, from the collective larger consciousness that he believes you can access if you learn Transcendental Meditation, which he explains in a bonus episode. Since these ideas aren’t his, his job is to realize them to the best of his ability, first through writing, and then through filming. A feature film, he explains early on, is 70 ideas put together. The Idea is what dictates everything. His art exists in service to it. There’s a humility in the face of his own work that results. “How can you take credit for these things?” he muses at one point. And if they aren’t yours, how can you explain them?

David Lynch is not teaching you “Creativity and Film.” The technical parts of the filmmaker’s process he glosses over, simply telling you that you need to learn them. He is instead teaching you a point of view. That point of view is focused on all the parts of creation that don’t look like creating. He’s teaching you about all the time you spend sitting in a chair with a pad of paper in your hand waiting for something to come to you, or the time that you follow your intuition wherever it leads, free from worry that you’re screwing it up. These happen to be the parts of the creative process that are most bothersome and mortifying. They are the parts you invent a thousand little tasks to avoid, both because they provoke anxiety and because they feel indistinguishable from laziness, and you’ll be damned if anyone thinks of you as lazy. Like his films, Lynch’s MasterClass focuses on the parts of living that are hardest to explain, the ineffable, uncanny parts that, because of their irrationality, could most easily slide into being embarrassing. These things? Language is inadequate to their expression, just as language is inadequate to the task of expressing the experience of watching Mulholland Drive for the first time.

So what would happen if you weren’t embarrassed? If you made peace with the creative process the way Lynch himself seems to have done. What if you were OK with spending four hours working just to get one hour of good writing done, as he insists you need to be? What if you met your new instructor where he is, instead of asking him to give you what you want?

You go on a walk, with your phone and headphones in a tote bag. The sun is shining, and there’s a wind. It’s one of those New York days where it looks warm but it’s actually quite cold and everyone is underdressed. As you walk, you bait the hook with your desire to have an idea, an idea for how you’ll write the review of this MasterClass. And when it comes to you—that you will tell the story of your experience in the second person, separating it from yourself the way Lynch does his films, telling a story, worrying less about how much sense it makes—you catch that idea, by writing it down.