"To give a sense of place, to me, is a thrilling thing." -- David Lynch
Are you reveling in your staycation this summer, as the economy bucks and reels? If you happen to be an under-employed movie buff with a rapidly emptying bank account, then brother, I've got a recommendation for you: David Lynch's online Interview Project: interviewproject.davidlynch.com. If you can access the Internets (and since you're reading this brief review, I'm betting you can), then going for a drive on Mr. Lynch's latest cinematic road trip, along the lost highways of these United States, won't cost you a single dime.
Ten years ago, the late Richard Farnsworth was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar in Lynch's 1999 film The Straight Story. (He lost to Kevin Spacey's mad suburban dad in American Beauty.) The film follows the elderly Alvin Straight as he rides a tractor along the highway from Iowa to Wisconsin. At the time, fans of the Lynch oeuvre (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway) might have ignored this film in the multiplex on the way to see The Sixth Sense, or dismissed it as Disney-distributed pap. But from the first scene's establishing shot, the camera performing a slow-motion swan dive in reverse, majestically hovering above another green American lawn, auteur theorists in the audience could immediately recognize Lynch's fingerprints smearing the lens.
Now, in 2009, Lynch and his production team have returned to those same American back roads, the fly over territory bereft of Hollywood glamour, but powered by, and filled with, a different kind of electricity: the vulnerable, human machine. Like an inverted reality show, we are privy to a series of five-minute interviews with men and women (many senior citizens) who talk about their lives with a poetic grace and stillness that is virtually unheard of on broadcast television. We watch close-ups of the subjects' faces, like living daguerreotypes that stare out at us, telling stories both with their mouths and eyes.
However, it is the sound design that stylistically links these interviews to Lynch's previous films. Thunder, water, wind, birdsong, train whistles, and children's voices are shaped alongside the pauses and silences that punctuate each interview, expressing an unhappiness that cannot be described, or a life's conundrum that has yet to be answered. In addition to the sound, each interview becomes a visual tone poem that marries the content of the subject's words with the imagery of the place that surrounds them. Some stories are accompanied by static shots of a wide open iris or a dewy white lily; others contain jump cuts to stray dogs, circling vultures, or flies lingering on a pair of yellowed hands.
While the Lynch team asks the same questions of everyone (about family life, dreams and regrets), these short films remind us that despite the stated answers, the camera captures another response: what the eyes emote. Our eyes speak a different language, and tell a more complex story than words allow. This is the comforting and disconcerting nature of these interviews. (As of this writing, there are twenty-four uploaded, with a new one appearing every three days, until they number 121.)
Finding someone who will listen to our life's story, who will take an active interest in our joys and sorrows, is to realize the art of connection. These unsentimental portraits lend dignity to a few quiet lives and form a time capsule of a seldom-seen America. After the sprawling chaos of his last film, Inland Empire, the director has regained a clarity of purpose with Interview Project. His artistry frames and distills the poignancy, value and fragility of each human life into a five-minute movie.
As Lynch declaims in his introduction to every film, "Enjoy the interview."