David Lynch and Transcendental Meditation: David Wants to Fly

While at the recent Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival in Greece, I happened upon an idiosyncratic documentary, David Wants to Fly, a young German would-be filmmaker's lighthearted pursuit of his idol David Lynch which turns into an investigative exposure of the Lynch-endorsed Transcendental Meditation organization, as well as its deceased founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru made famous by the Beatles. The delight of this documentary lies in its lightness: the filmmaker's relationship with his adored (if not fetishized) girlfriend Marie (who wears cool German hats) is as much, if not more, a topic in this film than Lynch or TM. The film indeed begins with a cozy image of the director and pretty girlfriend snug in love in bed. However, the film picks up speed quickly, as the director scoots off to the U.S. to meet David Lynch who gives an agreeable interview with him, regarding TM, and then flight-hops to a splurge of different exotic locales, from Holland to India, to learn more about the TM enterprise -- which turns out to be, in the filmmaker's estimation, a money-making, corrupt and nefarious cult.

The director's aim seems to be to raise doubts -- if not fear -- not only about the TM organization, but Lynch's own foundation that has the mission to make TM available to school children, prisoners, the homeless and the military, to heal trauma and create peace.

It's a successful documentary, in that it does, in an amusingly whimsical way, raise suspicions about TM's billion dollar empire -- teaching me, for example, that it costs over $2,000 to get a mantra from a registered TM leader, while it would appear that any spiritually-minded person can come up with a mantra for free. The selected interview clips, with Lynch himself, various Indian gurus, a former American disillusioned financer of the TM movement, and a shaman-woman waving a negative-spirit-dispeller, are effective and fresh.

The film also has its own spiritual touch: many images of flying birds, water shots of the director swimming lyrically with his girlfriend, even an inspiring Himalaya climb with a sadhu, with a gorgeous "heaven on earth" shot of a lake snuggled in icy mountains. The point -- the director makes clear -- is that spirituality can be achieved without TM. Although superseding any spiritual aim is his desire to get back to Marie the girlfriend.

However, there are major flaws with the documentary, beginning with the filmmaker's predisposed prejudice to prefer Marie to meditation. The film is too cynically lightweight about the benefits of meditation, as well as about the integrity of Lynch's vision. Any reader of Lynch's published musing on creativity and meditation -- Catching the Big Fish -- will note that Lynch is no fanatic, but simply (and intelligently) proposes a helpful connection between meditating 20 minutes a day and opening channels of creativity.

Moreover, it doesn't seem too far-out to accept that anyone who makes films that have as violent and dark a subconscious as Lynch's probably would get an enormous benefit by the discipline and calm of a meditative practice -- to be able to create their powerful art. In his book, Lynch makes an interesting assertion that darkness should be in the artwork not in the artist -- and meditation helps keep the darkness at bay: "Anger and Depression and Sorrow are beautiful things in a story but they're like poison to the filmmaker or artist. They're a vice grip on creativity... You must have clarity to create. You have to be able to catch the big fish."

But -- I would add -- you should also have some darkness to begin with, or no art ensues. This, in fact, is the main problem with David Wants to Fly. Director David Sieveking admits upfront in the beginning of the documentary that his dream was to create dark films like his idol David Lynch, but realizes he lacks one important element: the darkness. Darkness (and depth) is missing in this documentary as well, and this is perhaps why Sieveking's account of Lynch's interest in meditation and the practice of TM comes off as sweetly superficial, like a naive kid's earnest enthusiasm to find at least a slice, if not a sliver, of the heart of darkness.

The other flaw of Sieveking's documentary is the punchline of TM as a nefarious cult. While the film does make clear that the organization is mixed with money (and big money), I did not detect the specific elements that distinguish cult practices: manipulation of members, traumatic brainwashing of those who wish to leave, coercing money, etc (see, par contre, my review of The Landmark Forum). If these are issues with TM (which they may very well be, for all I know), the director should have exposed them as well.

For the film ironically had the opposite effect on me than the filmmaker intended. While I probably will never (at a $2,000 an initiation fee) do TM myself, the morning after the screening, I woke up and -- influenced by the serenity of David Lynch's words (and his own success as an artist) -- I timed a 20 meditation for myself. Did it open up channels of creativity? Yes it did. I went back to a novel I was writing, and wrote an entirely new chapter.