'Am I mentally ill?' he asks. 'No.'
The director David Lynch cuts a striking figure as he makes his way to the stage, his black suit and tie reminding onlookers of a mortician - or perhaps of Special Agent Dale Cooper, the FBI officer investigating a murder in Twin Peaks, Lynch's quirky early Nineties TV series.
As offbeat as it often was, the critically acclaimed, short-lived mystery series was nevertheless among the more conventional projects ever to bear Lynch's name, and the question hanging in the air as the director is introduced is much the same as before a screening of one of his films: Just how strange is this going to be? The answer, in the context of his movies, is weird but not too weird, a Q&A equivalent closer to Mulholland Drive than Blue Velvet, more like Wild at Heart than Inland Empire.
Still, it's an unusual event, with the director drawing uncertain giggles early on as he talks about his meeting that morning with President Shimon Peres, an encounter he describes as "a tender meeting. It felt very good." Later in the session, he starts an answer by repeating his questioner's query: "Am I mentally ill?" he asks. "No." Lynch's audience, several hundred film students crammed into a theater at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, cringes collectively at the questioner's indelicate phrasing, embarrassed that one of their own would say such a thing to the four-time Oscar nominee standing in their midst.
But at the same time, the question isn't an entirely unreasonable one: Lynch, after all, is the creative force behind many of the strangest, most hallucinatory movies of the last three decades. Reviews of his work often require a lesson in code-breaking themselves, with critics making tortured and frequently tenuous attempts to analyze his movies and figure out what, precisely, they're actually about. An article in The New York Times may have put it best earlier this year when it described much of Lynch's oeuvre as "just plain weird."
The man himself also proves an unusual figure, having arrived in Israel Sunday evening to meet local fans and discuss what he considers his most important activity - "transcendental meditation," a practice he promoted in separate meetings this week with Education Minister Yuli Tamir and with Culture, Science and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadle.
As he explains at a Monday press conference at Jerusalem's Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, Lynch believes many of Israel's problems could be solved - or at least significantly diminished - were the country to find "250 advanced meditators working day by day to bring harmony, peace, happiness and creativity, and to dissolve this [regional] enmity." Along with references to concepts like "eternal knowledge" and "supreme enlightenment," the statement draws a wave of barely concealed skepticism in his audience. At the Jerusalem Cinematheque that evening, a film student from the Sapir Academic College in Sderot wonders aloud about the extent to which meditation would have helped her this summer, when editing on her most recent project was delayed by warning sirens and Kassam attacks that often ripped through the air just moments apart.
THE 61-YEAR-OLD director gets his point across somewhat more effectively in a more intimate setting the next day, speaking about his work as he gazes at Jerusalem's Old City from a terrace outside his hotel. "People say, 'David, you're so naive,'" he says. "This sounds like some New Age thing. But it's eternal, ancient."
He's not suggesting peace will arrive merely as a result of meditation, he goes on, but instead advocates the practice as a way of changing the country's emotional and spiritual balance. "Keep everything the same, keep your defenses the same," he says. "Just add this group [of meditators] and keep them protected and working."
It's a practice that's clearly made a difference for him, at any rate, leading the filmmaker to establish the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace, a mouthful of an organization that promotes meditation primarily as a boost to children's education. ("Now our education is a joke," he says, speaking of the American school system. "Education is learning facts and figures under stress. It's horrible, and grades and learning improve when meditation is added to the curriculum.")
He says he discovered the practice during work on one of his early breakthroughs, Eraserhead, about a man whose first child is a reptilian creature who never stops crying. As production began on the film at a massive Beverly Hills mansion, he remembers realizing that "it should have been the happiest day of my life," but says that he "looked inside and saw that I was hollow." He began to practice meditation after learning about it from his sister, saying he "heard a change in her voice" after she began to meditate.
His own first meditation experience was "euphoric," he says, "like zooming into bliss." He's been a devotee ever since, meditating twice daily even as he's shot another seven feature-length films and watched them rack up 12 Oscar nominations and two prizes at Cannes. (Four of the Academy Award nominations have been for him, three for directing and one for co-writing the screenplay for The Elephant Man, the 1980 drama about a severely deformed London man.)
His films - to the extent that they deal with any consistent theme - are often about innocence's ugly death, with characters ranging from a restless college student (Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet) to an aspiring young actress trying to make it in Hollywood (Naomi Watts, fittingly enough, in the Mulholland Drive role that made her a star).
He's worked with A-listers and icons including Anthony Hopkins and Isabella Rossellini, but the star of his films, ultimately, is always David Lynch.
And how could he not be? The writer, director and producer of nearly all his films, he's also occasionally acted and composed music for them, including several of the numbers in his two most recent efforts.
As a result, the director may come closer to achieving his own vision than any other filmmaker, meaning credit for all the weirdness is unquestionably his due.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy made the director an officer earlier this month in France's Legion of Honor, with the filmmaker recalling the induction ceremony this week with a smile and glimpse back at Jerusalem's Old City.
It's "pure luck," he says, that his films have been so embraced, claiming that "lots of people are making good work, and they don't get the same green lights I have." Asked if anything's been missed, or perhaps misunderstood, over the course of his three-decade career, he's suddenly back on message, reiterating his hopes for the country he arrived in two days before.
"I want Israel to have a peace-creating group," he says, referring to the meditation team he's already described.
He's off for an appearance at the Haifa Cinematheque, but he wants to be sure to get in a final few words. The meditation group, he goes on, should work "on a permanent basis, radiating a glorious field of unity every day."
He shows off a bit of the local language while waiting to leave, perhaps aware that his great concern is the same as Hebrew's standard farewell.
"Shalom," he says, giving a small wave.