Posted by Susan Doll on January 24, 2011
David Lynch celebrated his 65th birthday last Thursday and Fellow Morlock RH Smith honored one of America’s most respected directors by offering a thought-provoking post comparing Lynch with Edgar Allan Poe as artists who traffic in a peculiar brand of American macabre. Elsewhere on the Internet, bloggers and cinephiles revealed their high regard for the Master of Muholland Drive by noting his special day. The attention and respect given Lynch is deserved, given his auteur status, body of work, and reputation as America’s premier surrealist of the cinema. Coincidentally, I recently caught a film at the Palm Springs International Film Festival that revealed another side to Lynch, and I wonder if his devoted fans will think of him differently should they see it.
David Wants to Fly was not the best film I saw at the festival but it may have been my favorite. This diary-style documentary by David Sieveking, a young filmmaker from Germany, is deceptively light in tone, but it is actually a complex combination of a personal journey, an investigative expose, and a commentary on hero worship. The film opens in 2006 with a young Sieveking fresh out of film school, unemployed, and living with his independent-minded girlfriend. With no direction, job, or sense of himself, he decides to travel to Fairfield, Iowa, for a workshop conducted by his idol, David Lynch, on the sources of creativity. There, Sieveking discovers that the event is being held at the Maharishi University of Enlightenment and that much of the workshop is about Transcendental Meditation. Lynch has been a practitioner of TM for about 30 years, but he did not begin advocating it publicly until after the turn of the millennium. In addition to workshops at Maharishi U, Lynch has written a book titled Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity. Transcendental Meditation is the spiritual movement begun by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who initiated many celebrities into TM in the 1960s, including the Beatles, Mia Farrow, and Donovan. Through TM, the Maharishi promised creativity, good health, success, and “heaven on earth.”
Likable and sincere, Sieveking is on camera for most of the film, and he narrates throughout, pulling us into his personal journey. Events unfold through his perspective, and the viewer experiences events and learns information as Sieveking does, which is a tactic suited to both a diary film and an investigation. Sieveking and his cameraman are allowed to film parts of the workshop and are even granted an interview with Lynch. The novice filmmaker is impressed when the famous auteur speaks openly and sincerely about TM. Lynch likes to wiggle his fingers as he tries to explain the virtues of TM, including how the practice helped him shed his “suffocating rubber clown suit of negativity,” a phrase also found in his book. As Lynch spoke, my mind conjured up an image of Lynch in a giant clown suit—like something from a scene in one of his movies—and I wondered if he sees these images in his head when he speaks in such colorful metaphors. Though Lynch seems content after his years of meditation, I found his explanations regarding TM’s influence on creativity neither clear nor helpful. However, young Sieveking is inspired to join the TM movement when he returns to Germany. He discovers that initiation into TM—in which he will receive his own personal mantra—requires him to bring along a collection of unusual items as well as E2,380, or $3,200.
Sieveking finds that meditation is helpful in focusing his mind and emotions, and his life calms down for a few weeks. He receives funding for his movie, and his relationship with his journalist girlfriend improves. Part of the charm of the movie is Sieveking’s honest portrayal of his ill-fated romance, which not only provides the film with a bittersweet humor but also reveals the director’s sensitive side.
Up to this point, the film seems little more than a light-hearted personal documentary about a young man’s search for direction in life, but Sieveking’s story takes a left turn in 2008 when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi dies. After the old yogi’s death, Sieveking journeys to the TM headquarters in the Netherlands to attend the first TM conference with new spiritual leader Maharaja Nader Raam, a Lebanese doctor personally appointed by the Maharishi as his successor. Maharaja Raam talks about the need to construct a new $250,000,000 center for peace in Brahmasthan, India, where 10,000 pandits will pray 24/7 to achieve world peace. TM followers would be expected to pony up the money for the huge, new facility as they have for the movement’s other projects, compounds, schools, etc. One raja objects to some of Raam’s ideas and to his leadership in general, but his microphone is turned off so that his disagreements cannot be voiced. Sieveking notes that the TM movement does not like dissent in the ranks, which bothers him and makes him suspicious.
The director’s search for meaning in life suddenly turns into a bona fide investigation of TM, particularly their collection of large amounts of money to establish or construct new centers, compounds, and projects. The movement wants to build several centers all over the world, including in Berlin. David Lynch, who takes a higher profile in touting TM after the Maharishi dies, is hauled out by TM leaders like a dog-and-pony show to lay the cornerstones for each center. In Berlin, TM leaders purchase a plot of land with a notorious history to build their new center. At the press conference, TM leaders misspeak when they declare that the center will make Germany “invincible,” a word used in Nazi propaganda that angers the crowd of TM followers who attend. The plot of land turns out to be an abandoned facility used by the Nazis during WWII and then by the CIA during the Cold War. Deserted and abandoned, the facility is covered in graffiti and the ground littered with garbage and broken bottles. TM leaders seem completely oblivious to the German people’s objections, and a clearly nervous Lynch goes ahead and places the cornerstone on the garbage-strewn ground. Later, we learn that the land remains untouched by TM to this day save for Lynch’s tiny cornerstone.
Sieveking uncovers several questionable financial practices and claims by TM, including the truth behind the new center for peace in Brahmasthan. The crafty director disguises himself as a pandit and walks into the compound in India, which consists of dozens of buildings with shiny roofs. From a distance, they appear to be a sacred city shimmering on a hillside, but up close, they look shoddy and hastily constructed. Sieveking does not find the promised 10,000 pandits praying for peace; he finds about eight.
Word gets around about Sieveking and his film, and former TM followers who have left the movement come forward to relate their negative experiences. I couldn’t decide what was more shocking—the amount of money wealthy followers pour into the TM movement or the promises the movement makes in return for this money. One of their claims is that for a hefty fee they can teach followers yogic flying, which Sieveking thought was a metaphorical concept related to the euphoric feeling of deep concentration or meditation. But, yogic flying, which was developed by the Maharishi in 1976, refers to the actual levitation of the body that occurs when participants hop in the air while in the lotus position. Because yogic flying is a state of advanced consciousness, the body is supposed to spontaneously lift up. Sieveking shoots several attempts at yogic flying by teens in TM schools, but their “flying” was an impressive athletic feat—not levitation. The title of the film, David Wants to Fly, comes from Sieveking’s fascination with the idea, which he finds to be representative of TM’s less-than-truthful spin on its practices and beliefs.
When TM leaders find out that Sieveking is interviewing former TM followers, they threaten legal action to intimidate him into abandoning the film. David Lynch contacts the young director and demands editorial control over the handful of interviews conducted with him. Undeterred, Sieveking tries to get Lynch on camera again to explain the criticisms aimed at TM by detractors and former followers. Eventually and reluctantly, Lynch sits down for a few minutes with the filmmakers. He tries to put the criticisms in perspective by claiming that there are always a few negative spirits who want to cast aspersions on something beautiful, but he is visibly nervous and unsure. His words sound hollow and shallow. In watching the interview, I got the impression that Lynch sincerely believes in TM, yet he was vexed and unnerved when confronted with Sieveking’s questions—not at all like the subversive, edgy director we assume and expect him to be.
In a Q&A after the movie, Sieveking revealed that both Lynch and the TM organization threatened to sue him after the film was completed, but there is nothing false or libelous in the content, so there are no grounds. The TM folks then tried another tactic by claiming Sieveking was secretly working for the Catholic Church in order to discredit their organization. More damning regarding Lynch is that, according to Sieveking, when the film was scheduled to open the Berlin International Film Festival in 2010, the auteur used his influence to pressure the festival committee not to show it. The festival declined Lynch’s request and premiered David Wants to Fly anyway. Lynch has since dropped his efforts to sue, rightly noting that a lawsuit would bring more publicity to the film. Sieveking noted that he remains an admirer of Lynch’s style and body of films, which still serve as an inspiration for him.
Lynch’s appearance is the definite lure for this film, especially for American audiences, but David Wants to Fly has merit well beyond that. Its strength is the perfect balance of opposing ideas and strategies: Like a fist in a velvet glove, its serious subject is rendered with a light touch; it’s an investigative piece depicted like a personal documentary; revelations about a multi-million dollar organization are intercut with scenes of the director’s failing romance; and, a well-respected artist is both revered and shown to be fallible. The underlying structure is that of a journey—literally and figuratively. Sieveking travels around the world looking for answers about the TM organization, while he is also on a quest of self- discovery. It’s a journey we’ve all begun with the same sense of naïvete as Sieveking, and along the way, we’ve found inspiration, encountered twists in the road, and struggled with disillusionment before figuring out our path. For some, the journey was short; for others, it has taken a lifetime. And, like David, we all learn at some point that only birds can fly.
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