Directors: Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, Olivia Neergaard-Holm
You are witnessing a front three-quarter view of an adult sharing several tender moments. That is to say, this documentary is an access point into the creative history of master filmmaker David Lynch, but not a Pandora’s box of answers to the riddles in his narratives. If you’re looking for the myriad secrets that exist in the negative spaces of his beguiling work, I suggest you return to those films and look a little differently, search with your intuition, read patterns with your sleeping mind. Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neegard-Holm’s film isn’t about that, and Lynch wouldn’t articulate the answers to those mysteries anyway. They’re where the magic lies, and besides, half the time Lynch puts on film what he can’t so eloquently put into words.
But he is an eloquent man, and an expressive one. When he talks, often from within an aura of languid cigarette smoke, his hands gesticulate with urgency, fingers spiriting the thickened air. Considering the darkness, the violence and the psychological oppression that typifies his work, Lynch himself is – as many have noted on meeting the man – a disarmingly folksie individual. He speaks with the sensitive manner of a thoughtful Sunday school boy, choosing his words carefully. You sense a nostalgia for eroded values and a wistfulness for his childhood era (something which imprints itself over and over again in his films). Though fiercely forward-thinking in how he creates his art, part of David Lynch will forever exist in the pretty 50’s of his imagination. Often his film work feels like a method of wrangling his disappointment that those days have been lost in the relentless march of time. The sorrow of waking up. Of innocence lost. The Art Life bears this out.
Lynch is an artist across platforms, and The Art Life moves the focus away from his much-documented work as a film director and instead reveals more of his work in other areas, mostly his painting. Before the revival of Twin Peaks, Lynch hadn’t made a feature since 2006’s dense and foreboding INLAND EMPIRE, but he didn’t spend the intervening time resting on his laurels. He recorded two albums, made a number of short films exclusively for his web audience, and continued to work prolifically with paint and found objects, combining them in some of the purest expressions of his inner self.
Recollections are the focus of The Art Life and Lynch himself says that his painting inevitably contains his past. He talks fondly of his mother who nurtured his creative side early on. Considering the body of work he has amassed over the course of his years, The Art Life could be viewed as advocacy for a certain sensibility in parenting. Archival footage helps Lynch to document his childhood split between Montana, Idaho and Virginia and then the dissatisfaction of his college years, right up through to his early experiments with animation and film.
He connects his childhood innocence with the aftertaste of World War II. He doesn’t self-analyse, but this comment in itself is enough to ponder the origins of the darkness that permeates his work, as though throughout his life he’s been trying to reconcile the existence of evil. Some of Lynch’s recollections are recognisable as influences on his work in later life. The tale of a naked woman appearing incongruously in his neighbourhood evokes Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, for instance. Later, photographs of his surroundings in Philadelphia strongly convey the visual language of Eraserhead, his debut feature; industrial rot and ruin. He talks less fondly of Virginia and, as well spoken as he is, sometimes the words aren’t enough. That poetic side surfaces. Virginia is described as “always night”… and you can perceive his meaning. This is the essence of Lynch’s communication with us in all forms. A suggestion builds a mood and we understand.
Lynch seems to have built his existence out of a dream of his own version of perfection; a life of coffee and cigarettes, artistic freedom and, occasionally, women. This film is as intimate a portrait of Lynch’s life as we’ve been afforded. Several other films have been made before focusing on the man, and Lynch has proven repeatedly open to interview, but The Art Life feels as though it peels delicately and with greater candor than we’ve been previously afforded. Perhaps Lynch is more comfortable to archive his experiences in this manner now. The trio of directors keep the film simple, quiet, respectful. It’s artfully shot but without particular ego. The man and his words are the thing.
Occasionally we see Lynch with his (very) young daughter Lula, though her mother doesn’t feature. Lynch himself has become an old man, and seeing the vast distance in years between the two of them reminds us of his mortality. The Art Life is not the complete story of the man, but it sketches in some of the blanks that helped engineer the work we’ve been gifted to date. We have his voice and images of his uniquely haunting visual style, time spent in his ramshackle studio and the man himself; white quiff like a cockatoo’s plumage and a cigarette in hand. It’s not a complete face-on view, but it’s more than enough.