The life of the artist is frequently envied and romanticized. Turn back the pages of most history books, and you’ll find the artist has been looked to for social critique, entertainment and insight for thousands of years, fulfilling an important function in society. Given this role, it’s no surprise that films about artists hold a lot of interest. The life of the film auteur has been enjoying particular focus in recent years; from Hitchcock/Truffaut to De Palma to the upcoming Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki, cinematic journeys into the lives and methodologies of celebrated filmmakers prove to enthrall and entertain.
On paper, Jon Nguyen’s David Lynch: The Art Life might seem like a similar exercise, an exploratory excursion into the life and artistic philosophy of one of the greatest American filmmakers of the 20th century. However, those hoping for in-depth, naked insight into the meaning or intent behind Lynch’s best known work may come away slightly disappointed. Much like its subject, David Lynch: The Art Life isn’t quite so straightforward or accessible.
Lynch, in his own words and on own his own terms, is the central focus this narrative, and the rest of the film simply revolves around him talking. It’s not unlike a meditative, stream of consciousness thread, as Nguyen allows for Lynch to drift freely from one thought to another, with only a loose structure in place via Lynch’s progression of thought from reminisces of his childhood through to his Philadelphia years and the eventual making of Eraserhead. The film achieves what seems like an unprecedented level of cooperation and candor from the typically evasive Lynch, following the man as he works in his studio, wanders around his house, draws with his young daughter, and keenly recalls his memories of childhood, his family life, schooling, and the formative experiences that shaped his worldview and artistic drive.
Lynch speaks in precise, measured statements, and his matter-of-fact recollections come mostly through voice-over, illustrated by a combination of 16mm family home videos and footage of Lynch working and tending to day-to-day household responsibilities. These snapshots of the mundane every day of his life are augmented by glimpses of Lynch’s paintings and short films, in slightly unnerving transition shots that eerily parallel Lynch’s own beautifully grotesque, surrealist style. Lynch’s words, visuals, and his haunting, reverb-drenched guitar instrumentals which serve as the film’s soundtrack converge into an effectively evocative, dream-like state reminiscent of many of his films.
It truly feels like Nguyen has delivered the viewer into some other other plane of existence, Lynch’s singular, interior world, with Lynch himself playing guide. He describes, with reverence and awe, stepping into an artist’s studio for the first time, a space rented by a school friend’s artist father, and knowing immediately the path his life would take him. From that point forward, he dreamed ceaselessly about living what he calls “the art life,” a mostly solitary, disciplined existence dedicated to creating. He keenly reminisces about his childhood in the Midwest surrounded by a loving family, led by a supportive, compassionate mother and a fair-minded, straight shooting scientist father. In many ways, his youth comes across as an average, picaresque Midwestern childhood experience. As we come to expect with Lynch, however, there is an undercurrent of darkness creeping just below the surface. As a teenager, for example, he lived a self-described double-life, drinking and running with the wrong crowd. He desperately sought to keep his family life and social life separate, for fear of what might emerge if they converged, and this conflict flooded his subconscious with “dark, fantastic dreams.”
While Lynch’s anecdotes and insights are often hilarious, they also veer into places both heartbreaking and strange, and are not always as straightforward or obviously revelatory as one might come to expect from this subgenre of documentary film making. At one point, Lynch begins a story about an encounter he had on the eve of his family moving house. He and his family were all outside, on the lawn, saying their goodbyes to their neighbors, the Smiths. Suddenly, Mr. Smith—mysterious patriarch—emerged from the neighboring house, and as his voice lowers and trembles with some ineffable upset, Lynch stops himself mid-sentence: “I can’t tell the story.” It creates a curious sense of unease, leaving one to grapple with the slightly sinister ambiguity of what might have transpired. “Now it’s dark.”
There are a few telling moments that lend insight into some of Lynch’s most recognizable films. The most striking example is an incident he recounts from his early youth; he and his brother were outside playing at sunset, when, from a distance, they spotted a bruised and battered woman stumbling down the street toward them, naked and disoriented. As she lurched closer and dropped to a nearby curb to cry, Lynch stared, stunned and powerless, wanting to help her but not knowing what, as a child, he could do. He carried this horrifying image with him for decades, suppressed, until it eventually emerged in one of Blue Velvet’s most haunting, unforgettable scenes.
Still, while all of Lynch’s stories are fascinating and intriguing, they don’t entirely solidify or elucidate who he is or what motivates him. A lot is left to interpretation and must be read between the lines. Similarly, there are certainly times throughout where the absence of any outsider voices is glaring, even frustrating. For a figure as enigmatic as Lynch, hearing from his closest family, friends and collaborators could have offered unique, compelling insight. In this way, David Lynch: The Art Life may alienate some of its audience.
Ultimately, though, as much as the “talking head” approach might have resulted in a more rounded study of the man, I’m not convinced it would have led to quite as much of a thematically cohesive piece. Setting Lynch as the focus entirely, hearing about his life and his work in his own words, and limiting the scope of the project to his own his own environment encapsulates the myopic, insular “art life” Lynch idealized in his youth while still being illuminating in its own way. Every loving shot of him as he works, smokes, drives, contemplates, and shares the joy of making art with his daughter provides a unique window into the incredible and incredibly strange man who dedicated his life to realizing his dark, fantastic dreams.