David Lynch: The Art Life (2017)
Directed by Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Rick Barnes
For some strange reason, David Lynch is not the household name it once was in the early 1990s. And those who do know the name think of him primarily as a filmmaker. He has some pretty major works of cinema attached to his name: Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive. Twin Peaks is likely the most major work he’s ever released. But Lynch views himself as a visual artist and painter who also makes films. The images he has imported from his paintings into his film work are some of the most stunning, surreal things put on the screen. He’s also an incredibly cryptic director when it comes to talking about his work, preferring not to publicly analyze and dissect it, going to far as to give simple yes or no answers when asked about details in discussion with film critic Mark Kermode.
Instead of a documentary about the making of his great film works, as so many directors might go for, we get a movie that focuses primarily on the childhood and early adult years of Lynch’s life, looking at the inspiration behind his love of creating and hints at where some of his recurring imagery may be sourced. The entirety of the doc takes place at a Lynch’s Los Angeles home and art studio, the only other live person glimpsed on screen is Lulu, his toddler daughter. While images of Lynch composing artwork plays we hear his voice over returning back to his childhood spent in Idaho, Montana, and Washington.
Lynch’s sense of the urban idyll springs from this childhood as the eldest of three children, doted on by warm and caring parents. He cites his mother’s refusal to buy him coloring books as a significant step in his development as an artist. His own analysis is that she saw the high artistic potential and didn’t want to box him in. It’s a relatively progressive parenting move for the repressed American 1950s.
Eventually, the family moves to Virginia, and we learn about Lynch’s lack of love for the east coast. He doesn’t mince words about how awful this period is on reflection, falling in with a crowd of juvenile delinquents in his early teens. As he breaks away from his parents, they become less and less supportive of his endeavors. A change occurs when he meets the son of a local painter, who specializes in abstracts and surrealism. This artist manages to convince Lynch’s father that the young man is very serious about art and to encourage the development.
After a failed stint at an art college in Boston, Lynch moved to Philadelphia which is where his vision as an artist comes to fruition. He is heavily influenced by the nightmarish post-industrial landscape of the city and social tensions boiling just under the surface. There are some fascinating anecdotes about a mentally ill woman who pretended to be a chicken in her backyard, the violent reactions Lynch got from locals to his kindly Midwestern demeanor, and the time he got to tour a morgue after hours.
The documentary ends its journey around the time Lynch was working Los Angeles, having received a film grant, and is creating Eraserhead. He’s experienced his first divorce at this stage and is becoming increasingly devoted to producing this film. He’s not without moments of doubts as he describes an encounter with his father and brother who both tell him to give up his art because it doesn’t seem lucrative in any way.
David Lynch will always be an enigma, not in any artificial poseur way, but in the manner of which a true artist is too complex to sum up in simple terms. He is incredibly genuine in chasing the hunger of creativity. Recently, when asked by Entertainment Weekly about what he did the night of Twin Peaks: The Return’s television premiere, Lynch explained he was working in his wood shop on a rolling side table. He goes on to draw a simple sketch for the interviewer to show what the table will look like when completed. Fame is an incidental feature of his work. Lynch would be creating at this pace regardless of public reaction to his work, as evidenced by the Cannes audience booing the premiere of Fire Walk With Me 25 years ago. He simply doesn’t think about the audience while creating, he just follows the kernel of his ideas and takes a journey to see where they go.