David Lynch: The Art Life
(Denmark/USA, 88 min.)
Dir. Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, Olivia Neergaard-Holm
“A moving painting,” whispers filmmaker/artist David Lynch. Lynch recalls a flash of inspiration in which his avant-garde paintings came to life in his mind’s eye. He explains how this creative tingle motivated him to try animation, then experimental cinema and, eventually, dramatic filmmaking. Why limit the canvas of the imagination to one frame?
Lynch, the iconoclastic director of arthouse masterpieces like Mulholland Dr. and Blue Velvet, and the cult hit TV series Twin Peaks, is a true artist. (And, admittedly, one of this writer’s favourite dramatic filmmakers.) Anyone who’s seen one of Lynch’s works might agree with the resemblance to a moving painting. Recall the white picket fences, red roses, and clear blue skies of Blue Velvet that create a world of suburban bliss as Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) stumbles upon a severed ear. The visual beauty and surreal atmospheres of the Lynchian universe are painterly worlds: the colours, textures, hues, and palettes are evidence of a background in fine arts as he mixes the strange and the familiar like one blends yellow and blue to make a new shade of green.
The cinema is the canvas for which Lynch is primarily known, but his early period as a painter and artist are formative years for his creative vision. The Art Life takes audiences down the rabbit hole of the director’s dark mind. This documentary is an origins story of sorts as it receives an intimate account of the lesser-known side of Lynch’s oeuvre. The Art Life immerses audiences in the psyche of a man and his subversive, avant-garde aesthetics. Film and art, as Agent Cooper might say, are complementary verses of the same song.
Where all Lynch’s dark and macabre imagery comes from, however, is peculiar. Lynch recalls his life growing up in a conventional and relatively straight-laced family in the timberland of America: a happy childhood with good parents who never quarreled. Archival footage reveals snapshots of small town America that could easily be Twin Peaks or Lumberton, and the doc provides insight to the experiences and inspirations for Lynchland without the filmmaker/artist even having to put them into words.
Lynch creates new works featuring violent and sexual images that are the stuff of nightmares. Screams and cries materialize in his tactile paintings. His story tells of the difficulty one encounters in creating such challenging art in a relatively square community. Lynch recalls, for example, how his father told him never to have children after he saw what his young son was conjuring in his studio. Archival images of Lynch with his daughter Jennifer and new footage of him with his youngest daughter Lula, however, show that one can make twisted art and raise a family at the same time.
Some anecdotes about falling in with the wrong crowd hint at walks on the wild side of life that his subjects often tread, but Lynch’s story is a relatively straight one if one considers that he picked up a paintbrush instead of a bottle, a needle, or a gun. Art is a great place to explore the obscure recesses of the mind.
As Lynch tells his life story in voiceover, the words, which come from over 20 hours of carefully edited interviews, play like free-flowing narration. The tinny sound of Lynch speaking into the microphone adds a surreal and arty air to the story as The Art Life observes Lynch working on his art in his compound and studio. It’s great to watch him in action as he furiously tears apart a canvas, plying putty and epoxy to make a twisted piece with shades and textures. It’s even better, though, to watch Lynch smoke in pensive thought as his words reverberate over the images as the pristine cinematographer observes an artist immersed in his element.
David Lynch: The Art Life doesn’t delve into Lynch’s filmography too much beyond a look at his early shorts and first feature Eraserhead, but his movies aren’t the point of the film. Directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm have an obvious admiration for Lynch — The Art Life is Nguyen’s second work on the filmmaker — and they let his story wash over the viewer with meditative pacing as slow-mo cigarette smoke and jazzy music waft through the air. It’s an illuminating and fascinating glimpse inside a head of a creative genius.