Think of Jon Nguyen’s “David Lynch: The Art Life” as “The David Lynch Origin Story.” The documentary seeks to penetrate the sometimes impenetrable work of director David Lynch by chronicling his path towards filmmaking, and through it all, the famed director — with his crashing-wave of a haircut and ever-present cigarette — makes for an endearing, honest tour guide through his early life.
Lynch, the filmmaker behind such iconic works as “Blue Velvet,” “Twin Peaks,” and “Mulholland Drive” (recently named the “Best Film of the 21st Century” via a BBC poll), makes films steeped in surrealism and horror, so it’s no surprise the art he creates in his studio shares similar attributes. “The Art of Life” begins by following Lynch as he putters around in his studio space in the Hollywood Hills, using found objects and watered-down paint and pencils to construct startling works of art that will seem familiar to anyone who has studied his filmography. These works all seem to be taking place in the same dark, stark rooms that the characters in “Eraserhead” or “Blue Velvet” often find themselves trapped in. And like those film characters, the subjects in Lynch’s art seem similarly damned and doomed; in over their heads; succumbing to ruthless but somehow comical violence.
Lynch narrates as Nguyen uses both the aforementioned artwork and archival photographs and footage of Lynch’s youth to construct the film. We learn how Lynch took to drawing at a very young age, and how his mother — noticing his artistic temperament — refused to buy the child coloring books. Not because she was being cruel, but rather because she realized that forcing the future filmmaker to rely on coloring in someone else’s line art would be restrictive.
Growing up, Lynch had no tolerance for school. “I never studied — I hated it so much,” he says. He was more concerned with things outside of school — people, relationships, and “dark, fantastic” dreams. These dark dreams fueled his art, and the dream of being an artist itself seemed to inform his lifestyle. In Lynch’s mind as a teen, and one suspects even now as a 70 year old man, the ideal artist spent his time following a simple blueprint: “You drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, and you paint. And that’s it.”
‘The Art Life’ progresses through Lynch’s move, after high school, to Boston, where he found himself loathing college. He dropped out, only to eventually wind up in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He paints a portrait of Philadelphia as a nightmarish hellscape, filled with downright deranged neighbors and a sickly air of racism all about. Despite how unpleasantly Lynch describes the City of Brotherly Love, he also comments that moving there was the best thing to happen to him artistically. It opened up new, darker recesses of his mind, and inspired new, darker works of art.
Through the film Lynch lovingly talks about his father, describing him as a good and fair man who would always meet him halfway. He also describes a darkly humorous moment when his father came to visit him in Philadelphia. There, Lynch took his father into the basement of his newly rented home to show him his “experiments,” which included fruit in various states of rot, a dead rat preserved in plastic and several dead birds. Lynch was proud and excited to share this with his father, but the older Lynch reacted to it all with a pained expression. “David, I don’t think you should ever have children,” he told his son.
But Lynch does have a child with his first wife Peggy, who is glimpsed in archival footage and student films, and the director reflects on their marriage pleasantly enough, but it seems secondary to the film’s presentation. ‘The Art Life’ is more concerned with the art rather than the life of Lynch, and this is the only true weakness of the doc. While informative to a certain degree, there’s always a sense that something is missing here. That there’s more to Lynch than the film cares to explore. The narrative concludes around the time that the filmmaker is constructing “Eraserhead,” but film is an afterthought here. There’s no true exploration of what Lynch thinks about film as a medium, and one can’t help but be disappointed by this.
The final moments of “David Lynch: The Art Life” find Lynch reflecting on how, right before “Eraserhead” was finished, he was divorced and being told by his family to give up filmmaking and get a “real job.” They didn’t understand his vision, but he ended up delivering the film anyway — and being happy with it, proclaiming it as a project where he was able to do everything exactly the way he wanted. Here the material crackles to life, and then is cut short, just as it seems like it’s truly beginning. Perhaps we have to be content to let Lynch’s films speak for themselves, even if we don’t always understand entirely what they’re saying. [B]