David Lynch: The Art Life

By Tony Inglis

How do you make a documentary, an in depth look at the creative process of, a filmmaker, a musician, a painter, an artist, who is notorious for refusing to explain his work? For refusing to explain anything?

When David Lynch, best known for his critically acclaimed surrealist films, but also multiple soundtracks, scores, albums and works of visual art, was asked his opinion of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life – perhaps that director’s best work in some time – Lynch replied that it was not his “cup of tea”. When pushed, he repeated. David Lynch will not even help us understand his taste in films.

How do you make a documentary about a filmmaker whose style and themes are so awash in today’s pop culture landscape that his canon is used as comparison to the point of dilution? In my early days as a journalist, on placement at another Scottish arts and culture magazine, while transcribing an interview with Under the Skin director Jonathan Glazer, I heard the word “Lynchian” being bandied about so often that the editor banned its use. How can a documentary on this man be anything other than overkill?

David Lynch at work in his Hollywood Hills home

These are two hurdles that Jon Nguyen’s crowdfunded portrait of the artist as a young man, David Lynch: The Art Life, effortlessly glides over in its sub 90-minute running time. By focusing on Lynch’s childhood; his days living in suburban American neighbourhoods across Montana, Virginia, Washington and Idaho; his years of study in Boston; discovering and understanding his talent in Philadelphia; and finishing up with the creation of his debut feature, Eraserhead, in Beverly Hills, the film avoids any awkward and unnecessary discussion of the myth surrounding Lynch’s wondrous and disturbing oeuvre.

In any case, do we really want these “moving paintings”, as Lynch calls them, to be discussed in detail? Or should we let them live, breathe and be constantly reinterpreted?

What Nguyen presents in this documentary is far more fascinating. It helps that Lynch is an engrossing and charismatic screen presence. Long cuts of Lynch working on his paintings, or even just sitting, with his iconic hair, in his gloriously messy workshop, surrounded by cigarette smoke, backed sometimes by silence, at other times by his own music, are surprisingly entrancing.

Even more interesting are his detailed, coolly described, sometimes nightmarish (perhaps apocryphal) stories of his upbringing, and certain events that go a little way to explaining the twisted shapes on his canvasses and the dark and brooding atmospheres of many of his films.

A younger, but still effortlessly cool, Lynch on set

This is perhaps the most contradictory revelation of Lynch’s life, and this movie. On the surface, there does not seem to be a whole lot of darkness in his past. He is a bright and funny personality. We see him play with his daughter, and archival footage of his supportive family and comfortable surroundings. He recounts anecdote after anecdote, sometimes they are meaningful, others seem less so, but they are always funny or gripping or bizarre. I could have sat in the cinema listening to him talk, in his distinctive tone, all day.

We do get some insight – into his rebelliousness, a desire to be different to all those around him, even when he felt contented in that position, a drive to succeed, a hatred of normality, an underlying depression, and a fear of a too ordinary future. It is not much, but it brings us inches closer to understanding this outrageously gifted and unusual man. As a fan of all his work, it was captivating.

Lynch has such a grip on so much of the art, mainstream or alternative, that we consume nowadays. It can be seen in the stilted behaviour of characters in movies such as Jordan Peele’s horror comedy Get Out; it can be heard in the countless bands and artists who site Lynch as an influence; it can be witnessed in the attention to detail world-building and boundary-pushing of television shows like The Leftovers, The Young Pope, The Sopranos, Stranger Things, and myriad other series. His movies were the subject of the recent CineMasters film season at the Glasgow Film Theatre.

The bottom line, though, is Lynch is having the last laugh, the final word. The revived Twin Peaks, directed and written entirely by Lynch, alongside collaborator Mark Frost, is unlike anything seen on television since the original series. It is polarising. Some have heralded it the best thing on TV for years. Others brand it baffling and tedious. The truth is it shows Lynch’s unabashed desire to always do something new, be creative, and push viewers to their limits.

This documentary gives us only a glimpse at his process, and only sheds a fraction of light on the meaning of his art. But most importantly it is a celebration of a capital A ‘Artist’ who continues to permeate our ordinary world with wonder and weirdness.

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