David Lynch: The Art Life hits a sweet spot in terms of its release date. Lynch’s feature-length debut Eraserhead has just turned 40 years old, and the new season of Twin Peaks starts in May. There’s bound to be a resurgence of all things Lynch in the next month and a half, and The Art Life is essential viewing for Lynch enthusiasts. It feels like a capstone doc, but it doesn’t necessarily offer new revelations about the filmmaker. The Art Life is essential for what the film is.
Directors Jon Nguyen and Rick Barnes have recreated the experience of hanging out with David Lynch in his art studio. We watch him at work as he paints and draws and smokes, and all the while he tells stories that illuminate what’s on screen.
Lynch is an odd duck. In interviews, his answers have a child-like terseness that people often ascribe to affectation. Hey, it’s Weird Director acting like Weird Director should act. What The Art Life often does best is offer oblique context and texture (a quality Lynch seems obsessed with) while remaining safely at the outskirts of answers.
David Lynch: The Art Life
Directors: Jon Nguyen and Rick Barnes
Release Date: March 31, 2017
The Art Life is like passing a flashlight along a bumpy surface to watch the way the shadows shift, or standing near a painting at a weird angle to admire the thickness of the paint and note the interruptions in the path of a brushstroke. Lynch mentions that the past can often inform images or ideas, and then gets talking about an early childhood memory. In his childhood suburb standing outside, a naked woman in distress across the street; he didn’t know what was wrong but just that something was wrong. Accompanying artwork fills the screen. While Nguyen and Barnes never show the corresponding clip from Blue Velvet, I couldn’t help but think of that scene in Blue Velvet. Yet that’s the point. This memory has been with Lynch his entire life, and there are plenty of manifestations of it in his art.
This made me think about the way Lynch speaks and how that’s a study in vocal texture. He uses simple language to convey deep feelings that are maybe too complex to describe. Weird Director affectation, sure maybe, yet there’s also the way Lynch says what he says. I can hear the verbal underlining and italicizing, and some of the (intentionally or unintentionally) arch delivery when he means more than he’s willing to say. While sharing another childhood memory, Lynch stops abruptly. Something really bad happened, and we know nothing more, so it must have been that bad. The texture of the memory but not the memory directly.
As an aggregate of these biographical textures, it’s fascinating to consider The Art Life as a lens through which to view Eraserhead. The documentary covers Lynch’s childhood to the making of his first feature film. If the past informs images and ideas, this must be a sample of the mental material Lynch brought to Eraserhead; all that unease in Philadelphia and the intense poverty and the unspoken difficulties of Lynch’s first marriage. Yet Eraserhead is still an inscrutable masterpiece of personal associations and whatever its viewer brings to it.
Beyond texture, I think The Art Life is a great display of Lynch’s creative process. There’s something wonderful about seeing visual artists at work. How they do what they do is often an expression of who they are. Lynch is especially hands-on, and almost childlike in terms of his approach, but there’s also an intuitive intellect at work that knows how to manipulate the material being worked. He uses paint layered thick for textures, sometimes applied to panels with his hands, smeared across. What better way to really control texture? Every now and then, Lynch’s 3-year-old daughter Lula appears on screen, painting alongside dad. It’s so idyllic in that industrial workspace of Lynch’s home. It reminds me of a well-kept metalshop/woodshop class in a good public high school.
I’d like to revisit the 1997 documentary Pretty As a Picture: The Art of David Lynch, which seems like a strong companion piece to The Art Life. In that documentary, Lynch mentions how he liked using latex paints and house paints when he does visual art, and how he used to incorporate raw meat into his artwork so ants and flies could pick away at the paintings and allow interesting things to happen to the images. Maybe the past doc will inform the present doc and vice versa, and maybe the old Lynch will illuminate something the younger Lynch said. The art life is a long one. Strange too, and worthwhile.