Review: David Lynch: The Art Life
David Lynch is hardly a recluse, but he’s certainly elusive. He pointedly deflects any questions about the meaning of his work, despises audio commentaries, and tends not to pop up in the public eye between projects. It’s not that he won’t talk (see the mesmerizingly minimalist Eraserhead Stories or the charming freeform Twin Peaks discussion A Slice of Lynch), but he won’t give his takes on his own stories, because that would rob us of our power to decide what they mean to us. Anyone familiar with this ethos will know that David Lynch: The Art Life isn’t going to be a straightforward career retrospective.
Co-directed by Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm and funded via Kickstarter, The Art Life gives one of our foremost living filmmakers a chance to talk for ninety minutes about everything but filmmaking. In candid voiceovers, Lynch speaks while we watch footage of him working in his home studio at his first love, painting. He recalls his youth, sharing verbal snapshots of his emotional state at various points of growing up.
There are no shocking revelations or dark secrets on display here. If there’s anything unnerving about the portrait painted by the film, it’s how downright relatable the master of modern surrealism is in his reflections. Expounding in his unmistakable measured, nasal twang upon feelings about disappointing his parents, making friends, and searching for a career path, he shows that artists are formed pretty much like people of any other profession.
In classic Lynch fashion, the documentary doesn’t draw any direct lines between his stories and their relevance to his films, but the dots are there for us to connect. A brief encounter with a troubled naked woman wandering down the street obviously made its way into Blue Velvet. Lynch’s recollections of teenage self-destructive compulsions suggest he saw more than a little of himself in Laura Palmer. Perhaps most telling, he fondly remembers his mother refusing to buy him coloring books for fear that staying inside the lines would stifle his creativity. Clearly, we have her to thank for his defiantly unconventional narrative structures.
Our time with Lynch is nearly over before cinema even comes up. He recalls becoming fixated on the idea of letting one of his paintings move with sound, and following this diversion into experiments in film. He looks back on his failed attempts to teach himself this new discipline as “happy accidents”, the striking results of untrained error exciting him more than his original intention. It’s here that the discussion reveals the little blue key to what drives David Lynch. He’s less a moviemaker than he is a painter who wants his visions to move, and who isn’t afraid to follow failure into discovery.
Releasing now, on the eve of Lynch’s return to the screen with Twin Peaks after a decade-long absence, The Art Life feels like an explanation of what he’s been up to and why he’s been content to remain a homebody. The film is dedicated to his five-year-old daughter, Lula, and is perhaps intended as a scrapbook to be left behind to remember him by. If the new Twin Peaks is to be a grand final trip into the worlds David Lynch created, The Art Life is as close as we’ll likely get to one last artist’s statement.