David Lynch: The Art Life is a documentary in the same sense
that a David Lynch film is a movie. Neither term is incorrect, and yet
neither seems entirely sufficient either. More often than not, a David
Lynch film will rivet your attention and still leave you wondering what
you just watched at the end. It may require multiple viewings to arrive
at a theory about what it "means." And even then, its meaning may feel
elusive, and your attempts to find it foolish, pretentious even.
Strictly speaking, The Art Life is a documentary, directed by Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm,
about David Lynch and his lifelong obsession with making art. He was a
painter long before he became a filmmaker, while studying at the
Philadelphia Academy of Art in his early 20s, when he became fascinated
with the idea of creating "moving paintings." But its approach is
internal rather than external. That is, the film does not document Lynch
as a subject so much as grant us access to Lynch's psyche, allowing
us to see the world from his point of view. It's not a comfortable place
Narrated entirely by Lynch, The Art Life begins
conventionally enough, with his childhood. He tells us he was born in
Missoula, Montana, and then his family moved to Sandpoint, Idaho. He
doesn't say how old he was when they moved, only that they lived in
Idaho for two years. That's where the film takes a turn, not five
minutes in, into a peculiar space at once familiar and disturbed. What
follows sets the tone for the next 85 minutes.
Lynch recounts: "So I remember Sandpoint, Idaho, little Dickie Smith.
My friend. He and I sat in a mud puddle under this tree. My mother dug a
hole, or my dad did, that we could sit in in the hot weather. And they
would fill it with water from the hose. And we'd sit in this mud puddle.
It was so beautiful. You get to squeeze mud and sit with your friend
under the shade of this tree? Forget it."
The family then moved to Spokane, Washington, and Lynch recalls the
time he was outside playing with his brother, at night, and out of the
darkness emerged a woman without any clothes on. "She had beautiful pale
white skin," Lynch says. "And she was completely naked. And I think her
mouth was bloodied." As she came closer, Lynch says she looked like a
giant, and his brother started to cry. Then she sat down on a curb and
she started to cry. And Lynch says he wanted to help her but he
couldn't, because he was little. "And I don't remember any more than
that," Lynch says, and we're on to the next vignette.
The Art Life does meet certain expectations of a
biographical documentary. We learn about Lynch's youth, how he became
interested in art, how he secured his first grant to make his first
"moving painting," and how he came to live in a horse's stable in Los
Angeles, where he shot his first feature film, Eraserhead, in 1977.
But to its credit, the film barely touches on Lynch's filmmaking,
focusing instead on his static art, which is extraordinary. Violent,
eerie and thoroughly disquieting, Lynch's paintings offer even greater
insight into his creative pathos than his films, possibly due to his
absolute control over them. At the same time, they offer insight into
his films, the last of which (Inland Empire, from 2006, is his
most recent feature) often felt somewhat contrived, as if he was merely
trying to deliver that "David Lynch thing" his fans had come to expect.
On the contrary, if the Lynch we see in The Art Life is
authentic, and he very much seems to be, then all of his films are, if
anything, watered-down versions of the moving paintings Lynch would
like to make, tempered by studio execs for the sake of marketing. For
that reason alone, this documentary is an invaluable portrait of an
artist as an old man, who in many respects is still just a kid squeezing
mud with his hands, delighting in the beauties of the world, and
then sitting down to smoke a cigarette and contemplate its horrors.
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