David Foster Wallace once wrote a very David Foster Wallace essay for Premiere magazine about visiting the set of David Lynch’s 1997 movie Lost Highway. In it, the writer wrestles with one of the major questions at the heart of Lynch’s work: What bouillabaisse of ingredients combines to make something not just creepy, not just Surrealist, not just thrillingly unnerving, but uniquely “Lynchian,” that amorphous shorthand that we’ve thrown around ever since the director’s 1977 debut feature Eraserhead became a near-instant cult classic.

“An academic definition of Lynchian,” Wallace mused in a passage often quoted by journalists, “might be that the term ‘refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.’ But,” he went on, “like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Porter Stewart–type words that’s ultimately definable only ostensively—i.e., we know it when we see it.”

By that definition, the writer asserts, Ted Bundy wasn’t particularly Lynchian, but Jeffrey Dahmer—“with his victims’ various anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk and Shedd Spread”—was very much so. And by that definition, I would say that David Lynch: The Art Life, a new documentary about the director by Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm, is Lynchian too: A sunny, bourgeois, almost boringly quotidian conceit becomes an aperture into a fractured collage of gothic memories. There is the mundane and there is the macabre, and they are very much tied up together. And there is also the sense that Lynch, ever the auteur, is braiding the two for ultimate effect. That he is the subject of this film, and not its director, in no way diminishes the impression that he is in control. Take the opening shot: The director slouches in a chair, stares off into space and pensively twirls his fingers; inches below, a loose tie hangs off the seat cushion, and as if by magic or friction or sheer force of will, it spins in tandem.

There’s a trove of footage of the artist in his lair, a sprawling, cluttered studio space carved into a hillside in Lynch’s even more sprawling Hollywood Hills compound. He putters around, dressed like an overgrown prep school-er with his gravity-defying explosion of white hair, his uniform of boxy dockers and top-buttoned shirt. He tends to his adorable toddler daughter, Lula (her mother, Lynch’s fourth wife, the actress Emily Stofle, never makes an appearance). He scribbles intermittently—new installments of Twin Peaks?— in a yellow legal pad. Mostly though, he makes art. Any Lynch super-fan worth his or her salt knows that the director’s first love was painting, and even the casual Lynchite may have noted the director’s recent gallery and museum exhibitions. What’s less evident from afar is the intensity with which Lynch, now in his early 70s, applies himself to his craft.

“He really is making art 24 hours a day,” Laura Dern, a longtime Lynch muse, attested in a recent GQ story. And The Art Life—its title based on a fantasy of cigarettes and coffee and paint that Lynch ginned up as a starry-eyed teenager—confirms it. Lynch’s paintings are dark, naïve, and perverse, equal parts Francis Bacon, Henry Darger, Eva Hesse, and Edward Gorey, but he toils away at them with a cheerful intensity, a whistle-while-you-work, idle-hands-are-the-devil’s-playground kind of industriousness. The camera captures all stages of the creative process: Lynch smears watery ink and thick paint with his palms; attacks his canvas with a hand drill; affixes membranes that he folds and kneads like a baker does dough, or like a teenager working a wad of gum into bubble-readiness. Sometimes he writes on his surface, messages as inscrutably foreboding as the riddles spoken by Twin Peaks’s Man From Another Place.

As he paints and sorts through old photograph, Lynch relates memories in fits and starts, sporadic, disordered streams of consciousness. He was born in Missoula, Montana, and bopped around the West as a kid, a sun-dappled, free-range utopia of a childhood. He recalls mud puddles and neighborhood friends, a mother who denied him coloring books because she intuitively understood his need for a freer mode of creativity, an insular community (“My whole world was no bigger than a few blocks up until high school. That’s why I say huge worlds are in those two blocks. Everything’s there. Everything. You could live in one place and have everything.”) In those early years, darkness hovers only at the margins: a memory of a naked woman with a bloody mouth, something “bad wrong with her,” running down his quiet street; saying goodbye to someone named Mr. Smith when his family moved to Virginia, a recollection so painful that septuagenarian Lynch abruptly cuts off the story and refuses to go on.

When the Lynches moved East and young David started high school, things took a turn for the dreadful. The loving family was still loving, but the son became alien to them: He experienced intense intestinal spasms. He fell in with the wrong crowd. He disappointed his mother and bewildered his father. He also discovered art (“the realization that you could be a painter blew all the wiring”), rented a studio space from a friend’s father, the artist Bushnell Keeler, and devoted himself furiously to his practice. (“I needed to find what was mine. The only way to find it was to keep painting, and see if you catch something.”)

He went to Boston for art school, and spent his first two weeks there trapped in his apartment, crippled by agoraphobia, listening to a radio as the batteries ran down. Ultimately he dropped out, tried again in Philadelphia, a “mean town,’ that haunted him enough that he used it as inspiration for the hellish factory setting of Eraserhead. There are flashes of Lynchian characters excavated from his past: a memory of a racist neighbor who reeked of urine, of another, a hateful hag who walked around squeezing her breasts and complaining of her aching nipples. Something about the city’s darkness gave him permission to lean into his own. He visited a morgue, set up a laboratory in his basement where he experimented with rotting fruit and dead birds and rodents. When he proudly showed his father, Lynch senior’s pained reply was: “Dave, I don’t think you should ever have children.”

Unbeknownst to father and son, Lynch’s girlfriend and soon-to-be first wife Peggy was already pregnant with their first child. Facing the prospect of a day job, the director parlayed a nascent interest in film into a grant from the American Film Institute that took the young family out to Los Angeles. He took over the abandoned stables at the mansion in Beverly Hills where AFI was then-headquartered, and began building the world that would become Eraserhead, a film he would obsess over for six years while his marriage fell apart and his brother and father staged an intervention (“Give up this film. Get a job. You’ve got a child. This film isn’t getting made. You’re wasting your time.”)

Eraserhead is, of course, at least superficially, about just that: growing up and facing—or failing to face—the nightmare of adult responsibility. Henry, its man-child protagonist, works a soul-crushing job, impregnates his girlfriend, marries her, and is saddled not with a baby, but with a caterwauling, limbless, reptilian beast-child. It’s easy to see traces of Lynch’s preoccupations in both Henry, the wary, immature father, and in the repulsively, helplessly deformed baby. The Art Life is a portrait of the director as a painter, his artistic bildungsroman, but it’s also a film about fatherhood, the traumatizing birthing process that makes a child into a parent. (Appropriately, the documentary is dedicated to Lynch’s youngest daughter).

There’s a burrowing quality to so much of Lynch’s work: Consciousness turns in on itself, nests like a Matryoshka doll. In Eraserhead, a radiator in Henry’s forlorn apartment is a wormhole to another universe that exists entirely within his head. In Twin Peaks, dreams become a fast-track to another dimension, no less real than waking life. That interest in what one discovers when one turns inward perhaps accounts for Lynch’s love of Transcendental Meditation, a practice for which he serves as a global ambassador and passionate evangelist.

It may, as well, account for compulsiveness with which he makes art. The paintings are another kind of porthole, another way to collapse time and space. As the film begins, the camera settles on Lynch’s representation of a man in a chair, his face a series of scratches, his nostrils an open wound. In front of him dance the words: “Do you want to know what I really think?” Enter Lynch. He lights a cigarette. He pushes back his swoosh of hair. He squints cinematically and sits down in front of a microphone. A recording of his voice plays over the silence: “I think every time you do something like a painting, or whatever, you go with ideas. And sometimes the past can conjure those ideas, and color those ideas. Even if they’re new ideas, the past colors them.”

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