Movie: David Lynch: The Art Life (2016)

Despite being a fan of most of the David Lynch’s films, I have always found him a tad suspect.  As time goes on, I increasingly find something off-putting about him.  This, despite his aw-shucks demeanor and Jimmy Stewart voice.  Or, it may be because of it. 

I felt the same after watching the 2016 documentary about the man, David Lynch: The Art Life.  This remarkable film was shot over 2 ½ years, with one of the filmmakers actually living in his house that entire time.  Thousands of hours of footage was gathered.

This is a surprisingly intimate look at the life and background of the director and artist.  There are a great many photos of him from his childhood and early adulthood.  More surprising to me was the wealth of 8mm footage of him, even back to when he was an infant.  I like the description he has of his childhood: “My world was no bigger than a couple of blocks until high school.  Huge worlds are there in those two blocks.  You can live in one place and have everything.”

And yet, by the end, I felt I knew the man as little as I did going into this.  Just knowing things about a person doesn’t mean you really know a person, and this is even when all the information is coming from Lynch himself.  In fact, he is the only voice on the soundtrack in its entirety.

But, like his films, his stories are elliptical and often contain curiously specific information while remaining vague as to the actual substance.  To be honest, this is similar to how I have felt about his work since Wild at Heart—a great deal of mysterious things happen in them, but there doesn’t seem to be anything solid those elements are in orbit around.

The most unusual aspect of this look at the man and his work is it is almost exclusively focused on his paintings and the like, instead of his filmography.  It even ends around the time Eraserhead is being made, and it seems to regard it as a moving painting.

I have long been aware of Lynch’s non-film work and it is unique.  I wouldn’t say I have noticed a consistent style, as much as there is a certain aesthetic.  Alas, these works are largely focused on violence and grotesquerie. 

Many are more like sculptures than what I normally regard as paintings, as these often have embellishments that extend them into the third dimension.  Sometimes it will be writing in cursive, as realized in thick wire standing out from the canvas.  It could be those tiny green army men, just painted a variety of colors.  More often, it will be the decomposing corpse of a small animal.

Lynch was gutted by his father’s reaction to such work: “Dave, I don’t think you should ever have children.”  That is harsh, but I don’t find it as easy to dismiss as one of this documentary’s directors does in a supplemental interview: “Just because he has a basement full of dead animals wrapped in plastic doesn’t mean he was being sinister or macabre.  He was just experimenting.”

The artist also has some mother issues but, hey, who doesn’t?  He says she was always saying she was disappointed in him and that he was always letting her down.  This seemed to be especially true when he was, by his own admission, hanging out with a bad lot.  Still, the way he describes was times had me looking askance at the screen: “Dark, fantastic dreams.  Incredible time.”

Things change for him when he discovers a friend’s father, Bushnell Keeler, is a painter and he begs to see the man’s studio.  Keeler would go on to help Lynch a couple of times in his career, especially in getting him into an advanced program in art school.  The artist also placates Lynch’s father when he gets upset over his son working in the studio at all hours.

Some of the lighter moments here involve Lynch’s recollections of his misadventures during the times he tried marijuana.  One time, he failed to notice his speed was decreasing on the interstate until the car was sitting there stock still.

Little is said about his transition to making movies.  Lynch describes a moment of revelation as “From the painting, I heard a wind, and the green starting moving.  That idea stuck in my head: a moving painting.”

Much of The Art Life is simply watching Lynch work in his studio, often with his youngest daughter painting alongside him.  That is charming to see, yet it did not endear me to him any further.  I just wondered when we were going to see him showing her how to properly affix a decomposing rat carcass to her work.

Dir: Rick Barnes, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Jon Nguyen


Watched on Criterion Collection blu-ray