Everyone walks into a screening room with certain expectations. Mine wasn’t so much attached to the genre of documentary but rather to the eccentric topic that was David Lynch. Not too long ago I wrote a review on Mulholland Drive, and unsurprisingly concluded that the film cannot be ultimately defined, which to me appears as a reflection of Lynch’s authorship. I was thrilled to find out – I did…and I didn’t – Lynch’s identity is too slippery. Do not let yourself be disillusioned by the conventional notion of a documentary; just like his films, The Art Life is not linear, and relishes in mystical vagueness created not by the author of the documentary, but by the star David Lynch.
Jon Nguyen’s documentary presents us with an intimate, and masterfully made, study of Lynch, focusing surprisingly little on his filmography. Rather, the past becomes a central topic as Lynch tells stories from his childhood, ponders over the meanings of things, reflects on how his career started, speculates over how his outlook on life has been formed, and how it echoes in his art. All this while smoking one cigarette after another, splashing paint over canvas, and playing with his toddler daughter in his Hollywood Hills studio. It reminded me more of a private conversation with the audience, than a documentary. The viewer is presented with more than just footage of Lynch drifting around his studio – we get a good collection of photographs from his childhood and adolescence, and images of many of his paintings, sculptures, and other artworks. You can expect unusual openness from a director that so far has been secretive about the meaning of his work – despite the aforementioned vagueness in the plot line, there will be some light shed to the darkest corners of Lynch’s imagination.
We get an image of young David moving from one nice suburban house to another because of his father’s job as a research scientist; an image which is still mysteriously framed by odd anecdotes that have ingrained themselves in his brain, and eventually in his work. Growing up, all he wanted to do was paint, and eventually, with some help, he realised it’s a possibility. Painting was precisely what led him to film – one day when he was sat in his corner in art school, he hallucinated that his painting moved. A moving painting. That was an idea worth trying out which eventually led to the creation of The Alphabet. Which led to a huge film grant. Which led to The Elephant Man (1980). And the rest is history.
“I had this idea that you drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, and you paint. And that’s it,” Lynch said when explaining what the “Art Life” was to him. Of course, life wasn’t always all that perfect. The enigmatic director traces the cornerstones in his life, such as the initial dropping out of art school, and the two week paralysis when he first began his independent life in university, to somehow give account for why he is the way he is. There is always an idea that has inspired his art, no matter how abstract they are. His paintings are what made him before he grew his roots deep into cinema’s darkest corners. The documentary is a tribute to his fans, really, but above all he still manages to not be fully transparent. The man and the artist will still partly remain in a cloud of (cigarette) smoke. I believe it’s better that way.
Dir: Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Rick Barnes
Cast: David Lynch (himself)
Prd: Josefine Bothe
Music: Jonatan Bengta
Run Time: 1h 28min
David Lynch: The Art Life will be in UK cinemas 14th July 2017.