David Lynch: The Art Life is an engrossing and richly textured mediation on the correlation between one's life and one's art, with much to offer both fans and strangers of the director's work.
This review is part of an ongoing series covering films appearing in the 2017 Calgary Underground Film Festival, published simultaneously with Reel World Theology.
The older man with white tousled hair and a crease-lined face sits in an old sofa in the midst of a studio lined with construction supplies. At times he ruminates, shrouded by the smoke of his cigarette, his sharp blue eyes full of memories. Or he ponders the large unfinished canvas at the other end of the room. Such strange canvases! The art is textured and grotesque, often featuring solitary panicked figures inhabiting dark and haunting landscapes, surrounded by insects with distorted anatomy, or desperate phrases scrawled on the sideline. It's both repulsive and fascinating. With the camera fixing it before our vision, we are forced to wonder: who is exactly is this man and what experiences have birthed such work?
The man is David Lynch, legendary director of modern classics like Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Mulholland Dr., and Twin Peaks. Before he was a cult filmmaker, Lynch studied to be a visual artist and has continued to paint ever since. This movie, David Lynch: The Art Life, is the story of his childhood and pre-filmmaking years as a visual artist. It consists of the artist describing his memories and the camera showing him at work. The director is an engrossing narrator, recounting an all American childhood with dark, strange details, such as sitting all day in a mud pool and loving the ickyness of it, or that night at dusk when a naked woman with blood on her mouth roamed the neighbourhood. His story continues through his teenage years - falling in with bad characters before he becoming obsessed with art - through to his art student days, where he secluded himself in an apartment all day experimenting with decaying animals and experienced the harsh neighbourhood of Pittsburg with its crazed strangers.
During this narration, we are shown the present day Lynch in his studio, at work transferring more unsettling imagery from his mind to the canvas. This is interspersed with archival footage from his childhood, and image after image of the art itself. The film is wise to limit us to just this and nothing else. There is no need to recreate the memories or stuff the screen with the voices of others. There is just David Lynch; David Lynch reminiscing, David Lynch painting, and David Lynch's art. All this is more then enough and it allows the viewer to ponder the connections between the man's experiences and the strange canvases that result. The camera is confined to the spaces of his studio and the rugged face of its inhibitor. There is no need to go any further; there are worlds enough here.
The narrative of David Lynch: The Art Life ends when the primary output of David Lynch became moving pictures. In the film, Lynch describes how he begin work on his first movie, but beyond that, none of his other output is mentioned. This allows fans of his work to make their own connections between the art life and the film making. It also allows viewers unfamiliar with his career to enjoy the documentary simply as a meditation on the connection between a man's life and his creative output. The result is a documentary rich with material to explore that lingers beyond one viewing.
Personally, as I watched it I was struck by the darkly absurd flavour that marked the details of Lynch's life and the art he produced. This felt unsettling to be amongst, like living in a muffled cry of desperation. They say it's the artists who notice details that the rest of us pass by. Throughout the film Lynch drops hints of these insights, of his fascination with the humans that he encounters in his life. Is the dark surrealism of his work a reflection of Lynch's worldview or is it an aspect of life that I am simply unaware of? Through his career as a filmmaker we have been given access to this vision, and now in David Lynch: The Art Life we get a privileged look at the man who created this.