Review: the documentary ‘David Lynch: The Art Life’

by Andrew Parker

David Lynch seems like an interesting guy to be around. I don’t mean that I think he’s just as creepy and obtuse as his films often come across, but rather that he seems like a relatively normal guy with an extraordinary imagination and unparalleled ability to tap into his own subconscious. Earlier in the year with Sebastian Lange’s transcendental meditation documentary Shadows of Paradise, there was a chance to see Lynch with his guard down; talking about a practise he cites as a major creative and calming influence. He didn’t talk about the construction of his films at all, and now with David Lynch: The Art Life – an exploration of Lynch’s early years and side career as a visual artist – there’s more of the same. It seems like the more one gets to know Lynch as a human being just like the rest of us, the harder it becomes to decipher the meaning of his films. Maybe that’s the point in some critically vexing sort of way, but Lynch is so much fun to spend time around that it doesn’t matter what his movies mean.

Directors Rick Barnes, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, and Jon Nguyen (the latter of whom was present for the filming of Lynch’s Inland Empire) deliver the closest thing Lynch has had to an outright autobiography (although, he is working on his memoirs at the moment). The filmmakers spend time throughout David Lynch: The Art Life watching their subject sculpt, paint, and ponder, allowing him to narrate the story however he wants into an old timey studio microphone while he has a Coca-Cola and a couple of smokes. It’s laid back and unforced. Lynch talks about his past in a relatively linear fashion with no bullshit and only a few asides.

He speaks lovingly of the mother who fostered creativity in David and his siblings. He remembers his early childhood in Idaho as bucolic, while the family’s move to Virginia would be a low point for him until high school began. He waxes gratefully about his mentor, painter Bushnell Keeler, the man who encouraged David to keep drawing and painting as long as he took the discipline seriously. He talks about the first couple of times he got stoned (including one hilarious anecdote about his friends getting angry with him after David walked out of a Bob Dylan concert at the height of the singer’s popularity) and of loves won and lost. Lynch’s filmmaking output does get brought up, but only his very early years and in the context of how visual artistry led to his making movies. Talk of woodworking and printmaking takes up as much of the running time of David Lynch: The Art Life as filmmaking does.

And as far as I’m concerned, that’s just fine. Lynch famously doesn’t like talking about his films very much, but to see him talk about how he got into creating art in the first place strikes as novel and refreshing. His life has some dark moments, but none darker than most average middle class human beings. There isn’t a ton of jaw-dropping drama to be found in David Lynch: The Art Life. What is here, however, is a celebration of the creative spirit. While there are some moments where David can’t bring himself to talk about certain incidents in his life and he breaks down slightly, the tone throughout the documentary is genial and welcoming. He hates doing press, but he doesn’t see what the filmmakers are doing here as being some sort of promotional material. He comes across as so effortlessly relaxed that watching him curse as his drill fails to create a hole or when he gets irritated by slow moving traffic humanizes him instantly. He’s energized by anyone who wants to engage with him on a creative level. Here is a man driven to create; not to talk about the things that he has already created. David Lynch: The Art Life paints its own picture of a man constantly looking back at the real world while moving forward artistically.

David Lynch: The Art Life is a look at a man for whom nostalgia works in strange ways. Lynch is a hands on artist in every respect, and like many human beings he puts his pants on one leg at a time and gets great pleasure out of the simplest and most mundane things. We see where his curiosity takes him, and although he never expressly says what any of his works are about, through spending time with him, the viewer should be able to infer a thing or two for the future.

David Lynch: The Art Life opens in select theatres in Toronto (TIFF Bell Lightbox), Ottawa (Mayfair), Edmonton (Metro) , and Vancouver (Vancity) on Friday, April 7, 2017. It will expand to other select cities in the coming weeks.

Check out the trailer for David Lynch: The Art Life:

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