David Lynch is one of those dudes who just seems to be good at everything. Like the dude paints, makes films and music, he writes. Somehow he’s managed to maintain his legitimacy as a visual and video artist even during his experimental periods where he did a syndicated newspaper comic strip or weird aggressive internet flash animations or Rabbits. Folks actually manage to take Rabbits seriously. He’s like this multifaceted supergenius who is all at once the strangest person and the most charming person you’ve ever met.
The structure of David Lynch: The Art Life revolves around an extended interview with the dude himself about his life from childhood to release of Eraserhead. His formative influences, his evolution as an artist, the events that drove him in the direction he took. He’s got that voice. That David Lynch voice, that monotone which is about an octave higher than it really should be, those speech patterns which aren’t like Walken off but are just strange. Directors Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm & Rick Barnes clearly love it.
I mean, they better, and the whole film just born outta this real admiration of the dude. You can tell it in the way they shoot his portraiture. Either in the sunlight of his Hollywood hills mansion (the building painfully 1940 like all the nice houses in that area) surrounded by his art supplies or at night, wreathed in shadow, the smoke of his cigarettes catching in the lights. They super invested in letting the dude keep that mystique which, I don’t think he really harbours, I think people just project it onto him.
Cos he really quite frank when discussing his art and the experiences that led him to it. He don’t really have any illusions about the strangeness of his work, he just know that it’s the type of think he likes to be doing. Over the film we see him produce this artwork, as typical it’s this mixed media, collage-effect type canvas (I say canvas, pretty sure he’s painting onto wood). It’s striking how playful he is in the creation, he ain’t talking through his process, but there’s clearly this process of discovery as he learns what the composition needs. You get this delight when a new tool comes out, at one point he busts out a sander and just tears into it, there extraordinary life in his creative process, even when the images he creates are so often haunted and deadening.
You get to see a lot of it too. Real nice framings of his visual art and proper high quality transfers of his early video experiments. I’m all sorts of hype for that, previously I’ve only been seeing them as poor quality youtube rips from the old DVD, good too see it up big. Lynch has also donated his home video archive to the project, I sense he weren’t really the sort to be recording himself casually, especially not while actually making art, but it’s nice to have this glimpse into his life as a young artist.
Which is why it’s The Art Life, that’s the name for the way he was building. He says as a youth he imagined smoking and drinking coffee and making art. That was the life he wanted to lead and for vast tracks of the joint he details how he made it. His dad knew an artist who gave him space in a gallery. That artist wrote a letter to an art school that then took him as a student. A professor recommended he apply for a film grant. Guy who ran the film grant wrote a letter to the AFI who then took him on as a student.
The disappointing thing about the story of David Lynch’s art life is just how pedestrian it was. His time studying in Philadelphia he says was one of constant fear, they were living in a bad part of town, they saw mentally ill people on the streets. Nothing there broke them though, he and his artist friends, and he now talks about it as the adventurous time he spent in his youth, living the hard life. I get that these filmmakers like the dude and that the film would be impossible without his consent, but as interviewers they fail tremendously in extracting truth from him.
I was discussing the film with another audience member after the screening and it dawned on me that I was dancing around the work privilege. You can go if that word scares you. Lynch himself definitely seems aware of his privilege, how it helped him in those early years, how having the right family and knowing the right people pushed him ahead. There’s this constant refrain throughout of how thankful he is, but never does that turn into a critical analysis of the frameworks that supported him (and his cishet white male) to succeed which other people would have been excluded from.
Like it’s at its most revealing when he’s talking about the troubled production of Eraserhead. His wife, who suddenly now, without explanation is his ex-wife is struggling to raise their child alone. His family intervene, saying that he has a responsibility to at least provide for his child and Lynch describes how unfair they all were being, none of them understand his pure and beautiful art. It’s a portrait of this dude, but it’s a shockingly unexamined one.
The soundtrack too is also all off. It’s trying to be reminiscent of the way Lynch plays with ambient soundscapes in his films but just ends up sounding inappropriate when paired with the quite unremarkable images captured by the documentarians.
Not to say the film useless. I may not like the man as much as I did before, but damn do I still respect him as an artist. When he’s telling this story about his childhood and a friend with an abusive father you suddenly get an insight into why he makes the things he does. If his films obsess time and again over the same themes then his visual art seems to act as a key into how these obsessions play out in the personal sphere. With some of the stuff he says here, you get the sense that it’s as close as we’ll come to an explanation of why it’s all meaningful to him. I wish there was more of that stuff.
David Lynch: The Art Life is currently screening in UK cinemas