David Lynch is an enigma. As a filmmaker, his rebellious anti-narrative technique and meditation-conjuring postmodern psyche and horror imagery ignite fierce audience loyalty and critical acclaim (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive). Concurrently, his work can also ironically repel when the artist’s darker brushstrokes seem to dance off the canvas (Lost Highway, Inland Empire, and initial reception for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me). Certain themes clearly transcend across his artistic filmmaking palette: obsessive nostalgia for recreating retro ’50s-era mise en scène through wardrobe and electric guitar riffs that function more as omniscient acousmêtre than film score. Deliberate nonlinear dreamlike narrative frequently devolves into nightmarish dreamscape, the femme fatale as traumatized yet oppositional archetype (beauty/ frailty/ enchantress/ harbinger), and a seemingly lifetime love affair wedded into the symbolic signification conjoined by coffee and cigarettes.
Lynch’s filmmaking career has inspired present-future generations of storytellers with his distinct iconoclast visual style. The artist (or so we’re taught in art school; Lynch digresses about his disdain for formal art lessons) never points the audience toward their true intent, at least in theory. The experience of art lies in a work’s ability to evoke, arguably along carefully open-coded channels of perceptual interpretation. Sometimes. With Lynch in particular, the power of his work functions best when audiences either repel or embrace a work due to its narrative impenetrability. And yet as a kind of cultural pastiche, in an information age where answers can be immediately sought through online channels, the “mystery” of Lynch becomes itself a tragic relic of the past. Thanks but no thanks, Reddit.
The argument, then, would be that if someone is going to spoil your art to the audience, it might as well come from the source. Thus, the arrival of David Lynch: The Art Life (Janus Films, Absurda, Duck Driver Films, Hideout Films, Kong Gulerod Film, as well as funding through Kickstarter),
Collectively composed under the direction of Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm, the opening scene feels familiar. A stoic full-body establishing shot exhibits Lynch’s profile. The artist-director faces right, effectively sliced in half, ready for dissection. Lynch rests against an armless chair, outdoors, repetitiously rolling his finger tips on one hand (a nervous smoker’s trait Laura Dern’s Diane mimics to perfection while lighting up throughout The Return) while the other hand fingers a cigarette already lit. Appropriately, the directors allow the still shot to linger on the aged film icon. He stares off into the unseen horizon, contemplative, enjoying subsequent puffs of nicotine-etched tobacco.
Past and Present Collide on a Hollywood Hills Rooftop
Once the visionary finally speaks, it’s as if a spout has been broken off, and the director’s admixture of personal stories, anecdotal asides, and haunted reflections pour out alongside a tapestry of cinéma vérité peaks into Lynch laboring away at miscellaneous art projects in-progress.
For those that have not made peace with the non-answer style typical to Lynch’s form, this documentary is shockingly telling in ways that may provide audiences resolution. The film veteran, now 71, reminisces openly and honestly, if not often cutting stories short to suggest the full truth of his experience is too dark or difficult to complete. The pattern both evokes his unfinished narrative trademark, but also seems partially completed and complemented by inter-spliced footage of his personal art, which suggests abstract resolution through laborious expression.
Co-director Neergaard-Holm, who also serves as editor, lovingly mirrors Lynch’s trademark style by “showing not telling”, or at least showing whenever the biographical narrator seems to be unable or unwilling to continue. Lynch starts at the beginning or as far back as his childhood recollections reach. Early tales of unease juxtapose against abstract imagery of a grotesque sort. The symmetry between one of Lynch’s half-sculpture, half-painting renditions haunt his early yarns.
The backdrop of a majority of footage appears to be of Lynch’s own Hollywood hills home. The setting immediately conjures the crooked road paranoia of Mulholland Drive. Similarly, his rooftop art house workshop invites close comparison to the auteur’s obsession with industrial mechanics and creative praxis. Scenes showcase Lynch in what the viewer might assume to be an “average day in the life”. Lynch putters around on miscellaneous projects, painting by hand in one scene, tinkering with old technology in the next.
Personal Memory Provides both Continuity and Narrative Closure
He’s accompanied by Lula, his then four-year-old daughter, and their interactions reveal quite a lot about the reflective status in Lynch’s late-life work. His grandfatherly approach to paternal interaction (a 66 year age gap) recalls the awkwardly paced exchanges between Kyle MacLachlan’s late life embodiment of Dale Cooper as “Dougie Jones” in Twin Peaks: The Return and his present yet absentee interactions with would-be child Sonny Jim (Pierce Gagnon). There’s affection in ample bursts as often as the artist seems lost in concentration with his own imaginative palette or project.
Shots frequently cut to Lynch’s interview recording sessions, located inside a cramped, liminal cement room that could be described as both indoors and outdoors. Armed with a high-powered microphone, Lynch breathes smoke into the air with continuous meditations on the perils relating to his dualistic upbringing between the Pacific Northwest countryside and urban industrial Philadelphia, leading toward eventual transition into the art world.
As with the intrinsic value of art, Lynch opens himself up in a way that allows audiences to form interpretations based upon the information given. The co-directors clearly choose content that seems to speak directly to many of the filmmaker’s trademarks and signature motifs.
The artist speaks most fondly of his short-lived years in Idaho and later Spokane, Washington. He describes the family’s living quarters to that of a small “convenience store”, dropping proverbial Easter eggs for fans seeking deeper canonical insights. The directing trio seem keenly aware of these breadcrumbs, and one gets the sense they start to piecemeal Lynch’s influences based on how conveniently recollections work to clarify his artistic intent.
Lynch idealizes his father’s gentile spirit and kindness amidst the transitional ’50s. His descriptions (combined with photographs from the era) point to the chief inspiration for Blue Velvet’s Jeffrey Beaumont (MacLachlan), Twin Peak’s Dale Cooper (also MacLachlan), Mulholland’s Betty/Diane (Naomi Watts) and the otherwise “innocent” characters that converge into darkness.
One story from the art school years — he’s even mentored by a kind man named “Bushnell”! — recalls Lynch’s experience getting high late one night, and the profound visual memory of staring into the center median lines in the road as his friends drove along the darkened highway.
Perhaps the artist’s most haunted childhood memory depicts yet another late night when a woman approached him in the dark, naked and battered. “I wanted to do something for her, but I was too little…” Lynch’s inability to finish the story, his abrupt dovetail into silence, speaks volumes. The story also brings to mind one of the signature motifs in his TV and film art, violence against women and the nightmarish objectification of femme fatales captured by the male gaze.
Indeed, the directors play detective and effectively close the case on Lynch’s enigmatic influences. As early critics have already hailed, The Art Life is a must-watch for Lynch aficionados and certainly adds to (if not spoiling outright the ambiguity) of the artist/director’s legacy. While the film itself is about the story of a boy journeying toward life as an artist, one cannot help but identify the many “ah-ha!” moments of personal influence now manifested within the director’s film canon. If the director has, as many people have speculated, retired formally from film as well as finished his saga in The Return season of Twin Peaks, then The Art Life rightly functions as a capstone to a celebrated career that ushered in popular demand for sub-genres of surrealist dream narrative and weird TV alike.
The screening for this article was featured at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art as part of the “Summer of Lynch” film festival 10-17 August 2017. David Lynch: The Art Life is now playing nationwide in select cities across the US. Catch it on the big screen if you can, because you never know when “that [favorite auteur documentary] you like is going to come back in style.”