The documentary David Lynch: The Art Life is tasked with the challenge of giving its audience something new. Anyone inclined to see it will almost certainly be familiar with the broad strokes of David Lynch’s life, career, and public personality, including his ironically cheery and prudish demeanor (which contrasts with the bleak luridness of his films), his obsessions with sugar, coffee, and smoking, and propensity for making pronouncements that toe a fine line between profundity, banality, and knowing self-parody. In a recent GQ profile, Lynch’s control of presentation was so smoothly on message that he seemed smugly trivial—in danger of scanning as a rich and adored man who’s long forgotten life’s potential for cruelty.
Perhaps Lynch, ever the showman, sensed this possibility of calcifying over into self-caricature, as he shows a calculated yet resonantly vulnerable side of himself throughout The Art Life. One senses that Lynch is the captain of this project, and that directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm haven’t unturned anything in their subject that he hasn’t decided to disclose in advance. The Art Life may lack the spontaneity of a classic documentary, but it compellingly reveals new elements of fear and rootlessness to be lurking underneath Lynch’s confidence.
The Art Life is mainly concerned with the evolution of Lynch’s early paintings, recounting bits and pieces of his childhood in Idaho and Virginia, which led to a stint in Boston and a formative period in Philadelphia, where he began to make short films. The early shorts won him a grant at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and kick-started for Lynch the long process of creating Eraserhead, which was mostly filmed in stables that the institute gave Lynch, allowing him to build his own mini studio and world. Even now, Lynch seems amazed at his good fortune: as much for the refuge that Eraserhead provided him as for the eventual glory that it would usher forth.
And notions of refuge, safety, and containment are central to Lynch’s work as shelters from the unavoidable storms of chaos. Nguyen, Barnes, and Neergaard-Holm offer many lingering close-ups of Lynch’s paintings, many of which are even more violent than his films, as they despairingly and comically wallow in perversions of domesticity, often as extensions of rough body horror. Lynch’s films boast an undeniable formal mastery, while his paintings evince a haunting, neurotic primitivism that has often gotten him accused, in the art world, of riding on the coattails of his fame as a film director. (It’s a conflict that The Art Life doesn’t acknowledge.) Watching this documentary, one senses that the process—of living in this studio and interacting with these materials—is as important to Lynch as anything that it produces, as it provides the reassuring containment and control of ritualism.
The Art Life is at its best when regarding Lynch as he paints or wanders his studio in the Hollywood Hills, capturing him in menacingly gorgeous and intricate tableaus that cheekily recall the compositions of his own films. Lynch is charismatic enough to hold such a minimalist concept together, and The Art Life revels in the reassuring tactility of textures. There are many close-ups of Lynch’s hands as he spreads charcoal on canvases, dirt visible under his finger nails, and there are quite a few shots of him molding various bladders out of clay or organic material, with empty or half-full Coca-Cola bottles in the background, or of him using saws, hammers, and staplers.
Lynch still cuts quite the formidable artistic figure: He’s tall, with that characteristic punk-rock shock of white hair, a black shirt traditionally buttoned up to his Adam’s apple, khaki slacks and black boots, and a newer heaviness of body that informs him with an existentially autumnal kind of bohemian masculinity. He’s often enveloped in plumes of beautiful cigarette smoke, which sometimes suggest a vaporous manifestation of his psyche. The studio resembles a shed, and as readers of Dennis Lim’s David Lynch: The Man from Another Place know, Lynch loves sheds as “places to be.”
This setting—replete with a small, woody, red-lamp-illuminated, very Lynchian sound booth in which Lynch recounts shards of autobiography via voiceover—is so vivid that it’s initially a disappointment that The Art Life is also devoted to its subject’s past, but these anecdotes establish the fear from which this studio serves as a place of respite. Lynch waxes hauntingly on his mother’s frustration with him as a teenager, which he describes in a series of pauses and poetic repetitions that suggest rehearsed performance art, though of an unexpectedly uncertain nature. (This vulnerability is affirmed by Lynch’s amusing use of the f-word throughout the film, which consciously allows the audience to glimpse a crack in his often fastidiously PG-rated exterior.)
The undisguised regret and longing of Lynch’s reminiscences are often startling, as are his descriptions of nightmarish childhood episodes that clearly inspired passages of Blue Velvet and Lost Highway—particularly a recollection of a naked woman with bloody lips in a suburb who resembled “a giant” to his preadolescent eyes. Lynch implicitly confronts in this film the fear of sex and community that drive his art (and, by extension, his life) which is eaten up with the idea that, yes, you can go home again, but at the risk of revealing your home to be built atop decay. The Art Life embraces deliberate deconstruction of mythology as an ironic form of its reaffirmation.