If you’re looking for a traditional documentary narrative of David Lynch’s career, one filled with flattering interviews that trace the director’s ascent from art school student to revered auteur, then David Lynch – The Art Life will surely disappoint. Directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm (who worked with the cult filmmaker on a 2007 documentary) eschew the typical retrospective in favor of a minimal format that consists of little more than Lynch sculpting and painting, grounded by his quietly reflective narration that offers a window into the innermost parts of his surreal and sensitive imagination. It’s a stark, hypnotic approach that allows for an unfiltered look at one of Hollywood’s greatest artists.
The title, a play on Robert Henri’s 1923 manifesto The Art Spirit, references Henri’s ideas of communion through creation and the primacy of art in the face of ever-evolving institutions. Lynch read the book as a young, aspiring artist and molded it into a vision of his ideal life: cigarettes, coffee and art. Many of the film’s pleasures derive from its simplicity; with Lynch’s shock of white hair, ever-present cigarette and tactile method of painting (he often forgoes brushes in favor of his hands and is fond of manipulating latex and other materials), The Art Life is a Lynchian version of Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting.
Capturing the vast creative landscape of Lynch’s career is an almost insurmountable task. In addition to his Hollywood and TV resumes, the 71-year-old iconoclast has released two solo albums, written and directed the avant-garde play Industrial Symphony No. 1 with longtime musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, designed a nightclub in Paris and helmed over a half dozen music videos. So the film, aided by narration culled from interviews conducted between 2012 and 2015, wisely focuses on Lynch’s happy childhood and early years as a painter before turning to film in 1977 with Eraserhead. His disdain for his brief tenure at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts cuts through the screen like acid. My viewing companion, who also attended Museum School, chuckled at Lynch’s scornful memory of the conformist ideology that dominated the school in the early 1960s.
There’s a moment halfway through the smoky, intimate documentary in which Lynch recounts a pivotal moment from his childhood — his parents’ decision to move from small-town Iowa to the D.C. suburbs of Virginia. With the camera fixed on his still, chainsmoking frame, Lynch’s methodical, disembodied drawl narrates his goodbye to his friendly neighbors and mentions each of the family by name until he gets to the father. He abruptly cuts himself off mid-sentence and somberly intones “We never talked about that.”
What happened to the father? Was there a scandal? What exactly was so troubling that even now, decades later, Lynch is unable to talk about it? The scene is a perfect metaphor for the mysteriousness of Lynch’s work, which traffics in the nightmarish, the unknown and the dark things that lurk just below the surface of American life.
Some may be put off by the personal and creative biography left out of the film. Aside from the inclusion of Lynch’s first wife Peggy, there’s no mention of his three other marriages (the latest of which is indicated by the surprisingly emotional presence of his daughter Lula, born in 2012), or his lifelong practice of Transcendental Meditation, or a run-down of the nearly two dozen exhibitions of his work in galleries across the world. There’s only Lynch, his voice and his art. If ever a soul was captured on camera, this is it. There are moments of beauty, wonder and pain, all deeply intertwined in an artist who finds grace in the blackest corners of the subconscious.
As the film moves from Boston to Philadelphia, where Lynch continued painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the generosity of his spirit emerges in a way that challenges the myth that an artist is solely responsible for their success. Lynch, who has built his own personal repertory company over the years, freely acknowledges his mentor, painter Bushnell Keeler, for pushing him forward when he thought there was no where to go. In fact, when he dropped out of Museum School, it was Keeler’s impassioned letter that inspired Lynch’s move to Philadelphia, where he made the creative leap from painting to filmmaking. And in typical Lynch fashion, that life-changing leap was as simple as looking at his painting, hearing the wind, imagining the leaves rustling and thinking “Oh — a moving painting with sound.”
In its own extraordinary way, The Art Life is David Lynch’s cinematic origin story, so Eraserhead is naturally the moment where it all comes together. Even now, with decades of awards and acclaim behind him, Lynch’s romantic recollection of making Eraserhead is palpable. There are deep, contemplative silences as he talks about the joy of losing himself in his work, of living the art life. Mirroring his inexorable march towards the moving image, the film builds to a powerful conclusion that illuminates the beauty, truth and mystery of life through David Lynch’s eyes.
Adrienne McIlvaine (@mizocty) lives in Brooklyn and has written about film and television for Time Warner, Cut Print Film, FilmFish and HelloGiggles. She keeps the ticket stubs of every movie she sees and wishes there were more films like The Wicker Man (not the Nicolas Cage one). She’s also a fierce advocate for going to the movies by yourself, The Counselor and reading the book first.