David Lynch: The Art Life Review

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David Lynch - The Art Life

Fascinating portrait of filmmaker and artist David Lynch is now playing in select theaters

I was reminded last night of something I have often said before in print and conversation in regards to my general disappointment at the state of contemporary indie filmmaking:

“Before Eraserhead…there was no Eraserhead.”

Well, obviously, but I mean it. As an artist, a filmmaker, when you’re operating on the fringes, it is your ONLY chance to INVENT. You can literally do whatever you want. You can pour your vision and energy into breaking and remaking the rules. You can do ANYTHING.

So why on Earth do so many young filmmakers continue to simply chase commercial success right out of the gate, especially when commercial success on the fringe these days is negligible (re: nobody is really making money). If your greatest desire is to end up filed in a Netflix queue or a dump-bin at Walmart, you’re doing it wrong.

Make the art. Define your vision. Take risks. Make it personal. The rest will follow. It might take time, but that’s okay.

I was reminded of this while watching the superlative David Lynch: The Art Life last night. Because this is exactly what Lynch did. Art first. Uncompromising. Cover of Entertainment Weekly later. Much f**king later…

David Lynch: The Art Life is a marvel. On the surface, it’s akin to the also-mesmerizing intimate documentary De Palma (read our review here). But it’s a very different film really, because Lynch is a very different filmmaker. A very different person. His journey to commercial success was a trail blazed in failure and struggle and triumph and hard work and a defiant refusal to compromise. He forged his name organically and by the time he did change the course of cinema in 1977 with Eraserhead, he was already confident in his singular vision. He had blazed the trail and it was now up to the rest of the world to catch up. And I don’t think they ever quite have. They’re still trying to figure him out.

Directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm’s fascinating portrait of Lynch the artist does a better job of anyone or anything I’ve seen in digging down into primordial blueprint of Lynch’s soul and piecing together the impossible puzzle of image, memory, sound and vision that make up the man’s life and, in turn, his work. Spending time with Lynch in his crumbling, brilliantly -bohemian California studio while the future Twin Peaks guru paints, plays with substances, breaks material, sculpts, crushes canvas and bends brushes making his own raw, incredibly-personal art pieces, the film juxtaposes these scenes of creation with Lynch narrating what amounts to his entire formative life story over touching photos and 8mm movies of his past. And what a story or, rather, what a storyteller.

Slowly, surely Lynch — in between long, hypnotic shots of the filmmaker and artist simply chainsmoking and running his ink-stained fingers through his impressive shock of white hair — unfolds intimate tales of his loving, supportive parents, his idyllic 1950’s childhood, his early teenage rebellion that was quieted down when he discovered painting and fine art and even his early experiments with recreational drugs. Lynch is — like his films — eccentric and often very funny, but none of it is forced or by design. He just naturally is these things. His toddler daughter wanders around his studio while he works and talks and one can see that the “foundation of love” (his words) that he was reared upon has translated to his persona. This is a kind man who just so happens to be one of the most important investigators into covert human darkness in film history.

In his stories we see glimpses of the iconic moments that would weave their way into his films: how he saw a naked, beaten woman walking down his street sobbing when he was only eight (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me); his anxieties over being a father and husband and provider (Eraserhead), his drug-fueled experiences being hypnotized by lines on the freeway (Lost Highway, Wild at Heart), his fixation on the beautiful/ugliness of industrial areas (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man) and more. All of this is filmed and edited in a way that mirrors Lynch’s own work and though process. It’s almost as if the filmmakers have attempted to duplicate the experience of actually being inside the artist’s mind. We, the viewer, become David Lynch. And what a mind…

After a successful festival run, David Lynch: The Art Life is playing select theaters across North America now including Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. Look for it. Learn from it.