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DAVID LYNCH: THE ART LIFE (2016) review

April 27, 2017

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produced by: Jon Nguyen, Jason S., Sabrina S. Sutherland
directed by: Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm
rated: NR (some language and adult imagery)
runtime: 88 min.
U.S. release date: March 31, 2017 (limited) and April 28, 2017 (the Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL) 

 

“All I wanted to do was paint. It was like I couldn’t control it.”

 

Equal parts memoir and metaphor, “David Lynch: The Art Life” is ostensibly a documentary about the notoriously cagey director’s lifelong obsession with painting. Having emerged from the other side of it, however, I can state for the record that it’s more candid and heartwarming than I ever expected. I also know more about David Lynch’s formative years as an artist than I ever thought I would. What a bizarre combination of elements swirling around in my head, but such is ninety minutes spent in the company of America’s most esoteric director.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen at least one of Lynch’s more outré works about suburban life – like “Twin Peaks” or “Blue Velvet” – that the director himself more or less grew up in one of his own films. He recounts many stories about bizarre occurrences in his childhood neighborhoods—ranging from his birthplace of Missoula, Montana to Boise, Idaho, eventually Washington, D.C., and a half dozen others. A particularly vivid tale about a nude woman, bleeding from the mouth, and wandering up the driveway of Lynch’s boyhood home. Another finds the young man attending his first day of school in Virginia as a hurricane made its way ashore.

The dreams he concocted – both in his head and subsequently on screen – only elaborate on such grotesqueries. It’s part of what makes him, for lack of a better term, “David Lynch.” This film has the same no holds barred candor that made “The Kid Stays in the Picture” such a terrific autobiographical documentary, but with a Lynchian slant of course. It’s clear he’s psychoanalyzed himself to death, leaving him to present a well-rounded version of his adventures as a young man.

The constant therapy Lynch relied on throughout his life has been painting. It’s clear that he views it as more than a hobby, and while that certainly gives this film its title, there’s clearly more here than just him jawing about painting. To him, it’s life. It’s not a metaphor for life, it simply is.

 

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Lynch takes us up to the production of his first film, “Eraserhead,” making this something of a more interesting counterpart to last year’s “De Palma.” Where Brian De Palma loved talking about his work and its meaning, Lynch mines his younger years for tales, leaving us to continue sussing out what his films are all about for ourselves. De Palma felt there was no secret hidden in his childhood from which he derived his work and seemed loathe to talk about his past. By contrast, the clues to Lynch’s work are littered throughout the experiences and dreams of his youth, and as we see him interact with his preschool-aged daughter, it’s clear he’s wistful for those formative escapades.

I never imagined I would discover that Lynch’s most comfortable mode is that of father to a preschooler with whom he adorably holds court throughout the film. The singular imagery he’s produced on screen throughout his career never made me think he could be such a tender and attentive father, yet there he is, proving me wrong again. He paints alongside her, and though he exposes his psyche through his art work and the various paintings he shows us throughout the film, it is in these moments that he shows us his soul.

Yes, David Lynch is curmudgeonly, and a chain smoker, and stubborn, but he’s also open, and honest, and loving, and doesn’t seem to have an irascible bone in his body. Unlike so many other documentaries about directors, this one succeeds in feeling at home alongside the work of its subject. It doesn’t necessarily feel like ” “a David Lynch movie”, so to speak, it certainly feel Lynchian. His hand is felt throughout, silently guiding the film the way he’d like it to go, but thankfully the triumvirate of filmmakers brought in to document the film have their own secret agenda.

Maybe Lynch knew, maybe he didn’t, but Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm do an outstanding job of giving us the portrait of this unique artist that we needed, and not necessarily the one we wanted. There’s probably juicier stuff in that other film we’ve imagined in our heads, but maintaining the mystique is all part of the Lynch mythology. Sometimes less is more. Here, less is everything.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

NOTE:  “David Lynch: The Art Life” will be shown at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago as part of a career-spanning, week-long David Lynch retrospective that starts tonight. For details, including a full schedule and ticket information, click here. 

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