REVIEW: David Lynch: The Art Life [2017]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 88 minutes | Release Date: March 31st, 2017 (USA)
Studio: Absurda / Janus Films
Director(s): Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm

“They got along like Ike and Mike”

If you remember back to 2007, a documentary entitled Lynch came out portraying an all-access pass into the creative process of auteur David Lynch‘s final feature-length film, Inland Empire. There was a lot of smoke and mirrors surrounding its release from the use of a nom de plume where the director was concerned (some even speculated it was Lynch himself at the time) to the notion of a collective known as the Lynch Three Project. This film became “One” with a short named Lynch 2 serving as a special feature on the Inland Empire DVD. I never saw them, but heard good things as far as being must-sees for fans of the artist—similar sentiments spoken now about the supposed final chapter: David Lynch: The Art Life.

A decade later with the help of Kickstarter, this latest look at one of cinema’s most unique and creative visionaries comes after a lengthy four-year gestation. One of the project’s original producers, Jon Nguyen, serves as director with Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm all credited by name alongside original collaborator Jason S. and Lynch regular Sabrina S. Sutherland as producers. The moment their subject became a father once again in 2012 at the age of sixty-six became the moment they approached him for this latest series of interviews to go back further than he has ever truly let anyone get. We’re talking about his childhood, parents, and friends. We’re talking about his discovery of painting, his evolution towards film, and the misunderstood activities of an artist finding his way.

The conversations recorded take us from early days in Boise to the pre-production phase of his feature debut Eraserhead and they’re wonderfully detailed, emotional, and honest. His words provide insight into so much of his style and feelings about the darkness of neighborhoods, the isolation of introversion, and the kindness of strangers championing you when you’re unsure if you even want to champion yourself. Anecdotes are told with blatant connections to scenes in his movies (Blue Velvet‘s iconic sequence of Jeffrey finding Dorothy naked and distraught in the street or the aesthetically gorgeous rapid movement of Lost Highway lines disappearing in the headlight-lit night), the connections our own to make as fans of his work draw parallels while those ignorant to it simply bask in the oddity of memory.

Sometimes we are even supplied glimpses at family photos and movies with a few process shots of Lynch working on early shorts, contextually relevant archival images of important people from his past including best friend Jack Fisk and role model Bushnell Keeler, and private videos of first wife Peggy with their daughter Jennifer. But I don’t use “glimpse” lightly since these are few and far between. The majority of visuals accompanying Lynch’s words are instead shots of him painting today. The filmmakers capture him creating his mixed media works with Francis Bacon influences and deranged expressionist tendencies while music he has created complies part of the score. It’s intriguing to see him in his current element while speaking about the medium’s power, but the juxtaposition is misguided nonetheless.

Here we are listening to him talk about the creative process leading him to masterworks like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, “Twin Peaks”, and Lost Highway, yet there’s hardly any evidence of them. We don’t even see paintings from the years he’s discussing—or at least I don’t think we do since none of the canvases flashing upon the screen are dated. Since they’re all of a cohesive style and he readily admits his work before transitioning to filmmaking was “bad”, it’s impossible to believe any onscreen were made before his transition back during the “aughts.” I could be wrong, but it all seems out of place regardless. Yes he’s the artist and yes he’s talking about painting, but the words and images are not coming from the same place.

To dismiss decades of growth, experiences, and maturation is unwise. While the idea of “the art life”—described as drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and painting—remains the same whether as a college student or the international phenomenon he has become, there are nuances to his evolution that are inherently lost. Lynch’s stories are intrinsically a part of the work he makes today, but so are the movies and creative endeavors he took on that are otherwise ignored. If you want to make a documentary about his contemporary painting, you need to include all of that. And if you want to focus on his thought process and influences in the seventies, I don’t think you should be confusing things with modern work light years removed from that period.

The footage onscreen is wonderful and does have a tangential relationship to themes discussed (Lynch’s interactions with his toddler daughter mirror his becoming a young father in the late-60s before film entered the equation), but I cannot help admitting I enjoyed listening to him speak with my eyes closed more than I did with them open. This isn’t always the case as the aforementioned period-specific archives do prove extremely relevant while enhancing his reveries—I simply found there just weren’t enough. I was wasting too much energy trying to bridge the divide between his words and the new paintings, energy that should have been spent absorbing the conversation as a self-contained entity. David Lynch: The Art Life is ultimately a wonderful interview that’s visually brought out of context.

There’s still a lot to enjoy with the dialogue being invaluable to getting inside the mind of an elusive soul who’s made a career of never projecting his meaning onto his films. So it’s definitely a must-see for fans as long as they don’t expect more than the brilliance of its audio. Think of it as a hybrid of two time periods delivered to two different senses. Your ears hear the past while your eyes see the present. I wanted more complement to the former than is provided because the latter isn’t complemented by anything. Lynch makes no connection between his ideas of art back then with his creations today and it’s disingenuous for us to do so ourselves when almost fifty years of life between are ignored.

courtesy of Janus Films

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