It’s a tricky thing to wish to dissect and understand that which strives for the constant mystique of the unknown, that is fundamentally scrawled and untidy in presence, mind and soul, but so utterly unique and of itself. The works of modern surrealist David Lynch are as emblematic and encompassing of the persona that is Lynch himself, and any effort of scrutiny to pull apart the strands of such a warped and blissfully distinctive psyche would be counterintuitive.
Thankfully, David Lynch: The Art Life doesn’t strive to solve the big questions of how and why regarding Lynch as a figure and an artist, but rather allows the time spent in his presence to open up and dust off the pages of his youth and beginnings in a medium outside of the already established texts that have become essential reading for all enthusiasts of his work (see Lynch on Lynch).
Directed predominantly by Jon Nguyen, but seemingly guided and overseen by Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Rick Barnes as former collaborators on previous behind the scenes materials, the format moves through recordings taken over four years in which Lynch describes in both intricate and opaque detail the particulars of his upbringing, all the way up to his production on Eraserhead – covering relatively new ground for those not already intensely familiar with his filmography.
What he recounts – and the manner in which he recounts it with his high-pitched and gravely vocals – doesn’t so much take us into the mind of the maker as much as it passes over the major points of his young life before his name was renowned. These vignettes cover the humorous (his shock at the size of Bob Dylan on stage) to the humbling and the downright uncomfortable – especially a tale of a neighbour that appears too difficult and distressing for him to fully detail.
The intention of the film appears to be something of an amorous letter for his youngest daughter, Lula, who is the only other person to appear onscreen. He is fascinated and passionately loving of his wild-eyed child, who moulds clay alongside him and he looks on as perplexed and fascinated with her reading of the world as we are to his own. The feature might be a means of communicating with her in a way she may one day be better to understand through the melody of his voice and the adoring way that the film frames his family and personal photograph’s and artwork.
The predominant setting is in and around his workshop, where in-between stories he busies himself physically with his work through hammering nails and sanding the textures out of his pieces. It’s an absorbing world that we are being allowed into, seeing it unfold without commentary or explanation. The film itself is composed of montages over his paintings and scribbles that don’t really add much to the words but envelop you in a mindset and mood that will either leave you relaxed or seized up.
David Lynch: The Art Life doesn’t stretch its potential from a visual perspective, but the way it surrounds the audience with the sounds and images of his work is enough to grant a sense of how his process operates so close to the stream of emotion and half-remembered dreams that are built into his cinematic structures and rhythms. It’s no missing puzzle piece, but it never intends to be and as such succeeds in its unwillingness to conclude on any hard note. It may only find full appreciation with those already accustomed to his persona, but it’s a neat and personal effort that basks in his eccentricities and perceptions.