It’s not breaking news that David Lynch is an enigmatic filmmaker. It’s not just that he’s made films like Eraserhead and Lost Highway; he also refuses to do commentary tracks to provide insight into such films, he despises chapter breaks on their physical media releases, and when I was in college, he gave a talk at a nearby school talking about the ebb and flow of subconscious thought while a Buddhist mediator was hooked up to a device that monitored his brainwaves. Lynch is a man who believes in the inherent value of thought and creativity, unconcerned with where those impulses came from and what they could possibly mean, believing that their existence, being a byproduct of formative experiences and memory, is reason enough to get carried away with them.
In that context, it only makes sense that he’s the subject of a documentary, David Lynch: The Art Life, that explores his formative years and the experiences of his youth but offers only the answers that your own subjectivity will correlate between their happenings and the eventual creation of his visual art (paintings, sculptures, and films, eventually). Co-director Jon Nguyen, who produced the contemplative documentary Lynch about the making of Inland Empire, has earned the candor and familiarity of the 70-year old filmmaker, who spends most of his time and days in his LA home painting and sculpting. The Art Life behooves from this familiarity between the two, as the observational B-roll of a cryptically evolving art piece is supplemented by the soft-spoken tones of a man who appears in how he casually but determinedly speaks and carries himself that he’s earned the right to just smoke cigarettes, sip coffee, and paint.
There has been some speculation that Lynch’s long absence from film (contemporary relaunch of Twin Peaks aside) has been a byproduct of his inability to secure financing but the lived-in visual and aural experience of observing Lynch at work instead seems to conclude that he’s perfectly at peace living “the art life,” the life that was first introduced to him as a child initially through drawing and painting. It’s drawings and paintings that receive the vast majority of the film’s visual and anecdotal attention, which can best be described as the kind of art about which Tim Burton characters have nightmares. These dark and vaguely macabre pieces seem to belie a relatively idyllic suburban upbringing, but the film, as a proxy of Lynch’s recollections, imply that his stories were an influence in some regard even if never concluding how or why. One particular haunting memory involves young Lynch and his brother being approached at night by a naked, bleeding woman. No further explanation is given as to who she was, what led her to that state, or what affect it had on Lynch, but it being recalled is evidence enough that it would manifest itself later somehow in some way.
Fans hoping to gain deeper insight into Lynch’s cinematic influences and process specifically will likely find The Art Life largely lacking as it’s not until the final third of the film that Lynch’s memory walk chronologically and logically arrives at the making of Eraserhead. At that point in the film, it becomes clear that the opening of Lynch’s mind to a newer visual form of artistic expression in conjunction with his wife’s pregnancy – a pregnancy that he hid from his father – would imminently germinate into what Lynch himself describes as “a dream of dark and troubling things.” It’s as close as the film gets to drawing a clear delineation between input and output but by then Nguyen and co-director Rick Barnes have already done an efficient enough job supporting Lynch’s thesis: “I think every time you do something, like a painting or whatever, you go with ideas and sometimes the past can conjure those ideas and color them; even if they’re new ideas, the past colors them.”