Criterion releases the new documentary about and starring experimental filmmaker David Lynch.
To quote a certain giant, it's happening... again. It's happening... again.
To quote the giant who created the giant, you drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, you paint, and that's it.
That quote, from filmmaker David Lynch, has been widely used in promotion for this documentary which is all about him and his processes in creating art. But what isn't necessary being flagged up is the fact that for Lynch, this is an ideal, not the reality.
With the recent cult popularity of Showtime's admired and debated Twin Peaks: The Return, David Lynch has re-entered the cinema zeitgeist. It's been far too long since 2006's Inland Empire, his previous widely released filmmaking effort.
What was he doing in the interim? Unsurprisingly true to established form, he'd been making art. Actual physical "Fine Art" art. Painting, sculpting, and experimenting with various mixed media endeavors. In short, pursuing his first love.
The co-directing triumvirate of Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm manage to honestly convey the noted artist and filmmaker in his workshop environment in their eighty-eight minute film, David Lynch: The Art Life. Using newly recorded voiceover of Lynch as he tells stories of his life and growing up, spanning from his childhood in Indiana to a dark, post-high school period in Philadelphia, to his grant with the American Film Institute which allowed him to make 1977's Eraserhead, The Art Life weaves a delicate portrait of a figure who's fascinated us many times over, a public figure, a deliberately peculiar figure, but one whom had his guard up.
There's a greater vulnerability witnessed here than almost anywhere else that Lynch the persona has turned up, including the 2007 feature length documentary Lynch, also directed by some of the same folks as this film and sharing the only videographer with this kind of access to the man, Jason S. That film, shot during the making of Inland Empire, was intriguing if ultimately rather unmemorable. Sections of Lynch at his desk reporting on the weather, and discussing transcendental mediation are what sticks. The Art Life is a definite step up in several ways, not the least of which is a more open and reflective subject. No talk of the weather or meditation, just a slow, haunting delivery of memories, times and places, accompanied with shots of corresponding, often disturbing artwork.
Looking and sounding his age, Lynch comes off as a weary and unassuming patriarch of a movement rather than the off-kilter and absurd persona that he has publicly adopted throughout his career. The years are showing, and with it comes a certain direct reflection that perhaps wasn't there before. There's something sad and almost pensive about it. It’s not that the persona isn’t being cultivated here, what’s different is that Lynch is cultivating it in a more direct way, in an attempt to help us understand why it was necessary in the first place.
Criterion's Blu-Ray release of David Lynch: The Art Life is short on bonus content, offering only a fifteen minute interview with co-director Jon Nyguyen, and its own trailer. Which is to be expected, this being a rare lower price-point title for Criterion. In terms of A/V quality, this is an exceptional effort. The wrinkles, the texture, the years are palpable on the face of the man; in a very real way embodying his story.
Although this film has been readily available on several platforms prior to this disc, the outstanding look and sound of that Criterion's top tier efforts bring to this work, not to mention the sheer permanence of physical media in this age of streaming platforms dropping content on the fly, makes this a must-have for David Lynch fans. For anyone else, the appeal will be a bit more negligible, though there's no denying that this is a fine documentary. Whether it warrants its own singular Criterion release is another argument for another comments section.
There is next to nothing mentioned about his the vast swath of his film work. Only the making of Eraserhead is reflected upon, likely since it was approached as more of an experimental art project than a movie. Contained wholly to his workshop, we watch the artist chain smoke his way around a screwgun, slathery paint, and various other power tools and substances. Every now and then, he is visited by his toddler daughter, Lula. She's the only other person in the contemporary footage. Lynch is truly portrayed as a man alone.
When it comes down to it, David Lynch is a cultural prophet who must be engaged. His visions are dark, intense, and often frustrating; an internally moral approach grappling forever with the mysteries of life. Solving them cannot be the point. We seem to forget that pretty often. But, after such a filmic dry spell, it's great to have Lynch back, both behind the camera (delivering his Twin Peaks magnum opus), and in front of it (The Art Life). Whatever the opinion of his work, it's undeniable that he always gave us something to chew on. And thankfully, that gum we like is coming back in style.