David Lynch is one of the great mysteries in the filmmaking world. His films are meticulously constructed enigmas, which require the same type of open minded approach to understanding as it likely takes Lynch himself to paint with images. His films come from an otherworldly plane of consciousness that must be met with a susceptibility - like a dream you’re powerless to its experience, and any attempt to describe it in the aftermath will fail to replicate the actual feeling, which is the only real language in which dreams function.
It is no accident that Lynch’s DVDs often come a la carte - without special features and elaborative featurettes. In fact, many of Lynch’s films’ DVD releases don’t even offer chapter selection, prohibiting viewers from watching his films any other way than from front to back. There have been a few docs made on the man, like Pretty as a Picture, released in 1997, which follows the production of Lost Highway, and 10 years later, Lynch (One) similarly focuses on the production of Inland Empire. Both are great films that offer the viewer privileged windows into what Lynch’s filmmaking actually looks like, but neither will leave their viewers with any more insight into the works than the works themselves.
It seemed probable that docs of this sort, while great, were all us fans were going to get from David Lynch, but I’ve never been so pleased to be wrong. David Lynch: The Art Life is the intimate portrait many of us thought we’d never see. The film is credited to directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm and is essentially a feature length interview, but so intimate and open is their film, so forthright is Lynch in the interview, that The Art Life succeeds in illuminating his world of rich, textured darkness.
Lynch sits in a darkened sound recording booth, recounting his youth. Unsurprisingly, he was born in a small town - Missoula, Montana - and spent his childhood relocating to similarly small towns where huge worlds were contained within two blocks. Lynch tells his tale in words that are uniquely his: “My parents got along like Ike & Mike”. There's a tremendous amount of insight to be gained from what Lynch chooses to share about his formative years, like the fact the Mrs. Lynch prohibited her son from using colouring books, wisely disapproving of the constricting nature of thinking within the lines.
It’s hard to imagine what kind of parents raised a person like David Lynch, and it’s not altogether surprising to learn that they were wholesome, moral, authentically good people, who instilled values in their son in the midst of their picket fence world of the 50s American dream. Then it happened; likely the single most formative experience of his life, certainly as far as his aesthetic is concerned; but then, his life and his art aren’t exactly mutually exclusive.
One night, David and his brother are playing in the front yard when out of the darkness emerges a giant figure; a nude woman of unsound mind revealing to a young David, in a flash, the hidden unwholesomeness that lurks beneath the surface of seeming perfection. His traumatized brother immediately started crying … so did the woman - Lynch's first damsel in distress (or “woman in trouble” as the tagline of Inland Empire reads).
I need not remind you that this image, burned into Lynch’s brain at a young age, would eventually be recreated by Isabella Rossellini, who potently burned the same image into the brains of Blue Velvet’s aghast audience, not to mention the pure Laura Dern character, Sandy Williams, who is far less sheltered by the film’s end. This lifelong preoccupation of darkness contaminating purity was further instilled into Lynch during his teenage years when Lynch, as he recounts, “fell in with a bad crowd”, often disappointing his mother by betraying her impression of his standup character. What exactly he was exposed to in those years remains a mystery, but it goes a long way in shedding light on Lynch’s fixation with the corruption of innocence.
Consider Laura Palmer, the pristine prom queen sucked into a life of debauchery by sleazy roughneck Canadians. Dale Cooper, her goodness incarnate guardian angel, is keen to rescue her from the darkness that’s overtaken her. For under Laura's rough exterior, hardened by horrible formative experiences, lies the innocent little girl with the heavenly smile. It’s not hard to understand why 50s music permeates Lynch’s works, even though they’re always set long after Eisenhower’s decade.
Twin Peaks is the same essential town of Blue Velvet where our characters stray from - towns where entire worlds exist within two blocks and contain everything from the post office to the malt shops to the forces of good and evil. Even Mulholland Drive, which surely exists in modernity, is fixated on the innocent 50s in its doo wop movie within a movie featuring the croons of Connie Stevens and Linda Scott. Many of Lynch’s films begin with a 50s state of mind before their characters descend down a nightmarish rabbit hole - an initiation into the harsh realities of the real world beyond the fence.
Like Laura Palmer, Mulholland Drive's Diane Selwyn is living in a fantasy world of how Hollywood appears from afar - a picture of small town dreams. Though Twin Peaks never explicitly states that Laura Palmer might’ve been destined for stardom, the angelic singer of its bygone world, Julee Cruise, omnipotently sings before being subbed out for a giant in Cooper’s vision, “She’ll never go to Hollywood”. After winning a jitterbug competition, Diane finds the confidence to take the big leap and follow her dreams, only to be sucked into the darkness of broken dreams and the harsh realization that human nature, especially amidst the faux-glamour of Hollywood, is far bleaker than classic Hollywood films would have us believe. The innocence of Diane dies of the unbearable disappointment of a broken heart.
His discussion could certainly extend to many of the works throughout Lynch’s entire career, from his early paintings to shorts to his much-obsessed-over screen work, and the conversation itself is merely implied by The Art Life. Some may be disappointed by the lack of direct insight into specifics, but not only would specifics be a departure from Lynch’s style, it wouldn't make for a film remotely as valuable as The Art Life and its movingly autobiographical reflections from one of America’s most unique artists. The sharing of Lynch’s journey into “the art life”, as he and his early painter friends, like production designer Jack Fisk, deemed their existence to be (from his early paintings, which would inform all future works - Lynch strove to make these images move) is a privilege I never thought we’d receive.
It was a truly unique and singular journey that brought Lynch to Eraserhead, and hearing about how the journey affected his wholesome parents, who instilled the value of goodness into their son, is the type of information that makes me grateful for this documentary. Good is meaningless without evil and no artist conveys the contrast with more wisdom, artistry, profundity, and perhaps most impressive, viscerality, than David Lynch.
Through his distortion of reality, Lynch reflects the promise and sadness of life far clearer than most can see with their own two eyes. Lynch sees with a third eye, and sharing that perspective with the world is exactly what the art life is about. This is his story.