David Lynch: The Art Life Review

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A feature-length interview with David Lynch, where he reflects (as he paints) on his idyllic childhood and more turbulent teen years, closing as he works on Eraserhead, the film that made him.

★★★★

Treating David Lynch as a puzzle to be solved is always a hiding to nothing. One of the more interesting facets to the recent revival of Twin Peaks has been online recap culture and its thirst to ‘solve’ every show like it’s a crossword colliding with the kind of dream logic that is Lynch’s stock-in-trade. But he’d run a mile before offering anything like an explanation for his more outré moments.

This means a documentary portrait faces an uphill struggle from the off, and it’s amazing that director Jon Nguyen (who made Lynch, a 2007 look at the production of Inland Empire) has got the veteran coffee lover, surrealist, painter, musician, furniture designer, photographer and occasional film director to open up to the extent he has. However, this could be hard going if you’re not au fait with all of Lynch’s work, with his films after Eraserhead never explicitly mentioned. The project was apparently sold to Lynch as a chance for his young daughter to hear his life story in his own words, and appropriately enough the toddler is the only other person in the film not just seen in home movies.

In some ways, a home movie is what this is — but the home is more interesting than most. Over footage of him painting in his studio, three years’ worth of interviews recount some material that will be familiar to Lynch fans — the picket fences, the loving mother — and some that’s less well known, such as a period spent with the wrong crowd as a teenager in DC.

Tales of life in a Philadelphia slum as he studied art sound horrendous, but there are moments of levity. Lynch’s dad was once on a visit when he discovered in his son’s basement a series of experiments on the various rates of decay of small animals. His response? “David, I don’t think you should have children.”

It may sound odd, but this interview-driven film is better seen on the big screen.

The primary visual interest, aside from Lynch’s magnificently craggy old smoker’s face, is in the hundreds of paintings we get to see. They’re sometimes used to hint at directions of travel between the life and the art, at times surprisingly literally, but more often they’re the material for a succession of montages over some pretty intense music — it may sound odd, but this interview-driven film is better seen on the big screen. There’s also great fascination in watching Lynch paint, a much more physical process than you might imagine, as he enthusiastically throws goop around and includes all kinds of organic bits and bobs. That said, exposure to a lot of his paintings in one go does leave you thinking he may be a little too aware of the work of Francis Bacon.

The tales of Lynch’s fairly smooth move from suburbia to the art world do have an air of The Fast Show’s ‘which was nice’ guy, with friends making introductions and the young artist seemingly batting off grants with a stick, but that’s not the real meat here. ‘David Lynch’ has always been a persona to a degree, his gee-willikers boy-next-door schtick clearly a conscious mismatch with his work. There’s not much of that on display here, but he’s still performing — except the older Lynch has developed more of a gravitas than you might expect if you only know him as Gordon Cole. Only in a few moments do we see the mask slip, whether it be with his daughter or having a shocker in LA traffic. These tiny moments suggest this excellent and thorough film still only manages to scratch the surface.

Crucial for serious fans of Lynch, even if it may baffle newcomers. Since pretty much the only thing more interesting to lovers of his work is the enigmatic man behind it, there’s a lot for them to get their teeth into here.