David Lynch: The Art Life

a unique insight into the Lynchian world.

Despite the wealth of information available in the public sphere, David Lynch still manages to remain an enigma to most. America’s most successful surrealist director — responsible for all time classics such as The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks — has a reputation for being an eccentric man of few words, rarely giving up the secrets to his most confounding, avant-garde movies. But with the release of yet another introspective documentary — David Lynch: The Art Life — the otherwise mysterious world of David Lynch is forever being brought slightly more in focus.

In those rare moments when David Lynch opens his mouth, there are usually dozens of fans and critics eagerly waiting with open notepads to record the gold dust. David Lynch: The Art Life is one of those moments. Candid in both its filmmaking and interview, Jon Nguyen’s documentary offers a unique insight into Lynch’s formative years, touching upon the nervous system of everything Lynch — it’s essentially a 90-minute interview with the director, focusing mainly on his upbringing and philosophy on art.

The film is brimming with typical Lynchian aphorisms that immediately arrest and agree with all your senses, enchanting any preconceptions you had as you enter into the cracked Lynchian world.  The scenes are interspersed with Lynch making art whilst entertaining his kids — almost as though they were one and the same, like some form of early artistic tutelage. The director, Jon Nguyen, is no stranger to Lynch’s iconography either: we see insects flutter in cutaways, subdued scenes of reverie, lot’s of smoking and drinking, and some very surreal parenting.
The film begins documenting Lynch’s early history from the time he was born in Montana, to moving to Boise, Idaho and then onto Washington. “My world was no bigger than a couple of blocks” reveals Lynch, introducing the concept of the microcosm — where in middle America, “everything is there”. It is in these few blocks that we see the portrait of the artist beginning to form; those places he would continually lend from, explore within, and use as the main source of inspiration for his later works.

In another sagacious moment, Lynch attests that “you can live in one place, and have everything”. We are privy to his childhood stories, which seem both jocular and piquant, but steadily morph into scary tales of middle-class suburban America — just like those fictional towns in his movies.  One particular childhood memory is reminiscent of Dorothy Valances’s naked public scene in Blue Velvet: a bloodied, naked woman randomly approached David and his brother whilst they were playing in the street, where she then broke down and cried in front of them. This encounter clearly left an indelible mark, which Lynch describes as being ‘otherworldly’; and so the prevalent Lynchian trope of the duality of worlds — where all is not quite as it seems — was born.

Idaho was like “sunshine, green grass, mowed lawns, cheerful” in stark comparison to Virgina which seemed like “always night“. These dual worlds would later become thematic to Lynch’s works: Blue Velvet’s underworld, Twin Peaks’ supernatural and Mulholland Drive’s mystery; the hidden horror of another world in the seemingly innocent light world.

Perhaps the oddest sense of this otherworldliness and suburban mystery comes from the bathetic, incomplete story of his neighbour, Mr Smith. Lynch begins the story in his usual deadpan, almost naive delivery, only to shock us by admitting he simply “cannot complete the story” — what is left unsaid and unseen has a far more disturbing effect than actually seeing or hearing whatever it was.
As though giving parental advice on the development of the artist during adolescence, Lynch’s commentary

in the film is simple but profound: “you can’t control it, it’s just what was happening”. The revelation that the artist must accept the ‘Art Life’ during the earlier harder times, or moreover, embrace it, resonates with the artist in each of us. One of the most insightful things we learn is that “everything you do is coloured by the past” — even those new ideas. We see the effect of history, and how Lynch’s past, especially those early events and adolescent feelings, continue to influence and permeate his movies.

Lynch concedes that he hated school — he preferred people and relationships. The puritanism of school and pedantic nature of art class turned the budding director completely off studying. He quit Boston art school to go studying in Europe in a half baked idea, only to come back fifteen days later.  Not scared to go against the grain, Lynch reveals his disdain for all conventional formula, including both school and the counter culture — his adamance that he had the right to “walk out on Dylan” didn’t play well to his hippy friends.  The real world was not appealing to the young David Lynch, and we begin to see how he developed a need to create other unworldly worlds; worlds where Frank Booth exists, and people eat cherry pie and carry logs under their arms.

Lynch claims the ‘The Art Life’ first took a hold of him when he met his school friend’s father, Bushnell Keeler. Keeler was a painter with his own studio, and when the teenage Lynch learnt of this — the idea that someone could exist solely as a painter — an epiphany happened that blew his wiring. Lynch says it was from that moment that he knew what he wanted to do.

Lynch defines the ‘Art Life’ around this time as: “you drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes and you paint — maybe girls come into a little bit“. Bushnell’s influence would also have an even more significant effect on Lynch’s career: his approval letter and constant support led to Lynch going back to school, where he followed his friend and fellow artist Jack Fisk, to Philadelphia Art School.

Philadelphia would become Lynch’s dark place. The place that was totally crazy. The place that influenced the barren, industrial, isolated template that would become Eraserhead. We hear recounted tales of crazy ladies squawking like chickens; women with their nipples hurting; a woman swearing aggressively to her baby; and a thick fear in the air. The feeling of sickness and corruption was “just perfect to spark things” says Lynch; living the art life in Philadelphia became ‘thrilling’, despite the fear.

Lynch confesses that he knew “his stuff sucked”. He advises that all artists need to “burn through and find what is yours”, and that the only way to do this is to “keep painting, and keep painting until you catch something” — advice most yearning artists would aspire to. When he proudly showed his father some of his work, his father responded simply by saying: “I don’t think you should ever have children” — perhaps not the best encouragement to give, but to be fair, his son did take him into a basement with dead birds, mice in plastic and a whole host of the grotesque.
Lynch’s fascination with the macabre details of the body and visual artistry can actually be traced back to the relationship with his father. They often built things together on weekends, taking part in family projects, examining in meticulous fashion — like his father would as a research scientist — the finer details of structures. This would also help explain his initial venture into puppetry and visual effects: “when you punch a pin into a bug”, says Lynch, “there are incredible textures — just to a little bug’.

It’s no secret that his original path into film began via surreal art and painting. The documentary ends as the artist becomes a director, or as Lynch puts it, an author of the “moving painting … with sound” — taking particular care not to say film.  We see him almost fall into making live action movies and animation, as we witness the beginnings of his career with the Alphabet followed by The Grandmother — the movie that won him the grant from the AFI.

In what Lynch describes “the phone call of a life time“, the approval from the AFI and move to Los Angeles totally changed his destiny. It leaves us wondering what life would have made of Lynch without that ‘total, life changing phone call’. He even admits himself, “I really don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t get that grant’. As soon as Lynch experienced the Californian sunshine, in the best part of Beverly Hills, all of the Philadelphia fear was pulled out.

One of the most interesting revelations of the documentary is that we discover Eraserhead to be one of Lynch’s greatest and happiest moments in cinema. It was that one time when he could create his own little world exactly in the way he wanted it; it was ultimate control of the artist; like Keeler’s studio, Lynch had converted LA stables into his own studio, where he slept, ate and lived the art life.

In David Lynch: The Art Life, we watch Lynch fumble and attach something grotesque to the wall in latex — and it reminds us that we don’t necessarily have to understand explicitly what it means. But just like some of us can’t fully understand all of his movies, we are now a little closer to understanding why he does it. It may not come as a complete surprise to most that one of America’s greatest directors wanted to be a painter. His films have always contained something of the artist.

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