FILM REVIEW: David Lynch: The Art Life (2016)

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When it comes to wrapping your head around the enigma that is David Lynch, and the artefacts spawned by his creative output, the less you try to apply logic, the better. Lynch himself is renowned for his refusal to ‘explain’ his work, and is (like any great artist) content to let the film/painting/song/photograph speak for itself. And (like all great art), the feelings and sensations elicited by his work, inside the viewer, are as much a part of it as the piece itself.

This is something director Jon Nguyen really understands, and utilizes in his documentary David Lynch: The Art Life. Instead of trying to pull apart Lynch’s work and psyche by applying logic and explanation to it, he allows the raw material to take centre stage, so that we can draw our own conclusions and judge the film based on how we feel at the end of it. It’s almost as if Lynch made the documentary himself.

The film takes a naturalistic approach in the way that it is photographed and edited. From the very first shot – Lynch in profile, sitting in his studio in a state of deep contemplation – the artistic process is laid bare. The camera silently observes him at work, pottering around amongst the paints, using his hands to manipulate the materials on the canvas. It’s like watching a child at play; curious, thoughtful, hungry to learn. We begin a strange journey through Lynch’s being, not just his process but his memories and dreams, the subterranean levels. We see his paintings in close up, catch glimpses of his home life; watch him interacting in the studio with his young daughter, Lula. Spliced into the present-day footage are old photographs and grainy home videos which serve to build a picture of Lynch’s childhood and adolescence. It’s a picture we recognize as being an integral part of Lynch’s directorial style – the white picket fences, green lawns and cheery neighbours that so often form the surface levels of his film and TV settings.

The music and sound scattered sparsely throughout David Lynch: The Art Life lend the whole film a slightly eerie quality, a stillness that is punctuated by Lynch’s narration as he guides us through his early life. As he tells stories and recounts memories, his voice is often filled with wonder and innocence and in these recordings we really get a sense of who he is as a storyteller and as a person. We are allowed a deeper level of insight into his persona than we have probably ever been allowed before, thanks to the filmmakers’ decision to place Lynch in a room with a microphone and let him muse, uninterrupted. His commentary is absorbing, candid, and often funny. You are invested in his story, from the moment he realised he wanted to be an artist to the conception of The Alphabet, his first attempt at filmmaking. You submit yourself to his world and emerge, 90 minutes later, as if from a dream.

If you’re looking for a detailed exposé on Lynch’s rise to fame, or any kind of behind-the-scenes look at the making of his feature films, David Lynch: The Art Life will not satisfy you. If you’re a casual viewer of Twin Peaks on the hunt for some kind of explanation as to what the hell is going on in The Return, then go home, because you’re obviously drunk. This documentary is not really like other documentaries; it offers the viewer so much more than the frothy details of Lynch’s life and work, taking us instead on a journey into the darkest corners of his mind and methods. The film invites us into Lynch’s world, gives us a practical demonstration of his creative process, and reveals the ways in which his art (and all art) is coloured by the past. The experience of watching it is visceral, immersive and of course, dreamlike; Lynch wouldn’t have it any other way.


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