There’s nothing quite like a David Lynch movie. You know the second you find yourself immersed in one of his unsettling worlds, the strange blend of earnest innocence and churning malevolence vying against one another, light and dark and laughter and horror and violence but especially the eeriness. Nobody but nobody does eerie like David Lynch. Which makes David Lynch: The Art Life so fascinating, a movie about a movie-maker that takes up all the stuff he does other than movies.
Director Jon Nguyen’s documentary focuses on the early phase of Lynch’s life up to the moment he made Eraserhead, a chrysalis time before the emergence of one of cinema’s most distinctive and influential directors. From his childhood in Idaho to his time as an aspiring painter in Philadelphia, the film is intriguing as it dances about its subject. Narrated by Lynch himself and filmed as he works on art projects in his California studio, it’s a portrait of constant creativity, bottled up in the improbable straightlaced enthusiasm of Lynch’s mid-western “gosh gee” persona.
We get tales of Lynch growing up, playing with the neighbourhood kids (that’s him with the toy gun), and getting uprooted from an idyllic life in Idaho to a bleaker existence in Virginia. His childhood drawings display a clear innate talent, and when in high school he discovers people can make a living as bonafide painters, it’s a revelation.
Using Lynch as the film’s sole guide is insightful, both for the stories he tells and also for what he omits. He talks about falling in with a bad crowd in early high school, but never elaborates. One wonder what kind of formative darkness lurks behind the gloss. But sometimes an indelible story comes through. At one point, Lynch describes playing outside with a friend on the lawn as a small child, when a distraught naked woman wanders down the street, bleeding from her mouth. The story’s disturbing, and clearly evocative of a wrenching moment in Blue Velvet. If artists are filters, lenses they turn on themselves and society to reveal deep truths we recognize, Lynch is a quintessential magnifying glass of late twentieth century malaise.
Nguyen and cinematographer Jason S. adopt a style that’s Lynchian without being overbearing, haunting images and moody passages juxtaposed with the glaring daylight of Lynch at work in the sunshine of his outdoor studio. While Lynch himself remains inscrutable, it’s clear his life is a constant artistic process. Watching him tinker and putter is fascinating, as he pulls nightmares out of coat hangers and clay. Even sitting and smoking on a lone arm chair in the middle of the studio’s expanse and clutter, as his young daughter plays nearby, you know Lynch is ruminating, chasing his thoughts down avenues we can’t quite imagine.
Even if David Lynch: The Art Life meanders and ducks on occasion, it’s a riveting look at a gushing faucet of creativity, from an artist famously reticent to reveal the workings of his convoluted, resonant id. Watching it probably won’t help you navigate the dream-damaged twists of Mulholland Drive, but you’ll see where Lynch started to put it all together. It’s pretty cool to realize Lynch’s films are just one room, a ballroom perhaps, in the creepy manor where all his art, his paintings and his music, emerges. Just be glad that house isn’t on your street.
David Lynch: The Art Life is playing in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox from Friday, April 7th through the week, and is playing in limited release across Canada and the United States.