Originally published on April 10.
Overview: The Art Life gives a glimpse into the artwork and early life of artist and filmmaker David Lynch. Janus Films; 2016; Not Rated; 90 minutes.
The Mystery: Historically, David Lynch has let his work speak for itself. He has little interest in explaining symbolism and meaning and remains a somewhat private man. In David Lynch: The Art Life, directors Jon Nguyen and Rick Barnes capture a humble shot of him from an angle previously unseen, a look into Lynch’s young life and his artistic process.
Seasoned people-watchers rejoice, we are spoiled with shots of Lynch bent over a canvas, his head crowned with silver tempest waves of hair, smearing paint with his hands, a glowing cigarette always burning. There is great value in watching a man like Lynch work in silence — it can be just as illuminating as listening to him speak about it. One must be careful when throwing words like “genius” around, but Lynch fits the description and it does feel like a privilege to watch him create.
When he does speak, it’s a strangely relaxing experience. David seems like such an honest and pure soul that you can’t help but smile when he smiles as he recounts stories from his past. Some of these tales are funny, like his retelling of the first time he smoked marijuana, or his interactions with colourful neighbours he met along his journey having lived in multiple places throughout his lifetime. There was heaps of laughter in the audience just as much as there was silent reflection as Lynch delved into his younger days.
The Life: It’s romantic to think of a dark history leading to his genius but by all accounts Lynch grew up in a loving fairytale of a household. His mother recognized and cultivated his creativity and gave him the necessary love and freedom that an artist requires. His father was a bit of a lone wolf, but an honest and fair man who taught him about compromise early on. He has fond memories, but it doesn’t mean he was always understood by those around him. Lynch’s world was small, but he created one of multitudes within it through experimentation and imagination, though it left him misunderstood by those closest to him. Still, it’s obvious that family is extremely important to Lynch, and we’re treated to beautiful shots of his ex-wife Peggy and daughter Jennifer, as well as his toddler tottering around the studio while he works. We see plenty of charming family photos that illustrate the boy he was and the man he would become because of his environment.
A picturesque family does not mean there were not bizarre life changing experiences that clearly informed his later work. For one, Lynch recounts an otherworldly story that scarred him as a child, one that would clearly lead to a memorable scene in Blue Velvet. There were times of perpetual night in his life which he reveals through quiet reflection and even though they’re hard to understand there is a feeling of connectedness. For all their vagueness and frankness the dark spots reveal so much – even if he can’t fully explain what those moments were like for him, you see them in his art. And what art it is! These pieces are absolutely fascinating in their style and substance, and at times it feels a shame that the filmmakers move on so quickly from shots of them, most likely in interest of showing as many as possible. His work is the kind you’d stare at for hours in galleries, with multiple textures, mysterious text and disturbing, even graphic, imagery.
Lynch doesn’t speak much about his films in this documentary, instead telling stories about his art and his life that are surprisingly gripping given his signature lackadaisical tone. There are small souvenirs from his movies surrounding him, but Eraserhead is the only film that receives his attention, for being one of the happiest times in his cinematic life. This was a time for him of ultimate freedom and self-expression, an experience that any artist dreams of. He does speak of the moment he went from painting to film, and it’s as small and magical as you’d expect — the sound of wind, the paint moving, and a new dream was born.
The Dream: But this is about the art life after all, and what is it? Lynch speaks of a revelation that “blew his wiring” when he learned that his friend’s father was a painter. He knew immediately that’s what he wanted, and he had some romantic idealistic view of what the art life is: cigarettes, coffee, and painting. To a cynic, that might be what the art life looks like from the outside, a lazy and self-indulgent lifestyle, but Lynch is speaking of something deeper. Being free from a crushing job that takes up most of your time and energy is certainly part of it, but it comes down to an inner way of life that removes restrictions and cultivates an outpouring of passion. Living the art life is living in a way that tends the gifts of the artist and makes a personal practice become sacred, whatever that may look like for each individual. It is about giving in to movement and feeling and letting those come out in whatever medium we choose, constantly sifting for gold and always moving forward.
Fellow artists will find sweet companionship here, a relief in recognizing something inside of themselves. In fact, The Art Life is a strangely encouraging film for a late-bloomer. What really catches the soul is the shared feeling of thrill and freedom and happiness of living only for your artistic work and the journey of developing and refining it. Lynch speaks truths we already know but need to be reminded of again and again. When he shares these struggles, it counters the loneliness and spurs us on to continue. “I knew my stuff sucked, but I had to burn through to see what was mine,” he muses, speaking about working until you catch something rather than becoming discouraged by your own failings. His honesty and frankness is really refreshing, especially when he talks about splitting and living different lives with great fear of their crossover. Perhaps the greatest lesson we all must repeatedly learn is that “boundaries screw you, sometimes you have to make big mistakes and huge messes to find what you’re looking for.” These mistakes and messes are not mentioned in great detail, but it’s clear they exist and that he has come to terms with them, in his own way.
Lynch is surprisingly humble about his successful life, but more notably he is extremely grateful for the people who helped him along the way, calling them out by name and recognizing the enormous contributions they made to his life. He knows his talent and perception is not the only contributing factor to his fame and success, and it does good to remind others to think of their own personal angels. He acknowledges all who inspired him, defended him, and taught him hard lessons. His stories show the importance of mentorship, of the value of even just one person really believing in you. Lynch recognizes the truth that sometimes other people is the only thing that keeps us going.
The Art Life is appropriately beautiful and artistically shot. Skillful editing takes us from sweet reflection to creepy confusion with an excellent use of sound. Shots from some of Lynch’s early short films The Alphabet and The Grandmother are shown, both giving a quaintly eerie preview to the types of feature-length films he would produce later on. As someone who was unaware of his painting and visual art, it was so pleasing to see his artwork. It’s really fascinating and raw, at times bizarre, frightening but beautiful not unlike the art of his films with which most are more familiar. So when the film closes on a piece of his work, his penmanship scrawling about the “dark deep darkness and the splendor all around, reaching in and finding yourself” suddenly we become grateful for every medium he has chosen to work with, and are given some validation for the mediums of our own. For anyone who is lacking a boon of support in their life, it is a shimmering light into the artistic process and a deep encouragement to never give up.
Overall: The Art Life feels like a lucky glimpse into a fascinating life, even if it doesn’t go to the explicit depths that some may expect. It’s a beautiful portrait of an artistic individual whose work has heavily impacted our cultural landscape, but it’s also a profoundly connecting experience for artists who may be in a time of struggle. For this reason, even if you’re not already a Lynch fan, The Art Life is really something special and a genuine must-see.
Featured Image: Janus Films