Fear, anxiety, boredom, and rebellion are concepts that most young people are familiar with. After watching The Art Life, one can safely say that acclaimed artist and director David Lynch is also well-acquainted with these abstractions. The Art Life is a collection of moments from Lynch’s youth in documentary form, narrated by Lynch and directed by Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm.
The film is dedicated to his young daughter, Lula, and appropriately so. The Art Life feels less like a documentary and more of a time capsule for Lula to open in a few years’ time. Lynch’s articulate and mesmerising storytelling gives viewers an insight into his youth. Lynch, who refuses to discuss the meaning of his films during interviews, often ends up philosophising or talking about meditation instead. In The Art Life, Lynch doesn't explain Mulholland Drive, or give spoilers for season three of Twin Peaks. The Art Life doesn’t shed even the smallest sliver of light onto the meaning of his films, but it does help the viewer understand the man behind those films by giving us a look into his formative years.
Because of the popularity of his films, most people would probably think of Lynch as a director first and foremost. It’s hard think of the name “David Lynch” without Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks immediately coming to mind. The first half of The Art Life has a heavy focus on Lynch’s early childhood and talent for painting. The latter half of the film describes Lynch’s earliest experiences with filmmaking and touches on his Eraserhead days. Lynch describes the moment where he became interested in film almost as if he invented film himself. He was working on a painting one day while at art school in Philadelphia. He envisioned the contents of the painting moving, and imagined sounds to accompany the movement. Lynch dwelled on the idea of “a moving painting” with sound, and began dabbling in film.
The cinematography in The Art Life is much like Lynch’s description of film itself - moving paintings and pictures combined with sound. In modern day, we see him painting, sweetly pottering around his Beverly Hills studio with Lula, and smoking an impressive amount of cigarettes. When discussing his younger years, home movies and old photos are shared with the audience, which induces a second-hand nostalgia in anyone who watches. Numerous paintings, animations, and other works of art are shared with the audience. Narration is laid over these images and videos. Lynch’s American-as-apple-pie voice unites with the visuals in such an organic and intimate way that the viewer feels like Lynch is personally recounting his life story to them.
Destiny and potential are secondary themes in The Art Life. Lynch says that as a kid living in the Midwest, the geographical span of his life reached “no bigger than a couple of blocks”. He discusses childhood memories, the fumbles of adolescence, a brief stint in delinquency, and wasted time. The sentiment of having a small world comes full circle when Lynch is older, living in Philadelphia with his first wife and his first child. He was working in a printing factory. He entered a competition sponsored by the AFI in hopes of winning a grant to make films with, but did not win. A few weeks later (weeks filled with misery, monotony, and work), he received a grant as well as an invitation from the AFI to come to Los Angeles and make films. As he tells this story, old footage of young David is playing. The camera is tight on his face, and he is looking directly into the lens. A beautiful piece of film, he is smiling and radiating happiness. As this footage is playing, he says, “I don’t know what I would’ve done if I didn’t get that grant”. In that footage, Lynch isn’t the seasoned artist with the following and resume that he has today. He was simply a young man with dreams and raw talent. If that talent didn’t get recognised, perhaps David Lynch would have been left to remain in a printing factory in Philadelphia for the rest of his working years. Lynch understands what it means to feel contained in a small town and a hopeless situation, but defies that confinement (and sometimes makes art about it). It is hard to imagine what modern film and television would be like today if Lynch was still confined to “a couple of blocks” in Philadelphia.
“Lynchian” is a term that gets bandied about frequently when describing a film or piece of art that is odd, or difficult to unpack. Things that are strange for the sake of being strange are often mislabelled as “Lynchian”. Fans of Lynch’s work constantly theorise about the meanings of or messages behind his movies. We may never really understand what it means to be “Lynchian”, but The Art Life gets us pretty close. As demonstrated in this documentary, the inimitable, enigmatic David Lynch is the embodiment of “the art life”.
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