Words by Aurélien Noblet / @CameraRed
Director | Jon Nguyen
Classification | 15
Duration | 89 mins
Effectively portraying an artist such as David Lynch is something that I would qualify as being almost impossible. His work is not always grasped and is often subject to the wildest interpretation. I have been a Lynch fan ever since witnessing Mulholland Drive (2001), which left me with more questions than answers. Some may find this aspect of his work purely frustrating, trying to find some coherence or logic in what they’ve seen, and I was one of them until I took a trip to the neon blue club Silencio. Lynch taught us to embrace his feverish surrealism, and The Art Life provides us with an honest and intimate portrait of the genius who created them.
Somewhat frustratingly, this documentary never attempts to fully capture Lynch's full artistic journey; in fact, it focuses primarily on his early life and work as a painter and sculptor, right until his debut feature film Eraserhead (1977) and not beyond. As fascinating as this is, recognising pattens and aspects of Lynch's surreal mise-en-scene across mediums, as a Lynch admirer I obviously wanted to see more ‘behind-the-scene’ insights from his time making modern classics like Blue Velvet (1986) or Twin Peaks (1990).
Yet, I must admit that focusing on his childhood in Philadelphia unveiled how long before being a recognised artist, David struggled with a world that wasn’t ready for the strangeness of his work. He came from a loving and supporting family but the lack of opportunities for an artist with a peculiar style almost ruined him. He's a pure artist. The formative years of his life in the School of the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, the relationship with his friends and his trip to Europe helps us to connect the formative artist with the established filmmaker to be.
Where the documentary hits the right notes is when David shares some quality time with his young daughter at his studio; these scenes are essential to deconstructing the enigmatic Lynch persona that Hollywood created for him, from outsider to loving father. It is also the only occasion in which we can see David speaking. It is him who narrates the documentary throughout, yet there is a great distance between the voice and the image. The directors recorded no less than 20 audio conversations at Lynch’s home over a period of 3 years. In the opening scene, we can see him facing the microphone, expecting him to talk or perhaps make eye contact but the footage always cuts before he begins. Perhaps Lynch didn’t want to grant us full access, for the sake of his privacy or to revel in his enigmatic persona.
What for me is the most plausible conclusion after watching The Art Life is that David Lynch is not mysterious, nor odd and not ‘out of this world’: he is a simple, quiet human being who smokes twenty cigarettes a day, a shy man who expresses himself through his art. The fact that he does not engage with the camera only reinforces this feeling of reluctance for the spotlight; like most of his characters, he is a creature of the night. The Art Life is a demanding portrait of Lynch’s early days, a mixed bag of revelation and obscurity, but is ultimately informative and rewarding and shouldn’t be missed by any true David Lynch acolyte.