The “art life” is what a young David Lynch considered the life of an artist to be – solitary, cloistered away with one’s work, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, only occasionally interrupted by other people. This documentary by Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm shows how Lynch went on to achieve that life, first as a painter and then as a filmmaker.
The Art Life (2016) documents Lynch from childhood to when he made his first film, Eraserhead (1977). It focuses mainly on his painting and his approach to fine art, and this provides a mental map of the themes and obsessions that drive his movies. The film is aimed at those with a working knowledge of Lynch’s career, and consequently spends little time explaining his wide-ranging oeuvre, assuming that the viewer knows enough to connect the dots.
Lynch is one of the few contemporary American filmmakers who has managed to instil his body of work with a consistent vision. Similar to the literary work of William S. Burroughs, a dreamlike darkness – strange, but not necessarily nightmarish – emanates from everything he creates.
The television series Twin Peaks (1990-91, with a third season due this month), about the weirdness that lies behind the facade of a quiet American town, sets the tone well – the characters can be cruel, but they are kind, too, and the wide emotional territory of the work convinces that, in spite of its mysticality, quirkiness and wilful obscurantism, this might be the way all human lives play out.
Films such as Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990) cover similar territory. Even Lynch’s version of the science-fiction classic Dune (1984), which was taken from him and recut by the studio, exhibits the shifting border between the mystical and the concrete, the cruel and the kind.
The skill of The Art Life is the way that Lynch’s drives and obsessions, which seem tangible to him, are revealed in a subtle, non-didactic manner. The filmmakers shot 20 interviews with Lynch over three years, but most of these are used as audio. The main images are either Lynch silently at work on his paintings, or old photos and Super 8 footage of his childhood and early years.
Both are revealing: the old footage presents him as an awkward youth with unusual desires while the modern sections highlight his intensity, his inwardness and his interest in dreams and topics such as physical decay and bugs. Both approaches show Lynch’s total commitment to the “art life” that inspired his creativity in the first place.
David Lynch: The Art Life will be screened on Wednesday, May 27 and June 17 at The Metroplex, in Kowloon Bay, as part of the Arts in Cinema Part 3 programme.