×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘David Lynch: The Art Life’

Art and life inseparably imitate each other in this engagingly discursive portrait of the cult filmmaker in fine-arts mode.

That hoary old question of whether life imitates art or art imitates life is refreshingly irrelevant in the case of certain creative beings, for whom art is life and vice versa. David Lynch is one such being. Extravagantly surreal as the products of his imagination may be, they are deeply rooted in personal history and philosophy — and it’s this connection that Jon Nguyen’s disarmingly off-kilter documentary “David Lynch: The Art Life” probes to rewarding effect. Nominally focused on the celebrated filmmaker’s lesser-known dabblings in fine art, “The Art Life” emerges as a more expansive study of Lynch’s creative impulses and preoccupations, as he relates first-hand the formative experiences that spurred and shaped a most unusual imagination.

Essentially a feature-length interview with the man himself, with no other on-screen contributors, the doc’s simplicity of form belies the kinks and curves of its portraiture. It’s certainly indispensable for Lynch-heads — a cult devoted enough to make U.S. distributor Janus Films’ niche investment worthwhile. It’ll perform better in home-viewing formats, courtesy of Amazon Studios in the streaming department and The Criterion Collection on DVD.

Unlike, say, his near-contemporary Brian De Palma, also the subject of a recent docu-monologue with Venice festival credentials, the 70-year-old Lynch isn’t the most natural of raconteurs. Pieced together from over 20 audio recordings made over the course of three years, his anecdotes are plentiful, though often characterized by non-sequiturs and shaggy-dog climaxes, sometimes trailing into nothing as a new thought lands. Not that you’d expect or want tidy storytelling from a filmmaker whose career has been built on narrative ambiguity and splintered logic. As we listen to Lynch talk us through certain vivid passages of his early life, his narration is absolutely consistent with the authorial voice of his films: One eerie childhood memory, concerning a passing encounter with a bloodied, nude woman on the sidewalk, sounds for all the world like an excised scene from “Blue Velvet.”

Lynch was very much a child of the picket-fence America given such warped reflection in much of his most well-regarded work. Hopping from Missoula to Boise to Spokane to Alexandria as his itinerant father switched jobs, the young Lynch nonetheless occupied a world he describes as “no bigger than a couple of blocks” in each place, developing a fascination with the social and environmental minutiae of suburbia. Yet if armchair psychologists assume that the darker currents of Lynch’s American dreams betray a troubled upbringing, they’d be wrong. He speaks with unqualified fondness of his parents and the ways in which they nurtured his creativity, while acknowledging how he tested them with his own adolescent errors of judgment. It was befriending West Virginia artist Bushnell Keeler while in his teens, however, that Lynch credits with putting him on the right path, however off the beaten track; further recollections dwell on his time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he formed a close bond (and hatched a longstanding professional collaboration) with future production designer Jack Fisk.

Inspired by Keeler, painting was Lynch’s early conduit into filmmaking; it’s a medium to which he evidently returned with gusto. When not comprehensively raiding the Lynch family photo archive, “The Art Life” follows its subject in the present day as he potters around his vast studio high in the Hollywood Hills, tinkering away at a range of canvases and sculptures, with only his adorable infant daughter Lula Bogina (to whom the film is dedicated at the outset) for company. (Though Lynch talks here about his first marriage, his subsequent personal life isn’t directly addressed.) Lynch’s artwork — much of it unsurprisingly oblique and dark-hued — regularly fills the frame, but isn’t addressed or annotated in his running commentary. It’s left to the viewer to forge the link, if any, between their imagery and the personal challenges and catharses he recalls, but it’s often a witty game of implication. The words “HELP ME” are scrawled on one particularly blackened canvas; whether it’s an actual cri de coeur or a facetious send-up of his more sinister creative inclinations, he’s not telling.

Nguyen and his team were previously responsible for 2007’s similarly fond, close-quarters doc “Lynch,” which followed the director through the completion of what remains his last feature film, “Inland Empire,” a decade ago. They know their subject intimately by this point, and not just in an interpersonal sense: “The Art Life’s” own construction is colored by an understanding of Lynch’s aesthetic, from the serenely brooding, grainy textures of Jason S.’s camerawork to the thrumming, Badalamenti-channeling menace of Jonatan Bengta’s score, which moves from swarming synths to sparse, dripping-tap keyboard plinks.

Indeed, if the pic’s soundscape leaves some viewers in a “Twin Peaks” reverie, that may not be entirely accidental. One of “The Art Life’s” producers, Sabrina Sutherland, is shepherding the cult series’ Showtime comeback next year — a breathlessly anticipated cultural event to which this svelte doc could serve as a neat tie-in.

Film Review: 'David Lynch: The Art Life'

Reviewed online, Venice, Sept. 2, 2016. (In Venice Film Festival — Venice Classics.) Running time: 89 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Janus Films (in U.S.)/Soda Pictures (in U.K.) release of a Film Constellation presentation. (International sales: Film Constellation, London.) Produced by Jon Nguyen, Jason Scheunemann, Sabrina Sutherland. Co-producer, Marina Girard-Muttelet.

Crew: Directed by Jon Nguyen. Camera (color), Jason S.; editor, Olivia Neergaard-Holm.

With: David Lynch.

More Film

  • 'The Dirt' Review: A Mötley Crüe

    Film Review: 'The Dirt'

    A long time ago, the words sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll carried a hint of danger. The lifestyle did, too, but I’m talking about the phrase. It used to sound cool (back around the time the word “cool” sounded cool). But sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has long since passed into the realm [...]

  • James Newton Howard Danny Elfman

    New Trend in Concert Halls: Original Music by Movie Composers — No Film Required

    Movie and TV composers are in greater demand than ever for, surprisingly, new music for the concert hall. For decades, concert commissions for film composers were few and far between. The increasing popularity of John Williams’ film music, and his visibility as conductor of the Boston Pops in the 1980s and ’90s, led to his [...]

  • Idris Elba Netflix 'Turn Up Charlie'

    Idris Elba in Talks to Join Andy Serkis in 'Mouse Guard'

    Idris Elba is in negotiations to join Andy Serkis and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Fox’s fantasy-action movie “Mouse Guard” with “Maze Runner’s” Wes Ball directing. Fox is planning a live-action movie through performance capture technology employed in the “Planet of the Apes” films, in which Serkis starred as the ape leader Caesar. David Peterson created, wrote, [...]

  • Zac Efron Amanda Seyfried

    Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried Join Animated Scooby-Doo Film as Fred and Daphne

    Zac Efron has signed on to voice Fred Jones while Amanda Seyfried will voice Daphne Blake in Warner Bros.’ animated Scooby-Doo feature film “Scoob.” It was revealed earlier this month that Will Forte had been set to voice Norville “Shaggy” Rogers, while Gina Rodriguez would be voicing Velma Dinkley. The mystery-solving teens and their talking [...]

  • 'Staff Only' Review: Cultures And Values

    Film Review: 'Staff Only'

    Marta (Elena Andrada) is 17, from Barcelona and alternately bored and mortified to be on a Christmas vacation to Senegal with her estranged dad, Manel (Sergi López), and annoying little brother, Bruno (Ian Samsó). For her, the freedoms of imminent adulthood, such as the occasional poolside mojito, are tantalizing close but still technically forbidden, rather [...]

  • Rocketman

    Candid 'Rocketman' Dares to Show Elton John as 'Vulnerable,' 'Damaged,' 'Ugly'

    Elton John movie “Rocketman” dares to portray the singer’s personality early in his career to have been, at times, “ugly,” Taron Egerton – who plays the pop star – told an audience at London’s Abbey Road Studios Friday, following a screening of 15 minutes of footage from the film. It is a candid portrayal, showing [...]

  • Ben Affleck

    Ben Affleck's Addiction Drama Set for Awards-Season Release

    Warner Bros. has given Ben Affleck’s untitled addiction drama an awards-season-friendly release date of Oct. 18. The film, which has been known previously as “The Has-Been” and “Torrance,” is directed by Gavin O’Connor and stars Affleck as a former basketball player struggling with addiction, which has led to him losing his wife. As part of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content