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.