A documentary by Rick Barnes, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, and Jon Nguyen. Rated PG
Everything about David Lynch seems simultaneously simple, banal, disturbing, playful, and mysterious, so you would expect his studio-bound visual work to be the same. The Art Life ostensibly looks at Lynch’s painting, drawing, and mixed-media sculpture, but it turns out to be yet another form of autobiography.
The 90-minute doc was nominally directed by newcomers Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm, plus Jon Nguyen, who 10 years ago produced a doc about Lynch’s cinematic output. But the film feels masterminded by Lynch himself, usually seen in a chair, contemplating something or other while shrouded in billows of telegenic smoke. He’s also seen moving gooey paint around on huge canvases, fashioning typography out of metal wire, and sitting in a little room with a standing mike—presumably where his off-screen narration comes from.
Ploddingly exact yet full of tantalizingly odd contradictions, Lynch’s commentary lays out the bare outline of a childhood spent in “a super-happy household” that he, for unexplained reasons, found nightmarish. Moving from the Pacific Northwest to Virginia, to be near his dad’s Washington, D.C., job, Lynch was a moody teen drawn to art as a way to soothe his savage breast. He repeatedly describes the horrors of his inner life without making any clear connections to his unusually supportive parents and siblings.
Same goes for art schools in Boston and Philadelphia, places he was drawn to and then repelled by. For better or worse, Lynch has maintained the autodidact’s freedom from restrictions and absence of detailed knowledge of what has gone before. In any case, the worms crawling beneath the rock of normal appearances would become the leitmotif of his cinematic storytelling, from Blue Velvet onward. Here, however, the emphasis is on his equally dark still imagery, which often puts dreamlike figures in stark, roughly splattered settings.
The movie doesn’t give enough context to let us know which works are new or old, or how they relate to what he’s talking about, but everything wends back to the beginnings of his film career. Eraserhead was a student project, the one that told him movies were the main way to go, and the place where this intriguing movie ends. To be continued, it seems.