The public persona of David Lynch is just as mysterious and strange as the films, music, and artwork he’s created over the last 40 years. Ask him about his films and what they mean, and he will never give a straight answer. For example, he told an interviewer that his debut feature, Eraserhead, is his “most spiritual film.” When asked to elaborate, he just said, “No.” While on one hand, this is a great way to encourage his audience to make up their own minds or do their own digging to find the answers to his many riddles, this could also be seen as alienating for some fans who want to know what goes on in his unique mind.
John Nguyen’s documentary, The Art Life, admirably tries to break down that barrier and give us a closer look at the acclaimed filmmaker. On one hand, Nguyen has shown us the most open and personal that Lynch has ever been, which is a total treat to listen to. However, though we get to know Lynch on a personal level, rarely does he give us insight into his methods and the surreal madness that is his body of work.
On a technical level, there isn’t much to discuss. The cinematography by Jason S. mostly consists of fine shots of Lynch at home, his artwork, and clips from his short films. The only major camerawork that is beyond serviceable consists of these lovely transition shots in between stories that perfectly parallel Lynch’s dark and surreal style. The music is merely background noise and, like the camera work, adds virtually nothing to the experience. The editing is also serviceable, as it does its basic functions to create a linear composition and make sure everything is in place. While this could easily just come off as mediocre, it’s no fault of anyone involved in the technical work, and is probably for the benefit of the film. The star of the film is Lynch, and the rest of the film merely works around him talking. For what it is, it’s fine, and does the job as best as it can without overshadowing its subject.
As the main focus of the documentary is Lynch, especially since the entire film consists of him talking with no other prominent people in his life chiming in, what he discusses throughout the 90-minute runtime is significant. Lynch spends this time discussing the events of his life and what inspired his artistic drive from childhood, up to the making of Eraserhead. He has a very calm and soothing voice with a welcoming tone as he discusses his early life. Often his insights and stories can be hilarious, heartbreaking and strange, and some stories can even link to moments in his films. For example, he told a story about how at a young age, he and his brother were outside late; as they were outside, they saw a naked woman walking around town. Clearly, this at least partly inspired a scene in Blue Velvet where Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) stumbles across a naked Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) on his lawn. While these moments do exist throughout Lynch’s commentary, they are few and far in between, which may leave some fans disappointed. With that said, listening to Lynch talk is a complete pleasure regardless.
The Art Life is a lovely look at David Lynch as he gets more personal with his fans and provides some useful information, even if it’s not the information everyone wants. His stories and insights create a wide range of emotion that makes it impossible to not want to listen to what he has to say. Despite some great transition shots, the technical elements don’t provide anything special, which is probably for the better, so that they don’t overshadow the subject himself. For fans who want a more analytical approach to Lynch’s art, prepare to be disappointed, because he doesn’t elaborate on why Eraserhead is his “most spiritual film,” or how to fully interpret Inland Empire, or Mulholland Drive. This is solely a rise to fame story about a man utilizing his strengths as an artist despite what anyone told him, and only on that level, it works really well.
Note: For Edmonton readers, the film is screening at the Metro Cinema on May 15th at 9:30 PM. If you’re a Lynch fan, be sure to check it out!
(Feature Image: Film Constellation)