Film

A Cinematic Portrait of David Lynch’s Life and Art Before Film

The new documentary David Lynch: The Art Life is an engrossing account of the artist’s early life, from childhood to film school.

David Lynch in <em>David Lynch: The Art Life</em>, directed by Jon Nguyen (image courtesy of Janus Films)
David Lynch in David Lynch: The Art Life, directed by Jon Nguyen (image courtesy of Janus Films)

“I had this idea that you drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, you paint, and that’s it,” says artist and filmmaker David Lynch in a new biographical documentary. “Maybe girls come into it a little bit.”

David Lynch in <em>David Lynch: The Art Life</em>, directed by Jon Nguyen (image courtesy of Janus Films)
David Lynch in David Lynch: The Art Life, directed by Jon Nguyen (image courtesy of Janus Films)

Lynch’s vision of how the artist’s life ought to be, which he attributes to his 19-year-old self — who was unhappily studying painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston — actually sounds a lot like his life at the time that the documentary David Lynch: The Art Life was being filmed. Co-directors Rick Barnes, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, and Jon Nguyen spent many hours with the ponderous, gravely voiced artist in his Los Angeles studio, where he smokes cigarettes, sips coffee, and applies paint to enormous canvases with brushes, palette knives, and his hands. Occasionally, a girl comes into it — his youngest daughter Lula, a toddler.

The film starts with Lynch’s own early childhood growing up in a series of small US cities as his family moved around. Some of the anecdotes he recounts portend the artist he would become — his mother refusing to give him coloring books for fear that they would hamper his creativity — while others seem to foreshadow the aesthetic of his films, like the story about a nude woman who wandered out of the woods near his family’s house in Boise one afternoon while he and his friends were playing their favorite game (war, naturally). Despite such moments of suburban surrealism, the film portrays a very cheerful and stable childhood. Lynch tells these early stories in voiceover accompanied by copious home video footage, speaking in his distinctive matter-of-fact tone.

David Lynch, "She Was Hurt and Walking to Her House and Then There Was Someone," featured in David Lynch: The Art Life, directed by Jon Nguyen (image courtesy of Janus Films and David Lynch)
David Lynch, “She Was Hurt and Walking to Her House and Then There Was Someone,” featured in David Lynch: The Art Life, directed by Jon Nguyen (image courtesy of Janus Films and David Lynch)

The sunny, bucolic stories of Lynch’s childhood contrast sharply with the bleak image the film portrays of Philadelphia in the 1960s and ’70s. He moved there to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) after dropping out of the School of the MFA Boston. “Philadelphia was kind of a poor man’s New York,” he says. “Philly was so good for me, even though I lived in fear.” The depressed city’s sad state seeped into his paintings, which the co-directors intersperse throughout the film to punctuate Lynch’s comments. During the Philadelphia years, the works gained the pared-down imagery and rough-hewn materiality that have characterized his work ever since.

David Lynch, "Bob Finds Himself in a World," featured in David Lynch: The Art Life, directed by Jon Nguyen (image courtesy of Janus Films and David Lynch)
David Lynch, “Bob Finds Himself in a World,” featured in David Lynch: The Art Life, directed by Jon Nguyen (image courtesy of Janus Films and David Lynch)

Though the film’s extensive interviews with the artist and odd (dare I say “Lynchian”?) pacing make for a very engrossing experience, hardcore fans of his films may leave frustrated as The Art Life is, as its title suggests, very much focused on Lynch’s life pre-fame (and pre-film) and his studio art. The documentary concludes with the making of Eraserhead (1977) shortly after he and his young family moved to Los Angeles, but it also reveals the conceptual bridge between painting and moving image work that eventually led him down the filmmaking road. The moment of epiphany arrived, as he recalls, after he’d struggled to resolve a painting that incorporated moving, motorized parts: “Oh, a moving painting, but with sound!” The early experiments with animation that ensued were a step beyond what his teachers at PAFA could make sense of, though these works have since found their place in the Lynch canon. This film, too, with its vivid biographical details, characteristically offbeat humor, and ponderous sequences of studio activity, seems destined to become an essential piece of Lynchelia.

David Lynch in David Lynch: The Art Life, directed by Jon Nguyen (image courtesy of Janus Films)
David Lynch in David Lynch: The Art Life, directed by Jon Nguyen (image courtesy of Janus Films)

David Lynch: The Art Life is currently playing at select theaters in the US, including the IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Village, Manhattan).

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