‘David Lynch: The Art Life’ Solves the Mystery of David Lynch…Sort Of

A new documentary sheds light on Lynch’s mind and process.

There’s something strange about reviewing David Lynch: The Art Life on a website such as this. It’s not that the film lacks merit as a documentary; on the contrary, it’s an absorbing and elegant piece of filmmaking. But one suspects that many readers are intrigued by what the film might reveal about David Lynch, the filmmaker (indeed, this was my angle when I wrote about the trailer on Film School Rejects). On this topic, The Art Life has precious little to say. No mention is made of filmmaking, nor any reference shown to Lynch’s work as a director, for nearly half the film. Rather, we get Lynch telling stories from his youth, primarily in voiceover, intercut with scenes from his artistic process as a painter, as well as home videos, photographs, and images of his paintings.

And yet despite this oblique approach, or perhaps because of it, The Art Life turns out to be one of the finest glimpses into the mind of David Lynch available. By avoiding the standard walk-me-through-your-filmography approach, co-directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm find rare insights about why Lynch is the way he is, what his method and aspirations are, and how his singular mind views the world. The documentary traces the years from Lynch’s childhood in Montana through the making of his first feature, 1977’s Eraserhead, but crucially uses only Lynch’s own words to do so. “The Art Life,” we learn, refers to his idealized vision of how an artist should live: “you drink coffee, and you smoke cigarettes, and you paint, and that’s it.”

The stories Lynch tells from his childhood are less interesting for their content than for the way the artist tells them. He uses words haltingly, as blunt instruments, but when combined with glimpses of work in his preferred media, they do the trick. Describing the grim early years after his family’s move to Virginia, he says it “seemed like always night.” Then, in 10th grade, when things started to improve: “The sunshine starts coming back.” Later, upon traveling to Philadelphia for art school: “There was thick fear in the air.” And finally, most amusingly, upon having his first idea for a film: “A moving painting, but with sound.”

This last phrase, quaint though it may sound, actually provides the clearest insight into how Lynch views his work, and why it’s so original. Rather than building art from existing references, using existing techniques, he insists on deriving it out from first principles; that is, from the memories and dreams in his head, straight onto the canvas or the film strip. A film became “a moving painting, but with sound” not because Lynch had never seen a movie before but because his move to filmmaking was the result of his vision outgrowing his chosen medium. The Art Life captures this process, depicting Lynch painstakingly recording his visions and memories onto a legal pad, then struggling with various materials to bring them to life.

The central mystery of Lynch’s work is how such a mild-mannered Midwesterner could possibly produce it, and The Art Life does provide something like an answer to this question. Lynch describes his childhood as a divided one, in which he kept his friends, his family, and his art in rigidly separate spheres. Each of these sides of Lynch was ashamed of the others, creating a conflict that manifested itself in the work. This shame was not entirely unfounded: on one occasion, he describes his foursquare father’s horror upon learning about the artistic “experiments” Lynch was keeping in his basement (aging fruit, dead birds, etc.) Despite the mundanity of his home life, Lynch constantly found, or sought out, the macabre. He describes visions of a bloodied, naked woman in the street at night but doesn’t remember how the scenario turned out. His first ideas for stories came upon befriending a night man at the morgue and looking at the bodies.

In the end, Lynch learns that “The Art Life” consists of far more than coffee and cigarettes (though these never go away). Money comes and goes, though he finds stability over time. His vision expands, as does the price he pays for pursuing it. A marriage we hear little about falls apart with little acrimony. He fathers four children, including a baby named Lula, to whom the film is dedicated. Lynch allows the child to wander around him in his studio, fiddling with the various materials he’s collected. He seems content to have her there. And he dreams, and smokes, and works.