Jon Nguyen, director of ‘David Lynch: The Art Life,’ gives us a glimpse into the life of his iconic subject.
Like his subject, Jon Nguyen is reticent. He has been talking to press all day when I meet him in what must be the only unadorned room in the Criterion Collection offices in Manhattan. He tells me he is in “interview mode,” and when asked a question, he spends a few moments visibly looking for the answer before reporting a phrase that feels slightly worn: “You, as a journalist, couldn’t talk to Lynch, because he doesn’t know you.”
Nguyen recorded about 25 hours worth of interviews with David Lynch, acclaimed director of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. An hour and change of them were excised to make David Lynch: The Art Life. Those 25 hours are the closest that we, collectively, could come to the enigmatic Lynch. Nguyen chose to focus on the filmmaker’s early years, before he moved to LA and became a cultural figure. The doc ends with Lynch ruminating on his debut feature, Eraserhead.
The Art Life takes on the ontological mythology of its subject. Salvador Dalí, the only surrealist more famous than Lynch, went a similar route when he published The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, an autobiography known for its currency of anecdotes involving dead animals. In the doc, Lynch details the horror his father felt when discovering his collection of dead animals and rotting fruit gathered in the basement.
I ask Nguyen if anything was lost in characterizing Lynch’s childhood by having to cut over 23 hours of storytelling, and he tells me his subject was a “mischievous” child with a habit of building pipe bombs. A friend’s foot was blown off by accident. That anecdote was cut.
Cryptically, if Lynch was interested in mythologizing his past, Nguyen resists my curiosity as to his own. “I knew people that knew him,” he tells me, on how he was invited into the confidences of the reclusive figure. Nguyen graduated with a dual Philosophy and Business degree from the University of Pittsburgh “a long time ago.” He later worked as a casting assistant on Danny Boyle’s The Beach. Six years later, he produced Lynch, a documentary that follows the filmmaker during the making of Inland Empire.
Nguyen flew in from Hawaii to conduct these interviews but normally lives in Copenhagen. He is uninterested in connecting these dots. He refers to Lynch as “Lynch I,” as if it were the first in a line of space satellites. I assume The Art Life represents “Lynch II” and wonder if future Lynches are planned, a constellation of films covering the years between Eraserhead and Inland Empire. “It’s the end of the project,” Nguyen says. Lately, he has been working on a screenplay.
“We weren’t Barbara Walters interviewing him.” Nguyen explains.” Two and a half years we spent in that house.” His work with Lynch took over the past decade of his life. Maybe there was nothing else. In an interview with Vice, Nguyen is quoted saying,“We made the film from all the parts that he gave us.” I wonder if there was anything more, if not to Nguyen, then to Lynch. The man had, after all, recently starred in a few episodes of Louie and directed a music video for Nine Inch Nails.
Nguyen assures me of his movie’s veracity. “He forgot the camera was there,” he reports. There was nothing more to Lynch’s life, Nguyen claims, than the studio where Lynch paints and the sound studio where he works on his middlingly received music. “It’s not like David goes off and mows the lawn or waters the plants. Or cooks dinner. He has, you know, a cook.”
Nguyen tells me he’d bet money Lynch is painting right now, right as we are conducting this interview. He then amends his gamble to take into account Lynch’s work on the coming revival of Twin Peaks.
George Orwell once mused, “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.” After talking to Nguyen, I suppose Lynch’s version of himself, if not to be trusted in the conventional sense of revealing something, presents instead an aspirational version of life. The titular “Art Life” is not real in the sense that a diet or political affiliation is real but is something to ceaselessly aspire to, in a Christlike way, as Lynch did when he was mentored by artists Bushnell Keeler and Jack Fisk in his youth.
In his review of the documentary, Nonfics’s Jake Orthwein writes, “The stories Lynch tells from his childhood are less interesting for their content than for the way [he] tells them,” referring to Lynch’s halting and grandiose way of speaking. Was David really like this? Really, really?
“We showed it to members of his family and they told us, ‘This is our dad,’” Nguyen assures. I recall an interview with his eldest daughter, Jennifer Lynch, where she recollects her father yelling “There is darkness and then there is light. And then there is evil” after discovering her reading a book about the Manson Family murders.
Part of Nguyen’s pitch for the movie was that its audience is, primarily, Lynch’s fourth daughter, Lula, who was born in 2012. “When [Lula] becomes a teenager, we’re going to hand her over 25 hours of her dad telling stories,” Nguyen promises. The child is also ever-present in the movie, crawling around her father’s canvases. However, Emily Stofle, Lynch’s fourth wife and Lula’s mother, is not seen once. “She was working,” Nguyen tells me.
If there is anything particularly male about Lynch’s version of the art life — Manohla Dargis of the New York Times describes the world Nguyen helps outline in Lynch as “a cluster of mostly male assistants, all of whom seem young and scrupulously attentive. They facilitate his genius.” — Nguyen is not aware. He is more interested in highlighting Lynch’s solitude as an artist.
Lynch doesn’t view himself as a filmmaker, according to Nguyen. “In all the 40 years he’s been making films,” he says, “filmmaking has taken up a very small portion of it.” Much more of Lynch’s time is spent in front of a canvas. During our conversation, Nguyen uses the word “reserved” at least three times. Twice, Nguyen emphasizes that Lynch avoids the glamour and parties of the city that he’s chronicled in his last two movies.
The doc’s most moving moment comes, as they often do, at its end. Lynch is recounting memories he has about working on Eraserhead, the movie that established him as a filmmaker and remains rather singular in his filmography. It is his only film to engage meaningfully with his work as a painter, which The Art Life tells us he would prefer to be remembered as. “It was his only handmade film,” Nguyen muses.
Lynch could never have succeeded as a painter, at least not at the level where syndication of his work could pay for a gigantic art castle in the Hollywood Hills. His painted work, prominently displayed throughout the doc, isn’t bad so much as it is a jumble of pastiched noise already accomplished by Francis Bacon and his ilk. Eraserhead remains the only time the public could ever be described as remotely interested in Lynch’s figurative art. In the doc, Lynch describes it as the happiest time in his life.
In David Lynch’s Twitter profile, he refers to himself as an Eagle Scout, and he begins every tweet with “Dear Twitter Friends.” It is faux-casual in a way that predates reality TV and branded warmth. It is so dryly performed that, most often, we take it as a joke commenting on the American Dream. Surely, Lynch didn’t just happen to find a woman naked and bleeding on a suburban street at the age of 10, another of David Lynch: The Art Life’s richest anecdotes. Unless he did. Unless it’s real.