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David Lynch: The Art Life: Go with Ideas

The documentary David Lynch: The Art Life (2016) takes its title from a favorite phrase of its subject’s. Words, for Lynch, can be transporting: think of all the incantations in his films—“Now it’s dark,” “It is happening again,” “This is the girl”—that become destabilizing, spell-like forces the moment they are uttered. This was the case for him even as a teenager in the 1960s, when the very words “the art life”—discovered in a book by the American realist painter Robert Henri called The Art Spirit—signaled a passage into another world. A collection of Henri’s notes and talks, The Art Spirit combines technical instruction with musings on art as the source of “our greatest happiness.” Lynch experienced it as no less than an epiphany, a permission slip that would allow him to devote his life to creative work.

The art life, as he explains in this film, meant a kind of lifestyle, and if not exactly ascetic, it was certainly single-minded: “You drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, and you paint, and that’s it. Maybe girls come into it a little bit.” But as the documentary’s title, the phrase is also an implicit acknowledgment that any portrait of any artist grapples with the rarely straightforward relationship between the art and the life, an especially resonant matter for an artist who operates as close to the unconscious as Lynch does. His is the only voice we hear in The Art Life, and his first words essentially describe the premise of the documentary: “Every time you do something, like a painting or whatever, you go with ideas, and sometimes the past can conjure those ideas and color them.”

Simply put, The Art Life, codirected by Rick Barnes, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, and Jon Nguyen, demonstrates how Lynch’s past sometimes conjures and colors his ideas. Made with the cooperation of this most guarded of artists, it remains circumspect, never tipping into overt psychobiography, and yet, thanks in large part to Lynch’s very presence, it is suggestive in ways that written accounts could never hope to be. The artist himself provides the narrative backbone, recounting formative encounters and traumas from a period of roughly thirty years, beginning in his childhood and extending through the making of Eraserhead. These memories are accompanied by a trove of old photos and home movies. We also see close-up images of a wide selection of his paintings and drawings, and spend time with him in his studio as he thinks, smokes, stares into space, and manipulates oil paints, charcoal, and various gooey substances with his bare hands.

The biography unfolds chronologically, sticking to the chapters of his life that Lynch has been willing to discuss over the years. Die-hard fans will be familiar with many of these stories, but there is something subtly different about hearing them in his own voice, and about the tone that he adopts here: the reflective tenor of a septuagenarian. Plainly at ease with the cinematographer, Jason S. (who also worked with Nguyen on the 2007 documentary Lynch, shot during the making of Inland Empire), Lynch speaks with an unusual openness about deep-seated fears and anxieties. Watching The Art Life, one is struck by the degree to which the Lynchian—linked as it is to the ever-present possibility of things falling apart—is a phobic sensibility.

Lynch’s description of his Eisenhower-era childhood inevitably brings to mind the famous prologue of Blue Velvet: picture-perfect suburbia with a tinge of unease. Boise, Idaho, where he attended elementary and junior high school, was all “sunshine, green grass, mowed lawns—such a cheerful place.” But this seeming idyll also harbored unaccountable mysteries—like the spooky emergence one evening of a naked woman, her mouth bloodied, walking through the neighborhood as David and his brother, John, watched uncomprehendingly. (Chances are this defining memory inspired the scene in Blue Velvet in which a bruised, naked Dorothy Vallens suddenly appears on a manicured lawn.)

Lynch’s father, a research scientist for the U.S. Forest Service, was transferred frequently, and the move from Boise to Alexandria, Virginia, was especially jarring for the adolescent David. In one of the documentary’s most poignant—and most mysterious—moments, Lynch begins recounting a gathering with the family’s neighbors, the Smiths, the night before the Lynches left Boise. “Mr. Smith came out,” he says, before stopping himself and seeming to choke up. “I can’t tell the story.” Lynch never reveals what so upsets him about this memory, and the filmmakers don’t press; it’s all the more haunting for remaining open-ended. In Virginia, which “seemed like always night,” he fell in with “a bad bunch” and ended up in “total turmoil”—at least until he met a friend’s father, a painter named Bushnell Keeler, living proof that the art life was not only possible but within reach.

The monologue that runs through The Art Life illustrates the limited yet evocative vocabulary and the mood-swinging peculiarities of Lynchian diction. Things are “so beautiful,” or they induce “powerful hate.” He is effusive whether describing good times (“I almost died and went to heaven”) or bad (“I was living in hell”). In his own speech patterns, and in the variously cryptic, comic, and ominous inscriptions that adorn his canvases (“There is nothing here please go away”), simple words open up onto vistas of potential meaning. Summarizing what mattered most to him as a teenager: “people and relationships, slow-dancing parties, big, big love, and dreams—dark, fantastic dreams.” He has a habit of embedding names and addresses and times—“Little Dicky Smith,” “Shoshone Avenue,” “2416 Poplar Street,” “one night . . . about nine-thirty or ten”—in stories that are otherwise nebulous fragments. The language of Lynch is at once vague and specific, as in dreams.

While not exactly a natural raconteur, Lynch proves capable of exceptionally vivid anecdotes, not least when discussing his agoraphobic spells—or, as he puts it, a “nervousness of going out.” Overcome with dread at the prospect of starting classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, he locked himself in his apartment for two weeks, holding a transistor radio close to his ear as its battery dwindled. There is levity, too, in his reminiscences, as when he speaks of his Boston roommate Peter Wolf, who would go on to front the J. Geils Band, and who was decidedly unamused when Lynch walked out of a Bob Dylan concert: seated in the nosebleeds of a large arena, stoned out of his mind, Lynch was both tickled and outraged by the tiny Dylan in the distance: “I couldn’t believe how little he was!”

Several turning points arrive when Lynch enrolls at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, long consecrated in his personal mythology as a place that both terrorized him and changed his life. The city, then in the crime-ridden trough of its postindustrial decline, instilled in him a fear and revulsion that were “just perfect to spark things.” It was also in his painting studio in Philly that Lynch experienced an epiphany that led him to filmmaking. He was working on a canvas when he sensed a wind emanating from within it. It got him thinking about moving images, images with sound. Lynch’s account of his artistic maturation involves several tales of family concern and confusion: his father’s alarm at seeing the decaying animals that Lynch was experimenting with as sculptural elements; the family intervention as he sank deeper into the years-in-the-making labor of love Eraserhead. But the overall picture is of a supportive and loving family who moreover sensed his talent at a young age: his mother forbade coloring books for fear they would restrict his creativity.

Except for brief clips from the early shorts The Alphabet and The Grandmother and some vintage footage from the set of Eraserhead, Lynch’s films are not seen or discussed in The Art Life. There is no mention of Transcendental Meditation, an important part of Lynch’s personal and creative life, as he has acknowledged in his book Catching the Big  Fish and elsewhere. The filmmakers conducted interviews with others, but they opted ultimately to concentrate on Lynch alone. Friends and family are glimpsed in archival material, but the only other person captured on camera is Lynch’s toddler daughter, Lula, keeping him company as he works.

That laser focus on Lynch at work allows for a portrait of uncommon intimacy; the stretches of wordless activity in The Art Life are more revealing than the talking-head explications of most artist bio-docs. Jason S. lived with the artist for two and a half years and was ready to shoot at a moment’s notice—on a Canon EOS 5D camera or, if there was no time to set up, on an iPhone (its footage was later processed to resemble archival material). We linger on canvases that are unmistakably related to Lynch’s story about the transistor radio, or the morgue that he describes visiting in Philadelphia. But the film is perhaps most valuable for conveying the tempo and the trancelike state of artistic work, the day-to-day rhythms of an artist for whom the studio serves as a cocoonlike sanctuary. Lynch has maintained a fine-art practice parallel to his filmmaking one all his adult life, and is typically even more productive in the former during what seem to be fallow periods for the latter (like the recent decade-long hiatus between Inland Empire and Twin Peaks: The Return). The Art Life shows us how he spends his days in his sunlit atelier, perched atop one of the concrete structures that make up his Hollywood Hills compound. Much of the labor is manual—sawing wood, hammering steel, smudging paint—and the leisurely scenes of Lynch at work are attentive to the pleasures of tactility. (The first memory he shares in the film is of being two years old and sitting in a mud puddle under a tree with a neighbor: “It was so beautiful . . . You get to squeeze mud and sit with your friend.”)

Even though they go unmentioned, the films for which we know Lynch loom large over The Art Life, which allows tacit associations to reverberate and accumulate. The mechanical birds on Lynch’s desk bring to mind the taxidermied robin at the end of Blue Velvet. His story about being perilously hypnotized by highway dividing lines the first time he smoked weed conjures the nighttime driving scenes of Wild at Heart and Lost Highway. Most suggestive of all is Lynch’s description of the multiple selves he had to assume as a teenager, a kind of compartmentalizing that anticipates the theme of alter-ego confusion that has defined his work since Twin Peaks. As he tells it, each facet of his life at the time—at home, in the painting studio, with friends—necessitated a distinct “way of acting and thinking and speaking.” He kept these worlds separate, he explains, because he was “afraid of what would come out” if they collided. As The Art Life makes clear, Lynch may shy from such revelations in his life, but they’re plain for all to see in his art.

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