Director: Jon Nguyen
Runtime: 89 velvety blue minutes
I was about 13 years old when I first saw Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (2003) and decided I wanted to appreciate the art of films. I was lying about my age to write video game reviews at the time. I plucked one of my employers’ mind for their favourite film, since they had a taste I admired. Among them was David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). These were the days of video stores, and I remember spending hours and hours trying to track down Lynch’s directorial debut. It proved elusive, and Eraserhead actually remains unseen by me to this day. David Lynch: The Art Life tells the story of Lynch right up to the release of Eraserhead, and his foray into the visual art world, and should be seen by any appreciator of Lynch’s film work—or appreciator of art or the artistic process in general.
The Art Life is a very American story. It takes us from Lynch’s humble beginnings in Montana, through to his childhood spent moving all across the United States—from Montana, to Iowa, to Seattle, back to Iowa, and through to Virginia. As Lynch moves into his adolescent years, he moves to Philadelphia, and doesn’t see so much of the nation’s first capitol as he does the proletarian conditions many have to live in. As so often happens in port cities, there is a pretty face to the grand American city, and then there is the seedier underbelly that desperately needs a scratch.
Lynch points out that while living in Seattle, his world stretched only a few houses up his street, and a few houses down—yet it felt huge. Lynch perfectly encapsulates that feeling we all have as children, looking up at the world. As chained to the industrial frontier as Lynch’s story is, The Art Life is also deeply personal, and explains a lot of Lynch’s work. A recurring Lynchian element is the white picket-fenced suburb being pulled back, as in Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks (1990-1991), to reveal isolating truths. I often get the impression that Lynch might consider a functional society to be comprised of dysfunctional individuals, by definition.
With Twin Peaks recently getting its revival, David Lynch: The Art Life is aptly timed for release. It is being screened at the American Essentials Film Festival, both as a single feature and in conjunction with Eraserhead, alongside the new digital restoration of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). I recommend checking these out, as well as many other features being included in the festival—my personal pick being Barfly (1987), which is being shown with You Never Had It: An Evening with Bukowski. Also of interest is American Pastoral (2016), which marks the directorial debut of Ewan McGregor. As P.T. Barnum would say, “There is something for everyone”.
David Lynch has no doubt embedded himself in film culture, and you owe it to yourself to see at least one Lynch before you pinch. That being said, The Art Life will not be for everyone. Intercut with some beautiful scenes of Lynch sculpting, painting, and slinging gunk, is a specific story that will appeal to those who see a title like “David Lynch: The Art Life” and find themselves interested. But if you are interested, you will see a well-crafted story about the man, and begin to understand a bit more of his process, and how he got to be who he is. You will get something out of it. For example, I received confirmation on the modern pedagogical belief that colouring books stifle a child’s creativity. Some might be surprised to witness snippets of the Third World hidden away between the two coasts. Others might just enjoy the art, hearing Lynch talk on the world, or hearing his amusing anecdote about walking out on Bob Dylan. Oh, but don’t see this film if you are trying to quit smoking.