FILM REVIEW: David Lynch: The Art Life | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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In the preface to his collection of essays, Known And Strange Things, the writer Teju Cole tells us “There is another possible book that contains all that is not in this one”. Besides ‘humble-bragging’ about how much stuff he’s written, Cole is also highlighting a very important point. In non-fictional reportage, whether it’s documentary, journalism, or essay – whether, too, it’s cinematic, photographic, or textual – there exist processes of creation and selection that shade towards ‘fiction’. Or, if not fiction exactly, certainly a differently coloured truth than simple first-person perception. Certain things necessarily remain ‘strange’ – maybe even all the stranger for the fact that certain other things become ‘known’. The Art Life follows the early life and career of perhaps the Western world’s most purely visionary artist, showing us David Lynch the child, David Lynch the young painter, and David Lynch the burgeoning student of film (all in the words of David Lynch the father-artist, sitting sequestered in his studio in the Hollywood Hills in 2017). What we don’t get is David Lynch the filmmaker, writer/director of Blue Velvet/Mulholland Drive/Twin Peaks etc. etc. There are several other possible films containing what’s not in this one. This is a documentary about a human mind and its development, its processes, rather than its output. But despite apparent intimacy and illumination, I find myself, whilst absorbing the film’s dual commitment to image-making and/or truth-making, returning over and over again to the same question. Is there, in any sense that might be important to us, his audience, really any such thing as “David Lynch” the real and actual human being?

In asking this question I’m also returning to the second sub-heading in David Foster Wallace’s article for Premiere magazine, written from the set of David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway:


Wallace goes on to say that “It’s the psychic intimacy of the work that makes it hard to sort out what you feel about one of David Lynch’s movies and what you feel about David Lynch”, From watching his films, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Lynch is “the sort of person you really hope you don’t get stuck next to on a long flight…In other words, a creepy person”. For Wallace, it’s “hard to tell whether the director’s a genius or an idiot”.

The Art Life’s release seems perfectly timed to satisfy a renewed fervency among Lynch watchers to find out something about the hauteur’s personal operations/experiences, to try and shed light on the whole ‘idiot/genius’ thing. It’s well timed because Twin Peaks’ third season just took a short hiatus, probably to allow everyone to for god’s sake just take a quick five minutes to themselves please after Episode 8, which was, even for Lynch, weird. Just what the absolute hell, everyone is once again asking, is going on in this guy’s head?

The Art Life director John Nguyen has had a go at this before. Ten years ago, he was a producer on 2007’s Lynch, which buzzed fussily around the set of Inland Empire (“I don’t feel like I have any better understanding of the man after watching this documentary” said one “confused and perplexed” IMDB reviewer). Ten years before that, Toby Keeler had a swing at understanding the whole thing in 1997’s Pretty as a Picture: The Art of David Lynch (“increasingly improbable hair” said Time Out magazine).

Interesting/Weird/Almost Certainly Totally Useless Fact: Keeler (Lynch’s friend, and son of painter Bushnell Keeler) had a bit-part as ‘Man Fighting’ in Lynch’s first feature, Eraserhead (1977), and was listed under ‘Special Thanks’ for Le Son de Lynch (2007). The fact that all the years in question in this review seem to end in a number 7 is a nearly-Lynchian uncanniness that is either wholly meaningless, wholly creepy, or both, or neither. Up to you, I guess.

The film’s mode of vision is less ‘insight’ as it is ‘stand back and marvel’

The First Thing My Friend Said to Me as We Left the Cinema After Seeing The Art Life: “I think Lynch was Gordon Cole-ing it up a bit in there”. Gordon Cole, played by Lynch, is the partially deaf, wholly theatrical, FBI regional-chief in Twin Peaks. I agree. Lynch was busy channelling all of the roles that influence his carefully choreographed persona. As potential ‘insight into a human person’, this film, probably deliberately, offers exactly ‘not much’. Lynch’s anecdotes and vignettes crumble into motion and then vaguely step away from you, their meaning sort of dazzlingly obscure, the tone and diction that of someone who’s long had something to say, but appears to be discovering ‘words’ for the first time. All the while, the camera pans obliquely across bits of Lynch-face, Lynch-hair (which really is more and more unbelievable by the year), occasional slow-glances of Lynch-hands doing some gleefully jejune workshop-art sort of stuff that looks a bit rubbish and also a bit breath-taking. The new footage is extraordinarily beautiful, gallingly intimate, and patiently poised; the archive stuff is par-for-the-course, over-bleached, high-contrast-home-movie material, notable maybe only for the fact that David Lynch appears to have had David Lynch’s face since he was about five years old, the lips drawn back onto the teeth in a kind of wry, extremely-pained horror-grimace that somehow also seems warm and smiley, the oblique-angled outer-brows speaking of something like heavy pity, the eyes light but weary, the whole effect having also some timeless, almost Presidential-seeming form of monumental-ness, like an Easter Island head that’s managed to make eye-contact with you.

And maybe this statue-image is best here: there’s something ‘statuesque’ about the whole affair. The film’s mode of vision is less ‘insight’ as it is ‘stand back and marvel’. It’s a pause for reflection, which unfortunately makes it seem a bit static and image-obsessed. The film would have you look at Lynch in a totemic light – like the Easter Island figures, isolated in their ugly majesty, how they got here remaining a total mystery. For example, as other reviewers have noted, there is absolutely zero mention in The Art Life of any of Lynch’s artistic influences, or even any other film makers/painters at all (except those, like Bushnell Keeler and Jack Fisk, whose inclusion is pretty much necessary to the story. There’s also repeated shots of a print of Bruegel’s Garden of Earthly Delights hanging in Lynch’s studio, but that’s about it as far as ‘anyone other than David Lynch’ goes). Lynch is portrayed as totally artistically independent, which feels a bit disingenuous and obtuse. No-man is an island, the film seems to say, but Lynch is no man.

It also turns out that David Lynch came up with the entire idea of ‘the motion picture’ on his own. Lynch was ‘listening’ to one of his paintings, and from within it came the idea of “a moving painting, but with sound…and I thought, ooooh”. These are Lynch’s own words, about which I’ll let you make up your own mind.               

This kind of mythologizing is great fun, but perhaps a bit lazy. The documentary works by far the best when it instead allows the editing process, the score, the shot-framing, all the layers of making a film-about-a-filmmaker, to comment on or intertwine with what Lynch is saying. Perhaps the most well-pitched moment comes whilst Lynch is telling of his family’s move from Sandpoint, Idaho, when he was a child. On the day of the move, neighbouring families had gathered on the triangle of grass between the Lynch house and the Smith house to say goodbye. Everyone began congregating around “this tree at the base of the triangle”. And then David saw Mr. Smith…Mr Smith. “I can’t tell this story”, Lynch says, back in 2017. Nguyen, the director, has since said that Lynch didn’t divulge at any point. This particular memory, it seems, is literally too painful to be spoken. It’s left hanging (which is potentially a grim sort of pun-clue). The camera glances off Lynch’s furrowed forehead, his creased neck, his steady, belaboured fingers holding crisply a cigarette. And we move on, the story now both known and strange.

What Another Friend Who Was At The Same Screening Said To Me Later: “There’s a difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’.” If there’s something about this film, maybe it’s that you can’t say what it is about this film. Maybe it’s that it doesn’t let you really ‘know’ much, but at its best points it can make you ‘understand’ – that there really is, somewhere, importantly, even though you can’t reach him, a real human being called David Lynch, with whom you can communicate, but only via his work, and for whom you can have all sorts of feelings, maybe even “love”. Maybe it’s this: in a venture-commodified world of aggressively and deliberately decreasing mystery, Lynch and his work are perhaps among the final things left to us that – horribly, beautifully – can remain both Known and Strange.

David Lynch: The Art Life screens now at Tyneside Cinema.

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