Alas, in the history of documentaries about People of the Arts, there’s a before Listen to Me Marlon (2015, Stevan Riley), and an after. A mere account of someone’s life – no matter how exciting their work is – is just not enough anymore. David Lynch: The Art Life tries to be just a little bit more than that, but still fails to raise above the insane quantity of documentaries about filmmakers that we already have available, from Fassbinder: Love Without Demands (2015, Christian Braad Thomsen) to Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes (2008, Jon Ronson) – not forgetting the greatest short doc of them all, Lee Blank’s Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980).
Directed by Jon Nguyen (who produced Lynch back in 2007), Rick Barnes (his absolute first film, according to IMDB) and Olivia Neergard-Holm (editor for Vitoria, and also for the present film), David Lynch: The Art Life tells us the story of the American filmmaker, from his childhood to the moment just before he directs Eraserhead in 1977. We are told all of this by Lynch’s own voice, in his recording studio, while we watch him create his paintings while his little daughter plays around. We hear about his dislike of school and rules; the time he gained access to a morgue; his times in Philadelphia with his girlfriend (and later first wife); why he left art school, and why did he come back; the moment he considered film as an art medium; and finally, the AFI grant that changed his life and allowed him to pursue art – and film – full on.
On a formal level, to portray this nightmarish, surreal director, this documentary doesn’t dare too much, preferring to create occasional dissociation by editing, and by showing Lynch’s art directly, almost as if illustrating the words said, trying to find a meaning, childhood story or recollection for every bit of abstract, post-modern or just vaguely figurative piece created. And maybe that’s why it’s so hard to engage with David Lynch: the Art Life – compared to the “real deal”, aka, the films of David Lynch himself, who despite their content always have some kind of warmth, human connection (yes, even Inland Empire), this documentary feels too cold, too paint by numbers, to do justice to the man (now) in front of the camera. This despite the great stories told, and Lynch’s obvious talent to conjure dark images through words on everyone’s minds. Another curious choice is the sparse use of music, something the man himself is a master of.
The film does pick up on its last third, after Lynch’s father visit and the birth of his own daughter – after all, a rags to riches story rarely fails to captivate, and to know by which (lucky) circumstances we were all given the gift of David Lynch feels like a treat after a mostly bland, “man telling about his childhood and teenage years” trope that lasts almost an hour. Still, as is usually the case with films in which the topic is better than the way it’s presented, there’s no harm on watching David Lynch: The Art Life if you’re a fan of the man, as you’ll feel like binging the whole filmography straight after. If you’re not… well, better watch something else.
David Lynch: The Art Life was released in DVD on the UK on 11th September 2017.