'David Lynch, The Art Life': Venice Review

David Lynch the Art Life - Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
An essential creative autobiography for all Lynch fans.

David Lynch recounts his strange life from childhood to 'Eraserhead.'

Although it is more about painting than his filmmaking, David Lynch, The Art Life will entrance the director’s fans and, who knows, inspire budding, out-of-the-box creators in an artistic coming-of-age tale, told in his own words and deliberate tones. Jon Nguyen and Jason S., producers of the 2007 feature documentary Lynch, which was filmed while the director was working on Inland Empire, team up with Twin Peaks producer Sabrina Sutherland to compile some remarkably intimate memories and reflections in a non-stop interview that is brought to life in photographs and home movies.

Kept company by his toddler daughter, Lynch works on new paintings and artwork in his studio in the hills above Hollywood, where he recounts unsettling stories from his past that resonate with the haunting quality of his films. There is the completely naked woman who wandered into his driveway, her mouth bleeding, when he was a little boy; arriving for the first day of school in Virginia during a hurricane; locking himself away in a room in Boston listening to a radio for days on end, until the battery died; stopping his car in the middle of the highway, completely stoned. As sui generis self-portraiture, the film conveys a fascinating artist out of the ordinary  way out  and a creative trajectory that recognizably leads to the maker of the haunting Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet.

David’s memories begin when he was a small boy in Missoula, Montana, sitting gleefully in a mud puddle with a friend and squeezing mud between his fingers. His parents, who he calls perfect and who seemed to have recognized a special spark in him, gave him the “tremendous freedom” he needed to nurture his creativity. His happy post-war childhood unfolded through family moves to Boise and Spokane, until his father as transferred to Washington D.C. and David fell in with the wrong crowd  “not the friends I should have had”  which lead to smoking and drinking and mom’s disapproval. Yet he felt powerless to stop doing what hurt her.

He first fell in love with “the art life” when he visited the studio of a friend’s artist father. David rented a room in his spacious studio, then struck out on his own with his young friend Jack Fisk, a painter who was later to become his production designer and brother-in-law.

Lynch says he felt split into different people at the time: in his home life, as an artist and as a bad boy at school. Contrasting this schizophrenic feeling was the “incredible happiness” he felt painting. He hated being strait-jacketed into preordained artistic styles at the Boston Museum school, where he studies briefly before landing at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He remembers Philadelphia in terms of fear, sickness, corruption and racial hatred, echoed in striking photos of dilapidated, windowless buildings. Yet it was the place to live the art life, and the place where he first imagined “paintings that moved, with sound” and made his first short films combining animation and live action. He also married fellow art student Peggy Reavey and had his first child, Jennifer, well documented in intimate, expressive and offbeat photos of Lynch as a youth and young father.

The final footage is set in Los Angeles, where he began working on Eraserhead in 1972 at the AFI Conservatory after receiving a grant to study advanced filmmaking. The nearly black images feel like the culmination of an unusual artistic apprenticeship.  

Creating the right mood is Jason S.’s dense, dark camerawork which can only be called lynchian. At times the busy backgrounds strewn with unidentifiable objects become confused with the bizarre, rather monstrous constructions Lynch sticks to canvas in a stream of creative outpouring. The sound design by Philip Nicolai Flindt and background score by Jonatan Bengta raise goose bumps.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Classics Documentary)
Production companies: Duck Diver Films in association with Kong Gulerod Film
Cast: David Lynch
Director-screenwriters: Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Rick Barnes
Producers: Jon Nguyen, Jason S., Sabrina Sutherland
Director of photography: Jason S.
Editor: Olivia Neergaard-Holm
Music: Jonatan Bengta
Sales: Film Constellation

No rating; 90 minutes