To some people, maverick film-maker, David Lynch, is a visionary: an auteur who has created a body of work steeped in that surreal parallel universe that apparently hides within the ordinary world we all inhabit – one which contains within it fascinatingly macabre possibilities that are often, simultaneously menacingly malevolent as well as perversely beautiful.
To others, however, he is merely a one-trick pony, and a confusing storyteller who rarely follows a clear path through his narratives, leaving his viewers frustrated and disaffected.
Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergard-Holm’s 2016 documentary, David Lynch: The Art Life, will not convince anyone to see him any differently than they already do. Lynch acolytes will love it, and those not converted to the Lynchian way will struggle to stay interested.
It is a film built around Lynch’s laconic reminiscences of the years leading up to the making of his striking debut feature, Eraserhead.
The pace is slow, albeit understandably so as it is mirroring the speed of the creative processes depicted in Lynch’s studio where he is filmed composing a number of his paintings, sculptures and installations – experimenting with textures and techniques, shaping distorted shapes and figures from a myriad of malleable materials.
Lynch’s anecdotes, recalled as he works, are illustrated by childhood photographs and family home movies, and the most striking feature to be gleaned from these is their lack of any real distinction.
Family life for the Lynches, it is established, was most often happy, without many traumas, or disruptions. Nothing to trigger the strange worldview that young David would eventually create. Except, maybe, for the mysterious and unexplained naked woman with the bloody mouth who walked down their suburban street whilst David and his pre-school playmates stood by and gawped uncomprehendingly…
The family did, as other families did when the breadwinner took on new employment, move state a number of times, and this meant changing friendship groups regularly. One move culminated in a brief period where Lynch recalls he ‘fell in with the wrong crowd’ in high school – but he does not really elaborate upon the problems this caused and this potential issue, it appears, was quickly remedied when he stumbled into a friend’s father, Bushnell Keeler’s, art studio where the impressionable teen was immediately struck with the wonders of this invitingly alien environment and a vocation was born that would be hi passion from that point onwards.
He recounts his subsequent journey deeper into the world of art from that point which took him initially from his hometown; then with his artist buddy, Jack Fisk, briefly to Europe; before returning stateside and moving independently to Philadelphia where he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy Of Fine Arts. It was here where he was given the time and space to eventually create Eraserhead.
It was a charmed journey too. He crossed paths with more than his fair share of willing mentors and benefactors who gave him great encouragement and advice, and financially support, even though he had yet to solidify any consistent vision or style.
Whilst Lynch delivers some incredibly droll lines during his account of his early life, the recollections are not overly revelatory, or really told with any great level of animated enthusiasm.
There have been other documentaries about Lynch made in the past, and filmed interviews already exist where he has discussed a significant amount of the information provided here before, so, in terms of new information, this film can not be claimed to be essential viewing for anyone other than the most avid Lynch fans.
What makes the film worthwhile though is the broad range of his visual art work shown here from all periods of his artistic and creative life. And, just like his films, these works meld words and images in oddly satisfying although disconcerting ways, dislocating the expected and juxtaposing the odd, time and again.
We do see some tender and intimate footage of Lynch with his infant daughter, Lula, working together in their art studio.
This footage clearly disproves the comment, recalled hilariously by Lynch, that the artist’s own father made to him whilst visiting him at his university digs in Philly.
Lynch drily tells the tale of his father, clearly perturbed after seeing some of his son’s artistic experiments, which involved dismembered and decomposing animal parts, in the basement of his student accommodation, looking him in the eye and saying, ‘David – you should never have children…’
David Lynch: The Art Life will be screened, in a double bill with a new print of Eraserhead, at the Palace Nova Cinemas on Sunday 21 May from 2:15pm, as part of the American Essentials Film Festival 2017.
Lynch fans should also make note that the festival will also be featuring a new print of his weird and unnerving masterwork, Mulholland Drive, which will screen on Wednesday May 24 at 8:30pm.