Director: John Nguyen
1h 30min | Documentary | March 2017 (USA)
Playing London Film Festival 2016
Lynch fans are being well-served at this year’s London Film Festival, with director John Nguyen’s David Lynch: The Art Life being one of two documentaries about the mercurial director playing here. This will be catnip for the faithful, but viewers be warned; Nguyen’s film does what it says on the tin. This is not a study of Lynch’s film career or an academic dive into the deeper meanings of his screen work. Instead, Nguyen focuses on the period of Lynch’s life before “Lynchian” became a hot word in the wider culture: his long-standing interest in painting and sculpture which predates the making of breakthrough film Eraserhead (the production of which is basically where this film ends). It’s an absorbing, pleasantly-paced piece of work that benefits from Lynch having granted a great deal of access to his archive of paintings, photographs and home movies, and from the fact that it is narrated by the man himself, speaking into a lovely vintage microphone (naturally, it would be a vintage microphone) from his adorable painting studio in the hills above Hollywood. Interspersed with his narration are images of his paintings, most of which are, frankly, highly disturbing.
Lynch makes for an affable narrator, his voice still sporting that unmistakable Jimmy Stewart-esque twang and his speech speckled with “gee whizz” exclamations. He takes us on an intimate journey through his youth, talking about his childhood growing up in a variety of small-towns across America, his mostly warm relations with his family, through to more anxious years when he moved to a rough part of Philadelphia with a wife and child whilst still in his 20s, where he had to resort at times to painting for print to get cash for the rent. For those who know little about the man, it will be a neat primer into what he was up to before his breakout into the industry, which, as he admits, was hugely helped by his award of an American Film Institute grant. Lynch still has that characteristic of being prosaic and frank (if he likes a colour or an object, he will simply state he likes it with rarely any more detail given) and yet utterly non-explanatory. Viewers wanting him to reveal how his experiences struggling in Philadelphia with the deep fears of the run-down neighbourhood, his narrow range of experiences growing up in a world where he rarely noticed anything more than two blocks away, or his relationship with his parents affected his work: you’ll go home disappointed. Instead, it is up to viewers to grasp at the breadcrumbs of possible revelations that might be there in Lynch’s artwork and the odd comment he makes.
Thus, when he narrates a story of how he saw a naked, bloody-mouthed woman emerge from the darkness in front of him as a child, it is tempting to flash forward to the last act of his cult hit Blue Velvet. When Lynch comments about his edgy existence in Philadelphia, it is tempting to see in his analysis an appreciation of the duality of existence – the dark and light co-existing – that is essentially to his film worlds; “even though I lived in fear, it was thrilling to live the art life [there].” His love of old industrial buildings, smokestacks and leaky pipes, is discussed and illustrated by his own moody photo collection, all of which clearly fed into the striking aesthetic of Erasershead. Though hardcore Lynch fans might not learn too many new things here, this is a fine companion piece to the LYNCH ONE series of documentaries, which the director himself worked on and considers the third in that series.