I remember my first encounter with a David Lynch film was in 2004 during my Introduction to Film class at Butte Community College in Oroville, CA. As part of the curriculum, we were required to watch Lynch’s debut film, Eraserhead, of which I wasn’t aware until then. I remember being disturbed by the movie, and a lot of my classmates walked out shortly after the film had started. I stayed, and I ended up falling for this odd film, even though I had trouble eating chicken afterward because of one particular scene.
I swore I wouldn’t watch the film again, but I’ve found myself revisiting it numerous times. Now that I’m older, I find myself more fascinated by Eraserhead and how a film budgeted at $10,000 can result in something so mesmerizing and so controversial.
It took a few years to get back on the Lynch wagon, but I dedicated one whole summer to seeing everything he had created from his short films to his cult television series, Twin Peaks, and every feature-length movie he’s directed. That summer, I fell in love with Lynch’s filmography and how surreal and emotionally charged they are. Granted, I wasn’t a fan of Dune or Lost Highway, but everything else he’s touched has blown me away. Even The Straight Story, a G-rated Disney film that featured Richard Farnsworth’s final performance, is quite fascinating.
David Lynch: The Art Life is a documentary that focuses on Lynch’s life before he went on to direct Eraserhead. Directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm don’t have Lynch dive into his filmography and explain the meaning of each one, since Lynch himself doesn’t like explaining his own work to people; he would rather have them interpret it themselves. What Nguyen does do is have Lynch give a very personal, in-depth reflection on his family life and recall some of the events of his childhood from moving to several different areas to getting really sick at one point, and how his parents disapproved of the choices he was making.
Two of the many standout stories Lynch tells is when he was a child and he and a friend sat in a mud puddle and just splashed around in mud. It’s what kids do, and it’s just a sweet story to hear. Another one, which is more disturbing, tells of the time when Lynch and his brother had a naked woman approach them with what appeared to be a bloodied mouth. Lynch doesn’t say anything beyond that, but one has to wonder if this particular moment in life served as inspiration for a very pivotal moment in Blue Velvet.
The great thing about The Art Life is that Nguyen and his co-directors make the film solely about Lynch. He’s the only person being interviewed and talking about his life and how he remembers things. No one else talks about Lynch. We don’t even see the interviewer asking the questions. It is all Lynch for 88 minutes, as he talks in front of a microphone while puffing on a cigarette, that I felt could have gone on for longer. Lynch is a masterful visual director, and he’s also a great storyteller. His films have different interpretations from different people, but his real-life stories are straightforward and intriguing to hear, but also heartbreaking. Some of the stories he tells of his family being disappointed in him, and how he was told to give up on Eraserhead after his divorce from his first wife, Peggy, ring true to the many stories you hear from other artists about how people tell them to give up on their dreams.
Lynch is a very private person, and as Nguyen mentions during the interview with Criterion for the Blu-ray, it took years to get the documentary completed. The interview times were always last-minute scheduling, and it could have been weeks, sometimes months, before Lynch was ready to sit down and talk about his life again. On days when they would change the topic of discussion, Lynch would recall another event from a previous interview and bring it up during that time.
All of these stories that Lynch tells serve mostly as voiceover narration as we see old home movies and family photos, as well as many of his completed paintings. Some of the stories he tells also make it seem like they were inspirations for some of his work, but, again, Lynch never says.
Also, as we hear the stories of Lynch’s life, we watch as he creates some elaborate pieces in his secluded home in Hollywood Hills, CA. The interview sessions were captured with a Canon EOS 5D, as were some moments of him working in his house and interacting with his young daughter, Lula. But, as Nguyen mentions in the special feature, there were times when the cameraman, known as Jason S., would have to pull out his iPhone in order to capture certain moments that would have been lost if he ran up to grab the 5D.
The lack of special features on the Criterion Blu-ray is a bit of a disappointment, especially when Nguyen explains how they had more than 1,000 hours of footage to go through. It would have been nice to see what all they captured, since we only get an 88-minute documentary. Aside from the aforementioned interview, which runs for about 16 minutes, we also get a trailer for the documentary, and that’s it. The booklet features an essay by film critic Dennis Lim that analyzes the documentary and also makes mention of how practically all of Lynch’s films go unmentioned, with the exception of Eraserhead and some shorts that only get a fraction of screen time.
The Criterion presentation is exceptional, and the screen ratio does change from time to time when we see the footage of Lynch in his house or as he’s being interviewed, and then when we see home videos that are more square and grainy. That’s typical for movies that show old home footage, so it’s not a major distraction. And despite the obvious aged look of the videos, the image quality is still crystal clear. The moments that were captured on iPhone were altered to look like archive footage, and it actually works. Some of the newer shots of Lynch working on art projects do look like old footage.
The 5.1 surround sound presentation perfectly captures the candid moments when Lynch is playing with his daughter, and when the documentary uses one of his songs to serve as the film’s score. At times, it feels like Lynch might have directed the documentary himself with the way the sounds and music come into play with the visuals.
David Lynch: The Art Life is solely for fans of Lynch’s work. It plays out very much like a Lynch feature with its abstract visuals and musical selection. It does leave the viewer wanting to know more about Lynch, and I wanted to hear about how things were for him when he got his first Oscar nomination for his work on The Elephant Man or his battle with the studio over making Dune. I understand that wasn’t the intention of the documentary, but it’s something that would have been interesting to hear.