Film Review: David Lynch: The Art Life

If you want any real answers to questions about this cryptic, creative filmmaker, you’re advised to seek other sources for information, because you are virtually supplied with nothing here.
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There was every reason in the world to look forward to a documentary about David Lynch, who ever since his arresting 1977 debut Eraserhead has made some of the most provocative and original, if not always entirely successful, movies in the history of the medium. Then there’s also his work on TV, namely the hauntingly influential “Twin Peaks,” not to mention his wondrous, undeniable gift as a visual artist.

Despite the innovation and original viewpoint that marks much of Lynch’s filmography, some of his output has been beset by a lagging pace and a too surface-y approach to material which was rather hollow to begin with. Unfortunately, those are the impressions with which one comes away from David Lynch: The Art Life. It somehow took three directors--Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm--to put together this shallow exploration. You rather get the feeling that they were so jazzed with being granted intimate access to their subject, obviously the object of deep admiration, that they pretty much allowed him to call the shots completely. What we end up with is a very post-modern, too-cool-for-school and disastrously shallow look at, by any measure, one of today’s major artists.

Perhaps taking a page from the Daddy of Pop himself, Andy Warhol, Lynch is bent on maintaining a cryptic distance from his documentarians and the audience, adopting an aw-shucks, Middle American persona that basically reveals nothing. One begins watching the movie with a deep interest that rapidly dissipates into frustration, as Lynch continually plays bait-and-switch with his cinematic interlocutors, beginning anecdotes and then not finishing them when not outright announcing that he has decided not to share a particular memory he himself brings up. The overall result leaves you feeling infuriated by his perverse evasiveness—not to mention the fact that you’ve wasted 90 minutes of your life trying to become engaged in a man who willfully keeps real insight at bay.

Often in biographies, I find myself skipping through the childhood stuff to get to the meatier revelations of adulthood and career. Here, the emphasis is squarely on Lynch’s childhood and adolescence. He describes an idyllic Idaho childhood in an Ozzie-and-Harriet post-World War II America, all scrubbed, suburban homes with a pair of sweet, supportive parents. It would seem that the only thing out of the ordinary that ever occurred was when a mysterious naked lady made a shocking appearance one day in his neighborhood, only to disappear as quickly as she materialized.

Lynch’s overemphasis on his supposedly bland formative years tells us little about how he actually came to be an artist, apart from describing how his savvy mother forbade his use of coloring books for fear that filling in the lines would stunt his artistic temperament. When we hit Lynch's adolescence and his tenure at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he paints an almost equally conventional image of himself as a suddenly rebellious bad boy, a shift that appalled his apple-pie kin. As he recounts this only occasionally involving c.v., we watch him puttering in his capacious studio as his child adorably teeters around the paint pots. We learn nothing about who the mother is or, indeed, about any of his past relationships. The film maddeningly stops as he begins work on Eraserhead, the very moment when things could have gotten interesting at last.

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