The Art Life: Unsculpted Clay
Written Review by David Carter
There are figures within art that are as enigmatic and mythical as the work they create. We hear fantastic stories of their exploits or watch them charm us in front of the camera. Some of these people can successfully make themselves a part of the art they create. Dan Harmon and Werner Herzog come to mind as people whose work and persona are not easily separated. There are those whose personalities and philosophies are intriguing and certainly influence the things they make but they themselves are not the focal point of these stories. Auteurs and personalities like Alfred Hitchcock and Alejandro Jodorowsky may occasionally have roles in front of the camera but the work isn’t really about them. David Lynch is a man who more readily fits into this latter category. A man with a distinctive speech pattern, unique philosophies and handful of apocryphal stories to add to his mythos. The work he makes is so recognizable and oft-copied that he even gets his own description in the term Lynchian, which can even extend all the way to certain shades of certain colors. His haircut is as recognizable as Hitchcock’s silhouette or Herzog’s speech affectations. It’s no wonder that people are so interested in the man behind the obscure yet oddly commercial artwork that litters our landscape.
David Lynch: The Art Life looks to dig into the man who sprung forth often imitated but never duplicated works like Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Drive. However, the movie decides to focus its gaze. Instead of being a film by film account like last year’s De Palma, it’s more of an intimate look at David Lynch from his childhood up until the point he starts shooting the seminal Eraserhead. It also focuses on his life and works as a visual artist (i.e. paintings, sculpture, photography) using it as frame and point of context for the work that would come later. David Lynch: The Art Life aims to strip Lynch from a being made of idiosyncrasies to someone who grew up with as “normal” of a childhood as anyone could hope for by having David Lynch (and only David Lynch ) speak to the audience directly. Unfortunately, the film feels beholden to a decidedly Lynchian atmosphere that feels at odds with the film’s wants of stripping down David Lynch and exploring his art outside of film.
David Lynch: The Art Life is a pretty straightforward doc. We follow David Lynch in his studio and workshop as he crafts pieces of art and occasionally his young daughter Lula will stumble into frame. He regales us with tales of his formative years while photographs and pieces of his art occasionally flash across screen as David Lynch’s music and its twangy low-key dread is layered underneath it all. The stories range from mundane, like ones about his childhood friends to surreal and sad like one involving David taking his disapproving father down to a dark dank basement to see his bizarre art experiments. It all feels as if it’s supposed to serve as a companion piece to help understand the more dense and obfuscated aspects of Lynch’s art, but unfortunately, it plays out like a half-baked tribute to his work.
The half-baked aspect comes from how little context we’re given for so much of what we are being shown. Dates are never given to the pieces as they breeze past us, so we have no idea at what point of his development these are from. We never see finished versions of the pieces he works on throughout the movie, and even if what he’s making is for himself or intended for exhibition. These may seem like nitpicks on a movie that wants to ruminate on the nature of “The Art Life” (a phrase David came up with as a teenager to describe the lifestyle of a full-time artist) and Lynch’s psyche, but not including them robs the viewer of so much texture and background that would have strengthened the films seemingly central goal of giving a throughline to the point he shifts to filmmaking.
It’s understandable that the filmmakers Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, and Rick Barnes wanted to make this movie a candid memoir that lets Lynch have the final word on his life, but as filmmakers, they failed to sculpt the clay they were given into something that reveals a larger truth about their subject. Maybe that’s the point and they want to keep a slight air of mystery and not offer that connective tissue to us, but if that’s the case, then we’re better served by just watching and examining the art the man has made and draw our own conclusions.