David Lynch: The Art Life

An exploration of the mind, rather than the movies, of the inimitable filmmaker.
David Lynch: The Art Life

David Lynch: The Art Life image via American Essentials Film Festival.

Little about David Lynch adheres to convention or fits within an easy definition. The content of his films and television series makes this case, and in interviews, he does too, famously eschewing explaining his work and preferring to let audiences draw their own conclusions. Exploring his non-cinematic artistic endeavours, first-time documentarian Jon Nguyen and his co-directors Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm (also an editor, of this and 2015’s single-shot Victoria) equally uphold and delve into his enigma. Flitting between footage of Lynch creating art in his studio and archival materials from his past, and voiced by the auteur himself but without presenting a single talking-head discussion, they present a picture of his creative perspective in David Lynch: The Art Life, rather than a portrait of his career. 

Always with a cigarette either in his mouth or hand, Lynch shares much, reminiscing about the small but expansive world of his childhood, the lightbulb moment when he realised that he wanted to pursue painting as a profession, his startling venture into his first Boston apartment, and his ups and downs trying to navigate his way through both art and film schools. His distinctive vocal tones flow freely, earnestly, and candidly, often repeating snippets of information fans will recognise; the process less resembles a man laying bare his soul, spirit, and story, and more the recounting of a narrative — his own narrative — that simply can’t be contained. The details are revelatory, but, aping Lynch’s own directorial style, so is the mood. Watching him work, hearing his recollections, and seeing his art come to life all combine to immerse viewers into his realm.

Anyone looking for an examination of his filmography, or clues about Twin Peaks, won’t find it here; everyone familiar with his work on the canvas can revel in his efforts, while those coming to them for the first time can glimpse his textured pieces anew. Of course, the two intertwined when he started making short films in the late 1960s, and then made the leap to features with 1977’s Eraserhead, both of which comprise the documentary’s only overt nods to his feats on celluloid. Signs from both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are sighted in Lynch’s workshop, offering a reminder of the films that followed. Tales touch upon experiences and ideas that would clearly go on to inform his paintings, and inspire other movies. 

Parsing all of the above together is David Lynch: The Art Life’s gambit, and a rewarding one. Remembrances that initially seem like mere interesting biographical data, or intriguing asides, float through the film for audiences to catch and match with his filmic output. In crafting its content in such a manner, Nguyen’s return to Lynch’s orbit after producing 2007’s Inland Empire-centric Lynch (One) is eager to comply with the term his subject has inspired — Lynchian — with an atmospheric score by composer Jonatan Bengta (another Lynch (One) alum) and precise framing by cinematographer Jason S. keenly assisting. 

The end result could’ve felt like affectionate mimicry — or a bait and switch of using the man to lure audiences in, then exploring his mind over his movies — but the film’s intentions are clear from the outset; if the documentary's title, and Lynch’s early explanation of it, don’t give the game away, then its visual approach will. His voice is ever-present, and other than his toddler daughter Lula, he’s the only person seen in contemporary footage. Yet, rare are the occasions that David Lynch: The Art Life spies him uttering his own words.

Instead, when it’s not drifting across grainy old photos and videos, the camera finds him sat behind a microphone with his mouth obscured, views him from the side as he reclines in a chair and stares into space, and looks over his shoulder as he creates, calling attention to the sense of disconnection between images and sound. Peer deeper, it insists. Listen closer, it urges. Relish watching him make something physical and tangible before your very eyes, it implores. Lynch will never create his own autobiographical documentary, given his preference for others coining their own analysis, but it’s easy to feel that he must approve of this one. It favours his own techniques to ask viewers to do just that, after all.


Rating: 4 stars out of 5

David Lynch: The Art Life

Directors: Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, Olivia Neergaard-Holm

USA | Denmark, 2016, 88 mins

Rating: M


American Essentials Film Festival


Sydney: 9 – 24 May 2017

Melbourne: 11 – 24 May 2017

Canberra: 16 – 28 May 2017

Brisbane: 17 – 28 May 2017

Adelaide: 18 – 28 May 2017

Sarah Ward

Thursday 18 May, 2017

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay