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Review - David Lynch: The Art Life (2017)

An intimate portrait of a unique artist and film-maker.

"Smoke, drink coffee and paint" - The Art Life

"It makes me uncomfortable to talk about meanings and things. It's better not to know so much about what things mean. Because the meaning, it's a very personal thing, and the meaning for me is different than the meaning for somebody else."
David Lynch

During his 40 year film career, David Lynch has remained largely elusive about the idiosyncratic meanings of his works; he's talked in broad terms about thematic inspirations and use of recurring motifs, but he's mainly avoided discussion about the influence of personal experiences. 

His frequently expressed discomfort makes this Jon Nguyen & Rick Barnes documentary an especially impressive effort, featuring Lynch at his most revealing. 

But, far from being a direct insight into his film-making process, The Art Life features Lynch opening up anecdotally about his childhood, early artistic endeavors and married life in Philly, and his emotional moods at these times. 

Those expecting a celebration of his film career may be disappointed; there's no slickly edited montage of his oeuvre's most iconic imagery, or a multitude of famous talking heads telling colourful stories here. 

The Art Life is instead made up of interview clips of Lynch talking, and smoking, into an Old Hollywood-style microphone, interspersed with long takes of him making art in his studio, playing with his infant daughter or just sat smoking, and collages of his finished works, often strikingly dark and humorous, all sound-tracked with ambient and sometimes discordant music.

That David Lynch: The Art Life takes such an unconventional approach to the film-maker biography seems apropos, given its subject matter. The choice to focus on purely on Lynch's early life and development as a painter is a bold and insightful one; he puts so much of his personal perspective onscreen that him talking about his emotional influences is much more enlightening. 

About a third of the way in, there's a scene where Lynch recalls a particularly disturbing incident from his childhood in suburban Idaho. One evening, he and his younger brother were a out a little later than usual ('for some reason, Dad hadn't called us in yet'), a little further down the street than normal, when in the near distance, a figure emerged from out of the darkness and started walking towards them. 

As the figure got nearer, Lynch realised it was a young woman and she was completely naked, the first time he has seen a nude female; he noted a vacant, distressed look in her eyes and, maybe, some blood around her mouth and face. 

She comes closer still towards them as his brother becomes upset, and she sits down on the curb near them, in tears herself; Lynch, too young to know what to do, is paralysed by fear and helplessness. Remembering it vividly, Lynch describes the moment as dream-like and surreal, an infringement of his suburban idyll, a truly other-worldly event.

After talking warmly about his early family life and neighbourhood, this anecdote initially seems intrusive and off-kilter, but as a montage of Lynch's paintings follow, the profound impact of it hits you; each one features some version of the distressed nude, in a variety of forms. 

The realization comes that you've seen this imagery before, in the infamous scene with Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) in Blue Velvet, and in the introduction of Ronette Pulaski in Twin Peaks, and, God, probably a bunch of other places too. 

This happens many times throughout and you feel yourself learning so much about what informs Lynch's artistic mindset, without every being told directly, that whole new perspectives on his output become unlocked. 

Like many of Lynch's films and TV shows themselves (including the current Twin Peaks: The Return), it isn't through narrative or exposition that meaning is interpreted in The Art Life, but through films textures, the layering of imagery, music and dialogue, and what can be intuited from the places the layers meet.