David Lynch: The Art Life ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jon Nguyen & Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm.
David Lynch is one of my favorite filmmakers – his dark, twisted, surreal films haunt your memory like childhood nightmares, never quite leaving you. His short films can be even more messed up, and his art – paintings, sculptures, etc. – are demented – like something you would expect a serial killer to make. Yet, when Lynch talks, while saying he sounds normal would be pushing things, what wouldn’t be pushing things is to say that he doesn’t really give you much insight into his work. The 10 “hints” he provided as the entirety of the written materials for the original DVD release of Mulholland Dr. are as cryptic as the film itself. Once in an interview, he stated that Eraserhead was his most spiritual film, and the interviewer asked me to elaborate. “No” was the entirety of Lynch’s response. All of this is a big part of Lynch’s charm – and I think part of his brilliance as artist. It also makes him a lousy documentary subject if he’s going to be the only one talking, and the subject is going to be himself.
David Lynch: The Art Life basically has Lynch tell his life story from the time he was a kid, until sometime during the making of Eraserhead. He recounts snippets of events from his childhood that fans of Lynch will recognize in some of his later work (specifically Blue Velvet – which seems to have sprung from his suburban childhood). But Lynch’s narration is basically a fairly dry recitation of events, as well as some rather cryptic comments about art. Do you really learn anything about Lynch and his life? Not really. He brushes over his first divorce – he’s married one minute in his telling when he started making Eraserhead, divorced the next with no mention of why or how. This is Lynch’s habit throughout – he gives what happened, but doesn’t really explain anything else. As a result, it doesn’t really explain his art either.
Now, Lynch is more than welcome to keep his personal life private – he also more than welcome to not want to elaborate on his work. Frankly, it would be better if more artists let their work speak for itself. Then again, why would he want a documentary about himself, if he didn’t want to open up, and share something about his life, or his work? Last year’s DePalma didn’t tell me very much of anything about the man, but it told me a hell of a lot about his films. Not so here.
What makes this all doubly disappointing is that the film itself is wonderfully well made. Filmmakers Jon Nguyen & Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm have done a fantastic job of making every shot in the film interesting. The sound design is likely to be the best in any doc you’ll see this year (it’s not at Eraserhead level, but then what is). The filmmakers clearly know and love Lynch and his work, and have done a great job of making a doc about David Lynch look and feel like a doc by David Lynch may look and sound. The problem is there is gaping hole at the center of the film – one in which Lynch himself refuses to fill. And unlike in his films, where the ambiguity work, here it’s not ambiguity at all – it’s just kind of boring.