David Lynch conjures up movies that electrify the soul, he jams with musicians ranging from Lykke Li to Karen O, he’s responsible for a damn fine beverage known as David Lynch Coffee, and lately he’s been directing, shooting and editing a new season of Twin Peaks. But in his heart, Lynch is really a painter. At least, that’s the takeaway from David Lynch: The Art Life, a surprisingly revealing documentary unveiling its subject’s artistic evolution from childhood to Eraserhead.
Playing next month at London Film Festival, David Lynch: The Art Life – directed by Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Rick Barnes – is more intimate than any interview Lynch has done before. He narrates the whole film with such candour and poetic insight, it feels like a one-way therapy session at his studio. Each emotional beat is accompanied by a relevant piece of artwork, and by the end you get a true sense of where his genius come from. For a taster, here’s some juicy highlights from the doc – just remember to imagine the quotes with Lynch’s inimitable voice.
THE PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN
Lynch’s creativity, and all its beguiling nuances, stems from personal history. As he puts it: “Every time you do something like a painting… the past can conjure those ideas and colour them.” Really, that’s the documentary’s core message; no matter how incomprehensible Lynch’s art may seem, there’s a human quality behind each abstract brushstroke. It’s why, for everything announced as ‘Lynchian’, there’s only one David Lynch
COLOURING BOOKS WERE FORBIDDEN BECAUSE PARENTS CAN BE CRUEL
At an early age, Lynch’s favourite past-times included sitting in a mud puddle under a tree (sadly no photographic evidence) and, more conventionally, just drawing stuff. In turn, Mama Lynch banned young David – only him, not his brother or sister – from owning a colouring book. “A really beautiful thing came to her that those would be restrictive and kill some kind of creativity,” he remembers. Perhaps it’s the join-the-dot sketchbooks that hindered his siblings’ art careers.
LYNCH’S FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH A NAKED WOMAN WAS TRAUMATISING
Picture the scene. Lynch, still a young boy, witnessed a nude stranger walking through his neighbourhood with a bloodied mouth; she then sat down in the street to cry. The incident, as you’d imagine, can shape an impressionable mind, and though the doc doesn’t confirm it, the event is replicated in Blue Velvet: Kyle MacLachlan’s seemingly idyllic hometown has its heart ripped out when Isabella Rossellini, stripped and beaten, collapses in his front garden.
HE WAS NOT A SWOT IN THE CLASSROOM
Lynch was always ahead of the curve. “The only thing important was what happened outside of school,” he recalls. Instead of homework, his passions were dating, dancing and “dark, fantastic dreams”. Even in adolescence, he envisioned a bohemian lifestyle for himself as a painter. “I had this idea you drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, and that’s it,” he elaborates. “Maybe girls come into it a little bit.” His studio, stacked with ashtrays and apparatus, confirms that slacking off school eventually pays off.
HIS EARLY ARTWORK WAS ATROCIOUS
Still a teen, Lynch befriended fellow painter Jack Fisk – later a production designer for De Palma, Malick and, of course, Lynch – and the pair had neighbouring studios, which perhaps offered some perspective. “I knew my stuff sucked,” Lynch admits, but he persisted anyway, experimenting day and night, to the extent that his father threatened to disown him for working so late. So if your art is abysmal and your parents have lost their patience, then your life isn’t totally ruined yet – as long as you have Lynch’s natural talent, that is.
HIS INTRODUCTION TO WEED WAS HALF-BAKED
Lynch’s first taste of marijuana came on a road trip with friends to Brooklyn, and the rest was, let’s say, ill-conceived. When driving duties fell to Lynch, at this point high and mighty, he took to the wheel and horrified his stoned passengers by parking the vehicle down the centre of a freeway. His excuse? The white dotted lines were too entrancing. Now we know why it’s a recurring image in most, if not all, of his films.
FILMS ARE JUST PAINTINGS THAT WON’T STAY STILL
Philadelphia was, Lynch believes, a poor man’s New York, but the city’s offbeat flavour (one neighbour was openly racist, another claimed to be a chicken) and its art school fuelled his imagination. On one occasion, he detected something peculiar with his canvas. The image consisted of a green plant on a black background. “I heard a wind sound,” he remembers, “and the green started moving. I thought, ‘Oh, a moving painting, but with sound.’” And that was the catalyst for his work with animation. Once a painter, always a painter.
DON’T WORRY, HE’S ALWAYS BEEN AN ODDBALL
In his basement, Lynch experimented with decaying fruit, dead birds and dead mice. Not to build anything; just to see how nature develops as it rots. (I guess it was before YouTube.) He excitedly gave his visiting father a tour, but in the car afterwards was told, “Dave, I don’t think you should ever have children.’ Well, it does shine a new light on Rabbits.
HIS FAMILY PLEADED WITH HIM TO QUIT ERASERHEAD
Funnily enough, Lynch did have a child, but when he divorced the mother during the making of Eraserhead, his father and brother instructed him to quit filmmaking. The movie was, they believed, never going to happen. “It got me in a deep way because they didn’t understand,” he says, adding that he broke down in tears. All of which spurred and probably improved the film that came out of a messy period.
BUT ERASERHEAD WAS HEAVEN AND MADE EVERYTHING FINE
David Lynch: The Art Life’s joyous conclusion is also what most people assume to be the start of Lynch’s career. “Eraserhead was one of my greatest, happiest moments in cinema,” he beams. “What I loved about it was the world and having it be my own little place.” Detractors may deride Lynch’s surreal adventure in babysitting as ‘lol random’, but it’s resoundingly clear from the documentary that the intricate details are coloured by Lynch’s personal history. Before he could become an artist, he had to live a life first.
David Lynch: The Art Life plays London Film Festival on 8, 9 & 10 October. More info can be found here
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