There's something about David Lynch and vintage microphones. He lights them beautifully, makes them strange and terrifying, turns them into symbols of the links between his imagination (aural, visual) and the nostalgia, memory, other-worldliness of the recent past.
In David Lynch The Art Life (US, 2017, dirs. Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes) Lynch speaks into another beautiful vintage mic, recounting his childhood years, telling stories about his family, friends and lovers, and presenting us with a version of the path he took to become an artist. In fact we rarely see him speaking into this mic. Apart from one significant snippet near the end of the film, we only hear his recorded voice, we don't see the voice being recorded.
This beautiful, textured, elegantly paced documentary is edited down from about 30 hours of material (Jon Nguyen, one of the directors and close friend of Lynch told us this in the Q&A session) and it takes us from earliest years through to the completion of Eraserhead. After this landmark debut feature, Lynch's artistic life would change drastically (next film along was the incredible The Elephant Man) and this period is left for future documentaries.
In terms of the 'art' of the title, it concerns Lynch's paintings and, more pertinently, his striving toward this nebulous concept of 'the art life'. It's a concept, a state of mind, and state of working that all artists of all stripes are much preoccupied with, especially when setting out.
I had this view of the art life: that you drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, and made art. And maybe there was time for girls too. [My paraphrasing]
The camera lingers over Lynch's artworks (some old and some being created in the moment – I particularly loved one scene where Lynch screws up while drilling a small hole into a canvas; it spoke to my own frustrations and incompetence) and rifles through his enormous archive of family photos and Super 8 footage. At times the whole thing feels like a Derek Jarman film from the 80s. There are thrilling shots of his studio where a 'Mulholland Dr' road sign is hanging and where, nearby, a black and white still from The Wizard of Oz is pinned.
The narration is peppered with classic Lynchian homilies and slightly goofball expressions. Things are peachy and neat and when he's showing his very young daughter Lula (I think she must have been three-years-old when all this was filmed) some of his art, he exclaims 'Hot dog!' as you might, perhaps, expect. He also applauds a mechanical 'bird flute' gadget in a moment that reminded me of the mechanical robins in Blue Velvet.
[I've been reflecting on animals in Lynch films because there are so many in my other film festival choices. There aren't many: some of them are mechanical and some of them are symbolic phantoms – like the blurry oneiric elephants that appear to trample John Merrick's mother.]
I loved hearing about Lynch's parents, their properness and goodness. He tells us that his mother is a religious woman (but not a proselytizer), that she wasn't demonstrative with her affections but wanted her children to live good, proper lives. His father, despite the odd wobble of conflict between them, is described along the lines of: 'You really couldn't wish to have a better person for a father.'
The Lynch childhood comes across as slightly candy-coated and brightly lit and rather conventional. Of course, the friction of and against 'the conventional' is at the heart of the filmmaker's vision. It is when Lynch hits the dreadful-yet-stimulating Philadelphia that the contours of the artist we know start to arrange themselves.
There are darker moment in the early years, of course. In an anecdote that reminded me of Wild, which I saw just the other day, young David sees a naked woman, in clear distress, with a bloodied mouth, walking down the quiet suburban street he lives on. It's hard not to link this with Dorothy in Blue Velvet of course. This scene reminded me of the moment in Wild when Ania sees and holds the gaze of the wolf that will utterly transform her life.
And there's another anecdote about a male neighbour, which he just can't finish: he leaves it hanging, choked with emotion, and moves on. It's like the conversation at the end of The Straight Story, that we never get to hear (it's the McGuffin; it would have been a grave mistake to show this scene).
I feel like reminiscing about this film: there are so many gems of insight and asides of significant trivia that I could chat away here all day. The film has that kind of spirit, that kind of generosity, while maintaining a palpable tension between the public and the private. Lynch is famously reserved about himself and (especially) his films, so this degree of openness feels like a very big deal, and perhaps he payed a high price for it.
Jon Nguyen told us that they pitched it something like this to Lynch: 'You're old, your daughter's very young. When you're gone, she will have hours and hours of material to watch, so that she can get to know you better.' That hit me quite hard. Hot dog.
PS: watch out for a funny anecdote about marijuana, driving, and the lines down the middle of the road. It speaks to Lynch's recurring fascination with the yellow lines on American highways.
Next up: Souvenir