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Non-Review Review: David Lynch – The Art of Life

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

David Lynch: The Art of Life is a fairly conventional and straightforward affair as these sorts of documentaries go.

The documentary eschews a lot of the trapping of more adventurous entries in the genre. Indeed, most of David Lynch: The Art of the Life could have been filmed and recorded in David Lynch’s art studio, as the director talks at length about his life and the camera pans loving across his working space and intercuts his monologues with art work that seems to hit on some of the core themes of his narration at any given moment. There is something very standard about the way that David Lynch: The Art of Life is put together.

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Indeed, the film largely eschews any sense of outside context or material. The only voice heard over the course of the film is that of David Lynch himself, recording at his own home studio. Only rarely do the production team need to use material that doesn’t belong to Lynch to flesh out his dialogue, notably during his discussion of his time in Philadelphia. Those occasions are especially noticeable because the documentary takes great care to credit those sources, drawing attention to how much material comes from Lynch’s own archives and records.

However, there is a strong argument that Lynch is suited to this approach. Lynch is a surrealist artist, and it is very hard to argue that anybody has a stronger grip on or understanding of his work. Indeed, the most effective and striking aspect of David Lynch: The Art of Life is the way in which it allows Lynch to make his own arguments from his own perspective crafting a narrative that feels distinct and unique. For all that Lynch is a surrealist, David Lynch: The Art of Life allows him to make a strong case as the only sane man in an insane world.

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David Lynch: The Art of Life often feels like a single extended monologue from the avante-garde director, charting his life from childhood through to the production of Eraserhead with particular focus on his early career as an artist. At the same time, the film depicts Lynch working in his studio during the present day, constructing his own strange visions of the wider world. In some ways, coupling the artist’s youth and his old age, David Lynch: The Art of Life feels almost like a bookend.

What is most striking about the history outlined by Lynch is how mundane it all seems. Lynch offers a vision of childhood that is so all-American as to seem almost universal. He recalls growing up in great detail, right down to the first and last names of various childhood acquaintances. He remembers playing in puddles and coming of age in the aftermath of the Second World War, of his mother encouraging his gift and of his father negotiating compromises to allow him to become the man that he wanted to be.

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By and large, the details of Lynch’s life are recognisable to contemporary audiences. He talks about his mother’s obvious affection for her family, of her quiet religious faith and her understanding of his latent potential. He talks about being a teenager and thinking that his father was lame and uncool, before coming around in his later years to realise that his father was in fact “supercool.” The photographs of Lynch’s early life are populated with the iconography and imagery of suburban normality, even white picket fences evoking Blue Velvet.

Indeed, to hear Lynch’s account of events, he seems almost like the last sane man in an insane world. Repeatedly over the course of the film, it seems like Lynch is reacting as a straight man to what he sees as a chaotic and absurd world. As he talks about his very normal suburban childhood, he recalls in vivid detail an unexplained incident involving a nude woman. Describing his neighbours on leaving home, it seems like Lynch was surrounded by the delirious and insane. He makes Philadelphia sound like a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

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There is an interesting recurring theme that Lynch does not understand what it is about his work that so unsettles and confuses people, that Lynch does not see himself as a particularly surrealist artist and instead treats his own work as a restrained depiction of the wider world. At one point, late in the film, Lynch recounts his father’s visit to his studio space. Exploring the decaying fruit and the embalmed mice in the basement, Lynch’s father seems rather uncomfortable. Lynch seems almost confused by that reaction.

This effective juxtaposition between Lynch’s very familiar and very grounded portrayal of his own home life with the ridiculousness of the wider world makes the buttoned-down approach of David Lynch: The Art of Life all the more effective. This is a documentary that is unquestionably about how David Lynch sees the world, and broadening the perspective by bringing in outside commentators or by drawing from outside sources would ultimately undercut.

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David Lynch: The Art of Life is a documentary that does exactly what it says on the tin, offering ninety minutes of David Lynch exploring his own history and browsing his back catalogue. Any other documentary might suffer from this no-frills vanilla approach. However, Lynch is a character who is interesting enough to hold the audience’s attention, his story all the more compelling for the no-frills delivery.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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