After five highly productive decades of work David Lynch proved he is still at the top of his game when he returned to our screens with third season of Twin Peaks, a show that changed television history and gathered a cult fan following. Being one of the greatest American directors, Lynch will always be remembered as a leader of postmodern cinema, introducing us to surreal, intense plots in movies like The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive. The highlights of his impressive career are easy to find, but how did it all start? At what point did the boy from a typical small town family started to turn into atypical filmmaker we know today?
The answers can be found in a in a 2016 documentary film David Lynch: The Art Lifewhose director Jon Nguyen created it in a form of a one-way 90 minute interview, no one is around but Lynch with the exception of a couple of scenes where he is joined by his curious toddler daughter Lula.
The visual focus is on Lynch while he is painting or creating small sculptures or just sitting quietly while smoking in his cluttered Hollywood Hills studio – the place he feels most comfortable in. The footage of the creative process, getting his hands dirty, painting with fingers, sawing wood or cutting out pieces of it while he is narrating key events from his life. He talks about childhood, teen and later years, about ideas and why art and happiness go hand in hand. At the same time, there’s a lot of old video and photo material following his stories, but also examples of his dark and eerie paintings and illustrations. Some moments are quiet, we watch whatever he is working on and are left to think about it for ourselves, nothing is imposed.
Through the film we chronologically follow Lynch’s life from childhood and formative years to early adulthood. He is not an ordinary storyteller since the information he delivers doesn’t necessarily come in a logical way or have an expected pinnacle moment. Of course this is no surprise coming from the man who spent his filming career deconstructing the usual narrative structure and abandoning the mainstream rules.
The film starts with Lynch remembering happy childhood days, praising his loving parents and the sense of limitless freedom and support they provided for him and his siblings. The way he described a particular anecdote from that period about encountering a strange naked woman while playing outside especially stuck with me because it sounded like a twisted dream sequence or something I might have seen while watching Twin Peaks.
The director proceeds talking about the effect of his family moving to a different city. Those early teenage years are remembered as dark and unhappy because he developed some health problems, started to hang out with the bad kids, smoking and drinking, going out of control and disappointing his mom. But also at that time, while still being a stubborn, rebellious teenager Lynch started to develop a fascination with the world of dreams, that keeps inspiring him up to this day.
I never studied. I never did anything.I hated it so much. I hated it like… powerful hate. The only thing that was important was what happened outside of school and that had huge impact on me. People and relationships, slow dancing parties… Big, big love and dreams. Dark, fantastic dreams. Incredible time.
The Art Life
After learning one of his friends’ father was a painter, Lynch realized that being an artist can be a real profession, so that is when he firmly decided that painting is all he ever wanted to do in life. That painter was called Bushnell Keeler and he will play an important part in supporting Lynch in developing his career later in life. Visiting a painting studio for the first time Lynch described drawings, paintings and everything else in that place as ‘an art life going on right before your eyes.’ That is when the roots of obsession with art and the whole concept of ‘art life’ and happiness that comes along with it started to form.
I had this idea that you drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes and you paint. And that’s it.
The best part of this documentary for any aspiring artist is when Lynch talks about his beginnings as a painter when his work was really bad and he knew it, but it was a process he needed to grow through in order to find his own way of expression, so he just kept painting until that happened. The most important element in doing what you’re passionate about is dedication.
After graduation Lynch moved to Boston and went through a short experience of agoraphobia when he stayed in for two weeks and listened to the radio because he was physically and mentally unable to do anything else. He managed to get through that crisis, but says there’s always a certain level of nervousness when leaving home, even today he is the happiest when he doesn’t have to go out and stay in the world he created.
Moving to Philadelphia to pursue the art spirit and enrollment into Academy of Fine Arts were another important step for Lynch. While talking about living in a new, dark city that scared him, he describes weird and unpleasant encounters with neighbors, for example with a woman who would go around in her backyard squawking like a chicken. In moments like these, even though this is an intimate and honest portrayal, the viewer can never be sure if it really happened – Lynch lets us wonder about those events using his great capacity for telling surreal stories.
“Oh, a moving painting, but with sound”
The love of painting came first and remained his main occupation, until the day when Lynch, while observing the big painting he was working on at the time, started seeing movement and hearing the sound wind in the background. That’s when the passion for film making and storytelling started and led him forward in his career.
Homemade videos that show Lynch filming his first wife Peggy playing with his daughter show his personal side, but even then you can’t clearly separate the artistic and family man persona because he seems to think about art all the time.
The life changing moment in Lynch’s life was getting a grant from the American Film Institute at the time when he had to find a ‘normal’ job in order to provide for the family. He was unhappy and felt empty because there was no time left for painting and doing what he loved. The grant made it possible to continue his education in California and completely dedicate himself to visual art.
Lynch moved to Los Angeles to attend a training program in the Center for Advanced Film Studies describing the experience as unbelievable and inspiring. Creating new worlds and capturing them on film was now part of his daily routine.
The last couple of minutes are dedicated to the making of his first feature film – surrealist horror Eraserhead. His family thought he was losing time with it and should find a real job to earn money. He knew the time spent on filming it wasn’t lost and was determined to finish the movie while fully enjoying the process, describing everything about it as beautiful.
Eraserhead to me was one of my greatest, happiest experiences in cinema.
The impression after watching this unique documentary and getting to know David Lynch’s life and career on a personal level is very similar to being immersed into his work – you experience the fascination, thrill and mystery. Every person who is in a way involved into art making can learn a lot from this feature, there are two things I would like to point out – creating is important because it gives us a real sense of freedom and mistakes are necessary because they lead us towards what we’re trying to achieve.
He is letting the viewer in, but not inviting him to stay too long, only to have a long peak through the window, because at the end of the day – this is David Lynch, a talented, crazy imaginative artist that dares to visit places others have yet to discover and all that while we watch him sitting calmly, puffing away smoke and keeping his cool appearance.
Originally posted on Creators.co