Five things we learned about David Lynch from The Art Life

Director Jon Nguyen explains what his new documentary on David Lynch reveals about the film-maker Mel Brooks labelled “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”.

Martyn Conterio
Updated:

David Lynch: The Art Life (2016)

David Lynch: The Art Life (2016)

Famously tight-lipped when it comes to discussing his work, offering little more than peculiar observations – “Keep your eye on the donut” – David Lynch’s disarming ‘Jimmy Stewart from Mars’ persona has consistently baffled and charmed those who long to know what makes this man tick.

So a doc fronted by Lynch is an exciting prospect. Shot over the course of two and a half years and whittled down to just under 90 minutes (from 24 hours of filmed conversations), David Lynch: The Art Life covers the director’s peripatetic childhood, art school years and early forays into movies. Aficionados will find some overlap with Chris Rodley’s book, Lynch on Lynch (1997), but director Jon Nguyen’s film takes viewers directly into rarefied spaces: Lynch’s workshop and art studio at his home in the Hollywood hills.

Nguyen knew not to badger or push his friend for info and Lynch set the timetable for the sit-down chats (whenever he felt like talking). In doing so, Nguyen and his co-directors (Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm) caught the pop surrealist in a revealing light, yet still managed to retain the artist’s sense of mystery. Here’s five things Nguyen discovered through making the film.

1) A childhood memory of a naked woman emerging from the darkness was recreated in Blue Velvet

David Lynch on the set of Blue Velvet

David Lynch on the set of Blue Velvet

Living in Spokane, Washington, as a boy, Lynch experienced something akin to a famous moment in 1986’s Blue Velvet – Dorothy Vallens appearing starkers outside the Williams family residence. But if you attempt to draw a direct comparison, you’ll likely get a classic Lynch reaction.

“That’s the kind of thing we never directly asked him,” Nguyen says. “Of course, I think it’s directly correlated, but knowing David, if you asked him if it was directly connected to that, he might… I don’t know… he’d say [something like] ‘I haven’t thought about it that way’. But that’s kind of the main thesis of The Art Life: the past colours and conjures everything that you do.

“A lot of people have said our documentary doesn’t focus on his filmmaking, but I think it does. David’s not the type of filmmaker who you can talk to about their work. We had to talk to him about his films indirectly, by talking to him about his life. This [memory] is one of the clues we dug up. There are little instances in his life that really coloured his films.”

2) His father’s scientific background was a major influence

Artistic fodder… a rabbit (from Watership Down)

Artistic fodder… a rabbit (from Watership Down)

One of many hilarious stories Lynch tells involved his old man, Donald Lynch. Starting to worry his son was leading an errant life, he visited him in Philadelphia and was shocked to discover David was collecting dead animals and other oddities in his basement workspace. The father was so creeped out, he advised his son never to have children.

“Lynch’s father turned him on to ‘organic phenomenon’,” says Nguyen. “He’s the one who took David out on his walks, to show him a dead cow or decomposing animals, turning over logs and looking at the bugs. Fast forward 15 years, David incorporated that sensibility, of organic decomposition, into his art. I think [years later] when David took his father down into his basement [studio], he’d forgot all that and thought his son had emotional problems, when really it was a continuation of that love affair with organic phenomenon. We asked him about it and he said ‘Yeah, I understand why my dad got mixed up’ but David’s dad turned him on to that stuff and brought that whole aesthetic into his son’s art.” 

3) Living in a rundown Philadelphia neighbourhood had a profound effect on his art and cinema

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

In 1966, Lynch moved to Philadelphia and enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The move precipitated a major aesthetic awakening in Lynch. Nguyen explained the profundity of the move: “There is a dichotomy, a juxtaposition, in his films, between good and evil, the good and the underbelly. Philadelphia represented the dark side and his early years represented small-town America and a sense of innocence. David always said Philadelphia was the number one influence on him.”

For young Lynch, it was a shock to the system.

“He grew up in these small towns, almost like a county boy,” Nguyen says, “and when he was in his late teens, he moved to an urban, decaying city. What you have to understand is, that when Lynch moved to Philadelphia, two weeks before he moved, there was a huge race riot and during that race riot 224 businesses [properties] were destroyed. He moved into one of the worst neighbourhoods in Philadelphia. Here he is, this country boy from small-town America, raised in the 1950s, now living in late-Sixties Philadelphia. It had such a major impact on him. It was a culture shock.”

4) The American Film Institute’s filmmaker’s grant changed his life

David Lynch’s short film, The Grandmother

Having heard about the AFI from painter and mentor, Bushnell Keeler, Lynch applied for a filmmaker’s grant to make The Grandmother (1970). “It’s one of the most important things that David recognises,” says Nguyen.  “He’ll admit that grant changed everything.

“This isn’t really part of the film, but the [archive] footage we have was made up of materials David gave us: 8mm films, photographs and albums, his artwork, even his music is in it. All except for the pictures you see of Philadelphia. We asked him if he had pictures of Philadelphia in that period, and he said he had a friend we should contact, who had a camera at that time. I called up Will Brown and we spoke on the phone. He was so proud of David and what he’d achieved. He’d gone to art school with him. Will wanted to become an artist, but after a year and a half gave it up, because he had to make a living. Will’s still living in Philadelphia to this day and his career never really took off. It just made me think ‘Man, it’s like I’m talking to this alternate David Lynch, you know?’ If he hadn’t received that grant to make The Grandmother (1970).

Today, a filmmaker can have an indie hit and get assigned a major blockbuster as a sophomore effort. One of Nguyen’s aims was to show how hard Lynch worked to establish a career. “One of the things that’s touching about the film is that it shows David really worked hard and struggled to get where he is. He never gave up.”

5) Making Eraserhead was the happiest filmmaking experience of his career

Eraserhead (1977)

Eraserhead (1977)

Given former stables as a studio space, at the AFI’s conservatory in Beverly Hills, Lynch spent the next five years making his feature-length debut. His interest in cinema derived from wanting to make his painting ‘move’. He didn’t know much about movies at all, being so naïve enough to turn in a ‘script’, amounting to a few pages, for what was to be a feature-length endeavour.

“Eraserhead was one big canvas for him,” Nguyen sums it up. “He imagined the world of Eraserhead surrounding him. He was kind of locked in there [in the studio space given to him]. It wasn’t like where he is now, with the whole machinery [of film production]. It was just him, a few close friends, [and it took] over five years to create this little gem called Eraserhead. I think with that film, he lived it.”

Read more

Where to begin with David Lynch

Five films that influenced Blue Velvet

The Art Life review

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