David Lynch: The Art Life - mapping the evolution of a singular cinematic psyche

Focusing on Lynch’s early life and work, Jon Nguyen’s documentary is utterly essential viewing for fans of the director

David Lynch: The Art Life
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Director: Jon Nguyen
Cert: Club
Genre: Documentary
Starring: David Lynch
Running Time: 1 hr 29 mins

You would, when watching a documentary on David Lynch, be a fool to look for early biographical pointers towards future creative decisions. That is not how Lynch rolls. We have heard that his daughter's troubled infancy inspired the baby in Eraserhead, but that is surely an outlier. The work is too skewed and surreal to spring from everyday experience. You may as well try and "solve" the films.

And yet. There is a startling moment in Jon Nguyen’s engaging film – an extended monologue illustrated with glimpses from the early work – that bears comparison to descriptions of Dickens engaging with his Mr Micawber of a dad.

One Autumn evening, when he was just a boy, Lynch and his friends spotted a bloodied, naked woman staggering towards them on their suburban street. Thirty years later, that incident appeared in the closing scenes of Blue Velvet. Can David Lynch really be the world's least likely autobiographical film-maker?

In a sense. What we get in The Art Life is the evolution of a psyche. We get the development of a mood. There is much horror in films such as Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. But when the characters encounter joy – Sandy's robins in the latter film, for example – it is often of the most comforting and sentimental hue.


All those things are here in Lynch description of his early life. He notes how his parents loved each other very deeply. Yet a simple disagreement over how late David is allowed to stay at his painting studio causes his dad to threaten expulsion from the family. Like much else in his story, Lynch fails to find this sufficiently unusual. Who else would be so fascinated by the smallness of Bob Dylan when glanced from a distance? (These cows are far away, Dougal.)

The lesson is that Lynch’s life story will always seem Lynchian if David Lynch tells it. It may be stranger still than his narrative suggests. It is, more probably, no more peculiar than yours.

No matter. Focusing on the artist's work up to the creation of Eraserhead in 1977, The Art Life is utterly essential for his many followers. They may be surprised by how much of it makes sense.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist