My introduction to the work of David Lynch came in the form of a university lecture. I remember being shown Blue Velvet (1986) in my first year as a film student and being instantly thrust into a world unfamiliar and unsettling. I’m sure now this is just the response Lynch hopes for. His latest film, David Lynch: The Art Life (2016) can possibly be seen as a bridge to Lynch’s world, providing a sense of who he is and how this is reflected in his work. I viewed The Art Life at the Gulbenkian along with someone who has had no prior experience of him or his work, and I was therefore unsure as to what their response would be. Ultimately, they found it to be a very positive experience, and I personally enjoyed gaining a greater insight into this man who helped shape my introduction to my undergraduate degree.
What I found particularly interesting is the way Lynch’s ability to take something normal and turn it into something frightening or bizarre is not lost in the documentary format. By using his own voiceover to narrate, his obscure personality floods the screen, never allowing the viewer to become complacent and forget about Lynch’s unpredictable nature. This is also achieved through a lack of sound. There are many scenes where the camera lingers for longer than is comfortable on shots of Lynch simply sitting, unmoving. These long takes add to the unsettling feeling produced throughout the documentary, perhaps giving the viewer an insight into his own feelings of unease. He talks a lot about his upbringing and how even as a young man he felt a compulsion to create. This was not always met with acceptance from his family who felt that he should be searching for a ‘proper job’ to support his wife and child. However, Lynch continued doing what came naturally to him and is now described as a modern renaissance man and is praised as being one of the best filmmakers of his generation.
The Art Life does not focus primarily on his work as a filmmaker, which possibly is what he is best known for; instead, it takes the viewer through his practice as a fine artist. This might challenge the pre-conceived notion the audience may have of Lynch, especially if they are unaware of his work as a painter. It appears that painting is his first love; after all, he studied at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His work there has clearly had a lasting effect on his work, both on and off screen. Throughout the film the audience is reminded of his love of painting – not just through the many shots of him carrying out his painting process, but through the cinematography as well. I feel this focus on the long-take, which is a recurring aspect of the film, is there to give the sense that the film itself is like a painting. Rather than tracking movement and action across the screen, the viewer is encouraged to respond as they would to a static image and process the information at a slower rate. It is through this documentary that viewers, maybe for the first time, have the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of such an enigmatic artist. His personality flourishes throughout the documentary and turns a format that can sometimes be stale into something inspiring and unfamiliar, capturing a mood similar to his fiction films. This is definitely a documentary worth watching, whether you are new to David Lynch or already have experience with his work. It is an excellent introduction to the man behind the lens.
by Hannah Abbott, artist