Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 30, 2017 7:41 am 
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How David Lynch became David Lynch (as if he wasn't always)

This movie's title tells us what it's about: not David Lynch the famous filmmaker, but an artist called David Lynch, an all-around creative person whose early life was pointed toward being a painter - and who's a painter today. This is his film, his narration about his life, and it's consciously done as a memoir for his youngest daughter, little toddler Lula, briefly glimpsed here - something for her to enjoy at some future time.

And so he reminisces, and we listen, watching him not talking but working in his art studio at home in the Hollywood Hills - with rich archival material cunningly interpolated by the filmmakers, as needed, along the way to illustrate the key early years he recounts here leading up to just beyond the time when Eraserhead was first seen by an astonished public. This is the engaging and by appearances unguarded self-portrait of a man who appears by the sound of it, implausible as that may seem, to have become only incidentally one of the great American cinematic auteurs of the last half century. The art pieces and the messy working on them isn't always that interesting; it's more a way of relaxing us, as we listen to the story.

It began with a happy childhood. He was born in Missoula, Montana, but soon thereafter his parents got a house in Sand Point, Idaho. After two years, they moved to Spokane, Washington. Snapshots and Lynch's account show these times to be idyllic, including when he was two, playing with his little friend in a mud puddle built by his father to be cool in summer. Children played freely in the blocks around as kids did in America in the Fifties.

How did he come to make movies full of frightening mystery and menace? Not from his early years - or from the sunny nature interviews always reveal. Though in the past he's often said decades of practicing Transcendental Meditation brought him inner calm, it seems his early life had conditioned him to be a happy person to begin with. But a move to Virginia when he was a teenager caused Lynch to rebel and run with a "bad crowd" in high school. And later in this film, he speaks of living in a bad, nasty neighborhood in Philadelphia, which seems to have introduced him to a profound sense of horror and dread. Even when he was a little boy he has a vivid memory of a "giant" naked woman appearing out on the lawn with a bloodied mouth and the sense of the nightmarish was formed.

Lynch's early life, marked by an utter detestation of school, focused on entering a painting studio, which he did seriously while in high school, and then going on to art school. It took a while to find the right one, but when he did, there was comradeship and productivity. First, his friend Toby Keeler led him to permission to work in the studio of his father Bushnell Keeler, a painter - and focused Lynch's desire intensely in that direction thenceforth.*

This story shows so clearly how Lynch is artist first and filmmaker second, it helps explain why there's been no feature film from his hand since 2006's Inland Empire but that he would not see that as a problem, a dry period. A look at IMDb will show moreover that since 2006 Lynch hasn't abandoned movie-making. He's kept up a constant stream of short films recording his various artistic and cinematic explorations ever since as well. We've heard of his various projects including websites (one of which, called Projects, extensively lists schemes not yet completed); plus music; the painting illustrated here; and enterprises like David Lynch Organic Coffee (the beans come sealed in a can).

But none of that stuff has a place in the voiceover here because it hadn't happened yet. We're deep into the young man's determined efforts to live, as the title says, the art life. Writers more informed than I, like Nick James of Sight & Sound (BFI) confirm that this movie shows Lynch narrating his life "more thoroughly, poignantly, and evocatively" than he's "ever heard from him before."

It certainly works for me. It reminded me of when I was eighteen, and spent a year in Baltimore as a kind of apprentice-student-surrogate son of the artist Karl Metzler and at lunch every day he'd revel in telling me stories of his life and how he became a painter and sculptor. Karl was a mesmerizing storyteller and so is Lynch. The fact that Lynch is more than a movie director makes him, for me, more of a kindred spirit and that makes this film a unique pleasure to watch. But apart from my very real personal pleasure, this is clearly enough an essential portrait for all fans and students of David Lynch.

David Lynch - The Art Life, Janus Films, 93 mins., debuted at Venice. Sept. 2016; 14 festival showings listed on IMDb include London, SxSW, and DOCNYC; US theatrical release beginning at IFC Center 31 Mar. 2017. Q&As with director Jon Nguyen to follow the 7:15 screenings at IFC Center on Friday, March 31st and Saturday, April 1st. At Los Angeles' Cinefamily 14 Apr., then wider release. Release of the film is being accompanied by an IFC retrospective including a 4K restoration of Eraserhead plus key works, Wild at Heart, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, and rare shorts, running from 24 Mar. to 6 Apr. Screened for this review at Criterion Collection, 215 Park Avenue South, NYC 22 Feb. 2017.
*Lynch's first film was of "Sailing with Bushnell Keeler."

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