Review: ‘David Lynch: The Art Life’ explores the creation of ‘Eraserhead’

This Buffalo News review of the documentary “David Lynch: The Art Life” ran just a few days before the return of “Twin Peaks.”

For the first time in roughly a decade, David Lynch fans have reason to be breathless with anticipation. On May 21, Showtime debuts the 25-years-in-the-making return of Lynch’s television masterpiece, “Twin Peaks.” All 18 new episodes are directed by the man himself.

Therefore, the release of “David Lynch: The Art Life,” a feature-length documentary exploring the filmmaker’s work, is a case of very good timing. Director Jon Nguyen’s 90-minute interview with Lynch (and only Lynch) is a rather extraordinary opportunity to hear one of culture’s most unique artists discuss his life, his work, and where it came from.

The documentary is the highlight of the North Park Theatre’s “Lynchfest,” a week celebrating one of cinema’s most unique, unyielding artists.

One of the reasons the film is so successful is its narrow focus: “The Art Life” looks only at Lynch’s childhood, his wild-at-heart teenage years, his time in college as a young artist, and, finally, the creation of “Eraserhead.”

That means no “Elephant Man,” no “Blue Velvet,” no “Twin Peaks,” no “Mulholland Drive,” no Transcendental Meditation. (And no “Dune”!) Still, the DNA of Lynch’s later works can be traced directly to the events and individuals he references in “The Art Life.”

This should come as no surprise. For Lynch, there is no divide between life and art. This makes his work distinctly personal — and utterly inimitable.

“I was always drawing,” Lynch says while pondering his childhood. His mother refused to allow him to have coloring books. “Those would be restrictive, and kill some kind of creativity,” she believed. He calls this decision “a beautiful thing.”

Drawing (and, later, painting) allowed his imagination to flourish. But so, too, did strange occurrences like the sudden appearance in his neighborhood of a completely nude woman, her mouth bloodied. (Shades of Dorothy Vallens from “Blue Velvet.”)

The latter memory is particularly shocking, especially since Lynch’s childhood “was no larger than two blocks.” There were “huge worlds in those two blocks,” he says. (This seems an allusion to the small-town horrors that lurk in “Velvet” and “Twin Peaks.”)

Discovering that a friend’s father made a living as an artist led Lynch to learn of “the art life,” which he defines as “You drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, and that’s it. Maybe girls come into a little bit. But basically it’s the incredible happiness of working and living that life.”

This was an appealing concept, and it led Lynch and his friend and future production designer, Jack Fisk, to Boston, Europe (“We were going to go for three years, but we came back in 15 days”), and, eventually Philadelphia. It was this “weird town” and its “art spirit” that put Lynch on the path to “Eraserhead.”

It has always been a joy to hear the voice of Lynch, whether as part of interviews or in his shout-y role as “Twin Peaks”’ Gordon Cole. The Lynch onscreen in “The Art Life” is older (he’s now 71), a bit weathered, and perhaps a tad slower. But his voice, his hair and his mind are as glorious as ever. It’s a joy to watch Lynch at work in his stunning home studio, especially when his infant daughter wanders into the room.

“The Art Life” is a must-see for Lynch obsessives, but it’s also worth watching for anyone with an interest in the creation process. It’s hard to watch the film and not feel inspired to create … and to immerse yourself in the filmography of cinema’s darkest poet.