Young filmmaker David Lynch, as seen in David Lynch: The Art Life (Janus Films)

“You drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, you paint, and that’s it,” says iconoclast filmmaker David Lynch about what it means to live the Art Life of this documentary’s title. Though he is mostly known for his films and television work (Twin Peaks, conveniently enough for the timing of this film’s release, returns after a 25-year absence next month), he’s spent his entire adult life as an artist. He started as a painter in his teens and made experimental crafts and works that led, through an organic process, to his first abstract film in the late 1960s (look up The Alphabet or The Grandmother when you can). Usually the term “art filmmaker” may be thrown about at auteurs or the like, but for Lynch, the moniker can be a completely true assessment.

This film looks specifically at Lynch’s life from his childhood up to the making of his first feature, Eraserhead. The time line distinguishes this production from other film biographies of Lynch. David Lynch: The Art Life works because it appeals to two groups: first, those who have seen his work, the documentary from 1997, Pretty as a Picture (which was about his film work, with collaborators in talking-head interviews), and/or Lynch from 2007 (a sort-of about the making of his experimental epic Inland Empire). There are also those who may come in much colder, perhaps only vaguely familiar with the director and his many films. (Thankfully, the IFC Center in New York is screening a retrospective of his films to coincide with the new doc.) But the strength of this particular movie goes deeper than that; it’s effective as an aspiring portrait of an artist and how he came to be.

We see early family photos and home movies while he describes the warm memories of his parents and how his early, mostly happy memories left an impact on him. This isn’t to say if one knows Lynch’s work there’s nothing at all to connect the dots to; one of the anecdotes that makes an impact is about the night when, out of nowhere, he and his brother saw a naked woman walking down the street in a daze. (The sight made his brother cry; David simply didn’t know what to do.) It’s easy to see how this could have left an imprint that would later show up in memorable scenes in Blue Velvet and the pilot of Twin Peaks.

Mostly these stories are about getting to know what Lynch was like in the ’50’s and ’60’s and how different environments could, and often did, leave an impact; he associated living in Boise, Idaho, with sunshine, but in Virginia it was “always night.” Only a few times do we see Lynch on screen talking, but his voice is there throughout telling stories while we see him in the present day working in his studio (sometimes with his young daughter playing), witnessing the laborious and sometimes bizarre methods he uses to make his paintings and sculptures and so on, with full images of his illustrations mixed in with photos and archival footage. The paintings and art are garish, crude, and, if one didn’t know Lynch any better, they seem like they could have been made by a mental patient. He’s the only one we hear from, so the result is more personal and intimate than how De Palma or By Sidney Lumet presented their subjects. (This film could be shown in a college art class just as well, if not more so, as for film studies.)

While he has often been guarded in interviews about where he gets his ideas from, he has no problem at all in discussing his parents or friends or moments that stood out for him (a particular incident involving a Bob Dylan concert and being stoned stands out as showing how outside the pack he was at the time). On the contrary, Lynch is an assured, calm raconteur. One may never quite know how such gorgeously grotesque paintings and unsettling movies could have been created by this man, but Lynch is a delight to behold as a consummate artist, with cigarettes and coffee on hand, of course.

Directed by Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm
Released by Janus Films Release
Denmark/USA. 90 Min. Not rated