A visionary director and true artist of the form, things have been a bit quiet on the cinematic front from David Lynch for the last decade or so.

Sure, he’s been banging the drum for the joys and benefits of Transcendental Meditation. And he’s been noodling away making exactly the sort of electropop you’d expect from a man in his (then) late 60s (Lynch just turned 71). But, the odd music video and commercial aside, until his recent triumphant, and aggressively obtuse return, with the new Twin Peaks series, Lynch’s last directorial effort was 2006’s Inland Empire. One could have been forgiven for thinking the great man had retired.

Shot during this fallow period, with Lynch pottering around his studio and playing with his toddler daughter Lula (worryingly sharing a first name with Laura Dern’s character from Wild At Heart), Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm’s documentary David Lynch: The Art Life focuses instead on Lynch’s early life and his career as a fledgling artist, taking us up to the genesis of his film career with his early shorts and the shooting of his debut cult feature, Eraserhead.

Famously dubbed “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” by comedian Mel Brooks (who produced arguably Lynch’s most accessible work, The Elephant Man), Lynch himself guides us through his formative years, surely disappointing the armchair psychologists, desperate for evidence of an abusive upbringing to explain his dark films, with his almost disappointingly normal, practically idyllic tales of a Norman Rockwell childhood in smalltown America not a million miles from the white picket-fences and smiling neighbours of his best known works Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, his supportive parents nurturing his interest in art, his mother refusing to allow him colouring books for fear they would be too restrictive, that they would stifle his blossoming creative talents.

It’s his teen friendship with West Virginia artist Bushnell Keeler and his adherence to “the art life,” (“You drink coffee. You smoke cigarettes. You paint. That’s it”) that inspires Lynch to study art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, a city he describes as a place that would “suck your happiness away and fill you with sadness and fear,” snatches of his early animations, grainy 16mm home movies and his paintings punctuating the narration, a typically Lynchian industrial score rumbling away on the soundtrack. Restless and unsuccessful as a painter, it’s only when he picks up a movie camera that Lynch finds his niche, securing a coveted AFI grant to study and work in California and sowing the seeds that would germinate into Eraserhead.

As slippery and elusive as his films, even when he’s laying himself bare, Lynch and his motives are hard to pin down and, while his tales of his middle-class upbringing are for the most part a portrait of sunny mundanity, it’s the darkness that fascinates both Lynch and us, his vivid retelling of a bloodied, beaten, naked woman staggering out of the night as he and his adolescent friends play in the street, lifted wholesale from his childhood to memorably appear in Blue Velvet.

Enigmatic, enthralling and frustrating, David Lynch: The Art Life serves mainly to remind the audience that the global dominance of risk-averse, multiplatform, toy commercials and comic book universes, has effectively stifled one of the most experimental authorial voices modern cinema has given us.

Movie Review: David Lynch - The Art Life
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