Auteur theory is the idea that, in cinema, there are a handful of directors who have a unique and sophisticated style of film making in terms of technique, themes and philosophy that can be identified and studied across their entire filmography.
While the idea of the lone maverick artist fighting against the mainstream may be a romantic one, the realities of financial pressure and the inherently collaborative nature of film productions means that genuine auteurs are few and far between.
One person who can legitimately claim the title is David Lynch. His surreal and often disturbing films have a unique dream-like tone, which have been the subject of endless examination by academics and fans alike. David Lynch: The Art Life focuses on the early part of Lynch’s life, from his childhood, up to the making of his first feature film Eraserhead in the 1970s.
Although best known for his filmmaking, Lynch has worked in many others areas of art, from absurdist newspaper comics to experimental music. The bulk of the documentary focuses on his earliest passion – painting. Rather than being a retrospective of Lynch’s career in the arts, the main thesis of the documentary is about exploring Lynch’s concept of ‘The Art Life’, or his process of creativity and creating art.
Fittingly, the documentary has a minimalistic feel – we see Lynch paint, play with his daughter and smoke a lot of cigarettes, so wrapped up in his artwork that he seems almost oblivious to the camera voyeuristically watching him work on his creations.
Aside from a brief scene of driving to illustrate an anecdote, all of the film takes place in a single studio, empty aside from Lynch, his daughter and the unseen filming crew. The only voice we hear throughout is Lynch’s, as he delivers monologues about what drives his creativity, and his struggles with art as a young man, through voiceover. The true strength of the film comes from the raw, imitate and unguarded moments Lynch shares – such as a story about a childhood neighbour he can’t bring himself to elaborate on, his struggles with school and painting as a teenager, and his unsettling encounters with the dark underbelly of Philadelphia as a young man that inspired Eraserhead.
Some may find it frustrating that The Art Life doesn’t deal directly with Lynch’s filmography (aside from his short films and Eraserhead). We don’t get any discussion of the troubled production of Dune, the Freudian symbolism of Blue Velvet or the transition to television with Twin Peaks.
However, what we do get is a fascinating insight into where art comes from, and the genesis of Lynch as an artist. Despite not appearing or speaking onscreen, it’s clear that director Jon Nguyen has cultivated a relationship with the normally private Lynch, who opens up his archive for a very frank and intimate discussion of what art is.
Although it’s not a documentary on Lynch’s filmography, as a documentary on one of cinema’s most unique artists, it’s a fascinating journey for film fans.