Released by David Lynch's own production company ABSURDA, and compiled from video footage shot over two years by a variety of collaborators, "Lynch (One)" is not your standard documentary. It's neither a comprehensive overview of the life and work of the director, nor an analysis of his work. Instead, the film is an impressionistic and fragmented illustration of the thought processes and working methods of one of the most enigmatic creative artists working in contemporary film today. It's put together in a similar way to the director's most recent film "INLAND EMPIRE" (the making of which forms the back bone of the documentary), and will inevitably frustrate those casual viewers looking for a coherent examination of its subject. Lynch fans will find much to intrigue and delight them though: the film delivers the most insightful portrait yet of Lynch the artist, with illuminating documentation of his multifarious and seemingly obsessive artistic activity in a variety of mediums, and his sometimes fractious personality.
The primary impression one gets from the film is that of a man who, after thirty years of working mainly within the Hollywood system and trying to get that system to work for him, has now returned to his original artistic roots. Lynch started his creative life as an artist in the mid-Sixties at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, gradually incorporating more and more elements of film into his work until, in 1971 at the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles, he started working on what eventually became (after many breaks in filming due to lack of funds) his first feature film, "Eraserhead" (1977). This striking black-and-white surrealist debut, became a cult midnight movie phenomena, but launched a largely conventional film making career, which, after the great high of the Academy Award nominated "The Elephant Man" (1980) and the even more dispiriting low of the failed multi-million pound, Dino De Laurentiis produced sci-fi epic "Dune", finally settled into an intermittently commercially successful but always critically highly visible, stability.
During that time though, Lynch always continued producing his personal art — making paintings, sculptures and even comic stripes. "Lynch (One)" is full of footage of the man at work on his various art projects: this is a man who loves to make things — he seems at his happiest with a paint brush in his hand, doodling with a pencil, taking photographs of abandoned factories in Poland; or even just the raw physical activity of painting a floor, sanding a piece of wood or drilling a hole in a piece of plaster (always dressed in his miraculously spotless canvass trousers and white shirt). A revealing quote from Lynch tells how the satisfaction he gets from all his artistic activity comes "in the doing" rather than from any acclaim or admiration that might come of the results. It is the process of making something that gives him the most pleasure. We see him tinkering with his strange and haunting paintings or crafting odd fossil-like sculptures in the environs of his seemingly semi derelict office-cum-studio — where he also records messages for subscribers to his website — always chain-smoking and reeling off an endless succession of his odd anecdotes.
It is perhaps this enjoyment of the very process of artistic creation which has recently led Lynch publicly to announce that he is now through with film in the form of 35mm, studio production. The development of high-def digital video technology has enabled him to approach his film making in largely the same, highly personal, completely hands-on way as his painting or his sculpting: now he can take his own light readings, make his own sets and props, etc. The whole process of film making has now become another extension of Lynch's artistic life, as it originally was when he first took up film back in his student days in Philadelphia. "INLAND EMPIRE" is the first fruit of this new way of working. Its freeform, improvised nature does make it feel more like a video installation, that really should be seen in an art gallery rather than a cinema: it's a large scale art project that just happens to include a few Hollywood stars among the cast. It remains to be seen if this new pleasurable working method will produce anything as cinematically important as "Blue Velvet" or "Mulholland Drive" (for me, the sprawling "INLAND EMPIRE" didn't quite come off as a whole, although sections of it are inspired). It appears from some footage in this documentary that this change in working method produced a lot of uncertainty as well as pleasure, for every sequence of Lynch enthusing to leading lady and friend Laura Dern, we see an anxious Lynch admitting, "I have no idea what I'm doing with this. It's an experiment".
Another important strand to the documentary is Lynch's increasingly public promotion of the practice of transcendental meditation. It's clear from the film that Lynch's art is a great help in redirecting and channelling his anxieties and personal turmoils. And anyone who has ever tried to make or write anything knows that state of mind can have a great effect one one's ability to get the "flow of ideas" running. Lynch states, rather convincingly, at one point, that suffering does not produce great art, and that the happier and the more relaxed one feels, the easier it is to access the "sea of creativity". Lynch has found transcendental meditation techniques (as described by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi) have helped him in this process, which seems fair enough. This is not the whole story though, because in 2005, Lynch founded the David Lynch Foundation For Consciousness-Based Education and Peace, and inspired by some unlikely and quite self-deluding ideas by physicist turned Maharishi follower John Hagelin, is working to fund eight buildings full of TM'ers to "pump peace into the world" by having them think positive thoughts!
David Lynch emerges from this documentary as a far more complicated and conflicted character than the affable 'Jimmy Stewart from Mars' persona that has been promoted in the media from around the time of "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks". Prone to angry bursts of frustration and episodes of self-doubt, the one constant in his life has been the soothing balm of his artistic activity — however disturbing and dark the results of it can be — and the meditation techniques he has used to facilitate this artistic activity. The film seems to suggest — perhaps inadvertently — a rather self-reliant figure, and a man no longer willing to tolerate the compromises inherent in the Hollywood system. It's still an open question though whether isolating himself from the inherently collaborative nature of the film making process in this way will result in a purer artistic vision or just a paler, less focused but more self-indulgent version of Lynch's unique cinema.