Bank Holiday Monday at the Derby Film Festival: After The Storm; David Lynch: The Art Life

by Elliot Davies

After the Storm Derby Film Festival 2017

Two films in a row that have more in common than meets the eye. Both After the Storm and David Lynch: The Art Life question the sacrifices that must be made to live the life you want to live.

After the Storm is like life itself: On the surface it looks simple, but there’s an unfathomable depth to everyone and everything. This quiet yet powerful film moves at its own pace, almost in real time. All the environments look cluttered, messy and lived-in. Everyone’s worried about money, weather and perception, and not a single line of dialogue feels written.

We follow a few days in the life of Shinoda Ryôta. He’s an award-winning novelist, but he apparently hasn’t written anything in 15 years. Instead, he’s working as a private detective. He insists that it’s for research purposes, but nobody believes him. He lives in a cramped flat filled with unsold copies of his book, and he has an unfortunate tendency to gamble away his earnings.

To keep up with his child support payments, he plays his detective clients against each other. At a particularly low point, he’s even shown extorting a school child for money. This child screams something about how he’s never going to turn out like Shinoda. But if only it were that easy…

One of Shinoda’s clients laments her lot: “How did my life end up like this?” This strikes a chord with Shinoda. He writes it on a post-it note and sticks it above his desk.

Once the theme of the film is introduced, we start to recognise it in other characters: The old man who could have been a television star, but who now spends his days playing classical music records to the people in his tenemant block. The lovable matriarch, Shinoda’s mother, who’s lived in the same poky flat for 40 years. Shinoda’s deceased father, who was on first-name terms with the staff of his local pawn shop.

Once the titular storm strikes, chance finds Shinoda holed in with his mother in her flat, with his ex-wife and his son. What starts as an awkward and claustrophobic situation soon becomes cosy and intimate. As the rain pours down outside, long-unspoken thoughts and feelings are finally revealed. There’s no resolution – because life isn’t like that – but after the storm, something certainly feels different.

After The Storm is the latest by writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda. He filmed the film like he wrote it – with an eye for detail, a respect for realism, and a willingness to let things unfold on their own terms and at their own pace. It’s the first time I’ve seen any of his films so I’ve no idea how it compares to the rest of his repertoire. But if anything in there’s even half as good as this, then I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

David Lynch the Art Life Derby Film Festival 2017

David Lynch: The Art Life might be a documentary (of sorts), but it explores similar themes to After The Storm. Screening them effectively back-to-back was a nice touch. Good programming, Derby Film Festival!

Like After The Storm, this is a slow meditation on the compromises we make to live the lives we live. Essentially, David Lynch sits in front of a vintage microphone and narrates the various things he did, and the various things that happened to him, that allowed him to live his “art life”.

And what’s an art life?

You drink coffee. You smoke cigarettes. You paint. That’s IT.

This is probably the most revealing insight we’re ever going to get into David Lynch’s life, thoughts, and creative process. And it’s definitely the first time he’s ever been this open and vulnerable.

He talks in a steady voice that’s largely unwavering. He starts with his idyllic childhood, moving onto his less-than-idyllic adolescence; his initial attempts at painting, his initial attempts at film-making, and all the people who helped him to realise his dreams. He’s full of admiration for his parents, his mentors, and his patrons.

And that’s where I was reminded of After The Storm. In the 1970s, David was living with his wife and daughter and working in a printing shop in Philadelphia. He received an art grant, which essentially gave him the unlimited resources he needed to make his first feature film, Eraserhead.

He talks about how, when living and working in Philadelphia, things weren’t exactly unhappy but…

…and he falters. “I really don’t know what would’ve happened if we hadn’t got that grant,” he says slowly. And he sounds terrified. Had he not got that grant, would his refrain be the same as the refrain at the centre of After The Storm?

How did my life end up like this?

This isn’t the first time his narration falters. Earlier, he’s talking about his transition from childhood to adolescence, which corresponded with a move from a small town to a bigger town. He starts talking about his family’s final night in their old home. He mentions that their neighbour walked over, and…

“I can’t tell the story,” he says. And again, he sounds terrified.

David Lynch: The Art Life will disappoint anyone who’s looking for a straight biopic about this visionary artist, but there’s still much in this documentary that explains things. For example, when talking about his childhood, he mentions that his whole world extended to a few blocks of his neighbourhood. But there was so much going on in these few blocks. “Everything,” he says. “Everything in the world was right there.”

Including the darkness, evidently. Something so dark that even now, more than half a century later, he’s unwilling to tell the story. In Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, David Lynch peels back the sweet exterior of American life to reveal something ugly and terrifying beneath. When crafting these stories, it seems he was writing from experience.

David Lynch The Art Life Derby Film Festival 2017 2

As documentaries go this is relatively opaque, but it’s still remarkable in just how much we get to see. We’re shown David’s working space – his studio resembles a junkyard, and he’s got a print of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights pinned above his desk. We see him playing with his daughter, and we see his delight at a trio of singing robot birds.

And we see him smoking and painting. A lot. His paintings are like dark dioramas of grotesque sculptures, tortured scribbles and found objects. They’re wrested into existence like demons from a hellish womb. At one point he attacks the canvas with an angle grinder before kneading the mangled pulp into some kind of vertebrae.

This is him at peace. He’s always been this way. He tells a story of when his dad came to visit him in Philadelphia. Before his dad left, David showed him his “experiments” in the basement: rotting fruit, rotting animal carcasses etc. “David,” his dad said. “I don’t think you should have kids.”

The problem is, it ends just as it’s beginning. David talks about the incredible freedom he felt when making Eraserhead. “It was beautiful,” he says. And that’s it! It just ends!

Maybe this is the first in a long series of insights into his life. Maybe the next one will be called David Lynch:The Film Life, and he’ll talk us through his Hollywood career.

Or maybe he just felt like he’d already said too much, and that it was time to get back to his daughter and his painting.

These two films, watched back-to-back, had a powerful effect on me. I don’t want to find myself asking “how did my life end up like this?” Walking home from the cinema, I felt the need to do things.

I wonder if anyone else felt the same?