THE SHORT FILMS OF DAVID LYNCH
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by Bill Chambers One is tempted to appropriate Jean-Luc Godard's oft-misquoted "The cinema is Nicholas Ray" in discussing the origins of David Lynch, whose blossoming sophistication unwittingly paralleled that of film itself. From the magic lantern-style innovation of his sculpture installation Six Men Getting Sick to the fixed camera placements of The Alphabet to the rudimentary narrative of The Grandmother (whose heavy's freakishly accentuated jawline transforms his countenance into that of a snarling villain in the "Perils of Pauline" mode) to, finally, the total aesthetic compromise of the shot-on-video The Amputee, the first few entries contained on "The Short Films of David Lynch" imply that there is only one destiny for the medium, whether its evolution is spread out over a century or concentrated in the time it takes for an artist to develop a conscience. If most film students go through a similar rite of passage, there's often an attendant, ineffable impatience with primitive techniques in undergrad films that's absent in Lynch's early work.
Kurt Vonnegut likes to credit artist friend Saul Steinberg with the observation that some artists respond to the history of art where others respond to life itself. As a director, Lynch obviously falls into the latter category--or used to (in recent years, he's grown comfortable with tipping his cinematic influences): a true iconoclast, his interest in moviemaking began not with an interest in film, per se, but with a eureka moment in which he saw one of his paintings tremble and decided to make one that intentionally moved. (Given all that can be traced back to this bolt of lightning, is Lynch Frankenstein or the monster?) That first piece, 1967's Six Men Getting Sick, was a feat of engineering, a 40-second 16mm animation projected continuously onto life-size casts of Lynch himself with the aid of a specially-rigged take-up spool. The DVD, alas, offers a pale simulation of the original exhibit (a four-minute/six-revolution loop backed by wailing sirens), and in and of itself the self-explanatory clip is hardly innovative--the theme of purging being a cliché among beginning animators and experimental filmmakers alike. As archaeology, though, it's fascinating to see traces of John Hurt's Elephant Man prosthesis in Lynch's Francis Bacon figures (see above).
Next comes The Alphabet (1968, 4 mins.). Inspired by a nightmare the niece of then-wife Peggy Lynch had during which she loudly recited the alphabet in her sleep, it predates "Sesame Street" by one year but leaves the same queasy aftertaste as one of their abstract interstitials. (When people call the lame "Sesame Street" satire "Wonder Showzen" subversive, I wonder what, exactly, they think it is subverting, since I remember that show as my earliest exposure to vampires and homosexuality.) Having learned her ABCs over the course of a tormented slumber, the little girl in the film (Peggy herself) wakes up and spews blood--a metaphorical menstruation signalling the death of childhood and all that that implies. That The Alphabet can be read as a pre-emptive apologia, a lament for the systematic homogenization of the human mind that fosters the impulse to rationalize dream logic, rescues it from triteness. If I didn't know better, I'd guess that a certain William Friedkin movie about demonic possession took liberal amounts of inspiration from its imagery.
Like The Alphabet, The Grandmother (1970, 34 mins.) unfolds largely in a claustrophobic bedroom, juxtaposing a pasty-faced child against its inky walls. (With a back-to-back viewing of the two comes the revelation that David Lynch was making J-horror long before it became fashionable in America.) From its rich sound design (this was Lynch's first collaboration with Alan Splet) to its use of opticals, the AFI-funded The Grandmother is the more technically accomplished of the two, but its aesthetic unity to the previous film somehow validates it in a way that the inflated budget does not: it shows Lynch to be principled enough to go about his idiosyncratic routine in public view. The piece, which opens with a Terry Gilliam-esque animation depicting the immaculate conception of a man, a woman, and--paradise interruptus--their son (whose funereal attire makes him a blueprint for "Twin Peaks"' Pierre Tremond), finds the boy cultivating an imaginary friend, the titular grandmother, to cope with the punishments--some of which, it's implicit, are of a sexual nature--heaped on him for repeatedly wetting the bed. (This crone idolatry is another curiously Japanese touch.) As Lynch vehemently denies having any emotional scars that would account for his preoccupation with domestic violence (upon the release of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, he received scores of letters from female survivors of incest asking how he knew), I prefer to think of it as the self-flagelllations of an artistic (read: deviant) mind raised to be an Eagle Scout.
Perhaps the most curious thing about the film is how easy it is to follow. Lynch was notoriously resistant to structure during his tenure at the AFI, claiming ignorance of basic narrative techniques. And yet, however avant-garde they might be, The Grandmother and even The Alphabet are somewhat archetypal (not only does reciting the alphabet song impose a linear arc, but Lynch also follows the girl's restless sleep through to its logical end), suggesting that something Lynch's future collaborator Frank Herbert once said about the human inability to conceive of a truly alien life-form applies to fiction, too.
If 1973's grimly funny The Amputee (5 mins./4 mins.) is comparatively formless, it sets a template for the collisions of melodrama and grotesquerie--that dichotomy of banality and disgust--with which Lynch would eventually become synonymous. Catherine "The Log Lady" Coulson appears as a legless woman sitting in a chair composing a florid missive (communicated via Yuban coffee commercial-style voiceover ("You have never understood Jim")) while an increasingly ineffectual nurse (Lynch himself) changes the dressing on her stumps. Whipped up as test footage for a pair of video stocks, The Amputee was taped twice (by Frederick Elmes) and synched to sound on the fly, and I found myself preferring the first attempt for reasons that boil down to subtle variations in modulation.
Fifteen years passed before Lynch returned to the short film medium. Commissioned for French TV by legendary producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier, The Cowboy and the Frenchman (1988, 26 mins.) represents a quantum leap forward in terms of professionalism, but by the same token it's a less personal, nay, soulful lark than The Amputee. Here, Lynch recycles the iconography of the western serial to comic effect as deaf cowpoke Dusty (Harry Dean Stanton) and his ranch hands (Jack Nance and Tracey Walter) try to ascertain the origin of a gibberish-spouting interloper (Frederic Golchan) in a beret by rummaging through his belongings. Bottles of wine, baguettes, and an Eiffel Tower knick-knack offer no clue, but a plate of French fries...that cinches it. The film's Zen pitch was then new to Lynch, transforming his characteristic dirge-like pacing into something drolly laconic whilst paving the way for cherry-pie jokes and The Straight Story alike. In the context of this collection, however, The Cowboy and the Frenchman is both a gratifying change of pace--the novelty song on an otherwise gloomy mix tape--and a jarring anachronism, as all the transitional groundwork (including his amassing of a stock company, many of whose performers are present here) was laid in features.
Rounding out "The Short Films of David Lynch" is Lumière, an excerpt from 1995's Lumière et compagnie, for which dozens of world-class directors paid homage to the cinema's centennial (moreover, its humble beginnings) by shooting 52-second films on one-perf stock using the Lumière Brothers' own hand-cranked, wooden camera. You'd think Lynch would take this license to express himself in purely visual terms and soar, but the restrictive conditions (including the prohibition of artificial light) ultimately prove too dogmatic. Concerning the Laura Palmer-like discovery of a dead youth, it's an escalating series of images--culminating, more or less, in a tableau morbide of demons orbiting a naked woman suspended in a water tank--that would have more potency were it not so incongruous. Could be worse, of course: could be Guy Maddin.
Still, it makes you wonder if Lynch doesn't occasionally abuse the benefit of the doubt--and "DumbLand" pretty much confirms that he does. A puerile caprice I dare say sometimes crosses the line from personal into private filmmaking, "DumbLand" ("The Absurd Animated Comedy") consists of eight short episodes Flash-animated in the crude style of Lynch's weekly comic strip "The Angriest Dog in the World" for DavidLynch.com. Call it Sketches of Frank Booth: Each instalment finds a Tor Johnson-esque husband and father verbally and/or physically pummelling all those who kindle his delicate fuse. It starts out Lynchian enough with "The Neighbor" (3 mins.), in which our protagonist admires his one-armed (mais oui!) neighbour's shed, farts, curses the sudden appearance of a noisy helicopter ("Fuck you you motherfucking helicopter!"), and learns that the shed houses a duck, while the literally bugfuck final episode, "Ants" (5 mins.), offers not only symmetry of a sort (the titular insect nearly as prominent a fetish in Lynch's work as amputees), but also redemption in the form of the main character's Tenant-like cosmic comeuppance. But in-between is a lot of free-floating neanderthal rage less "absurd" than it is hostile, and the cumulative effect is akin to watching porn, or an Adam Sandler movie: you'll laugh, you'll get your rocks off, and afterwards you'll feel dead inside.
Brief, optional video introductions from Lynch--which appear to have been recorded at the tail of his Eraserhead commentary--append all six titles on Absurda's "The Short Films of David Lynch". (Therein, he does little more than place each film on a professional timeline.) The fullscreen, DD 2.0 stereo presentations proper are presumably optimal renderings of uniformly challenging material; although the 35mm The Cowboy and the Frenchman looks and sounds the best out of all of them, because it was finished on video it has the fuzziness of most late-'80s dramatic television. Picture calibration tools round out the disc. Though "DumbLand"'s whites run way too hot, the heavily-windowboxed 1.33:1 image beats watching it over the Internet. The Absurda platter's accompanying DD 2.0 stereo audio is LOUD. Originally published: June 29, 2006.