Lost in the Movies: The Short Films of David Lynch

The Short Films of David Lynch

What exactly does "Lynchian" mean? Is it dark, surreal imagery, somehow mechanical and organic at the same time, variously gothic and industrial in its visual architecture? Or is it deadpan parody with a surreal edge, amping up the cliches until they become spoofs of themselves and then edge over into a kind of sublime dada kitsch? Does a "Lynchian" story entail multiple narratives which dip in and out of view, subverting and yet strengthening one another? Is it modern? Postmodern? Medieval? David Lynch seems to have the most singular vision of any living director, and yet when one stands back and looks at his entire career, at various moments that ubiquitous adjective "Lynchian" has meant any one of these descriptions, in combinations or in isolation. All that's remained constant is the uniqueness of the particular vision on display - something which the DVD collection "The Short Films of David Lynch" helps us appreciate.

The DVD features six shorts by Lynch, spanning from the late sixties to the mid nineties, from the years he was an art student just discovering the potentials of the medium to the time when he was an established and internationally renowned auteur, with his own signature style. Each short is introduced by Lynch with anecdotes about its creation - though notably he shies away from even the most cursory "explanation" of any of them. So we hear about how he wanted to make a movie after seeing one of his paintings "move", how he sculpted a screen on which to project "Six Figures Getting Sick (Six Times)," and how he won first prize at a painting and sculpture contest at which it was exhibited. But no word on why he chose the image (rather abstractly conveyed) of six gentlemen whose stomachs fill up and who then spew vomit all over the screen...six times.

Likewise, we learn that he was at work when the AFI called to announce that he'd received his desired grant and could shoot "The Grandmother;" that "The Amputee" was facilitated by a friend's AFI assignment to shoot the same scene on two black-and-white video stocks; that Lynch was out to dinner with a Frenchman who asked him to make a film for an omnibus project conveying American directors' views of the French, an offer the filmmaker declined until, walking home, he began to sprout ideas; and that the original Lumiere camera was composed entirely of wood, metal, and glass and that the maker of Lumiere & Co. used acetate instead of nitrate stock. But, of course, there's little in the order of why a little boy bursts out of the dirt and grows himself a granny, why an amputee is composing a cryptic letter while her stump is bled by a doctor, why a Frenchman descending from the Western hills is embraced by cowboy-hat clad Harry Dean Stanton and Jack Nance, or what exactly those aliens are doing outside the farm house.

Of course; would we have it any other way?

Most likely if you were to ask Lynch directly about the "meaning" or even the "inspiration" of these works he would, if not evading your question entirely, feign ignorance. And why not? After all, many of these works do feel like they were culled from the unconscious or received from the ether thanks to Lynch's exceptionally sensitive creative antenna. We don't know why we conceive the wondrous and powerful images which come to us in dreams, but they're there nonetheless. So perhaps the imagery is random, the jumbled themes and connotations merely mixed signals and collected symbols dumped onto the screen and organized by Lynch's formal intelligence.

And yet...

One early film, "The Alphabet" does receive a sourcing of sorts; Lynch admits that his wife was visiting relatives and discovered that her niece was having a nightmare in which she repeated the alphabet over and over. What's more "The Alphabet," like "Six Figures Getting Sick," plays with certain structuralist tropes, using repetition, signifiers like numbers or letters of the alphabet, and looped sound effects - one could, unfamiliar with the dark dreams to come, peg Lynch as a particularly twisted structuralist filmmaker on the basis of his work, an American twin to Peter Greenaway (whose work Lynch's films precede).

Though "The Grandmother" also uses repetition, its form feels a little freer, more spontaneous, less bound by any particular structure (and this freedom becomes frightening, as anything could happen). Like the previous work, it mixes animation with live action and it seems to dabble in a kind of primordial Freudianism - the child hero's father barks at him unintelligibly and smears his face in the orange stain which the boy has left on his sheets, while the mother's gestures of affection are made to seem like oppressive molestations. Later the animation shows him killing both of them while the live action presents him running up narrow staircases to a private room where he spreads dirt on a bed, plants a seed, and watches an affectionate grandmother grow out of a tree.

It would be hard, difficult, and ultimately unworthy to connect these disparate threads and plug them into one singular theory: perhaps an Oedipal complex focalized through Lynch's nightmare claustrophobia (where does the old lady figure into all this?). Yet there is no doubt that these ideas are circulating in the stew of "The Grandmother," that the spectre of twentieth-century ideas and theories haunt its imagery, and that Lynch - an intelligent, well-versed guy - is aware of these connections. That's not to say he knew what he was doing before he did it, but one always suspects that the intuitive naif bit is at least partly a facade.

More impressive than "The Grandmother" which is a bit long and perhaps baroque (Lynch had not yet mastered form the way he would within several years for Eraserhead) is The Amputee: a single take, repeated twice in different formats, previously described, with a soundtrack composed of the titular character's intriguingly cryptic letter. As the bandage is unraveled by the doctor, whose back remains to us the entire time, blood begins to ooze from the wound, at one point splattering on the paper the woman is using, which seems to temporarily throw her off guard (here we see the difference between the two takes - besides the fact that the second video stock is much grainier, feeling almost like film transferred to tape).

This is prototypical Lynch, boiled down to the simplest set-up: two levels of narrative competing for our attention, both intriguing, both subversive in their own ways, both even more subversive when coupled. As we wonder who the woman is talking to, what she's talking about, as we spy so to speak on her inner life, her physical being is opened up before us, with a loud soundtrack and distracting special effects viscerally counterpointing our intellectual involvement with the narrated tale. Even as we are frustrated in our attempts to peer into her consciousness, we get more of a view into her physical workings than we could hope for. And as the action is repeated twice, we notice new aspects, focus on different lines (initially the leg consumes all our attention, while the narration takes precedence as we become desensitized to the gore). A metaphor for cinema? A wry commentary on voyeurism? An indictment of the male gaze? A happy accident springing forth from the fertile soil of Lynch's imagination? I don't know, but I think this is my favorite piece on the disc.

Harder for me to take, at first, was "The Cowboy and the Frenchman." The DVD leaps forward fifteen years, from 1973's "The Amputee," compact, black-and-white, avant-garde, to this 1988 TV movie, sprawling, filled with dead time, postmodernly obvious in its slapstick and cliched humor, bright and colorful. Its style is closest to early "Twin Peaks" and its tone to the almost smug luxuriating-in-wacky-behavior mode of Wild at Heart, one of my least favorite Lynch works. This is miles away from Lynch as underground avatar; "The Cowboy and the Frenchman," is - it goes without saying - subversive and surreal, but in conceptual and rather obvious ways which one can imagine academic snickering at in their ivory towers. It's quite postmodern, revelling in that milieu in fact and I found the transition to this style from something as chilling and offputting as "The Amputee" poignant.

But then "The Cowboy and the Frenchman" grows on you, and by twenty minutes in, I was laughing uproariously. What makes it work is that Lynch seems to genuinely like these wacky people, even to share some of their corniness - he isn't just winking at you from the sidelines. And some of his inspirations transcend the banality of playing with obvious cliches, and become sublime. There's something extremely cozy about the world conveyed in "The Cowboy and the Frenchman" where ranch hands, an Indian (played by "Twin Peaks"' Michael Horse), and a beret-clad Frenchie (who speaks only in un-subtitled French and carries escargot in his briefcase) can drink Budweisers and listen to a rockabilly singer around the fire (the transitions between his songs remind one of late-night "greatest hits" infomercials).

Lynch underscores the sense of free space and free time with an interesting aesthetic which is quite different from that of his early work (though quite similar to his upcoming television ventures). The sketch moves very slowly, and much of the time there's no audio - rich ambiance is avoided in favor of the quiet hum of mild tone, a kind of blanket which the characters wrap themselves - and eventually the audience - in. This warmth reminded me of the camaraderie of Rio Bravo, and eventually "The Cowboy and the Frenchman" becomes a cheerful tribute to the possibilities of Franco-American friendship (much stronger twenty years previous to this work, and even weaker today than in the eighties) - and beyond that to the affinity between high and low culture. This generous spirit is what redeems it from becoming a postmodern pastiche.

The disc concludes with Lynch's Lumiere short, shot for a French anthology on the 100th anniversary of the cinema - directors all over the world were given the original camera and encouraged to shoot within the limitations of the Lumieres. Lynch's work is generally considered to be the best of the bunch. It features several sets and multiple transitions, but the sets are all included in one take and the transitions performed in-camera (or in front of it). If I remember correctly, Lynch built a rotating stage so that we go from a crime scene to the interior of a flying saucer to the living room of a family as the police enter to explain something to them. As with Lynch's other work, it contains a number of outside influences - this time the popular UFO cult of the 90s, exhibited in multiple blockbusters and "The X-Files."

But here we just get a glimpse into this intriguing world, an exciting peek which leaves us stimulated and wanting more, before the entire collection winds up. In the intro to this short, Lynch absent-mindedly says that the supervisor of the project allowed the various director only fifty-five minutes of footage. Then he corrects himself: "Did I say fifty-five minutes? I meant fifty-five seconds." He grins. "I wish it could have been fifty-five minutes!"

Me too.


The Film Doctor said...

Nice analysis. I tend to fall back on the subconscious as a way to make sense of Lynch's work. I remember once reading that Lynch would just sit for long periods of time taking notes on his imagination as a way to write Eraserhead. Lynch's short films seem to follow that same dream logic.

Joel Bocko said...

There is no doubt that Lynch's films stream from his unconscious (or subconscious, what have you). But that too comes from somewhere else (well, some of it, the stuff that isn't already part of a Jungian collective unconscious).

To hint at the often twisted darkness of Lynch's vision - the commonplace manipulated into something sickly and grotesque and fascinating - let me borrow imagery from Six Figures Getting Sick (see above): tracing the roots of Lynch's vision is like looking into someone's vomit to determine what they'd eaten the night before. Um, not that I'd recommend that activity...


"What the hell is that?"
"I think it's an alien."
"No, no boys. I think we have ourselves here a frenchman!"

I'm not sure if those are the exact lines, but I sure do love that movie.

I love the two sides of David Lynch, but probably side more with the goofy lighter stuff. Although I do LOVE ERASERHEAD.

Joel Bocko said...

Thank God for Jack Nance (R.I.P.)

He did age incredibly in about 10 years though, didn't he? Went from being a young guy in Eraserhead to an old guy in Twin Peaks (in the documentary from circa '96 I watched last week, he was hobbling around with a cane).

I found Eraserhead pretty hard to take, even loving most of Lynch's other work. I think it was the disembowled fetus/monster thing...

Tony Dayoub said...

"The Cowboy and the Frenchman" reminded me, in part, of his follow-up TV series for ABC, On the Air. Same postmodern, kooky sitcom vibe.

Ever see that?

Joel Bocko said...

No, I have heard of it, but never seen it. He was definitely feeling that vibe from the mid 80s to the early 90s. Then he seemed to go in a darker direction (well, more or less - FWWM pre-dates On the Air, right?). How did you like that series?

Tony Dayoub said...

It's a little too self-consciously quirky. But I learned to appreciate it.

And no, FWWM came after On the Air.

Joel Bocko said...

Aha - the theory remains intact! (Sort of...)

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