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  • 15
  • Animation, Documentary
  • 2008
  • 78 mins

The Short Films Of David Lynch

The Short Films Of David Lynch

Synopsis

These six short films trace David Lynch's development from unknown art student to internationally acclaimed director - although his vision remains remarkably consistent throughout

About

First a warning. Originally available as a digitally remastered edition only through Lynch's personal website (www.davidlynch.com) and now released for the first time in the UK by Scanbox Entertainment, The Short Films Of David Lynch should not be mistaken for a complete or comprehensive collection. Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream Of The Broken-Hearted (1990), Lynch's episodes for television's 'On The Air' (1992) and 'Hotel Room' (1993), Rabbits (2002), Dumbland (2002), Darkened Room (2002), Boat (2007) and Absurda (2007) are all missing here.

That said, this six-film set offers more than a mere glimpse into the workings of one of America's foremost artists, from his earliest experiments in film to his later, more polished (if not necessarily better) efforts. Lynch was not always a moviemaker, and in fact started out in the plastic arts.

His first filmpiece, Six Men Getting Sick (1967) is a 40-second 16mm animated loop showing six figures (in various states of abstraction) who purge themselves of the fluid distending their stomachs. Designed to be accompanied by the sound of a wailing siren (here included) and projected continuously onto life-size casts of Lynch himself (alas not included), it was born, as Lynch states in his brief video introduction, out of a desire "to see a painting move and have sound to it". And so too a filmmaker was born - with vomit for the amniotic fluid, as befits a director whose subsequent films would turn out to be so rooted in the imagery of distaste, squeamishness and downright revulsion.

Six Men Getting Sick was to be the winning entry in an experimental painting and film contest at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where Lynch was studying, and so he found himself being commissioned by a private collector to make another moving artwork. The result was the four-minute The Alphabet (1967), an altogether more ambitious piece that combines animation, live action and post-synchronised sound, and introduces several key 'Lynchian' motifs (the sound of a crying baby, the location of action in and around a bed, disturbing sexual imagery).

The film stars Lynch's then-wife and fellow artist Peggy, and is inspired by Peggy's niece, who would recite the alphabet aloud during nightmares. In Lynch's hysteria-tinged short, the letters that form our language represent a horrifying imposition of order on a girl's otherwise formless imagination.

Lynch had now caught the filmmaking bug, and his next work, coming in at some 34 minutes and funded by an independent grant from the American Film Institute, feels like a dry run for many of the techniques and ideas that would be more fully realised in his feature debut Eraserhead (1977).

For in The Grandmother (1970) we can already see Lynch's obsessions with monstrous births, family dysfunction and nocturnal emissions. While he shot the film in colour, it features starkly blacked-out sets that strive towards the shadowy monochrome perfected in Lynch's later feature, and the layered sound design represents Lynch's first collaboration with Alan Splet, whose work on Eraserhead would prove so distinctive.

After an animated introduction shows first a mother (Maitland) and father (Chadwick) and then their son (White), being born fully-formed from pipes in the ground, we cut to a live-action house interior, where the bed-wetting boy escapes the oppressive abuse of his animalistic parents by retreating into a secret attic room.

In the bed there he plants some seeds which grow into a dark plant that, under the boy's ministrations, eventually sprouts a living, whistling grandmother. From her the boy gets the love and affection that he so craves until tragedy strikes and he is shown the dark flipside of birth. It is a disquieting piece of surreal narrative that, like a dream, proves easier to follow than to comprehend, although its psychosexual undercurrents and phallic imagery are clear enough.

Made at a time when the troubled production of Eraserhead had completely stalled for lack of funds, The Amputee (1973) comprises two near identical films (of just under five minutes each) which test the difference in quality of two different black-and-white video stocks in order to help the American Film Institute decide which one to purchase. In the films, a double amputee (Coulson, who would later play the 'Log Lady' in 'Twin Peaks') is too engrossed in her letter-writing (the melodramatic content of which is read out in droning voiceover) to notice either the nurse (Lynch himself) attending to her or the blood gushing forth from her unbandaged stump.

Lynch makes no secret of his dislike of the video format and one suspects that this banal, lo-fi diptych was designed to show that cinema itself, when shorn of decent filmstock, is the real amputee. Few would wish to watch this short more than once but here it is, in two equally unengaging versions, like those stumps on the protagonist's legs that weren't taking her anywhere.

By the time Lynch was invited, along with Herzog, Godard, Wajda and others to direct an episode for 'Les Français Vus Par' (or 'How I See The French'), he had already made several feature films and was flush with critical success from Blue Velvet (1986).

With its big professional cast and its glossy look, 'The Cowboy And The Frenchman' (1988), his 26-minute contribution to the French TV series, may have the highest production values of any of the shorts in this collection but it is also one of the most disposable. Essentially a comic spin on Franco-American relations, it brings together a series of transnational stereotypes, in search of some kind of cultural rapprochement. As a joke, however, it is decidedly one-note, for all its amiable absurdity. Quite simply, Lynch's films tend to be much funnier when they are not 'straight' comedies like this.

Fortunately the collection ends on a very high note. On the centenary of the Lumière brothers' invention of the Cinematographe (and hence of cinema itself), 40 international directors were asked to contribute segments to Lumière Et Compagnie (1995), to be shot in no more than three takes on the pioneering filmmakers' original hand-cranked wooden camera without any synchronised sound and to last 52 seconds (i.e. one camera-load of film).

Lynch's piece, originally entitled Premonition Following An Evil Deed (but here called simply Lumière) is a sinister masterpiece of compression, jamming noirish police procedural, neurotic domestic melodrama and sadistic alien abduction into its brief duration. If its dense, enigmatic nature does not have you shivering, wait till you see the dark shadow that passes over the household window in the final image. It is like a whole history of cinematic unease and dread reduced to less than a minute - and, like most of the material found in this collection, it could not have been made by any other director.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Rick Guillory, Tracey Walter, Jack Nance, Frederic Golchan, Harry Dean Stanton, Michael House, Peggy Lynch, Richard White, Dorothy McGinnis, Catherine Coulson
  • Director: David Lynch
  • Writer: David Lynch
  • Producer: Neal Edelstein, H. Borton Wasserman, Daniel Toscan Du Plantier, David Lynch, Ángel Amigo, Fabienne Jervan-Schreiber
  • Photographer: Didier Ferry, Herbert Caldwell, Philippe Poulet, Frederick Elmes, David Lynch
  • Composer: John Huck, Tractor, David Lynch

In a nutshell

These six unnervingly surreal slices may vary in their quality and impact, but they are well nigh unmissable for anyone devoted to Lynch's special brand of cherry pie.

by Anton Bitel

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