"The more unknowable the mystery, the more beautiful it is."—David Lynch
It is a rarity when a true cinematic artist emerges, one that throws down the gauntlet of materialism and hype and focuses instead on the image, working the screen like a canvas, and the camera like a paint box. Such an auteur is David Lynch, who in the thirty plus years that he has been working in film, consistently offers disquieting visions of a world split in two, a land where nightmares and hallucinations co-mingle and intermarry with daydreams and the mundane. Lynch, as a filmmaker, walks the fine line between worship and scorn, never letting mass acceptance (or ridicule) influence his creative vision. He can be difficult and obtuse (Lost Highway) or as clear as the sky above a wide-open prairie (The Straight Story), but he is never predictable. The Short Films of David Lynch, a DVD collection of his lesser-known student and commission works, is one of the first items made available for sale by Lynch on his personal website. For anyone who is a devotee of Lynch, this is a must have portfolio, the missing link in the man's artistic puzzle. For the casual viewer, it will function as a crash course in his themes and mythology. While they may not be simplistic in storytelling or subtle in style, The Short Films of David Lynch provides a cracked glass window into the shadowy, mannered world of this perverse prophet.
Facts of the Case
This is the first time (officially) that David Lynch has released his short films to the public. These are the works that established and defined his reputation. Long bootlegged and written about, a home audience finally gets to see digitally remastered, director supervised and approved, pristine transfers, with short introductory comments from the man himself. The films and plotlines are as follows:
Six Men Getting Sick (1966) 4 mins (1 minute animation loop repeated
The Alphabet (1968) 4 mins
The Grandmother (1970) 34 mins
The Amputee: 2 Versions (1974) 5 mins/4 mins
The Cowboy and the Frenchman (1989) 26 mins
Lumière et compagnie: Premonitions Following an Evil Deed
Again, the best way to handle this section is to review each work separately, and then offer some overview to the importance of this collection.
SIX MEN GETTING SICK: A disturbing and intoxicating work, it is presented here in a four-minute loop, and the effect is unnerving. A siren's whine plays continuously as images of alimentary canals and upset stomachs fill the screen. We see bile bubble below. Suspense builds as the siren wails like a crippled banshee. The biological brew continues to toil and trouble. Finally, grue and nastiness are expelled from the mouths, the canvas filling with filth and human fluid. The vomiting is a release, a momentary escape, and the sense of tension being unwound. Yet, the soundtrack warning continues to whir, and the loop restarts, creating the expectation and apprehension all over again.
For a film made in 1966 to be projected over a sculpture, the print quality is very good (Lynch, when offering his personally supervised DVD packages for sale, said he would not release anything unless it met his exacting standards). While there is minimal use of color here, we mostly get Lynch's addiction to monochromatic settings. (Black and white = good and evil? love and hate?) The sound quality is what should be expected from a film of this age, and frankly, it adds an even more ominous tone to the proceedings, like the bittersweet accompaniment to an autopsy. It is easy to see why this staging wowed the critics and art sponsors. As a first experiment in animation, filmmaking, and presentation, this piece of performance art succeeds.
THE ALPHABET: This is the transitional film, a link between the art pretense of Six Men with the desire to form a linear narrative that would propel The Grandmother. Basically, this film can be viewed as an allegory for childhood and aging. For the girl in the film, the nursery rhyme rhythm of The Alphabet Song's first three notes ("A…B…C…") acts as an overture to the onset of maturity, puberty, and adulthood. As the children chant, the girl's face registers fear, confusion, disgust, and excitement—all the emotions associated with coming of age. After some very sexually suggestive animation, our confused china doll, enveloped in the blackness of her bedroom, whispers the song in tenuous, uneasy fashion. As the final line "tell me what you think of me" slips from her tongue, she spews a torrent of blood from her lips, staining the ivory sheets and her clean white nightgown. The image is staggering and very symbolic. The sanguine baptism is a none too subtle indication of what development and womanhood is all about: pain and bleeding. These are themes that will play a huge part later on in Lynch's work.
As with Six Men, the picture here is startlingly crisp. The hiss present on the soundtrack acts like a subconscious serpent, tempting and propelling this unfinished Eve into releasing the innocence of childhood, and relishing the sloppy viciousness of adulthood. The recording captures the perfect aural tone, from the odd shrieks and childish mantra, to the delicate sigh of the girl's voice. This is a mature work from an artist barely in his twenties.
THE GRANDMOTHER: Lynch's first true film, a pseudo-linear story of parental abuse and family love that acts as a fitting introduction to all the major thematic material he would exploit in Eraserhead. Beginning again with animation, Lynch introduces us to Mother and Father, two immature beings not fully formed, but mutated in undeveloped and piggish ways. Animalistic in their expression of love, they conceive their son, The Boy, who they truly are not ready to care for. The only verbal connection The Boy has to Mother or Father is their brutish, beast like barking. The Boy wakes every morning to find a yellow stain on his bed sheets, and Father punishing him for it. Even in the quiet moments when Mother and Father are lost in their own primitive worlds, a touch or action by The Boy is met with violent shaking and hellish bleating.
The Boy chooses to grow a Grandmother, an indication of the type of complete, pandering, and unconditional love he seeks. Grandmother represents comfort, peace, and acceptance. Cinematically, the entire plant giving birth sequence is handled in a very visceral, gore-style manner (evidencing yet another Lynch comment on reproduction and the beginning of life) except here, black and brown, the colors of soil and dirt, substitute for blood and afterbirth. Lynch sees the family dynamic as filled with abuse and fear, pain and discomfort. Even the perfect Grandparent, toward the end, begins to make demands. There is no escape. The Boy must accept his fate, and face manhood. There is no peace. There is no true love. One could very easily see The Boy growing up to be the strange haired Henry Spencer of Eraserhead and this film is just as visually striking. Without dialogue, Lynch lets visual cues tell the story. He creates drama and unease, love and longing through gestures and sound. He manipulates everything: frame stops, images and even reality to illustrate his points, balancing explanation with excess. The disc's image is worthy of the material, with amazing sound. If there were one reason to own the disc it would be to see The Grandmother.
THE AMPUTEE—2 Versions: This is really a private joke between Lynch and AFI, The American Film Institute. He creates a tale concerning a female double amputee. She is so wrapped up in the writing of a letter/journal to her lover/self that she does not notice the horrendously gross things that are happening to her stumps as a male nurse attempts to treat them (the story is the same in both versions). One could argue that the monologue by the chair bound woman shows where the true amputation has occurred (in her love life and friendships). Or perhaps the amputation occurs between her physical condition (mangled, runny wounds) and her emotion condition (the feelings of humiliation and betrayal at the hands of associates). Or maybe it's just a sick joke, a Monty Python style vulgarity played more for queasy laughs than true insight.
The video quality of both versions is pretty poor. They are the worst looking items on the entire DVD (and the last sequence was filmed with a 100-year-old camera). Any impact Lynch hoped for is lost in the fuzzy transmission. The sound is fine, the voice-over monologue by Log Lady Catherine Coulson clear and concise. While completely in sync with Lynch's style and mindset, the purpose of this piece is baffling.
THE COWBOY AND THE FRENCHMAN: Fans of Lynch's off the wall humor, like the short-lived ABC sitcom On the Air will warm to this film. Lynch loves certain "comic" devices, and repeats them here. Slim is deaf (like Gordon Cole in Twin Peaks) and shouts all his lines in a manic, domineering style. The funny accent or voice (like director Valdja Gochktch, played by David Landers in On the Air) is represented, not only by the Frenchman, but also by the Native American character Broken Feather, who says very intelligent things in racially insensitive "heap big injun" manner. There is Jerry Lewis style slapstick (an obvious homage/reference?) and a Greek chorus of perky singers who sprinkle their cornpone country wisdom down over the proceedings like sugared raindrops. Still, for all the quaint goings on, an overall purpose or message is painfully absent, except maybe that Lynch has some escargot issues. There are a lot of snails in this short.
While light and airy, sadly, this is just not that funny. Lynch has never been able to truly sustain a comic tone, and some of the aforementioned devices that he employs for laughs end up falling flat. Perhaps the material is the problem. Making fun of the French is like shooting frogs in a barrel and Blazing Saddles set the standard for ridiculing the Old West. Without that kind of vulgar, manic zaniness, Lynch's passive pasture play fails to amuse. The transfer is very nice, if not a little over modulated at the beginning. There is a distinct blue screen style halo over all the actors that, eventually rights itself as the film plays on. The sound here is some of the best offered on the disc.
LUMIÈRE ET COMPAGNIE: PREMONITIONS FOLLOWING AN EVIL DEED: If there is any artistic justice in the world, David Lynch should be allowed to direct a film with a Lumière camera. His work and artistry here is that effective…that stylized…that classic. No other modern filmmaker understands the intoxicating magic, the hallucinatory mood, and the dramatic potential of grainy, hazy black and white. In only 52 seconds, he creates a compelling cinematic masterwork, a visual enigma that demands repeated viewings and intense dissection. Its impact is immediate, disturbing, and sensational. The images compress a novel's worth of information into four simple setups. It raises fascinating questions and offers sketchy, intriguing answers.
Again, the audio and video transfer is an artistic tour de force, capturing the look of the 1900s with the tone and talent of the new millennium. Everything ancient about the Lumière camera adds to the ephemeral wonder of this piece. A bizarre ambient industrial hum completes the experience. This is the very definition of a short (less than one minute) film (an entire universe visualized) and together with The Alphabet and The Grandmother, reason alone to seek out this DVD. Like the majority of Lynch's work, there is no easy explanation as to what is going on here, but the fun, the delight and the fulfillment is in the discovery.
It is easy to see in this collection why Lynch went from obscurity and midnight movie mania to winning awards at Cannes and helming Oscar nominated films. This is an artist with an imagination and verve unmatched by all but a few in his industry. Lynch investigates the waking and the sleeping universe, valuing them as two sides of the one coin called experience. Both are equally important and can occur within the same setting, scene, or moment. He employs sound to emphasize, even alert the audience to symbols, tone, mood, and plot. He celebrates the odd, the ugly, and the disgusting along side the sublime and the beautiful with identical care and attention. He exploits fears and caresses anxiety. He creates pieces for people to experience, not just to watch and listen to. He wants his audience, not only too envision, but emote: to feel, to enjoy, to be angry, and to be depressed. Viewing without sensation is not an option. Love him or hate him, he wants you to feel.
Thematically, Lynch lays the foundation here for all his future voyages, major and minor. Sex, death, vulgarity, birth, marriage, women, men, relationships, machinery, blood, body fluid, youth, adulthood, love, and hate all weave their way through his cinematic pallet. Even recent works like Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway can find their germination in these twisted short tone poems, what with their focus on duality, perception, and the hidden, harsh face of evil. Anyone wondering why John Merrick's London looks the way it does, or needs an understanding of BOB's motives in Twin Peaks can see these concise kinescopes as the testing ground for these designs. Offered here in digital form is The Big Book of David Lynch's Brainstorms, where subject matter was road tested, pressed, folded, spindled, and mutilated until it became the white faced Mystery Man, or Frank Booth, or Baron Harkonnen. As blueprints, tryouts and sketches they are extremely educational. As works unto themselves, they are mostly exceptional.
Overall, this is a truly worthwhile package. The DVD is contained in a coffee table sized box that uniquely displays the disc and conceals of 16-page booklet featuring images from the films (along with some basic information). The DVD itself has a simple setup. You can either watch each film separately, or view them all together. There is a unique special feature that allows you to calibrate your television for optimum viewing, David Lynch style (would a visual perfectionist have it any other way?). There is also the much sought after (by fans) introduction/commentary by Lynch before (but not over) each short. Alas, he offers no true enlightenment into what the shorts mean, but instead perfunctorily sets them up like any good instructor would. Want to know how The Alphabet was financed? Lynch will tell you. Want to know why the parents in The Grandmother speak in animalized yelps? Lynch is silent. Still, for a man notoriously taciturn about the meaning of his work, it is nice to see him smile when reminiscing about a shot or an idea, and you can tell he genuinely loves the work he has done. One of Lynch's biggest fans is David Lynch. After watching the DVD of The Short Films of David Lynch, you will become one too.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Lynch is, well, just plain weird. He occasionally obscures his message with kabuki style makeup effects and revolting visuals that do nothing other than draw attention to themselves. Shock value is placed at a premium, and there is nothing subtle about yellow stains on a bed sheet, or a Frenchman wooing ladies and drinking wine. Lynch packages his fear of marriage, women, and children in the trappings of a horror film and forgets to offer scares, or even melodrama. What he does provide are gross out jokes, amateurish animation techniques, and hideous images of the human body and deformed flesh. In some instances, his work is foolish, like the ranting of a child. Other times, it is mean spirited and faux pornographic, like a snuff film where pretense, and not murder, is the aphrodisiac. The Elephant Man or The Straight Story is the best ways to see Lynch: lyrical, calm, and passionate. This is art for farting arounds' sake.
The perception that David Lynch is some sort of psychotic mental patient who happened upon a camera one day and decided to film his subconscious may not be undone by The Short Films of David Lynch. These long unseen miniature versions of Lynch's universe, along with Eraserhead, form much of the basis for the Lynch bashing and hatred that passes itself off as critical analysis when discussing his canon. But watching this DVD, one can finally begin to view the artist from the ground up, to see and understand where he came from, what he was trying to say, and what he hoped to achieve in his cinema. Is it always pleasant to look at? No. Is it always clear and simple to comprehend? Absolutely not. But in terms of art, in terms of sheer cinematic imagination and unbridled expulsion of the id, Lynch succeeds here. He has masterminded a series of short films, unlike no one before or since, that manage to capture the fleeting, uneasy mental moments of twilight sleep, when the mind is alive and drifting with ghosts from the invisible world, and anxieties from the real one. Like a painting or sculpture, The Short Films of David Lynch is art for your DVD player, masterfully crafted.
David Lynch is declared a genius by this court, and acquitted of any and all charges of confusion, artistic pretension or insanity. The Short Films of David Lynch is found to be a must have for any fan of innovative and imaginative cinema. The court takes in under advisement that this disc, offered ONLY through Lynch's personal website, maybe difficult to obtain.
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