Thursday, August 9, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.15: David Lynch's Short Films

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. July’s director is master surrealist David Lynch.

Alright, time to wrap up this segment of Director Spotlight, which has gone on a week longer than I’d intended because of A. my insane work schedule, which is about to get far less complicated, and B. my reluctance to re-watch Inland Empire. I thought I’d end it all with a look at a number of Lynch’s most famous short films. I won’t be getting to Industrial Symphony No. 1 due to lack of time, and I decided that watching his lousy online series Dumbland and Rabbits once in my life was enough (that also goes for his more recent short Darkened Room). Otherwise, here we go. All shorts can be viewed here.


1966’s Six Men Getting Sick (aka Six Figures Getting Sick Six Times) is really a piece of Lynch’s early artwork in a continuous animated loop. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: six deformed figures getting sick, their stomachs growing, their heads catching on fire. It’s a fascinating beginning for Lynch, who originally only used film as a way to see his artwork moving, and it’s definitely the work of the man who would go on to make Eraserhead. His interest in deformity, nightmarish visuals, and sound (a blaring siren) is already well-documented. It’s slight compared to his later shorts, but it’s one hell of a start.


1968’s The Alphabet was inspired by a dream Lynch’s wife’s niece had, where she kept saying the alphabet in her sleep in a frightened fashion. Lynch was given an AFI grant off the basis of this nightmarish 4-minute film. Lynch’s interest in deformity and harm to the human body is more explicit here as he shows a young woman in bed, in creepy pancake make-up, bleeding from the mouth. The whole thing operates on the same nightmare logic that dictates the plot of Eraserhead. As horrifying as the visuals are, they’re second banana to Lynch’s use of sound- creepy children chanting “ABC! ABC!”, howling wind, a wailing baby, and, finally, the creepiest rendition of the alphabet you’ll ever hear.


The Alphabet gave way to Lynch’s best short film, a 1970 34-minute film called The Grandmother. The film operates on the same nightmare logic as The Alphabet, but it’s also the first time Lynch used film to tell a complete story rather than just orchestrate a disturbing atmosphere. The story is simple, if surreal: a young, unhappy boy grows his own grandmother as a way to escape his troubled home life under abusive parents. Lynch works with sound designer Alan Splet for the first time in his career, and it makes all the difference. Stunning and creepy as the images are (the grandmother’s “birth” in particular), what’s truly remarkable is how Lynch uses ambient sound to tell a story.  There’s no real dialogue, but Lynch and Splet use distorted barks and bleats for the parents’ voices as a way to abstractly show how horrid an existence would be under these characters.


1974’s The Amputee suffers in comparison to The Grandmother. It’s the first dialogue-heavy Lynch film, with Catharine Coulson (aka The Log Lady from Twin Peaks) as a double-amputee whose voiceover details a letter she’s writing. The dialogue is more or less a bunch of cryptic nonsense that’s best tuned out. Worse, the film is less dynamic than Lynch’s previous works- it’s one static shot, and the film stock looks a lot cheaper. But the film mostly works anyway as a precursor to Eraserhead, with Coulson’s amputated stumps leaking some sort of horrifying pus that a nurse silently attends to.  


Less successful is 1988’s The Cowboy and the Frenchman, a 25-minute short made for French television on how the world views France. Harry Dean Stanton and Jack Nance are part of a trio of cowboys who run into a Frenchman, who inexplicably shows up on their range. It’s an overly comic version of The Straight Story that highlights Lynch’s frequent difficulty doing straight comedy without going too broad. The bits with the cowboys not being able to understand the Frenchman go on too long, and while Lynch’s combining of two well-worn clichés is interesting, it’s not as funny as it should be. Still, there are enough amusing bits (“By golly, we got ourselves a Frenchman here!”) to keep it moderately interesting.


1995’s Premonition Following an Evil Deed is Lynch’s contribution to the omnibus film Lumiere and Company, which tasked 40 of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers to make a 55-second short on the original Lumiere camera, with no sound, no cuts, one shot, and three takes. Lynch’s segment is easily the most famous and acclaimed, and it’s easy to see why. The film captures what appears to be an alien abduction in the creepiest fashion, with Lynch’s use of ambient noise on the soundtrack (combined with a haunting violin piece) telling the simple story in a far more evocative way than dialogue ever could. It’s less than 1% of Inland Empire’s running time, and yet it manages to be far more effective.

I’d like to thank everyone who stuck out the long delays and read my blatherings about David Lynch. I’m going to spend most of the rest of August powering through David Cronenberg’s filmography for the next segment of Director Spotlight, hopefully sans delays. The planned line-up/tentative posting schedule:

1.     Stereo (August 10)
2.     Crimes of the Future (August 10)
3.     Shivers (August 14)
4.     Rabid (August 15)
5.     Fast Company (August 16)
6.     The Brood (August 17)
7.     Scanners (August 18)
8.     Videodrome (August 19)
9.     The Dead Zone (August 20)
10. The Fly (August 21)
11. Dead Ringers (August 22)
12. Naked Lunch (August 23)
13. M. Butterfly (August 24)
14. Crash (August 25)
15. eXistenZ (August 26)
16. Camera and other short films (August 27)
17. Spider (August 28)
18. A History of Violence (August 29)
19. Eastern Promises (August 30)
20. A Dangerous Method (August 31)

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