DIRECTED BY: David Lynch
FEATURING: Harry Dean Stanton, Jack Nance, Catherine Coulson
PLOT: A series of six short films spanning director David Lynch’s career from the
1960s through the 1990s. We track Lynch from his early years as a highly experimental student to a macabre master of the darkly surreal with these films that show a man who needed to grow and challenge himself as a creative force.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: As collections of short films go, this is one of the most mercurial and hard-to-peg I’ve ever seen. There’s really no denying the odd nature of Lynch’s efforts. The first film alone, a minute-long animated loop of six hideous plaster sculptures throwing up, stands as a timeless testament to Lynch’s nightmarish creative vision. And the gut-wrenching scope of his silent feature, entitled “The Grandmother”, is a window into the mind of a radically different artist than the one Lynch has become. But, honestly, the quality and sheer atmosphere present in most of Lynch’s features feels absent here, and there’s not enough memorable material to consider this a momentous release.
COMMENTS: Much like a renowned painter or an extremely colorful luchador, a filmmaker’s work becomes more lionized as his fame grows, even his mistakes. David Lynch is a very famous filmmaker, so it’s only appropriate that this assortment of short subjects should come out to cement his status as an iconic artist and a true visionary in the world of the nightmarish and the utterly bizarre. But those die-hard fans of the man who seek a diamond in the rough here, a Pollack behind the frame of this small cache of movies, will likely find themselves disappointed, or at the very least conflicted.
If short films represent the transformation of a filmmaker as as he/she goes from one project to another, this gathering of shorts spanning Lynch’s career is a shadowy, rocky road. Half of these films don’t desire to be much more than insubstantial experiments, hokey dumping grounds for ideas that are really just there to try something out. They merely exist in a tangible form for the consumer because of the marketable name of Lynch, not because they actually have some sort of deliciously demented merit and are worth seeing for any length of time. And while the three that are good are indeed very good, it’s easy to put this one on the borderline with the vibes I get from the other three.
Let’s break it down by feature, shall we?
“Six Figures getting Sick (Six Times)” – A minute long film loop featuring a set of six hideous sculptures, their faces locked in esoteric agony, as vomit and nonsensical animated mess is drawn on top of them while a siren blares in the background. It is, in essence, Lynch’s first piece of work, and honestly there’s not much to say. It’s an experiment; a bold experiment, to be sure, that leaves you with a sense of unease, but it’s only worth watching to sate curiosity and say, “Hey, I just saw Lynch’s first movie EVER!”
“The Alphabet” – A superior take on Lynch’s conceptual animation, this one, at a mere 4 minutes, has more of the verve and deep-seated weirdness of his later works. Halved between real footage of a strange woman being tormented by unknown forces and an animated short with letters morphing and killing each other in a macabre, borderline hilarious fashion while creepy children recite the alphabet, “The Alphabet” is less of a throwaway project and more of a statement than its predecessor, and a good addition in this collection. Keep an ear out for the Monty Python-esque noises emanating from some of the letters!
“The Grandmother” – This is easily the best one of the bunch. Shot in 1970, this glorious 35mm beauty is Lynch’s first narrative. It is a silent feature about a boy wanting someone’s care and attention. His parents are mean and neglectful, so he makes the obvious decision to grow his own Grandmother by planting some seeds (OF COURSE!). “The Grandmother” succeeds by keeping the narrative simple and the mood very surreal. The odd, experimental music that moves the narrative along is wonderfully bizarre, and will haunt you long after you’ve turned off the film. This is a stunning reminder that when Lynch cuts the melodrama and opts for something less pedestrian, he can make art that sings high from the rooftops into the twisted dreams of men. After you’ve seen it, try getting the image of the young boy’s creepy grandmother cradling him in her arms out of your head; it’s not easy.
“The Amputee” – Lynch’s debut on video, “The Amputee” is another experiment we could have done without. Literally, the only reason this thing was made was to test out different video stocks. It is a single scene in which Catherine Coulson is an amputee sitting in a chair writing a very banal letter to someone while David Lynch himself changes her horribly bloody bandages. That’s it. Is it strange? Yes. But it’s incredibly pointless, and it has no artistic value to speak of.
“The Cowboy and the Frenchman” – This is without a doubt the worst short here. And it has the second longest run time, to boot! I know there are people who will defend this short up and down, but this really is the antithesis of anything artistic, funny, or good. I love Lynch, but I am ashamed to have seen this short. Created for French television, this 1988 release is about a Frenchman wandering into a dude ranch run by Harry Dean Stanton, the cowboy. There’s a big language barrier at first, but with the help of a very altruistic Indian and some mutual understanding, the cowboys and the French guy have a rip-roaring good time. Whoo. I’m sure Lynch intended this to be comedic, much as Jim Jarmusch likes to add “comedic” elements to his work that stick out as unnaturally as a stove pipe protruding from a tree, but this was awful, and my only bit of good news about this is that it steadily declines in awfulness as the short goes on. The end is almost tolerable, but I posit that the first ten minutes hurt too much for that to make much difference.
“Lumiere: Premonitions Following An Evil Deed” – One of my personal favorites, this fifty second short was submitted as part of the Lumiere project in the mid 1990s, which called together all the great directors of the day and presented them with the challenge of making a short film with the very first motion picture camera, developed by the Lumiere brothers. Having seen the entire Lumiere Project, with all the amazing directors they scrounged up, I must admit that Lynch’s was by far the best, beating out artists like Spike Lee, John Boorman, and Wim Wenders. The Lumiere camera could only hold about 52 seconds of film, had no sound capabilities, and realistically only three takes could have been shot with it, so Lynch had to work within these constraints, but what comes out of it is sheer madness that really speaks to his talents as a director. There isn’t a narrative to speak of, but all we know is that a murder has taken place, there is a nude Asian woman being held captive in a tank of water somewhere, and a family’s nervous quality time is interrupted by what looks to be a darkened, deformed man. The music is eerie and intense, the bad film quality adds to the ambiance, and all together I think it is a definite artistic success.
So in the end, we see that Lynch is an artist who, above all things, wants to push the medium and the message of his work to a very unseen, intangible new realm. In the evolution of his craft, we can see that quest made manifest through miniature triumphs and pitfalls. As a collection, this is certainly a dream for devoted Lynch fans and anyone interested in how to make a short that’s far from normal. But for those hungry for art or a deeper meaning, it’s rough traveling through the thoughts of such a scattered and incongruous soul, especially when his experiments and failures are piled onto his legacy, such as they are.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“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.”–Anton Bitel, Film 4
One thought on “BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE SHORT FILMS OF DAVID LYNCH (2002)”
I can’t believe I haven’t checked out this collection yet! The Alphabet, The Grandmother and the Lumiere entry sound like they are worth the price of admission alone!
I’m missing those daily reviews Eric!