Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
"I was painting a green plant growing out of a black void, when a breeze rippled the canvas and gave me an idea. What if the painting could move?" With that thought Philadelphia art student David Lynch launched a highly unlikely film career. This self-published disc collects his six short films, or at least the six he will own up to, in a characteristically enigmatic art gallery format. The disc package greets us with a disturbing nightmare image of a man's face undergoing some trial of mutilation, with no other clues beyond the title, a scrawled Lynchian signature and a 2005 Absurda copyright. It's Lynchland all right; we're not in Kansas any more.
The disc offers up no more secrets in text form. Putting the disc on takes us to a moody welcome screen and a second menu screen lists the six films without comment. Once centered on an individual offering we have the choice of watching it dry or preceded by David Lynch's introductions. None of the intros are spoilers so I recommend watching them first.
Lynch's introductions are mostly plain-spoken autobio stuff, in grainy B&W before a large microphone, as if he were giving testimony in a show trial. They all appear to be one-go takes, as they're broken up by title cards to hide sync breaks, including one so the director can correct himself on an incorrect date. Lynch talks about how he made his first animated film and gives thanks to the art student friends who encouraged him to apply to the AFI for a grant. The second series of films were made when he was already embarked on a feature career and thus have introductions more anecdotal in nature.
Lynch has the tone of a serious artist - he mentions none of his big features and refers to Eraserhead only in passing -- he made a couple of video experiments while waiting for money to finish that cult landmark. Lynch explains nothing and defends nothing, functions that his art does on its own.
Six Men Getting Sick is a brief 'animated painting' literally looped five or six times. The 'tortured head' I noted as the cover illustration is really one of four or five grotesque faces connected to stomachs as one might see in an old Anacin commercial. Through the magic of painting animation, Lynch makes the faces vomit, all at once, with attendant unexplained animated phenomena. It's crude but effective.
The Alphabet was suggested by an experience of Lynch's wife Peggy, who plays the lead role of a young girl haunted by a nightmare consisting only of the letters of the alphabet. The animation is more of the same painting tricks, here looking a little like Richard Williams work, with traces of Terry Gilliam. But Lynch intercuts the animation with expressionistic visuals and shots of the girl waking in bed. It's creepy in the way we've come to identify as Lynch weirdness.
The Grandmother is a 34 minute opus made under a grant from the American Film Institute that shows Lynch well on his way to his breakthrough Eraserhead. The involved story is filmed in color with most visuals limited to a B&W scheme; Alan Splet contributes to the already fully-developed Lynchian soundscape, which sounds like the inner-ear torment of an insane man. Lynch's visuals range from bizarre pixillated animation showing the 'births' of a fully grown man and woman and the appearance of their 'normal' son. Abused and humiliated by them in what appear to be visions of pre-sexual trauma, the boy discovers an attic room and in it builds a disgusting heap of organic protoplasm that becomes a monstrous womb. It disgorges a fully matured Grandmother that gives the boy the happiness and security he lacks (more proto-sexual weirdness here as well) before the expected weird ending. The film communicates all its points and creates its own nightmare world, somewhat akin to the old surreal films of Maya Deren or aberrations like Dementia / Daughter of Horror. But Lynch's dimly perverse outlook has its own unique qualities - this might be one of the leading character's dreams in Eraserhead.
The final three movies are less compelling simply because they're the work of a filmmaker amusing himself, as opposed to directly addressing his more personal themes.
Lynch explains dryly that The Amputee was a quickie concept dreamed up overnight when a cameraman friend had to test some videotape stock. The title character sits and composes a gossip-filled letter, heard in droning voiceover. She ignores the ministrations of a health worker who arrives and removes the dressings from her amputated leg, which begins to disgorge blood and other ick difficult to see in the indistinct and fuzzy video image. This one could have been skipped.
The Cowboy and the Frenchman is a brightly colored, professionally produced two-reeler organized as a Cowboy show 'in stasis': Although it has a plot, everything is acted with long gaps and stage waits with characters posed in static compositions. It benefits from the active participation of actors Harry Dean Stanton, Frederick Golchan, Jack Nance, Tracey Walter and Michael Horse. Cheerful music clashes with deadpan deliveries as the deaf Slim (Stanton) at first wants to shoot the weird stranger (Golchan) until he discovers he's a Frenchman. The rest of the show is a crude contrast of stereotypes. A country western singer is bookended by some cowgirls on one side and a bevy of Parisiennes (including Talisa Soto) on the other. It's amusing and frustratingly long-winded at the same time and ends up being yet another piece of Lynch performance art, as opposed to anything you'd purposely watch twice ... and that's even if you love Harry Dean Stanton's acting style. The film was originally part of a French omnibus miniseries with short subjects by Werner Herzog, Andrez Wajda and Jean-Luc Godard.
Lumiere is Lynch's contribution to a millenial tribute to the Lumiere brothers' invention of the movie camera. About a dozen international filmmakers used original camera equipment and Lumiere's original emulsion formula to each produce a 55 second hand-cranked film - one camera load. The restriction was that the film had to be one shot only, no camera stops. Lynch's effort is one of least impressive, consisting of three unconnected vignettes (that don't seem to have been done in one go as per the rules) that come off as fragments. Of course there's a kinky visual with a nude suspended in a glass tube while strangely suited men (guards?) move in the room around her. It's instantly forgettable.
And that's it. The authoring of the disc is fine, with the early 16mm films showing scratches and damage and the video short looking like what it is, reel-to-reel porta-pak 3/4" video footage from the early 1970s. Fans will definitely want this arcane grab-bag to complete their Lynchian collections, and the early pieces are interesting with The Grandmother the winner among the bunch. Lynch talks about George Stevens Jr. and Tony Vellani calling to tell him he's gotten the AFI grant; it's hard to imagine the men associated with The Greatest Story Ever Told greenlighting Lynch's kind of film. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Short Films of David Lynch rates:
Video: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 11, 2005
1. Not to mention Robert Kramer's 130 minute revolutionary fantasy Ice which the AFI sponsored as one of its first grant-funded features. I've never heard of it being shown anywhere, have you?
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson