From whence comes a filmmaker as original and strange as David Lynch? Short answer: Philadelphia (by way of Missoula, Montana). The truth is much more elusive, mysterious, and entertaining. To understand the surrealist mastermind behind Mulholland Dr., Twin Peaks, and Blue Velvet, it helps to be familiar with the development of the man's style, from painting and sculpture to short film to feature and television work. The authorized DVD release of the majority of Lynch's short-subject output (excepting commercials) takes the films out of museum showings and bad bootleg videos and gives them a proper showcase.
"Six Men Getting Sick" (1967). 40-second loop. Formless bodies with exposed plumbing vomit forth in Lynch's incipient filmic work, his first attempt to make studio art move. Originally projected on a custom sculpture-screen in a gallery setting, "Six Men Getting Sick" provides immediate evidence of Lynch's talent in its striking use of color, line, and texture. Lynch accompanies the animated loop (and its red flash among otherwise subdued colors) with the sound of a siren, completing the unnerving effect of physical and mental vulnerability and discomfort. On DVD, Lynch presents the film six times for a total of about four minutes.
"The Alphabet" (1968). 4 min. Inspired by a little girl's retold nightmare, Lynch married live-action, animation, and sound in another piece that suggests the term "outsider art." Meaning is irrelevant to this mood piece, but the images may bring to mind themes that Lynch would develop in "The Grandmother" and Eraserhead: corrupted innocence, isolation (a bedroom void), and the horrible, often neglected responsibility of parenthood. This time, Lynch creates anxiety with performance (by his then-wife Peggy Lynch), relentless movement, evocative sound (wind, a baby's cry, a delicate rendition of "The Alphabet Song"), and swift, unsettling cuts. (The infant wailing comes courtesy of Lynch's daughter Jennifer.)
"The Grandmother" (1970; pictured above). 34 min. The director's cinematic genius flowers in "The Grandmother," a Lynchian creation myth funded by an AFI grant. In expanding his repetoire of images and continuing to experiment with the impact of color (and its absence), Lynch lays the visual groundwork for Eraserhead. The story could be a lost tale of the Brothers Grimm: a bow-tie-clad Boy (Richard White) suffers the whims of feral parents who are violent with him one minute and indifferent the next. The father appears to be alcoholic and the mother puts up no resistance to his aggression—the boy's refuge, then, is his room. Creating a dirt mound on his bed, the boy plants a magical seed and grows a loving Grandmother (Dorothy McGinnis). In the absence of intelligible dialogue, Lynch again relies heavily on performance and visual and aural images to tell the story. The results are again primally unnerving, with semen and blood and urine betraying the body; the boy's uncontrollable nocturnal emissions invite the rage of his father, and the Grandmother may not be the stable presence for which the boy had hoped. Creepily warbling music and music effects are credited to "TRACTOR." "The Grandmother" also historically paired Lynch with sound editor and mixer Alan Splet, who would go on to design sound with Lynch for Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, and Blue Velvet (Splet also won a special Oscar for his work on The Black Stallion).
"The Amputee" (1973). 5 min (each). "The Amputee" finds Lynch at his most mischevious and perverse. While despondent over the financial difficulties facing Eraserhead (then in production), Lynch got wind of a mundane AFI project to test two different brands of videotape. Lynch's friend and future cinematographer Frederick Elmes landed the assignment, and Lynch decided to devise his own short subject for the camera test. In the film (presented twice for obvious reasons), future "Log Lady" Catherine Coulson plays a double-amputee with two conspicuous leg bandages. As she writes a letter (heard in voice-over) about her romantic travails, a male nurse gives her an injection and attempts to redress her wound, which inconveniently spews blood and pus. The humor comes from the disconnect between the incoherent drama of the amputee's love life and her blithe ignorance of her condition; likewise, the occupied nurse is unaware of the amputee's inner life. The subtextual joke is contempt of videotape itself, in Lynch's mind an absurd purchase for the American Film Institute. (Incidentally, it's rather amazing this film survives in the condition that it does, given the medium.)
"The Cowboy and The Frenchman" (1987). 26 min. Invited to be one of six filmmakers contributing to a television series called The French as seen by..., Lynch initially balked. But the idea stuck, and Lynch's variation, described by the producer as "two clichés in one" (though, in fact, it's three) became a diverting little trifle made between Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Harry Dean Stanton, Jack Nance, and Tracey Walter play stereotypical cowpokes visited by a sterotypical Frenchman stalked by a stereotypical American Indian (Michael Horse of Twin Peaks). With the French under cultural attack from America in recent years, Lynch's film is more timely now than it ever was, though the idea wears thin quickly. When the deadpan humor of Lynch's purposefully slow pace dissolves into musical filigrees, we can at least enjoy Stanton's lovely rendition of "Home on the Range" and keep an eye out for Talisa Soto (Licence to Kill). The credits are revealing: cinematography by Elmes (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart), set decoration by Frank Silva (soon to be re-discovered and cast as "Killer Bob" on Twin Peaks), and camera assistance by Coulson. The Radio Ranch Straight Shooters provide the western music, and Eddy Dixon supplies the rockabilly.
"Lumière" (1995). 1 min. Though many insist this film (a.k.a. "Premonitions Following an Evil Deed") is impossible, here it is. Another short film born of an invitation, "Lumière" is a segment of the feature-length compilation Lumière and Company—forty filmmakers were invited to make a film using the original Cinematographe invented by the Lumière Brothers (on the occasion of the hand-cranked camera's one-hundredth birthday). The length of one reel dictated the length of the film, which had to adhere to four other conditions: the film had to be one continuous shot, captured in only three takes, in natural light and with no synchronized sound. Lynch's solution, a fever dream of personal disaster, is a work of unqualified (in)genius.
The Short Films of David Lynch enables viewers to see each film separately, or as one continuous program weaving video interviews with David Lynch between the films for context. The interviews catch Lynch in a relaxed and chatty mood, though with Lynch, one should never expect many details of production or, certainly, any discussion of meaning. Rather, Lynch discusses how each project came into being, in terms of inspiration and initiation (including the all-important funding).
Lynch's stories are priceless, and much of their value is in the telling. Lynch explains how he first conceived the idea to leap from static art to film (while at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), how he came to own his first camera (we even get to see the receipt), and the life-changing support of H. Barton Wasserman (Lynch's first producer), the American Film Institute, and various of Lynch's friends.
Naturally, the image and sound quality vary from film to film, as a result of different film stocks and the condition of the source material. Since the filmmaker supervised them personally, the transfer and sound are impressive and clearly as good as they're going to get. Given source limitations, the presentation ranks as excellent. When the disc spins up, Lynch provides an unexpected treat to go along with his own personal menu design: a five-minute and thirty-one second music piece titled "Bue Bob Jam" (recorded by Lynch and Blue Bob partner John Neff on November 8, 2001).
The disc also includes two "easter eggs." On the "Amputee" menu screen, and highlight the "Back" symbol, press "Right" on your remote control, which will light up the head's left eye. Press "Play" for a short clip of Catherine Coulson holding color bars for "The Amputee." Also, if you let the Main Menu screen play long enough (a couple of minutes), an animated logo for Asymetrical Films will play. Unfortunately, the films and interviews on the disc include no subtitles or close-captioning for the hearing-impaired.
In its initial DVD release from DavidLynch.com, The Short Films of David Lynch came packaged in an 8"x8" collector's box custom-designed by Lynch. Unfortunately, despite the novelty, this box isn't such a good thing. For starters, it isn't easily stored alongside your other DVDs (with the possible exceptions of DumbLand and Eraserhead). In fact, in this version, the disc has no case of its own—only a cardboard sleeve that threatens to scratch the disc (I'm sure many discs get scuffed in the packaging phase). On the brighter side, the box also houses a large-sized, sixteen-page booklet with large frame blow-ups and specs for each film.
More recently, the disc has been repackaged in an standard-sized amaray case, which is, on balance, preferable. The trade-off: no booklet, though an insert thoughtfully informs you that you can purchase the collector's edition, with booklet, at DavidLynch.com. (Another option: order the deluxe box, a blank amaray case, and print your own cover, but there's no guarantee the disc surface will arrive pristine.)
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