Quickies: David Lynch Shorts
As we approached the idea of a David Lynch retrospective, I knew I wanted to ‘stay in my lane’ and review his non-television work in short storytelling.
I damn near melted my brain.
David Lynch’s work in short narrative is a dizzying spin cycle of standard Lynch tropes; images too shocking to imagine any director who has approached the mainstream like Lynch has would compose. But on the same trip around the cycle, you’ll be treated to traditional methodology and cinema language that you’d find in classic Hollywood productions - that Lynch deploys for the sake of parody or pointed criticism. Lynch fights traditionalism while being a complete master of it’s form. It’s accessibility demands expert level classes on it’s complexities.
I watched 18 separate works of Lynch’s short fiction, from his early student films to his digital serialized outputs. In doing so, I have found that it’s important to not measure Lynch’s short films as a chronological examination of his progress as a filmmaker, but as a statement on the sentiment of an artist in different phases of their growth and vision.
The first statement of David Lynch’s creative career was his student film phase, balancing a variety of dramatic genres. I like to think of these films as his ‘Mortician Period’, due to his artistic choice to use heavy caked on makeup on his actors that made them look ghostly; it cast an uneasy feeling looking at these characters as if you’re looking at a body in a coffin. These films act as a combination of experimental playground for techniques and motifs that would become regular features of Lynch’s work.
Some of the standouts of this period are Six Men Getting Sick, a disorienting animated short of morphing, vomiting figures while a looping siren sound plays. The Grandmother, combining live action and animation, tells a darkly modern fairy tale of a boy who grows a grandmother to escape the abuses of his parents. The Grandmother sends influential tendrils throughout dramatic creature culture; from the imagery of a bedroom based incubation and earthy biological pods, Lynch’s take on replacement people can be seen in films like Żuławski’s Possession to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.
The second notable statement of Lynch’s career is a commitment to experimentation. Lynch’s work with the American Film Institute lead to an opportunity to test early VHS filming stock. Working with actress Catherine Coulson, Twin Peaks ‘The Log Lady’, they created a monologue of a letter being written by a woman while a nurse attends to her amputated legs. The Amputee combines stream of conscious writing with the squeamish sounds of bone clipping and surgical scissors clicking. Lynch adds to the unease as of the scene, revealing just enough of his visage as the nurse to add another sense of ominous to the short test subjects.
Lynch committed to this statement nearly 20 years after The Amputee, participating in a collaborative project of directors using the original Lumiere Brothers cameras and early film techniques. Premonitions Following An Evil Deed conveys a fairly traditional narrative, of police reporting a death of a young woman to her family. It’s in between the discovery of the body and the police reporting to the next of kin when a full fever dream of imagery that cements the idea of ‘Lynchian’ occurs. Lynch’s creativity and comfort across forms makes him a hands on innovator. From digital cameras in work like Darkened Room to flash animation with the Dumbland series, Lynch is at the forefront of technology and storytelling potential. While we remark at things like Scorsese working for HBO in the early Aughts or Fincher helming shows at Netflix, Lynch has long been explorative across visual mediums.
Participating in group projects has lead to some of the most iconic Lynchian work, but it’s also created one of his most accessible oddities. For the The French As Seen By … compilation, Lynch created The Cowboy and the Frenchman a brightly lit slapstick with bits of Western themed television parody and French new wave surreality. Interstitials, narration and on the nose writing combine with a stoically comedic performance by Harry Dean Stanton. The end result is hilariously eccentric; it avoids the dark foreboding of other Lynchian work, but perverts classical American iconography while subverting its attitude on global power.
As the environment for feature length films in Lynch’s aesthetic has changed, Lynch has increased his output in short work. This prolific artistic period is his third major statement. He has worked in music videos, original trailers for film festivals and been unafraid to apply his skills to paid content for advertisers like Dior. His contribution to the To Each His Own Cinema, Absurda, is another stand out. Featuring a stationary camera capturing projected visions of terror for unseen protagonists, Absurda shows Lynch’s detachment from cinema as a medium of joy.
Upending traditional values are key to much of the Lynch experience. A suburb running into the violence of criminal underworlds in Blue Velvet; the classic American sweetheart from the midwest being ruined by Hollywood in Mulholland Drive. The previously mentioned Dumbland, a series of Flash animated shorts Lynch wrote, animated and voiced himself, continued this Lynch tradition. Combining lo-fi minimalism and Looney Tunes style absurdity, It’s a scathing rebuke of an uneducated and poverty stricken American landscape. Weighted against the post 9/11 world it was released in, it acts as time capsule of anxiety and xenophobia that became embedded into the American experience.
The distilled embodiment of Lynch’s work outside of narrative features has to be Rabbits. As someone who finds Mulholland Drive to be one of the greatest movies ever made, it’s hard to have imagined I would find a piece of Lynch’s work I would like more. But I found it in Rabbits, and believe to be the 4th and best statement of Lynch’s short work.
Rabbits perfectly combines the many ways of Lynch: it’s a unique fantasy construction who’s sole purpose is to deconstruct the comfort of the multi-camera sitcom. It refuses to be welcoming, obscuring wonderful actors in ridiculous full body, inarticulate costumes and anthormophosizing the actions of Rabbits. This craft adds to the unease, making you doubt the medium in front of you. The plot is easy to follow, but the narration feels like three people having a conversation about three different things. Like the emphasis dumpster scene in Mulholland Drive, Rabbits makes it clear it is going to scare you and take years off your life; you’re still caught off guard but demand to know more about what it means. Soliloquies, canned laughter, existential dread, open ended interpretations that could launch a hundred think pieces - Rabbits intrigues by telling you everything but revealing nothing.
Lynch’s work is banal as it is terrifying, divisive as it is monolithic. It is so cold as to make you feel put off, but so deep that there are unique treasures to be found in every layer. The sheer joy of Lynch’s work is how it challenges you to comprehend it - and even if you have a handle on it, you can be challenged all over again if someone were to simply ask you ‘But what if?’. His unwavering commitment to his brand of artistic antagonism is what makes him one of our finest living directors, and a challenger to the pantheon of all time greats.