September 7, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: The Short Films of David Lynch

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

The Short Films of David Lynch (2002)
Written and directed by David Lynch

It's an interesting day today, because two topics I talk about here a lot are coming crashing together in today's essay: the idea of "patron saints" of the underground arts (which I suppose is just a snarkier way of saying 'canon...' which now that I think about it is pretty snarky itself); plus the idea of becoming a 'completist' of certain artists one really admires, or a person who has consumed every project an artist has ever made. Because today we're talking about celebrated Surrealist filmmaker David Lynch, who I consider one of the godfathers of the contemporary underground community; and Lynch is about as close as I get to being a completist of a nationally-known artist, in that before this week the only things of his 21-film career I hadn't seen were his inexplicable Disney family movie The Straight Story, and his various experimental short films he's done over the decades. And indeed, this is usually the last hurdle for most people who try to become completists of certain artists, of tracking down the various short work of that artist scattered among all the magazines and film festivals and specialty websites of the world; in fact, unless some smart publisher decides to put out a compendium of that work, a person usually never really knows whether they've finally tracked it all down or not.

The Short Films of David Lynch

Thankfully, though, some smart publisher did decide to do that with Lynch's short work back in 2002, and put out a lovely DVD of it which is beautifully minimalist in a Google/iTunes kind of way. Basically the disc is not much more than the films themselves, six altogether that span from the late 1960s to late 1990s; spliced between them is a series of interviews with Lynch made specifically for this collection, shot in black and white while Lynch is literally in a recording studio and sitting in front of a studio mic. It's a refreshing way to approach this work, to tell you the truth, given how silly and over-the-top the most campy of Lynch's work has gotten over the years (and especially the way it's been marketed to the general public); I can just picture this DVD done wrong, for example, with giant swirly menus featuring dancing dwarves and singing slices of apple pie.

The Short Films of David Lynch

No no, the minimalist approach is always the best one to use when merely presenting Lynch and his work to the public; because both the man and his projects are g--d---n weird enough on their own, and any attempt to out-weird him with the supporting material is simply bound to fail, as well as belittle the actual work of Lynch's one is trying to promote. Because Lynch, see, is without a doubt the most commercially successful Surrealist artist in human history -- indeed, as I've mentioned in essays before, he is one of the only Surrealists in history to not get pelted with rotten fruit every time he's in public, and arrested by the end of all his shows. And why has Lynch been so successful with the mainstream when so many other radically experimental artists have failed? Well, that's been the subject of big debate, hasn't it, the subject of various books, the subject of France's national obsession with him.

The Short Films of David Lynch

I in particular, for example, feel that a lot of it has to do with Lynch's ability to literally capture the look, feel and emotions of a dream on-camera, which of course has been the primary goal of Surrealist artists since the term was first coined in the 1920s, as a more aesthetic alternative to what was then the dying embers of the nihilistic, highly political Dadaist movement following World War I. Surrealists have always defined themselves by their obsession with the human dream-state, and indeed it's no coincidence that the movement was first formed at the same time that Freud, Jung, hypnosis, and psychotherapy in general were first starting to gain popularity; it was a way to "tone down" the original aims of the Dadaists, to channel them into more traditional realms of the arts and sciences. Unfortunately, though, a lot of the Surrealist message has gotten simplified by the mainstream over the years, 'popified' if you will, in order to sell more hamburgers to the usual brain-dead sheep; as a result, Surrealism has taken on a derisory connotation with a lot of the public by now, the term conjuring images of exploding porcupines and melting clocks, a bug-eyed Dali and the like.

The Short Films of David Lynch

And in fact Lynch has been guilty of Surrealist popification himself at certain points of his career, probably most infamously during his Hollywood height of Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart; in fact, as much of a Lynch fan as I am, it's hard to deny years later that many of the participants of those particular projects seem to be winking at the audience the entire time. And this too perhaps is part of the answer as to why Lynch in particular has been so successful over the years; that there was a point where he was able to successfully "sell" the Surrealist ethos to the mainstream public, through its poppier and goofier elements, although this of course doesn't explain how he rose as a filmmaker in the first place, nor does it adequately describe anymore his late-career, anti-Hollywood work like Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire. And that's probably what's most interesting of all about this DVD of short work, is that in actually showing the first four pieces he made before achieving mainstream success (versus the two on the disc made after), we completists get a much better idea of why Lynch caught on with the public in the '70s and '80s to begin with, as well as seeing much more densely-packed attempts at what he's going for as an artist in the first place.

The Short Films of David Lynch

Take the first two films, for example, Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) and The Alphabet, both made in the late '60s when Lynch was not much more than a teenager making homemade films; both, in fact, are animation experiments instead of live action, in that Lynch was actually a painter and cartoonist before turning to filmmaking. Both in fact are not only animation experiments but fascinating, cutting-edge ones, literally giant canvases that Lynch had set up in front of stationary cameras, whereby he actually painted a series of thousands of Surrealist images, one on top of each other in a stop-motion style, which he then painstakingly recorded one frame at a time over a series of months and months. Although neither are much more than experimental trifles anymore, to the Lynch fan they profoundly help explain why visual aesthetics are so important in even his live-action films, and why such things as dialogue and characterization are of such little importance.

The Short Films of David Lynch

And then of course we get to Lynch's third film, 1970's The Grandmother, the first to fully be live-action in nature, the first of a decent length (half an hour), financed from a grant from the then-new American Film Institute (or AFI), with Lynch pretty much being the least-known filmmaker of all the ones to win an AFI grant that year. And this is suddenly and dramatically where we start seeing the transition in Lynch's career that would eventually lead to such odd masterpieces as Blue Velvet; the moment where Lynch goes from a paint-based animator to a full-fledged filmmaker, from someone catching bits and snatches of dreams to finally being able to convey the entirety of one. Because like I said, I believe this to be the key to Lynch's success with the public, even if most of the public isn't consciously aware of it; he understands that there's a lot more to capturing the look and feel of a dream than simply throwing a bunch of random goofy crap on the screen, even as he's been guilty at certain points of doing exactly that.

The Short Films of David Lynch

The thing that is both so fascinating and unsettling about Lynch's best work is the pervasive sense of unease he manages to convey; the sense that the normal laws of logic no longer apply, the normal laws of storytelling, even the normal laws of physics. He reminds us of that special state we all get into while dreaming, where we are both skeptical about the things going on around us, as well as happy to accept them at face value; it's a contradictory position for a brain to hold, something difficult to pull off in a conscious state, where laws and rules and societal norms guide almost all of our thoughts and actions. And indeed, this is a big part of why Surrealists have been so fascinated with the dream-state for so many decades now, and why a certain amount of artists each generation continue to choose to be Surrealist ones -- because we still don't quite understand why we dream, what the purpose of dreams are, and how exactly we can so easily reach that contradictory, complementary state of mind that we do while dreaming. As I mentioned, I believe Lynch to be one of the most successful artists in history as far as addressing these issues; and especially when it comes to the short work on display here, which after all is more the length of actual dreams than full-length films are.

The Short Films of David Lynch

Now unfortunately, the other three films on this disc aren't nearly as impressive, and serve more as snotty references for Lynch purists trying to out-impress someone at a cocktail party who thinks they're hot-sh-t for having seen Eraserhead. There is The Amputee, for example, which even Lynch confesses came about at the spur of the moment one day in the mid-'70s, after discovering that the AFI wanted to test a couple of types of the brand-new "videotapes" that were just starting to come out in those years, but that they didn't care what was actually filmed on those tapes while testing them out. And then there's the silly The Cowboy and the Frenchman, knocked out in the late-'80s in a jiffy for a television series in France, about what certain international directors exactly think of the French; and then there's the mid-'90s Lumiere, made as an experiment using an antique-style (but newly built) Lumiere-style film camera, which while visually stunning is also less than a minute in length, and a one-minute film is certainly no reason to rent an entire DVD.

The Short Films of David Lynch

But then again, this is the nature of short work; that since there's so little at stake, much greater chances can be taken, which naturally leads to a lot more failures that don't really matter that much, along with successes that frankly don't mean as much either as a successful full-length project does. And that, frankly, is why most short work is of interest only to the completists of the world, and why it's only the diehard fans who usually try to track down this work in the first place. This disc is not something I can in good conscience recommend to everyone out there, because I know for a fact that not everyone is going to like it; if you enjoy highly experimental short work, however, or are a big Lynch fan who would like to see how he got his start, it's definitely a DVD I recommend adding to your queue list.

Out of 10:
Writing: 5.2
Acting: 5.5
Directing: 9.5
Cinematography: 9.6
Overall: 9.0

Best viewed: Monkey banana dingdong. See what I mean by throwing random goofy crap at the screen?

Next on my queue list: It's Joe Swanberg month at the CCLaP website! First up will be a screening and review of this Chicago-based "mumblecore" filmmaker's LOL; then of his first full-length film, Kissing On the Mouth; then of his sexually-explicit web-based soap opera for Nerve.com, Young American Bodies, finally capped with a lengthy interview with him in about three weeks for the CCLaP Podcast. I hope you enjoy!

Read even more about The Short Films of David Lynch: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:50 PM, September 7, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |