Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Short Films of David Lynch

Before David Lynch made his first full length feature film, the cult classic "Eraserhead", he produced several short films during his early years using different filming styles and techniques. Most of them are only a few minutes long and don't make much sense. Even Lynch himself has a hard time describing them and has only the faintest recollection of what he was thinking at the time and what he was trying to portray. Fortunately, these rare gems that show us how the creative genius that is David Lynch came to be, have been gathered together, dusted off and put together on one DVD. Now if we could only get John Waters to do the same thing with his early short films.

Six Men Getting Sick Six Times:

Filmed in 1967 with a cost of $200. Lynch made his first short film after gazing at a painting on display. A door opened and a stray breeze made the painting move a little. This inspired him to make a "moving painting". He built a sculpture screen 6X8 and animated a surrealistic image of what looks like six figures that move slightly, then puke. This sequence repeats six times and has a (very annoying) looping siren sound track. The final product is about 3-4 minutes long. A gentlemen named H. Barton Wasserman saw this piece of artwork, loved the idea and offered David Lynch $1000 to make one for him. Lynch bought a new camera with half the money and used the other half to film a new piece. He filmed over 100 ft of footage only to find out that there was a problem with the camera and all the footage was ruined and completely unusable. Fortunately, the buyer took pity on Lynch and gave him a little more money and said "Just give me a print". The result was his second short film, The Alphabet.

The Alphabet:

David Lynch was married to a girl named Peggy at the time, who was an exceptional painter and he used her talents to make most of this short film. Lynch got the inspiration for this film one night when Peggy's niece woke up from a nightmare where she was frantically repeating the alphabet. Filmed half live and half animated, letters appear (a capital A even gives birth to a bunch of little lower case a's) and change. A girl (played by Peggy Lynch) writhes around in bloody sheets, reciting the alphabet, blood red flows from her mouth and eyes in an otherwise completely monochromatic atmosphere. The soundtrack is mainly an operatic male singing and wind sounds. Approximately 4 minutes long. Very gothic, very nightmarish.

The Grandmother:

After completing "The Alphabet", David Lynch had been "bitten by the bug" and immediately started putting together another project titled "The Grandmother". The script was very dense and very short, a trait that we soon learned came with most of David Lynch's movie scripts. Lynch was already in the process of making Eraserhead (almost a hobby, taking over five years to complete) for over a year and the money had run out. Lynch applied for a grant from the American Film Institute, not at all expecting to get it. The scripts for both movies were submitted and surprisingly, he got the grant which was eventually used for the shorter of the two films (Eraserhead was over 90 minutes and The Grandmother was only 23 minutes). The Grandmother was finished in 1970 and quickly gained notoriety and very much displayed what was to be known as David Lynch's gothic personal style. It begins with some stop-motion animation using photo cutouts. A man, woman and child are "born" from the earth, the man attacks the child, which is the opening to the film's theme in live action. The story is told through imagery and has probably a total of six words said throughout the entire film. Basically, a young boy that has very neglectful and abusive parents yearns for love and affection. After getting his ass whipped for pissing the bed, the young boy pours dirt on his bed and plants a seed of some kind. He "waters" it daily and grows a disgusting looking plant that "gives birth" to an old lady. She turns out to be a grandmother figure towards the child. All is well, apparently the grandmother has no problem with the kid wetting his bed (we see it colored yellow against a mostly monochromatic background). One day the grandmother starts to "malfunction" and goes flipping out all around the room. The kid goes to his parents for help, but is met with abuse. The grandmother disappears. Next we see the kid strolling through a cemetery and he runs into the grandmother there, they both scream, kid goes home... The End. What does it all mean? I don't even think David Lynch knows for sure.

The Amputee:

Filmed in 1973, The Amputee exists in only two takes on two different types of film tape. The American Film Institute was looking into buying a large quantity of a particular kind of film tape and since there were two major brands being made at the time, both were tested using the same scene to see which looked better. Lynch asked if he could film whatever he wanted and was given permission to do so as long as it was exactly the same scene. With the freedom to do what he wanted, he scripted a scene where a male nurse (played by Lynch) is cleaning and dressing the wounds of a woman who has recently had both of her legs amputated. The woman (played by Catherine Coulson which we all grew to love as "The Log Lady" from Twin Peaks) is busy writing a letter or novel of some kind and pays absolutely no attention to the nurse who is about to puke because oozy crap is flowing out of her wounds. The first take had the better quality, but the second take is much funnier. Much more ooz than in the first one and the actress is clearly on the verge of laughing. Catherine Coulson who plays the amputee, was married to Jack Nance at the time. Jack Nance who played Henry in Eraserhead and Pete Martell on Twin Peaks was married to Coulson when Eraserhead and The Amputee were being filmed. They were reunited several years later when both had major roles on the hit series Twin Peaks.

The Cowboy and the Frenchman:

After Blue Velvet was released, David Lynch took a vacation in Paris. While there, he was approached by an associate about a TV series about how Americans see the French. David originally declined because he didn't really feel that it was something that could be done in what was becoming an ever evolving personal film style of his, which was very artful, abstract and gothic (everything this film wasn't supposed to be). Six different directors were chosen to make a short film that could possibly end up being the pilot to a new TV series. David Lynch went home and did some thinking about the offer and thought that maybe he could make a film with this theme. He should have stuck with his gut instinct, because this film really sucks and is my least favorite of the entire collection. Basically the story goes as such... Four ranch hands are sitting around chewin' "Tabaccee" and out of nowhere, a Frenchman comes staggering out of the forest carrying a suitcase with all the french essentials, such as wine, cheese, snails, perfume etc. Eventually, the group is joined by three women, who only dance around and have no apparent purpose for being there. Also a choir of three other women break in every now and then to sing a single verse and then back to the "story". When David Lynch presented his version of the pilot, he was greeted with the insult "Great, two cliches for the price of one". Needless to say, his version wasn't chosen. Can't say that I blame them, it really was bad and had a theme that I don't think Lynch could lower himself enough to even attempt to make this kind of crap. I think he felt a need for a more artful kind of work and a little more freedom when it came to his artistic integrity. But hey, it was worth a try.


In the late 90's, Lumiere Brothers Incorporated., a large producer of TV and movie cameras, was doing an experiment with an antique camera. The camera was made of wood and had a crank. This camera was passed around to a few different directors. Each individual director was to produce 55 seconds of footage with the camera. Also there were some restrictions enforced: you could have no more than three takes, and once you got the crank turning, it couldn't be stopped until the film was over. In the short 55 seconds that David Lynch had, we see quick flashes of events such as... cops finding a dead body on the lawn, people crying, fire, and a naked woman in a large aquarium tank. If allowed more time, this film could have had some promise.

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