There are two ways you can look at the short films of David Lynch, as they are brought together in this DVD collection:
First, as standalone entries, separate and distinct from one another and any other movies.
Second, as preambles to the longer feature films of Lynch.
Any long time Lynch fan, or even casual Twin Peaks fan, will be hard pressed to avoid looking at them in the second way, no matter how hard they may try to engage with the films as standalone products, and no matter how arresting the films are on their own. Only a complete Lynch newbie would be able to walk in and not recognize at least some of the recurring themes, images, and stylistic choices that make David Lynch so distinctive as a director. Put simply, if you like David Lynch, you’ll like this collection of short films. If you’re not a fan, well… you’re either going to become one or pack up your bags and say no thanks pretty quick.
The collection of short films covers six works, starting with Lynch’s very first film project as an art school student entitled Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times), which is an animated projection of, well, six figures getting sick, onto a sculptured wall that Lynch had fashioned.
Next is The Alphabet, an animation and live-action cross of a child’s nightmare, all set to the alphabet song.
The Grandmother is the longest and most distinctive piece in the collection. It tells, without dialogue or even much music, the story of a young boy abused by his parents, who grows (from a seed) and finds comfort in, a grandmother figure.
The Amputee is a short monologue wherein an amputee is writing a letter to a friend, while the blood, pus, and other unmentionable substances, are drained from the stump of her amputated leg.
The Cowboy and The Frenchman is a farcical slapstick comedy revolving around the two title characters.
The collection ends with a 1995 film shot using one of the oldest filming techniques, and is called Premonitions Following An Evil Deed. It’s a suitable finisher for a quick dive into Lynch: in just one minute it features a murder investigation, a grieving family, and a girl being experimented on in a scientific tube, all without any dialogue.
Taken as a whole, this collection has the entire pantheon of Lynch tropes: dream sequences, the macabre and grotesque, family dysfunction, and even awkward, lengthy conversations. The earlier movies also feature Lynch’s eye for use of color, lighting, and the human form. In fact, the first four films, especially The Alphabet and The Grandmother, feel eerily similar to Eraserhead. Quite literally (in the case of The Grandmother), the seeds of future films were planted in these early works, and if you enjoyed Eraserhead, you’ll enjoy these merely for the way they reveal the growth of the ideas and themes that found purchase in later films.
Almost all the films are silent, or feature music and sound in the place of human dialogue. Sometimes, as in Premonitions Following An Evil Deed, that’s because the technology limited the use of sound. For others, like The Grandmother, it feels like more of a choice, designed to keep human beings at bay.
The two films that do feature dialogue – The Amputee, featuring Twin Peaks’ Catherine Coulson, and The Cowboy and the Frenchman with Harry Dean Stanton, Jack Nance, and Michael Horse – are also supremely Lynchian in their use of spoken words. Characters repeat themselves, can’t hear one another, and carry on lengthy conversations about multiple characters that are never seen (all techniques which came around to feature prominently in The Return).
Given the length of the films, there are some elements of Lynch’s storytelling that feel lopped off in some way or another. The Grandmother is a typical Lynch examination of family dynamics, but it’s short time and limited storytelling scope mean it can’t reach the audience or emotional connection of Twin Peaks or Fire Walk With Me. The disturbing feel of The Alphabet is somewhat less disturbing than, say, Blue Velvet or Inland Empire, just because there are fewer contrasts with the happier, more hopeful elements of human existence. Watching these shorter slices of Lynch’s imagination shows just how much viewers rely on these points of happy contrast to really engage with the darker tones of Lynch’s longer movies.
Interestingly, the DVD collection also features short introductions to each of the films by Lynch himself. In typical Lynch fashion, we get the key points of the story leading into each film’s creation, but also odds and ends about his personal life, the camera he filmed with, life in film school, and trips to Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank. For someone brand new to Lynch, the interviews would probably make slightly more sense than the films themselves, and give a good idea of the idiosyncratic nature of everything Lynch touches.
The digital transfers of the films are all clear and retain the feel of the film (and tape) that Lynch used at the time. Perhaps the best part of this digitization however, is that the individual pieces (though not the interviews) are mostly available on YouTube: so if you’re hankering to try and sell someone on Lynch’s mix of the surreal and the sublime, set up a chair and check out the clips above.
You can follow Aidan on Twitter (@aidanhailes). If you’d like to hear more of Aidan’s thoughts on Lynch’s short films, you can check out the Bickering Peaks podcast episode “David Lynch: The Early Short Films”