Friday, June 27, 2014

David Lynch Then v Now Part 1: The Short Films of David Lynch + Dumbland

Review 1: The Short Films of David Lynch

Version I Watched: Only mainstream version available. The 2005 DVD release (per the copyright on the back of the DVD case). I'm sure these shorts have been released elsewhere but this is the most common place to find them... on an uncommon DVD released almost ten years ago.

History: These all have a ton of history. The six films below range from the late 60s when Lynch was still an art student, all the way up to the 90s well after he became an established filmmaker. Since they were all made at very different times under very different circumstances from one another I'll go more into their individual history in the review section.

Personal History: I've seen these shorts once before. When they were still available to stream on Netflix Instant Watch. That was about three, four years ago so I only remember so much of these.

Review: The short films of famous filmmakers, whether a funded project or something fun they did in their backyard as a kid, is an excellent way of looking into the mind of your favorites. These are things I wish were more widely available. Sadly the interest isn't there for most people. It's a niche interest. And unless you're getting distributed by The Criterion Collection it's likely those shorts won't be released, even as special features in a more popular movie.
Thankfully David Lynch made some of his shorts available. Sure this DVD (and a couple others) were only available for a brief time but at least he put them out there. And really who better than Lynch? He's so out there as is. So imagine what he is like when he's not being told what he can and cannot do by a studio (despite having already bizarre films). Well this is a prime example of Lynch truly unchained where his only restriction is money or context, which you'll better understand in the sections below.
Let's get to it!

Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) - Having been produced in 1967 makes this Lynch's first film period, full length or short. Although more an art project than anything else once you know the story behind it. This animated short was put together over the course of a semester while attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. This one minute film showing six men getting sick (six times) would play on a loop over a black painting. It wound up costing $200. A seemingly small amount but that was back in the 60s and Lynch said it was a "completely unreasonable" amount. Considering how simplistic everything is in the film it is surprising it would cost that much.
Since this is supposed to be displayed at an art exhibit I feel it works better that way. Not that I don't like or don't appreciate what Lynch was doing. It would just be much better viewed that way considering that's where it was intended to be seen. That way you can choose to watch them get sick one time or a hundred times. Just like how you can stare at a painting for a few seconds or a couple hours. Watching it at home on the couch makes for a long minute. Once you've seen them get sick the first time you've literally seen it all already.
I will say I dig the design. It's the earliest available example of Lynch's art style on film and animation style. Very dark, very cool. Also at the time he was utilizing an animation style similar to what Terry Gilliam would do with Monty Python. Except a lot more fucked up. Animation that would be enhanced in his next two shorts, The Alphabet and The Grandmother.
Not much to say on this one. I really have little reason to go back and watch it multiple times. Not unless I want to rig my DVD player to loop and have it play at a party for hours on end. And watch as all my guests leave.

The Alphabet - After premiering Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) Lynch was approached by a classmate who wanted something like that project for his home. He gave Lynch $1000 to make a whole new project. Almost exactly half of that money was spent on buying a camera. After working on a new short that would be 1/3rd live action and 2/3rd animation literally at the same time in the same image. After working on it for two months he went to get the film developed only to find out all his work was a giant blur on film, making it all a waste of time essentially. After being inspired by his then wife's (Peggy Lentz) niece he went to work on a new project using the remaining money from the original $1000. What came out of it was The Alphabet. A combination of live action and animation but in a different way than he originally intended.
A couple sentences ago I mentioned Lynch was inspired by his then wife's niece. While she was visiting her relatives her niece had a nightmare and was reciting the alphabet in a horrifying way. The Alphabet is exactly that but goes deeper by interpreting what the nightmare was like for the niece, or at least Lynch giving his take on the whole thing. So he got his wife to star in the video as the person having the nightmare and finished up this four minute short.
And the short is exactly what you'd expect it to be. The animation that plays throughout the first half is very dream-like and things jump to the nightmare level pretty quickly as well. The woman having the nightmare chanting the alphabet isn't as creepy as you'd expect but creepy none the less. Really the charm is how he presents the alphabet first in the animation, then with the woman laying in different poses in bed. Many of which are unnatural or unsettling. Finish it off with her waking up vomiting blood.
Not a bad early work. Certainly an upgrade over Six Men Getting Sick (which happens six times if you didn't know by now). It does of course bring wonder to what his original idea would have been. But this short led immediately to his next short. Something that is far superior than most of the other shorts on this list.

The Grandmother - Going in the tradition one film creating the next, The Grandmother was made because of the creation of The Alphabet. Shortly after finishing The Alphabet Lynch was recommended to apply at AFI (American Film Institute) so he could get a grant to make more films. So he applied and eventually was accepted being awarded with a $5000 grant to make his next short. The film would eventually cost $7200 but that's not terribly important to the story. The film succeeded with the institute (winning multiple awards at festivals) so well that Lynch was recommended to apply to AFI's Center for Advanced Film Studies. He and Alan Splet (the short's sound designer) would eventually be accepted.
This is the first of his shorts that have a clear, ongoing narrative. The plot surrounds a young boy who lives in a mentally and physically abusive home. Fed up with how his parents treat him he grows a grandmother who will be kind and loving to him. And of course it's bleak so bad shit happens in no time.
By the way, you read that right. The boy grows a grandmother. It's established right from the start in this world that birth happens like plants growing from the ground. We're treated to an animation of the parents growing underground, eventually popping up out of the ground using live action. Once they're both grown they get together and their son is grown. However, said son is able to grow the grandmother somehow through this special seed he finds in a sack of seeds. But to do it secretly he pours a mound of dirt onto one of their beds, plants the seed, and treats it like any other plant. A bizarre method but consistent in the world and pretty imaginative as it makes sense.
The Grandmother is easily one of the highest quality films Lynch put together in his early days. Something I'll be sure to mention in my eventual Eraserhead review (teaser) is that he has a knack of making things look insanely good on such a cheap budget. He is able to take his vision and make it a reality and this is a prime example of that.
The biggest element that brought me in was his use of color. Lynch did a faux black and white presentation by dressing all (but one) of his characters in black, white, or a combination, then made their skin as pale as possible per the screenshot above. Only using actual black and white film in areas he's unable to control all color like in the outdoor scenes. But then he incorporates color in a vibrant way. Like how the boy has a problem wetting the bed. Instead of a faint yellow it's a bright orange to counteract against the black and white. And my favorite use of color is how the doors and walls indoors are so black you can't make out the walls. It's like they're in some empty void in another dimension.
While not my favorite of the bunch I'd say this is the most satisfying. It's got depth in just about every aspect. It's engaging and unsettling. Especially when Lynch uses stop motion animation with real people, or when he does still shots but with the actors holding still and not a snapshot. Subtle, little things that make up something great. Highly recommend this short to Lynch fans looking to see where he came from.

The Amputee - Produced when Eraserhead was in financial limbo (something you'll learn about soon enough, teaser 2). The AFI was testing out two different black and white video stocks before they bought a bulk set of one or the other. Lynch asked Frederick Elmse, who was in charge of testing, if it mattered what they shot on the stock and if he could do the testing. The result was a single shot short in two versions. One lasting approx five minutes and the other in four minutes. It wound up being about a woman with two amputated legs writing a letter while a nurse tends to the stumps.
Saying which is version is better isn't that significant. Both are pretty well put together and have enough positives and negatives to say 'that one' over the other. For example, the first one has better acting and a better frame rate that is a little closer to film than household camcorder. But it also isn't as clear and when her leg starts gushing blood at the end it's hard to tell exactly what's going on. Version two has a somewhat clearer picture meaning it's easier to tell what's going on. However I didn't like the frame-rate and I felt it was a shot after they did it a few times because I felt Lynch (who plays the nurse) wasn't acting as well, as if to rush through it.
So if I had to pick I'd say the first one that comes up on the DVD.
While not a significant entry in the Lynch catalogue I felt it had depth overall. Obviously this woman has some troubles in her life as we can hear through the voiceover of her reading her letter aloud. Something you may miss if you're paying more attention to the medical work on the stumps. Which you will be because again this looks great for being done on the cheap. Not only that it show the character of the woman. She's so obviously numb to pain because of all the physical and emotional pain she's gone through that she barely notices when she starts bleeding all over the place... if at all.
Interesting piece overall, but nothing to write home about. And knowing the history that it was done damn near for the sake of doing it I can't help but feel that lowers the significance of it as well.

The Cowboy & The Frenchman - Without a doubt the odd duck of the bunch. A little like The Amputee this one came about out of sheer chance. Lynch was approached to make a short for a short lived French TV series, 'The French as Seen By...' who hired notable directors to make films about the French from their perspective. Initially Lynch didn't have any good ideas so he turned it down. Only to later accept it within the same day after coming up with the idea of incorporating two stereotypes into one.
This is the odd duck of this bunch because of the style and approach. Instead of being deep, dark, and abstract. It's a slapsticky wacky comedy that makes fun of cowboy and French stereotypes. For example, when the cowboys first round up the Frenchman they found wandering in the fields they investigate his bag. He has nothing but wine, baguettes, a model of the Eiffel Tower, and other cliche French items. Not to mention his accent is outrageous and he comes off as quite a coward. Whereas the cowboys are everything you'd expect from stuff like Rawhide or whatever. And their women-folk all look and sing like they're at the Grand Ole Opry.
While I get what Lynch was going for here I can't say I care for it too much. Even though it's less than thirty minutes it drags quite a bit. The jokes can and some are funny but just don't work in the way he presents them nor the length he makes the short. Especially in the second half when it turns into a nighttime country concert around a firepit where they all get drunk and bond.
It's not all bad. I like a lot of the ideas and the stereotypes are done so absurdly over the top they wind up being funny more often than not. A shame it couldn't have been something better. Something more than what it is. Also I found the level of French stereotypes underused whereas the tone was very cowboy heavy. Understandable considering the setting. But for a show called 'The French as Seen By...' don't you think more could have been done to focus on the French?

Lumiere: Premonition Following an Evil Deed  - This is my favorite of the whole bunch! It also has the simplest history and shortest length of any of these other films in the DVD. In the mid-90s the film industry was hitting it's 100th birthday. Forty-one directors from around the world were invited to make short films using the original Cinematograph camera invented by the Lumiere brothers in the 1890s. There were three rules to these shorts: The film can't be more than fifty-five seconds, no synchronized sound is allowed, and there can be no more than three takes (likely because of the limited film available to use with the camera). These films were edited in-camera making the whole process very primitive and challenging. Yet Lynch knocks it out of the park with his installment.
The fifty-five second short can be described easily but raises many questions of course. It starts with two policemen jumping a fence to investigate what looks like a dead body. Couple cuts later we're in what looks like an alien science lab with a woman in a large tube being experimented on. Next thing you know the film ends leaving you wanting so much more. It ends so quickly you can't believe it.
Which is where one of my favorite elements of this short, short, short film comes in. Since the first time I saw this I felt it was akin to a nightmare. You remember very little. Most of it is random images that have loose connections. Then suddenly... it's gone. No explanation. Nothing. You're left with those few moments wondering what it was all about. You're curious. You're even tormented by what it all means. And let me tell you, there are very few stories, films, whatever that dig deep into what terrifies me. Whether in story, imagery, etc. This is one that almost literally feels like a nightmare I once had. It scares me but brings me so much joy at the same time.
A not so great transfer can be found on youtube. Just ignore the last two seconds when David Lynch starts talking all of a sudden. Please ignore that. Obviously not supposed to be there. You can watch it here.

All these shorts are fantastic in their own way. I don't think this would disappoint fans of Lynch or anyone interested in something more experimental. At first they may seen meaningless or, dare I say, random? But there's more to it than what's on the surface. Something Lynch does so great. While it's hard to recommend to non-Lynch fans I'd say it's VERY easy to recommend to fans. Then again that may vary as well. Depends if you like him for Eraserhead or Elephant Man. The bizarre or his mainstream. Even if you're a fan of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet I can't guarantee you'd be all over this. This is Lynch without any restrictions (in a way). The closest comparison would be his last feature film Inland Empire (which I'll be talking about soon).

Review 2: Dumbland

Version I Watched: I know these shorts are available online. But I have the 2005 (again per the case's copyright) DVD. Lynch was going through quite a change in many respect and I guess releasing his obscure stuff around that time was part of it. It is when he went hardcore digital/online.

History: A series of animated shorts written, directed, drawn, and every character voiced by David Lynch himself. Originally released on Lynch's website in 2002 and a few years later on DVD. That's basically it. Comes off mostly as a fun Sunday afternoon project for Lynch to be honest.

Personal History: I've watched every episode of this very short lived web series many times. Mostly on youtube before picking up the official DVD. Safe to say I enjoy it.

Review: I absolutely love animation. And while the beautiful works of Ghibli, Disney, and other filmmakers are great there is a very special place in my heard for the crude. And I don't mean crude as in gross humor (ironically they have crude humor, though). I mean poorly drawn, very low tech and low budget animation. Whether done unintentionally or intentionally like with Dumbland. It's one of the reasons I like first season South Park so much more than later seasons. The crude nature of it's design adds to the style and humor, making it a unique experience. Anyone with a team of hundreds can make the same beautifully animated piece over and over again. Just look at Dreamworks, no disrespect. But only one person can make Dumbland. Cause even if you tried to be crude in the same way as Lynch was it would turn out differently.
This isn't exactly the 'Now' comparison I'd like to use against Lynch's older shorts but it's what I have easiest access to. I'm yet to see a lot of his other online stuff. Something that will likely wait until I get my hands on Dynamic:1, the 'best of' for his online shorts.
Eight episodes of Dumbland were produced and released. The runtime of the entire "series" is roughly thirty minutes.

The Neighbor - While not my favorite episode it is one that hits the nail on the head with the concept Lynch was going for. It's short, simple, hilarious, and of course absurd per Lynch's approach.
The entire short is just a couple minutes but it tells everything we need to know about our lead character. He (Randy) is admiring his neighbor's shed. The neighbor walks up and they small talk about the shed. The neighbor reveals he has a false arm. They're interrupted by a passing helicopter. Randy responds by cursing at it while flipping it off. Once it leaves he says to his neighbor "I hear you fuck ducks." A duck comes out of the shed and the neighbor says, "I am a one-armed duck-fucker." Roll credits.
This episode makes me laugh out loud. This is also a prime example of Lynch's odd pacing working out for the better. The long pauses in-between each and every sentence makes the next or previous one that much funnier. Like during the first few sentences when they go back and forth with Randy starts by saying, "I like that shed" Pause. Neighbor says, "That's my shed." Then out of nowhere after another pause, "I KNOW IT'S YOUR FUCKING SHED!" Pause. I'm laughing just thinking about it.
But there's not a lot to say without going into detail bit by bit. It's so perfectly crafted in it's short length that sets up what the rest of the episodes will be like. I really have nothing to complain about. I like every second of it. Go to youtube and at the very least watch this episode. Like I said, it's not my favorite episode but it is one of the most well put together from the concept standpoint, and an absurd humor standpoint.

The Treadmill - Even though this series is far from traditional, I'd say The Treadmill has one of the more traditional cartoon plots. Granted it only lasts for a small portion of it. Randy forces his wife off the treadmill because her exercising is annoying him. After she runs off in her usual (as you will see in later episodes) frantic state Randy tries to stop the machine first by stepping on it (flung through the wall) and then with a sledgehammer (flung through the wall again). Hence the traditional cartoon plot. I can see this sort of thing happening in a Looney Tunes cartoon minus the spouse abuse (which would depend on the era it came from). It has increasing levels of insane ideas to achieve what is otherwise a simple goal.
Everything flies off the rails after the sledgehammer, though. He is flung into the backyard through their wall and the sledgehammer is stuck up his ass. He tries to get it out by pulling but it does not work. So he farts it out. The rest of the episode has no purpose and he never stops the treadmill. He does, however, punch a travelling salesman in the face. Done in a cartoonishly hilarious way.
Not a noteworthy episode. I'd say it was more experimenting. Especially since the other episodes have a clear plot or meaning. This one has about three different scenarios all in one, none of which have any real payoff other than silly jokes. And isn't that what we're here for?

The Doctor - THIS is my favorite episode. Again having a somewhat classical type of plot where things progressively get worse and worse, more and more cartoony as time goes on in the episode.
Here Randy finds a broken lamp on the flood. After yelling at the family, asking, "Who broke the fucking LAAAAMP?!" he tries to fix it himself. In an act of incredible stupidity he sticks his finger right in the socket while it's plugged in, getting electrocuted. His doctor makes a house call and what follows is a series of examinations of "does this hurt?" Starting with gentle taps, moving to pokes and slams in the head with a mallot, and going so far as to stabbing Randy in the head with a knife.
Maybe the reason I love this one so much is because of the structure. It's totally silly in a way that works. Heck, while the first episode is one hundred percent solid in my book, I'd almost introduce someone with this. Even though the end is somewhat dark when Randy viciously beats the doctor after the doctor stabs him in the head. All to a soundtrack that reminded me of the battle music from the Dreamcast game Illbleed.
An absolutely, positively fantastic episode none the less. If you don't see any of the rest check out the first episode. But if you're on the fence I'd say take a look at this one after it.

A Friend Visits - A simple episode to explain. It's about Randy's friend visiting. A beer drinking, cowboy-esque kind of guy who sits and talks with Randy about killing, gutting, and eating different kinds of animals in the wild. It's one of those Lynch-isms where they sit there making small comments between long pauses which makes it feel like it's longer than it really is. Not a fan of the episode itself. Now the intro...
Kinda like The Treadmill, A Friend Visits has a couple different plot points. The intro scene is way better and way funnier than the actual episode.
Randy comes running out into the backyard pissed off. His wife just installed a new clothesline. One of those old ones that are square shaped with one rod in the middle. Randy jerks it around trying to remove it while yelling at her, screaming, "What if I came out at night to take a shit?! I'd cut my fucking head off!" Eventually he breaks it loose and throws it into the street causing a car accident.
Between the squeaking noises from the clothesline, Randy's insults, his wife's screaming, and the eventual car crash it is all over the top but in a hilarious way. Like Lynch prefaced with these shorts, we laugh because they're so absurd. And this intro is definitely absurd. So crazy that it makes you laugh. Especially his reasoning for not wanting it!

Get the Stick - Now there's a difference between over the top and going too far. And I'll explain it with this...
When the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie came out on DVD there was a bonus disc with an alternate cut of the movie. It was at least 1/3rd different, contained a lot of unfinished animation, and of course had plenty of unused jokes and bits. One bit involved Carl being brainwashed. One of the many things he was forced to do was drop his pants and shove a broomstick up his ass, with the tip poking up at the top of his head like it's about to pop out. It was an unnecessarily gross and unimaginative bit in an otherwise fucked up movie so I'm not really making my case here I guess. What I'm trying to say is I'm glad it was cut because it was just too crude for crude sake.
Get the Stick has a similar approach and it's the reason I don't like the episode. A man randomly breaks through their fence with a stick caught in his mouth. Randy violently and forcefully tries to remove the stick in many weird ways. All while his son is repeatedly screaming, "Get the stick! Get the stick!" It starts with jerking the stick around and ends with it being pulled out through the man's eye socket after his eyes popped out. I'm not grossed out by intense violence. But this was gross for the sake of being gross and the episode stopped being funny when it went to such an intense level.
One of the weakest entries for being a weak joke stretched out way too long to a level that was unnecessary, even for this series.

My Teeth are Bleeding - Despite being a series full of absurdities for the sake of being absurd it's easy to tell when Lynch is commentating on something. Here I'm not sure if he's trying to do that or is making an attempt at a goofy joke that pays off in a similar way as The Aristocrats joke.
Randy is sitting in his chair watching wrestling on TV. His wife is sitting, twitching and freaking out as she's been every episode before and every episode following. His son is jumping on a trampoline right there in the living room. There's noise of traffic outside and overall Randy's sitting in a circle of contained noise and pandemonium. While the noise and pandemonium doesn't really get worse it feels like it does as the episode progresses. It keeps cutting back to his blank stare as he wanders his eyes around the room. Eventually there's drive by shootings outside and other violence on the road. Then things get worse inside when both his son's and wife's teeth start bleeding, spraying blood all over the place. Hence the title. This whole time Randy sits staring blankly. The episode ends with him getting slightly annoyed by a fly buzzing in his face.
This really is a journey joke. Meaning the journey to get to the punchline is way better than the actual punchline. Hence The Aristocrats. It does crack me up seeing all the insanity around him with him sitting still like he is either A) Not in control or B) too numb to care. And that's where the commentary comes in. Feels like Lynch is commentating that there's so much commotion and insanity around us that we're numb to the obvious, while only bothered by the petty bullshit like a fly buzzing in our face.
That or it's a silly joke and nothing else.
I'd like to think the first concept, but the second one makes me smile so I'm gonna go with that and not let the episode bother me thinking it's about something more.

Uncle Bob - Should have known family would come into the picture eventually.
In today's episode Randy and family are treated to a visit from uncle Bob (not pictured) and his... wife? I think? (Pictured above, the stocky, man-like woman). Randy's wife and their... relative... are going out shopping or something while uncle Bob stays behind with Randy and son.
Uncle Bob is a parody of that old relative you have that has socially uncomfortable health issues but you don't want to say anything about it. The entire episode uncle Bob is breathing heavily, making disgusting noises, and twitching. Randy and son can't help but stare wondering what's wrong with him. Among the noises and obvious issues uncle Bob slugs Randy in the face a couple times. The third time Randy punches back, in which Bob's... wife?... comes out of nowhere screaming "I saw that!" and punches Randy into next Wednesday.
A fine episode with a similar concept of the rest. When I rewatched it for this I tried to take the position of Randy or the kid instead of an outside observer. I've definitely been in that position where I was awkwardly around someone with clear issues, but not knowing how to show it. So that added some hilarity. Having that connection in a way. Still it doesn't outshine the other episodes. I'd certainly watch it over Get the Stick.

Ants - And now we come to the end. Even though the total length of all these episodes are thirty minutes, believe it or not the concept starts to wear thin by this point. Which is a shame because I feel objectively this is a pretty great episode and a nice one to end on.
Randy is trying to get rid of an ant infestation in his house. He points the ant killer spray the wrong direction, hitting himself in the face. He then trips, hallucinating the ants singing and dancing about how much of an asshole Randy is. This pisses him off so he tries to stamp out as many as he can in a fit of rage. He fails when he climbs up the wall and falls from the ceiling onto his head. The episode ends with Randy in a body cast. A trail of ants crawl up into the cast with no way to stop them. Karma is a bitch.
The music is nothing extraordinary. It's all very basic with variations of insults. Definitely a nice change of pace from what we've seen the last twenty-something minutes. But like I said it doesn't take long for the episode to wear thin. Seeing as this series has a concept like most jokes, if it goes on too long it stops being funny, this episode should almost be watched separately so you can get the full effect.
Trust me! It's still a good episode!

I don't think you need to be a Lynch fan to get into these. It helps immensely. But even if you've simply got a fucked up sense of humor I think you'd enjoy it. It's only thirty minutes so you're not diving into a new, long running franchise. I'm not telling you to hang on a season or two so you can see it 'when it gets good.' This is over and done with quickly so I'd say give it a shot. If anything it'll be more approachable than his other shorts, or even some of his movies, if you're not a fan of his (actively or apathetically).
But just like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, it's an acquired taste that you should probably not watch one after another if you want it to stay funny.

Part 2 of this 'Then v Now' retrospective coming relatively soon...

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