My, time goes fast. In just a few days — on Monday — Lee and I will be posting our thoughts on David Lynch’s debut feature Eraserhead as part of our first blog watch-along. As I mentioned in the post announcing the watch-along (here), the new Criterion edition of Eraserhead has several of Lynch’s shorts, all restored and accompanied by introductions by Lynch himself. In anticipation of the watch-along, I wanted to go through the shorts. As it turns out, they are a great introduction to Lynch’s dream-like (or nightmarish) world.
Viewing these as precursors or even as companions to Eraserhead was illuminating and educational. On their own, frankly, they’re horrifying. Just what I was hoping for.
Six Men Getting Sick: (1966) four minutes
Here’s the strange little forty-second loop that started in all. There’s no narrative in this film (it’s important to unhitch yourself from any conventional narrative expectations with Lynch). In fact, this one isn’t exactly a film. It was Lynch’s entry into a sculpture context. What we have here is a sculpture of six men with a sort of stop-motion animation loop projected over it. All the while, a siren blazes in the background as we watch the men become more and more distressingly sick. After forty seconds, it starts over from the beginning.
That’s it. There’s not a lot to sink your teeth into, and yet it is strangely compelling. On the Criterion blu-ray, the loop plays for approximately four minutes (six or so times, though it was meant to be indefinite), and I’ve watched the full four minutes several times, each time picking something new out of the imagery. Does it mean anything? Probably nothing concrete. Much like Eraserhead, the images may not stack up to some general meaning so much as insinuate themselves into your head, going where nothing is quite articulate.
The Alphabet (1968): four minutes
Lynch’s next short, which Lynch says really turned him on to filmmaking, is genuinely terrifying, though again it’s mostly due to mood and the unsettling compositions. It begins with a bit of animation before showing a woman in bed. She looks dead. The ABCs go over and over again, and — sound design being integral to Lynch’s nightmares — there’s wailing from no discernible source, not to mention the strange sound of suction. In another call to Eraserhead, there’s the sound of baby crying, but it’s not natural. Rather, it’s quite demented. It ends with another rendition of the ABCs that is horrific and remarkably well done.
Again, it’s hard to latch onto one general theme here, and Lynch’s introduction lets us know we don’t have to. This film was based on a nightmare his wife’s niece had when she visited them. A nightmare involving the ABCs. It comes mixes its ample doses of innocence and terror nicely.
The Grandmother (1970): thirty-four minutes
This is the film that changed Lynch’s life. In fact, in telling us how he made it with a grant from the AFI, he becomes emotional. The longest of the shorts included here, it’s also, in my opinion, the best. Perhaps surprising after two films of random images, “The Grandmother” has a sort of narrative arc. Here we find a little boy whose strange, beastly (I mean that literally) parents neglect him at best. So he goes to his bedroom and grows a loving grandmother.
Strange, to be sure, and still an apprentice work, but “The Grandmother” shows Lynch’s unique style at work in a film of some narrative heft. And the sound and set design! Brilliant stuff, here, and we’ll see Lynch go right back to some of it to create an even greater work with Eraserhead.
The Amputee, Version 1 and 2 (1974): five minutes and four minutes, respectively
Well, this is a strange duo. I’m saying that, in the context of the strange films we’ve already seen, in all seriousness. We have two versions because in the mid-1970s the AFI was comparing two different types of video cassettes and wanted to know which was the best. So Lynch, saying he feared the American Film Institute would become the American Video Institute, videoed the same basic short twice. The video looks just terrible, as video does, and Lynch knew that, but he’s not one to pass off an opportunity to shoot as a simple experiment.
At first, it might feel innocuous if a little sad. We see an amputee sitting in a chair composing a letter, which we hear her narrate. In a nurse comes to clean her bandages, and — dear almighty, again the sound design! — things start to go wrong. Meanwhile, the amputee continues to write her spiteful letter, which began simply, “This isn’t what I am telling you. You weren’t in the room when Jim said that, and I was. And he really did.” I have no idea what Jim said, but it has something to do with someone named Helen. All while the leg stump becomes a foreshadowing of some of the grotesque wounds in Eraserhead, this strange story about a flirt, a fire, and a few men named Jim and Paul. The amputee grins at the end.
Why? No idea! It’s Lynch showing us that he can make us feel many things even when — perhaps especially when — we have no idea what’s actually going on.
Premonition Following an Evil Deed (1995): one minute
The last film also began as a kind of experiment. Film had been around for 100 years, and a group of directors passed around an original hand-crank Lumiere camera in order to make a 58-secondfilm. Lynch’s entry looks fantastic as a 100-year-old bit of nightmare with all the flicker and shadow.
The evil deed? Well, at the beginning, police officers approach a dead body, and then we are ushered — pushed, really — through a torrent of images, dark, gothic images with horrible creatures and torture. The police arrive at and enter a house. The film ends at the moment a mother and a father know they’re about to learn something terrible.
Strange. Elusive. Lynch.
I can’t wait to talk about Eraserhead.