Love him or loathe him, there can’t be many of you who haven’t seen at least one film by David Lynch. Though his feature films have always been relatively accessible – physically if not always intellectually – his short films remained rather less easy to see. Thanks to his own subscription-based website (now defunct), it was briefly possible to buy a DVD compilation of six of these shorter efforts.
Six Men Getting Sick (1967) was Lynch’s very first piece of film, a very brief, 1 minute animated loop originally intended to be a “moving sculpture.” Made while he was studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, it consists of 57 seconds of three heads built on a sculpture screen (actually casts of Lynch’s own head) gradually metamorphosing through animation, growing heads and stomachs and climaxing in three seconds of them being explosively sick. And that’s it. All to the irritating sound of a siren wailing. For reasons not entirely clear, the DVD treats us to this no less than six times but really, once is more than enough. Less a film than a to-in-the-water experiment, Six Men Getting Sick is really only of interest to die-hard Lynchians who really must see everything he’s ever done – everyone else will doubtless be totally bemused by it all.
Lynch was initially discouraged by his experiments in film-making, disheartened by the costs involved compared to his other loves, sculpture and painting. But fellow student H. Barton Wasserman was so impressed by Sick Men Getting Sick that he encouraged him to create a second short, paying him $1000 to create a similar work. Lynch used some of the money to buy a used Bolex camera but his first attempt to make his new piece was a disaster – he shot for two months only to find that the camera was damaged and not a single frame of film was usable. Wasserman gave up on the project, giving Lynch free rein to do whatever he wanted with the rest of the money.
Working from a dream experienced by his wife, Peggy, Lynch made The Alphabet (1968), the first indication of what was to come. Genuinely creepy and unsettling, it has no plot to speak of but still manages to disturb in ways that many longer films could only dream of. A combination of live action and animation, it features a young girl’s haunted memories of having to learn her ABCs – letters spew across the screen while a barely audible man sings and a woman vomits blood over some sheets. Quite what it has to do with the learning process is anyone’s guess, but it is genuinely upsetting and scary in that unique way that Lynch’s features are upsetting and scary – you feel disquiet while watching it but have no real understanding of why. It bypasses the thinking part of the brain and homes directly in on that part that triggers fear instead.
The Alphabet also marked the first display of Lynch’s unique talent for sound design – from the chanting of “ABC” to the sounds of sirens wailing, wind howling and children sobbing (the baby was Lynch’s newborn daughter Jennifer) the soundtrack is every bit as unnerving as the visuals they accompany. Bizarre soundtracks would later become one of the hallmarks of the David Lynch style.
At the suggestion of Bushnell Keeler, the artist step-father of his friend Toby Keeler, Lynch applied for a grant from the then-newly established American Film Institute, using The Alphabet as his calling card. He’d put together a script for a more ambitious short, one that would run for at least half an hour. The AFI awarded Lynch a grant of $5000 and he set about the making of The Grandmother (1970).
Though not quite as unsettling as The Alphabet, The Grandmother was another deeply disturbing vignette and showed that by now, that signature Lynch style was already well developed. The plot is simple – a young boy is unhappy at home with his abusive parents and looking for someone, anyone, to show him the love he’s been missing, “grows” a surrogate grandmother.
Although shot on colour film stock, Lynch deliberately mutes the film’s colour scheme, resulting in a strange, twilight world where colour is often only hinted at. And the soundtrack is again incredible – the parents communicate only in strange, animal like sounds and there’s the usual collection of bizarre, almost-but-not-quire recognisable sounds and even the odd snatch of audio that is easily recognisable but unsettlingly out of context. The Grandmother marked Lynch’s first collaboration with sound editor Alan Splet, the beginning of a relationship that would last right through to Blue Velvet in 1986. Together, the two men spent an extraordinary 63 days recording the film’s many sound effects and spent so much of the budget on this project that they ran out of money. Thankfully, the AFI’s Tony Vellani saw what had already been shot, he was so impressed that he agreed to finance the completion of the short. From the mouth of catastrophe came not only a finished film, but also the chance for Lynch to participate in the second year of the AFI’s film-making program (eventually resulting in Eraserhead (1977)) and for Alan Splet to become head of their sound department.
The Grandmother isn’t quite as unsettling as The Alphabet but it is the most ambitious and technically adept of these first three films. Featuring real – if very strange – characters that the audience can relate to and a genuinely traumatic ending, it’s also the most durable of the three films, the one that’s easiest to return to for repeat viewings. Indeed, all these years later and even after so many feature-length masterworks, The Grandmother remains one of Lynch’s best, most fully realised, works.
All three of these early David Lynch shorts are essential viewing for anyone smitten by his skewed vision. They won’t win him any new fans – indeed all they’ll do is confirm all of the doubts of the unconvinced – but they will intrigue his army of devoted followers. The DVD featuring all three films, plus The Amputee (1974), The Frenchman and the Cowboy (1988) and Lumière (1996), was available from the David Lynch website either as a standalone disc or bundled with the disc for Eraserhead. Since the demise of the site finding the disc has become problematic.