A Guide to Lynchian Moments in ‘The Short Films of David Lynch’

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In his 1995 essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” David Foster Wallace has trouble finding a place for the filmmaker David Lynch. Lynch’s films straddle genres; as Wallace notes, their appeal extends to the Hollywood crowd, and curiously retracts from it. Perhaps the only thing one can say about a Lynch film with any certainty is that it’s inherently Lynchian – but what exactly does that mean? Wallace seeks an answer. Lynchian might refer “to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter,” he writes in a mock academic tone. “But like postmodern or pornographic,” Wallace continues, “Lynchian is one of those Potter Stewart-type words that’s definable only ostensively – i.e. we know it when we see it. Ted Bundy wasn’t particularly Lynchian, but good old Jeffrey Dahmer, with his victim’s various anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk and Shedd Spread was thoroughgoingly Lynchian.”

Of course, “Lynchian” can’t really mean anything – it’s not a tangible thing, but rather that unpindownable something that makes Lynch’s films remarkable, and in some cases, terrible. To the notion of “Lynchian,” we might apply the words of the critic Paul Taylor, when he said that Lynch’s films are “to be experienced rather than explained.” Nonetheless, a little elucidation wouldn’t go amiss. With Lynch’s shorter, weirder films streaming on Hulu through the weekend (you can watch them on YouTube), here’s our humble endeavor to shed some clarity on the crazy brilliance that is the mind of David Lynch.

“Six Men Getting Sick,” 1966

When Pauline Kael left the cinema after a screening of Blue Velvet, she overheard another moviegoer saying, “Maybe I’m sick, but I want to see that again.” With “Six Men Getting Sick,” whether or not you want to, you will see it again. Six times, in fact, in this short film that was made (ahem) in 1966. Though the numbers suggest some order in the piece, they’re not what’s Lynchian about the film; there is a semblance of order, but really it’s chaos. Perhaps what is most Lynchian about the film is the viewer’s exposure to the repeated vomiting as the six grim charcoal figures move their limbs with sharp, staccato movements, convulsing to produce streams of pink vomit that pour out of their mouths like paint. In fact, the entire piece looks something like a Francis Bacon-illustrated cartoon, plenty of gray and black interposed with splashes of intestinal color.

“The Alphabet,” 1968

If David Lynch were allowed to be a kindergarten teacher, this might be his method of teaching kids the ABCs. While there’s something strangely soothing, mesmerizing even, about the film’s animated A-Z sequence, that feeling soon dissipates, leaving sheer discomfort and bemusement – cue screeching noises, and at the end, Peggy Lynch (the director’s first wife) casually reciting the alphabet while reclining on blood-splattered sheets. The Francis Bacon theme we saw in the first film continues with “The Alphabet,” where one scene in particular – in which a body morphs into being, doing the inverse of what a Bacon painting does to disembodied bodies – seems to have been pulled from Bacon’s Study For a Portrait Bed. As if a Bacon painting stirring to life isn’t eerie enough, there’s also the sound of kids chanting “ABC” in creepy kid voices. Terrifying stuff.

“The Amputee,” 1974

A woman (Catherine E. Coulson

, aka the log lady from Twin Peaks) sits on an armchair, writing a letter. It is an unremarkable scene, except, we realize, something’s off; the screen is fuzzy and we notice that the lady is missing her legs. “This isn’t what I’m telling you,” she begins her letter, addressed to her partner and narrated in that dear-reader-I’m-writing-a-letter voice. But the woman does go on to reveal small details of her marriage. Like how furious she is about Helen – who we’re told is her best friend and who we suspect has been doing more than drinking gin with her husband – and about a curious figure called Jim, with whom she too may have had an affair. While we struggle to form a complete image of her life from the letter (we also don’t know how she’s lost her legs), what is most unnerving is what’s going on around her: the shufflings of a nurse tending to her amputated wound, trimming at the cast wrapped around the woman’s knee with a pair of clippers, and the sight of water leaking from the limb after it’s been washed, as though from a dripping tap.

“The Grandmother,” 1970

The longest of Lynch’s shorts tells the story of a dysfunctional family (imagine what would happen if Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth and Morticia Addams raised a family) in which the mother and father beat their son. The boy opens the door to another room – and as it goes in a Lynch film, to another world – to find a bag of seeds, which he commences to spread across his bed, planting a stone in the middle, and watering it to grow. After a few days, sure enough, some ambiguous Baconian figure is in its place and, naturally, it gives birth to an old woman – the grandmother, who protects and looks over the boy. Complete with wheezing sounds, odd instrumental music, and strange “art” scenes, this is perhaps the most tedious of the shorts to watch, though it’s the most fleshed out in terms of a story, albeit a very disturbing one.

“Premonition Following an Evil Deed,” 1995

The most recent – and shortest – short in the collection, this bizarre little film hasn’t much of a storyline. Rather, it’s a montage of somehow related events: a fallen man, a fire (a recurring leitmotif in Lynch’s movies), a pack of bobble-headed men taunting a naked woman in a case of water, and a family in a suburban-looking house having a visit from a strange man (another Lynch trend: creepy suburbia, and an abundance of strange men). Though what you see is compelling, alone, the vignettes are of little relevance; it’s how you put them together that counts, how they’re interpreted and experienced. As Wallace aptly wrote, Lynch’s only agenda may be “just to get inside your head. He seems to care more about penetrating your head than about what he does once he’s in there.” The rest is up to the viewer.