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DVD REVIEW: The Short Films of David Lynch
by The Ultimate Dancing Machine

If the fates had been less kind, David Lynch might have ended up as just another art-film maestro like Stan Brakhage or Michael Snow, a director of highly regarded but rarely seen movies. But somehow, his first feature, ERASERHEAD, became a cult item, a watershed for weird kids everywhere. I can recall my sixteen-year-old self staring dazedly at the screen as the closing credits for ERASERHEAD came up—the movie hit nerves I didn’t know I had in me, possibly because the film, in its elliptical way, touched on all kinds of adolescent anxieties. I’ve never gotten that thrill with any of Lynch’s subsequent projects. BLUE VELVET left me indifferent; WILD AT HEART—inexplicably that year’s big winner at Cannes—was an irritating mess; must I even mention DUNE? Lynch seemed to have lost his way: where ERASERHEAD was uncompromisingly authentic in its creation of a nightmare world, his later work was just ineffectually weirded out.

If Lynch’s “vision” carried more force back when he was a struggling art student, then this DVD edition of his early short films, coupled here with a few post-fame efforts, should be of more than just archival interest. Four of these six films were made before the initial theatrical run of Eraserhead (which was years in the making), in 1977. This DVD effectively fills in the gaps of Lynch’s early career, allowing us a valuable look into the evolution of one of the most original directors in the world.

These films aren’t central to Lynch’s achievement; he’s famous because of his features, not for these relatively off-the-cuff efforts. Viewers will have to decide for themselves whether they’re worth the $39.95 (U.S.) plus shipping that it’s going for on his official website (, as yet the only place you can get the DVD.

Of the six films, at least two are excellent, and a few others rise to the level of interesting curio. Each film is prefaced by a brief on-camera intro by Lynch in which he chats about the circumstances of its origin. These segments are straightforward and reveal very little about the “meaning” of the films—perhaps wisely. In order, the shorts are

Six Men Getting Sick (1967; 1 minute; “projected on sculptured screen”). Lynch’s first film, this sketchy-looking animated short was displayed in an art installation. Six heads, arranged in a horizontal row across the screen, become visibly ill and finally vomit. I guess Lynch had to start somewhere. Moving on…

The Alphabet (1968; 4 min.; 16mm). Lynch’s first real film, it’s a genuinely creepy part-animated, part-live action effort that resembles a demented Sesame Street skit. A disembodied voice recites the alphabet as a young girl wanders about a surreal bedroom landscape. Recalling the moody world of Eraserhead, with a similar blackout ending, this is definitely worth watching for fans of early Lynch. Pound for pound, minute for minute, this may be the best film of the lot.

The Grandmother (1970; 34 min.; 16mm). Another venture into pre-adolescent terror, this is a compellingly atmospheric film similar to The Alphabet. It includes a brilliantly cacophonous soundtrack and strange animated sequences. The enigmatic scenario features a lonely boy who literally grows an old woman out of a pile of seeds on his bed.

The Amputee (1973; 5 & 4 min.; video). The disc contains two very similar versions of this short, made during the production of Eraserhead. Neither is worth much. Filmed in a single continuous shot, it has a double-amputee who writes a letter to an acquaintance (recited in voiceover) while a doctor (Lynch) tends to her stumps. It has the feel of a grotesque joke that doesn’t quite come off.

The Cowboy and the Frenchman (1988; 26 min.; 35mm). Here’s a pleasant change of pace. Made for French TV, the corn-pone plot has a crusty rancher (Harry Dean Stanton) who receives a visit from a mustachioed Frenchman. It’s Lynch at his most fluffy, and while this film is no great achievement, it provides a few decent chuckles.

Lumiere (1995; 1 min.; 35mm). This is Lynch’s contribution to the omnibus movie Lumiere and Company. He filmed it with an authentic turn-of-the-century Lumiere camera, which can hold only 55 seconds worth of film. The short depicts a few tantalizing silent-movie scenes in quick succession—nicely done, but like Six Men Getting Sick, it doesn’t add up to anything.

The DVD includes an odd but useful feature under the title “TV Calibration.” Click on this and you receive instructions on adjusting the color and brightness controls on your television. Why didn’t anybody think of this before? (I still can’t get the reds to come out right, but that’s probably my fault.)

A well-produced disc, containing more hits than misses, it’s worth owning if you have an extra forty bucks in the cookie jar.

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originally posted: 12/31/02 18:20:32
last updated: 01/02/04 17:26:49
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