“Six Figures Getting Sick” (1967)
The first movie David Lynch ever made, “Six Figures Getting Sick” lays the foundation for the years of warped vision that would follow. Made over Lynch’s 1967 semester at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, this nearly one-minute short film packs more transfixing oddities than most experimental features could ever dream of. In typical Lynch fashion, the movie has almost no plot but is dense in mood, atmosphere and visual metaphor. The director loops a painting he made four times and accompanies the visuals with the sounds of sirens wailing. Just as the title suggests, the moving painting involves six abstract figures all in some kind of agony. As their organs become visible, their stomachs fill with a brightly red-colored substance, which travels up through their bodies and causes them to vomit. Deceptively simple and abstractly grotesque, “Six Figures Getting Sick” shows the visual and aural nature Lynch prides himself on. Seeing it might not make sense, but hearing it and experiencing it absolutely does — such is the lynchpin of the auteur filmmaker. The short is available on “The Short Films of David Lynch” DVD collection. Watch on YouTube.
“The Grandmother” (1970)
The first film Lynch ever made with the American Film Institute (he received a grant for $5,000 based on a script treatment he wrote for the film and the success of his 1968 short “The Alphabet”), this 35-minute short is more or less the first major film the director made given its length and style. He imaginatively blends live action filmmaking with animation to weave a tale about childhood innocence and parental bonding. Richard White plays a young boy who escapes the neglect and abuse of his parents by growing his very own grandmother (Dorothy McGinnis) from magical seeds he finds. The Boy himself seems to be the product of herbal humanity if the introduction is any indication, but like most Lynch movies, describing the events of the film only elicit more head-scratching mysteries. What is proven by this short is Lynch’s mastery of tone. Completely dialogue-free, “The Grandmother” is carried by its aural landscape, from mediative musical cues to moaning character screeches that rattle, awaken and disorient the viewer at every turn. With its use of de-saturated color and pale face makeup, “The Grandmother” has the aesthetic of a visual ghost story, something Lynch clearly relishes given his blending of filmmaking styles and visual realities over the runtime. Watch the short on YouTube or in “The Short Films of David Lynch” DVD collection.
“The Cowboy and the Frenchman” (1988)
After the international success of “Blue Velvet,” Lynch was approached by Fiagaro Magazine and Erato Films to create a short as a part of the television series “The French as Seen By…” The director was hesitant at first but soon caught wind of an idea, which gave rise to his most slapstick work yet, “The Cowboy and the Frenchman.” Set in Lynch’s version of the Wild West at the turn of the 20th century, the 26-minute short centers on three cowboys who encounter a mysterious Frenchman and struggle to understand his motives and intensions given their obvious cultural and lingual differences. The short is relatively light, fluffy and comical when put in line with Lynch’s other fare, but it absolutely stays true to the absurdist touches the director is most well known for. “The Cowboy and the Frenchman” is Lynch showing a side of himself so unabashedly free that it might just be the loosest we’ll ever see him. Watch on YouTube.
The most uproariously funny work of Lynch’s entire career, “DumbLand” is without question the director at his most inanely crude. A series of eight shorts all written, directed and voiced by Lynch, “DumbLand” has a very simple animated style (all black and white colors and poorly drawn objects and characters) that manages to turn the suburban doldrums into abstract art. Lynch voices an irascible white trash man named Randy who strikes up vulgar fights and conversations with his neighbors (one of which is having sex with a duck) and his wife (running on the treadmill during a football game was probably not the best idea). What starts as an agitated look at dry domesticity (the treadmill bit, for instance) slowly explodes into a surrealist comedy akin to Lynch’s best tendencies. By the time Randy is battling an army of ant invaders set on conquering his home, it’s clear “DumbLand” is Lynch at his most unhinged, and thank God for that. Watch on YouTube.
“The Straight Story” (1999)
Somewhere in between the genius of “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive,” Lynch found time to direct this Disney-backed biopic of Alvin Straight, who embarked on a trip from Iowa to Wisconsin using a lawn mower. Straight was a WWII veteran who couldn’t obtain a license because of his impaired legs and eyesight, so he hitched a trailer to his lawn mower and set out to Wisconsin in order to visit his brother, who was recovering from a stroke. The pairing of Lynch and Disney is an odd one on paper, but something about the company’s penchant for inspirational true stories and the director’s knack for absurdist tales combines rather brilliantly here into one special whole. Relishing in a grounded naturalness that stands in direct contrast to his usual heightened atmosphere, Lynch obtains a realism he never has before. His dialogue, visuals and character work all ground the story in real life, making Straight’s triumph all the more visceral.
As peculiar as it is hypnotizing, Lynch’s series of experimental horror-comedy shorts acts as a bafflingly appropriate bridge between the satirical mysteries of “Mulholland Drive” and the grungy horror weirdness of “Inland Empire.” Scott Coffey, Laura Elena Harring and Naomi Watts play three humanoid rabbits stuck in a set that resembles something along the lines of a 1950s sitcom living room gone to shit. Each episode revels around seemingly incoherent non-sequiters, and the only things connecting each part to the next are the characters themselves, the set and an awkwardly timed audience laugh track that is used to disorient rather than encourage audience participation. This off-kilter experiment in surrealism and genre sends the American family comedy to an obsolete and incoherent place its never been. Guided by Lynch, “Rabbits” is its own puzzling critique of domestic comedies. Watch on YouTube.
Shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, “Absurda” might just be two of the scariest and most uncomfortable minutes Lynch has ever created. In what might just be a self-critique of watching his own works or a larger statement on watching modern movies in a theater setting, Lynch remain ambitious while remaining precise in execution. The short consists of one stationary shot that shows a movie screen in a theater projecting nightmarish imagery. Four boys can be heard watching the movie, though the viewer never gets a glimpse of their bodies. Instead, Lynch bombards the audience with bloody faces, protruding scissors and dream-like sounds, among other visual and aural cues, creating a meta theatrical experience that demands meditation and contemplation afterwards. Watch on Youtube.