By Tessa Mediano
If we take our x-axis to represent time and our y-axis to represent accessibility, it can be said that David Lynch’s cinematic career is a bell curve. The origins and the final works of his oeuvre are uncanny in their shared moods, themes and influences. Naturally, the director’s artistic development throughout the years casts a rather primitive shadow on his first forays into the world of film, but regardless, shorts such as SIX MEN GETTING SICK, THE ALPHABET, and THE GRANDMOTHER offer valuable insight into the ideological motivations behind Lynch’s filmic productions.
Perhaps the most notable characteristic of the trio of short pictures is their dark compositions. THE ALPHABET and THE GRANDMOTHER are almost exclusively shot indoors, with dark lighting and human characters wearing severe makeup that makes them look like deathly figures. The overall effect is morbid and unnatural, which is fitting considering the plots of the two films. THE ALPHABET centers on a young girl having a nightmare about the letters of the alphabet, while THE GRANDMOTHER deals with an abused and neglected boy who grows a grandmother to love him and to love in return. It is worth noting here that hinging plots on young, troubled protagonists is an element Lynch will turn to in many of his future films.
Nevertheless, though Lynch’s later works, such as LOST HIGHWAY, MULHOLLAND DRIVE and INLAND EMPIRE are equally as sinister and layered as the above-mentioned shorts, there are some key differences. For instance, the three full-length films take place firmly in the adult world. The mind-bending, terror-inducing labyrinths that the characters in LOST HIGHWAY and inland empire find themselves in are mainly a result of their own decisions, as well as those of the adults around them. In this sense, Lynch’s short films, particularly THE GRANDMOTHER, bear a greater resemblance to his middle period films, such as BLUE VELVET and WILD AT HEART, which see teenaged protagonists wishing to effect change on the sinister, mystifying world surrounding them.
Additionally, Lynch’s later films rely less heavily on surrealist symbolism and more on pure abstraction. Here it is important to remember that Lynch was an art student before he began experimenting with film, though it is fairly obvious to anyone who watches SIX MEN GETTING SICK (SIX TIMES) and even his more developed shorts. SIX MEN is hard to categorize as a film, as it is essentially a time lapse of a drawing’s evolution repeated six times. There is a tangible quality of the bizarre in the film, partly due to its uniquely unsettling format that leaves the viewer uncertain as to what exactly is taking place (despite the direct title). Furthermore, hints of a strong surrealist influence begin to creep their way into certain shots of SIX MEN.
It is in THE ALPHABET and THE GRANDMOTHER, though, that surrealist motifs are present to a far larger extent. THE ALPHABET jumps from live-action sequences to animated illustrations of upper-case As giving birth to lower-case As, and utilizes psychosexual imagery to make the viewer question the relationship between language, reproduction and terror. THE GRANDMOTHER also blends animation and live-action, but focuses more on (dysfunctional) family structure as opposed to language. Lynch depicts the interactions between the central character and his parents as primitive and Oedipal, with the father and mother literally barking at and abusing their son. It is clear that here he is likening the two adults to dumb beasts. Regardless of whether this is a commentary on all parents or just a specific onset, the auteur is making a bold and disturbing statement through such an analogy.
In conclusion, it is also worth noting another major difference between David Lynch’s shorts and his full-length films, and that is the quality of the editing. To advance his ideas in THE ALPHABET and THE GRANDMOTHER, Lynch relies more on the action taking place within a scene, rather than the order of the scenes themselves. His later films, such as MULHOLLAND DRIVE and INLAND EMPIRE, are more successful at juxtaposing scenes to reflect the tortured and disoriented states of mind of their protagonists.
The dark, surrealist elements introduced in shorts like SIX MEN GETTING SICK (SIX TIMES), THE ALPHABET and THE GRANDMOTHER have recurred throughout Lynch’s career in distinct and challenging ways. All in all, the short films discussed above are hardly masterpieces, but they do serve as a fascinating foundation of the Lynchian world.