David Lynch. His name alone suggests both the familiar and the strange. David. Sure. Lynch? Oh… No wonder then that his films are that exact combination of bizarre and mundane. Lynch is a feeling that gets caught somewhere in between your throat and your stomach. You can be simultaneously be comforted by the visual cliches – a man watering his rose bushes, a femme fatale singing in a nightclub – and terrified by the uncanny sounds and images – a barely loveable baby, a deformed grown man.
So what with the premiere of the Twin Peaks reboot last month and Mulholland Dr. topping the “Best of the Decade” lists, it’s worth taking a look at where it all started for one of cinema’s most distinct – and quite frankly, freakish — auteurs.
David Lynch actually began his artistic training as a painter, at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia – a city whose industrial grittiness later became the backdrop and star of Eraserhead. His inspiration to make films is said to have come from seeing a gust of wind blow into his studio one day and picturing the painting he was working on become animated. Indeed, his short films — and arguably all of his films — can best be described as “paintings that could move”. Sure, it’s a nice anecdote and good analogy for film, but if we dig a little deeper, we can begin to see major components and themes within his work. For starters, the idea of wind moving a painting speaks to the wind, a tactile and auditory source, as a force. Like smoke, it can’t be tied down. These untamable and untraceable forces are present throughout all of his work. No doubt, Lynch isn’t interested in using psychology to explain his characters’ motives. After all, the “why?” that follows the “who killed Laura Palmer?” leads to psychic and metaphysical debates rather than psychological ones.
[…] Lynch isn’t interested in using psychology to explain his characters’ motives. After all, the “why?” that follows the “who killed Laura Palmer?” leads to psychic and metaphysical debates rather than psychological ones.
So, that being said, his early short films, – or as Lynch called them “industrial symphonies” — such as 6 Men Getting Sick (6 Times) and The Alphabet, are deeply invested in these surreal animating forces.
6 Men Getting Sick (6 Times) from 1966-7 is a 1 minute animated short shown on a loop, with a siren as an accompaniment. When I first saw this short when it appeared on Netflix in Canada and was swiftly removed, I couldn’t stand it. I was about 15 or 16 years old and had just seen Mulholland Dr. I was expecting something grander. The sharp siren and seemingly senseless repetition seemed a far cry from “silencio”. But since then, I’ve studied it in a seminar and have been forced to watch it over and over and over again. Like way more than 6 times.
The film is pretty faithful to the title. 6 men get sick. 6 times. The repetition, of course, is key. It is what animates and activates the film. The sickness of the 6 men builds up until by the end, we the viewer are left feeling sick. That’s often the feeling I’m left with after watching a Lynch film. I feel sick, but vomiting however many times won’t chase away that nauseating feeling. But it’s not a bad feeling. In fact, the discomfort is the very reason why I’ll watch and re-watch his films.
But it’s not a bad feeling. In fact, the discomfort is the very reason why I’ll watch and re-watch his films.
We see the men’s sickness through their x-rayed bodies filling up with paint, which they proceed to pour out. Lynch knows his film history and reminds us of the fact The Lumiere Brothers also invented the X-ray. What is the mission of cinema if not getting inside and under the skin of what and whoever is depicted? But if X-rays get under the skin and expose the bone, then they are also flat depictions of the body. Lynch’s animation of the bodies showcases the body as something in continuous progress, even as it empties itself. It is in a constant state of making and unmaking itself. In a way, Lynch is making up for the two-dimensionality of the screen and of the X-ray by painting the outsides and insides of the bodies. The viewer is equally filled up with questions about these bodies. Is the body empty or did it just fill up again, only to be emptied another time? If anywhere, the vomit remains in the mind of the spectator who accumulates it in their mind through watching. And the siren that I once found so eery is a kind of sonic stand-in for the retching and the crying. It’s a great lesson in using non-diegetic sound as a means to evoke a contagious sensation.
The Alphabet from 1968 is loosely framed as a little girl’s nightmare. Lynch and dreams go hand in hand. What’s most interesting about the way in which Lynch shoots dreams and nightmares are that they are never explicitly coded as dreams. There is no shot of someone falling asleep, a pan up towards the heavens or zoom into their slumbering face. Rather, dream-world and real-world intermesh. He creates dream sequences that cannot be dismissed as being “just” a dream.
Again here, Lynch is playing with repetition and patterns. The alphabet has a clear beginning and end. We know what comes next. So what does it mean when the alphabet, along with its childlike connotations, is twisted into a surrealist nightmare? Do the letters change the meaning? Once again, the sound of wind hisses in the background, as if moving the letters along. If letters are the basis of language and expression, then how do we make sense of haptic and affective experiences that are not rooted in language?
6 Men Getting Sick (6 Times) and The Alphabet are early examples of David Lynch’s preoccupation with surreal forces and non-narrative structures. Like Mulholland Dr. and many episodes of Twin Peaks, the surreal guides you towards a feeling that requires more than an alphabet to articulate.
Related Topics: David Lynch