Absurd Encounter with Fear (1967)
Fictitious Anacin Commercial (1967)
The Alphabet (1968)
The Grandmother (1970)
The Amputee (1974)
David Lynch was, as you probably guessed, weird right from the start of his directing career. In the years before he made Eraserhead, he directed some very strange short films – as art projects, school projects, etc. – or seemingly just to amuse himself. If you enjoy the works of David Lynch, than these first six shorts are a must-see – not because any of them are truly great (they are not) – but because they certainly do show the roots of Lynch’s career – his dark sense of humor, and his penchant for weirdness.
The first short he ever made was Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) in 1966 – and it was designed to be a “moving painting” – and in doing that, Lynch has succeeded. The film runs about 4 minutes, and is precisely what the title says it is – a moving painting of six men (or figures) who literally vomit, and then the whole process starts again and runs six times. The moving painting is, in a word, weird. The film starts with the six floating heads – and then gradually their internal organs appear, fill with some sort of red liquid, which rises through the bodies and then is vomited out the mouth. On the soundtrack, is the sound of a siren. That’s it, that’s all there is. The film is strange to say the least, and yes it is repetitive by design. It’s also rather haunting and disgusting, again by design. It’s not really a film – but it feels like precisely what it was – a student art project. On that level, it’s interesting, and shows us the fucked up stuff going on in a young David Lynch’s mind. It’s probably of no interest to anyone note a Lynch fan – but to those of us who are, it’s great.
The next film I saw was from the following year - the appropriately titled Absurd Encounter with Fear (1967). It runs all of two minutes – and has a man slowly approach a woman in a field sitting alone in a field. The man stands over the woman – undoes his fly and then starts taking out a series of unexpected items before collapsing. Oh, and the man’s skin is blue. Lynch’s use of horror-film type music here precludes his later films, and he builds a palpable sense of fear and dread throughout the 2 minutes. The whole thing is an experiment to be sure – something a young artist makes to see if he can – and by itself, it’s pretty meaningless. But it’s certainly interesting to see.
Perhaps the biggest oddity of these six shorts was made that same year – entitled Fictitious Anacin Commercial (1967) – and it precisely what the title implies (Lynch’s titles tended to be very literal at this time). For those who don’t know, Anacin is like Aspirin – a headache reliever. The short, 1 minute, film has a man with a pounding headache – another man holding up a box of Anacin, which apparently the first man takes, and he goes from in pain to frolicking in a matter of seconds. It is, in short, precisely like real headache pill commercials – that haven’t much changed in the nearly 50 years since Lynch made the film. The odd part of the film is twofold – the first being that the man with the headache doesn’t just do the typical “touch the side of my head to show I have a headache” thing – but actually writhes around on the ground as if he’s dying. The second is that the man holding the Anacin box doesn’t look like the type of guy you would expect in a commercial like this – he’s older, he has a bushy beard – and Lynch flashes to him so many times holding that Anacin package that it becomes comical. Why did Lynch make this? I have no clue. It’s amusing though.
As strange and somewhat interesting as those first three films are, The Alphabet (1968) is really Lynch’s first real short that is a must-see for fans. A mixture of live action and animation, The Alphabet is a surreal, disturbing film about a young girl’s maturation into a woman. Lynch says the movie was inspired by his wife, whose niece was having a bad dream, and repeating the alphabet song in her sleep. Lynch turns that into the nightmare we see in the film – as the young girl, while sleeping, hears the alphabet song – we see her strange, animated dream – which grows more sexual and disturbing, before the great finale – in which she spews blood. The film is about the terrifying, and bloody, transition to womanhood – and is the first time Lynch seems to working at full capacity. This film was what really put Lynch on the map - and allowed him to make his follow-up film.
Made in 1970, The Grandmother was Lynch’s longest film up to that point by a large margin. Running 33 minutes, The Grandmother, like The Alphabet, tells a terrifying story of a child’s nightmare existence. The young boy in the film is alternately ignored and abused by his uncaring parents. He plants a seed, and from that grows a kindly grandmother – the only person who actually cares about him. Lynch uses no dialogue in the film – the parents speak in animal sounds, which makes them creepier. The birthing sequence of the Grandmother is visceral, bloody and disturbing. Lynch, again, mixes live action with animation to create a terrifying view of childhood – one in which his main character is forced to confront the horrors of what he sees, and move onto in adulthood with no parental love. If someone told me the little boy in The Grandmother grew up to me the main character in Eraserhead – I would believe them.
The final film Lynch made before completing Eraserhead was The Amputee – and unlike The Alphabet and The Grandmother, it’s more of an experiment than anything else. Lynch had already started shooting Eraserhead, but ran out of money. Frederick Elms was at the AFI, and was tasked with testing two different types of black and white video – and Lynch asked if he could shoot something on both for the test. The result is two versions of the same 4 minute short – where a young woman who has had both legs amputated writes a long, meandering, melodramatic letter to someone, while her nurse (Lynch himself – although he may be playing a woman) cleaning up one of the amputated stumps. Things go horribly wrong, and the stump becomes a bloody mess, and the nurse tries to clean it up, while the woman keeps on writing her letter as if nothing has happened. The whole thing is rather amusing, but after both The Alphabet and The Grandmother, kind of a letdown – watching them twice (one on each video type) doesn’t help.
Overall, these six early shorts are worth watching for Lynch films – in particular The Alphabet and The Grandmother, which are the two that really show why Lynch built up his reputation before finally completing Eraserhead. The rest are curiosity pieces at best – but if you like Lynch, you know you’re curious.