This week on TCM Underground: David Lynch’s old shorts!


 I don’t mean his old underwear – how weird would that be? No, I mean the short films that David Lynch made before he went long form with ERASERHEAD (1977) and wormed his way into our collective unconscious. Lynch has been for so long a Zen paterfamilias to the deeply strange that it is difficult for many of us to imagine him as a student, much less as an impressionable young man. Lynch was precisely that in 1968 as a student of painting at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Married in 1967 to fellow art student Peggy Reavy and the father of an infant daughter at age 22, Lynch shifted his academic focus from fine art to moving pictures. His first effort in the new medium was the animated short subject SIX MEN GETTING SICK (SIX TIMES), completed in 1966 and described by the ebullient first-time filmmaker as “fifty-seven seconds of growth and fire, and three seconds of vomit.” Exhilarated by the process, Lynch bought his own 16mm camera, a used Bolex that set him back $478.28 and which he put to work on other projects – one of the first of which was THE ALPHABET (1968).


Funded by his father and the loan of $1,000 from a fellow student — and inspired, it’s worth noting — by an actual nightmare, THE ALPHABET was for Lynch a cinematic crucible in which he could smelt his anxieties about school and fatherhood, depicting as it does a woman (Reavy) who slumbers fitfully while a disembodied voice recites the alphabet; in time, the woman hemorrhages violently amid a welter of spermatazoid squiggles (later to turn up in ERASERHEAD) . Encouraged to send the short to the American Film Institute in Hollywood, Lynch was awarded by the AFI with production funds for his next project…


Obsessed as it is with the messier side of conception, consumption, birth, life, death, decay, and every conflicting/confounding emotion/impulse in-between and beyond, David Lynch’s 34-minute THE GRANDMOTHER (1970) might be viewed as a dry run for his feature film directorial debut – though THE GRANDMOTHER is anything but dry. Lynch used a $7,000 grant from the AFI to write, direct, photograph, and animate this tale of an unloved young boy, the offspring of brutal and bestial parents, who grows a surrogate grandmother from a seed. The finished product helped the fledgling filmmaker gain entre to the AFI’s Hollywood branch. Moving from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in 1971, Lynch began his studies at the AFI’s Center for Advanced Film Studies under Czech emigre filmmaker Frantiek “Frank” Daniel: a path that led directly to ERASERHEADTHE GRANDMOTHER‘s evocatively sooty interiors were shot at Philadelphia’s Peale House, a former hotel owned by Lynch’s alma mater. The short’s sound editor, Alan Splet, would collaborate with Lynch on every one of his films through BLUE VELVET (1986) and win a 1980 Academy Award for special sound effects for Carroll Ballard’s THE BLACK STALLION (1979).


“Catherine is in a chair and she is a double amputee. And she is going over a letter that she has written. And she’s reading it aloud to herself, in her head. And a doctor comes in – that’s me – just to clean the ends of the stumps. And that’s it.”

Growing tired of academia, Lynch was champing at the bit to quit the classroom and dive into practical filmmaking. Beginning work on ERASERHEAD in 1972, he experienced many setbacks and caesurae and it was during one of these lulls that  he learned that his ERASERHEAD cinematographer Frederick Elmes had been assigned to test out two different brands of black-and-white video stock that the AFI was considering buying. Though Elmes had planned to use simple test patterns for the comparison, Lynch convinced him to make a short film in two versions; Elmes agreed and Lynch dashed off a quick script. In both versions of THE AMPUTEE (1974), Catherine Coulson (then married to Lynch’s ERASERHEAD leading man Jack Nance, Coulson — who passed away in September 2015 — was also Lynch’s assistant director) plays a bilateral amputee who sits composing an angry letter while a male nurse (Lynch) cleans and re-bandages her stumps.


Even after he became a feature film director, Lynch never entirely abandoned short form filmmaking. In addition to a number of television commercials, Lynch participated in a 100th anniversary celebration of the first public film exhibition by French cinema pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière. LUMIÈRE ET COMPAGNIE (US: LUMIÈRE AND COMPANY, 1995) was anthology of tribute films crafted by 40 filmmakers from around the world, each using a recreation of the Lumières’ hand-cranked Cinematograph camera (patented in 1895). Lynch’s PREMONITIONS FOLLOWING AN EVIL DEED (1995) was his first short film since the 1970s and also, at only 55 seconds, his shortest. Opening with a true crime style shot of uniformed policemen advancing across a vacant lot towards the body of a teenage boy, PREMONITIONS echoes the introduction of TWIN PEAKS’ dead Laura Palmer and the discovery of the severed ear in BLUE VELVET before veering off unexpectedly to the interior of an extraterrestrial spacecraft, where a naked human struggles helplessly in a fluid-filled tank while mush-faced aliens beaver about, oblivious to her agonies. Though he was accustomed to a high level of technical proficiency on his films, Lynch warmed to the restrictions imposed on this project: no electric lights, no live sound, and no more than three cuts. “It was a great experience. Pure Heaven,” Lynch later said about contributing to LUMIÈRE ET COMPAGNIE. “I love restrictions.”


In addition to Lynch’s seminal SIX MEN GETTING SICK (SIX TIMES), our TCM Underground spotlight on David Lynch’s non-feature films includes several of his animated DUMLAND cartoons, which Lynch created in 2002 for his personal website.


4 Responses This week on TCM Underground: David Lynch’s old shorts!
Posted By Ben Martin : May 5, 2016 2:09 pm

My favorite David Lynch film is still ERASERHEAD but it is followed in close second place by his director for hire work on the utterly stunning THE ELEPHANT MAN. ["Oh yes Ben that's a good movie but so utterly sad i can't watch it again." "Really? To me its just the opposite."] After that there has been wonderful work (BLUE VELVET) but often I’m fairly ambivalent to his movies (LOST HIGHWAY) or downright hostile (WILD AT HEART). But every short of his I have seen I find enthralling, somehow both vivid and vague at the same time, and fascinating. Perhaps the short subject is, in the end, his true “sweet spot”.

Posted By SpellChecker : May 5, 2016 2:09 pm

It’s Jack Nance who starred in Eraserhead.

Posted By Doug : May 5, 2016 10:34 pm

I still have the oversized postcard of Sailor and Lula that were given out at the opening of “Wild At Heart”. The audience was in perfect tune-every nuance was appreciated, every line/action.
May pull the Blu ray out and watch it tonight.

Posted By Jean : May 9, 2016 8:53 pm

I thought that the showing of that disgusting DumLand program was a very bad choice for your station. If I read this correctly He made this for his private collection. That is where it should have stayed!

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