Six Men Getting Sick

Format: DVD

Distributor: Scanbox

Release date: 20 October 2008

Director: David Lynch

Writer: David Lynch

Cast: David Lynch, Richard White, Dorothy McGinnis, Virginia Maitland, Robert Chadwick, Catherine E Coulson, Harry Dean Stanton, Jack Nance

USA 1969-95

90 mins

To mark the DVD release of The Short Films of David Lynch, which coincides with a new print of Eraserhead, Alex Fitch sat down with the artist Tom Humberstone to discuss Lynch’s short films within the context of his career as a whole as well as their relation to late 20th-century filmmaking on both sides of the Atlantic.

Tom Humberstone: I’m not sure if I was in the best frame of mind when I watched his shorts, having just had an agonising trip to the dentist…

Alex Fitch: They do look like visions of a disturbed mind, so perhaps you were in exactly the right mental condition to appreciate them!

TH:Perhaps! I can’t remember who said that the true sign of an artistic masterpiece is when the art transcends the artist’s original intent, and it can be interpreted in a thousand different ways by a thousand different people. I’m not sure I agree with that, but it seems very apt for describing Lynch’s work, because he creates films that aren’t necessarily meant to be understood…

AF: Well, some of them are wilfully obscure – he does it on purpose…

TH: He’s said as much – that when he starts a film he doesn’t necessarily know where it’s going to end. So it frustrated me that everybody was trying to figure out Mullholland Drive when it came out. You had these ‘cheat sheets’ on the internet where you could see all the signs listed that you were supposed to pick up on. But it completely defeats the object of his films. You could obviously dissect the movies and try and work out what Lynch’s intentions were, but ultimately they mean what you want them to mean. There are exceptions to the rule, The Straight Story is exactly what the title implies…

AF: You mentioned Lynch when we were talking about Dark City last month – you said both his shorts and features, like Mullholland Drive, have a very elliptical dreamlike quality where things are presented as if in a traditional narrative, but that the images don’t actually add up to anything.

TH: Absolutely, they wash over you like a dream. There comes a point after the first act of most of his films where you give up trying to figure it all out and you give in to the dreamlike narrative and take from them what you can! Approaching the shorts on the DVD, I was reminded of my problem with experimental shorts and art-house films in general: if you’ve got the possibility of moving imagery and audio to accompany it, and you’re dealing with what is predominantly a narrative medium, I feel you have a responsibility to your audience to create something that does flow from a beginning to an end point.

AF: In terms of an emotional arc, if not one that makes actual narrative sense?

TH: Yes.

AF: In the introduction to his first short, Six Men Getting Sick, he says that he came to film as a painter who just wanted to animate a painting, but that after manipulating a moving image he wanted to become a filmmaker.

TH: That was an interesting film. Certainly the animation that was used in his early shorts is quite accomplished and reminiscent of early Terry Gilliam. I would be interested to find out if Gilliam was working concurrently and if one of them was influenced by the other?

AF: I think Gilliam started doing animation at art school earlier, but didn’t get his cartoons on to TV until after Lynch had made his first couple of shorts. Gilliam studied in LA and then moved to England to work on British TV while Lynch made his shorts in Philadelphia and then moved to LA to make Eraserhead. I don’t know how long it was before Monty Python appeared on American TV. Maybe there was just a certain school of thought in experimental animation in America at the time!

TH: Absolutely! I found the imagery really interesting – even then it was clear that he had a way with images – and there are stylistic conceits there that are fascinating already, but Six Men Getting Sick is an incredibly difficult short to watch. The police siren was hell! Once I’d seen the sequence and realised it was just going to repeat six times, I questioned why I was still watching it.

AF: Well, you almost expected it to be a trick, that it would start to change, that he was having you on and it was different and you almost start seeing things in a way: ‘I’m sure that was different to the last version!’

TH: Maybe that’s the point, but I don’t care, it infuriated me! It reminded me of that scene in Ghost World, where the teacher shows this black and white film that she’d made, and it’s just her repeating the words: ‘Mirror, Father, Mother’ and so on.

AF: I’ve seen awful experimental videos like that…

TH: If Six Men hadn’t been by David Lynch, would we be watching it and thinking, ‘Oh god, another terrible art student film’?

AF: The point is, if it wasn’t by David Lynch, it wouldn’t be on the DVD. It is interesting watching these films as the ‘archaeology’ of David Lynch, seeing him form his ideas. Maybe we expect too much of them. They were never meant to be shown to fans of a successful art-house filmmaker 30 or 40 years later.

TH: I went to see a retrospective of Tim Burton at the BFI and got to see a lot of his early shorts and it’s the same sort of thing – you can see the genesis of a lot of ideas and a certain style starting to form. A lot of these DVD collections of short films serve two main uses for budding filmmakers or budding artists. People always ask the question: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ So this is one way of seeing the germs and seeds of ideas. The other point is that they’re very inspirational: there’s nothing there to suggest, ‘My god, he’s going to become a great filmmaker’, and it’s encouraging to see that early amateurishness. I found I started to enjoy the shorts more as they went on, as he was getting a bit more funding – I assume – and as he was growing as a filmmaker. I was really encouraged to see The Cowboy and the Frenchman

AF: …although he made that much later in his career, after he had three or four features under his belt…

TH: …yeah, but it was nice to see David Lynch with a sense of humour by that stage! Basically, watching the shorts made me really glad that he ended up making features. His ideas and his stylistic approaches were given a structure. There were some really lovely visuals and concepts in the shorts, but what he really needed was the framework that you get from having to make a 90-minute film.

AF: Although it’s a shame that like Gilliam, he gave up animation. There are things he learned as an animator – like changing the speed of the camera and filming things backwards – that crop up in his later work, but no actual animation appears in his features, which is a shame because it works really well when it’s juxtaposed with the live action in shorts like The Grandmother and The Alphabet. There’s something profoundly dreamlike in those contrasts that he never quite got back to, no matter what tricks he used in terms of lighting or narrative or script construction in his later films.

Another thing you realise watching his shorts is that they do seem to contain a lot of references. For example, if you compare his work to that of Jan Å vankmajer, who was working on his shorts at exactly the same time and ironically made a short called House of Lynch, there are all these references to people being grown out of seeds and being born out of logs and turning into trees. It’s strange that experimental American animation should be so similar to Eastern European animation. We haven’t talked about The Amputee yet…

TH: The Amputee was horrible!

AF: Although, using Gilliam again as a reference, it’s that kind of British black comedy that certain Americans were attracted to, like Monty Python and early Kenny Everett, where you laugh at people having limbs cut off with arterial spray that no one seems to notice! I guess I found it funny and you found it disturbing…

TH: I’ve seen lots of gore and horror films, but The Amputee felt worryingly real. The one thing that struck me at that stage, watching the shorts, is how cold the actors reading the lines were…

AF: He’s never been an actors’ director…

TH: All his actors are so cold and stiff!

AF: …to the extent that there are scenes in The Grandmother, where he’s just using his actors as human puppets. He shoots a frame of them, moves their limbs a little bit, shoots another frame, moves their limbs a little bit more – he might as well be using mannequins instead of real people!

TH: He’s not a warm director. All these directors we’re talking about – Lynch, Gilliam, Burton – who are recognised as great visionaries…

AF: …all have problems directing humans and started off as animators…

Alex Fitch and Tom Humberstone