Saturday, December 22, 2012

#147: David Lynch's Lumière Short (David Lynch, 1995)

Made for the 1995 anthology film Lumière and Company and originally untitled, Lynch's 55-second short film is and will undoubtedly remain the shortest film I review on this site. Later given the evocative titles Premonitions Following an Evil Deed and Monday Morning, Lynch's film was commissioned by French producers for the aforementioned anthology film celebrating the 100th year of cinema. 40 directors from around the world were given one of the original hand-cranked walnut wood cameras created by the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, when they started making films in Lyons, France in 1895. These directors were instructed to create one-reel shorts using the camera, with three ground rules: 1) The film must be 52 seconds long. 2) The sound must not be synchronized. 3) The filmmakers only get three takes. A few directors break these rules, sometimes purposefully (Spike Lee -- synch sound, Lynch - 55 seconds), sometimes accidentally (Idrissa Ouedraogo -- four takes), but for the most part, the strict parameters are followed. It's an interesting and mostly fruitful creative experiment, and Lynch's short is one of the best.
David Lynch has long been one of my favorite directors. I wish he'd make films more often, but I'm always grateful when another one comes around. Some detractors have accused him of a calculated weirdness for its own sake and an artistic disengagement from the real world, but I feel those critics are misreading him. His films are intensely personal, a multi-part autobiography of one man's dreams, nightmares, obsessions, feelings, instincts, and transformed memories creating a natural marriage of narrative and non-narrative cinema. These works are integrated experiences of light, sound design, shadow, performance, story, emotion, and movement, even a seriously flawed film like Dune. I feel very connected to his work, particularly its darker aspects, and I sometimes feel like he's channeled many of my inarticulate anxieties and fears into animate filmed objects and scenes.
His short film for the Lumière project plays like a distillation of his entire career up to that point, as well as a nod to the earliest Surrealist and imaginative silent films, particularly early Bunuel, early Lang, Murnau, and Feuillade. I'm going to break the 55-second film into its parts and relate it to images and scenes in Lynch's past work. I've embedded the film below so you can watch it first. If you want to see it in a larger version on your television screen, it is available on the Lumière and Company and Short Films of David Lynch DVDs. I recommend both collections. Here goes.
0:00-0:05: Three policemen walk toward the camera and the body of a woman. They appear to be in the yard of a home, possibly in a neighborhood, possibly a rural location. The yard is large, and a tree fills the left side of the frame. The policemen step over a short wooden fence to enter the yard. A house can be seen across the road in the distance. The woman's cheek appears to have a large black dot painted on it. The policemen walk quickly, with purpose. This segment looks the least trademark Lynchian and the most like a classic silent film. The policemen's stiff, synchronized body movements taken at medium shot within the frame call to mind the clipped pace and distance of many early silents, and the neighborhood lacks the crowded overdevelopment of modern life. However, the sound design is significantly representative of Lynch's body of work. His composer of choice, Angelo Badalamenti, provides a very Twin Peaks-esque musical background punctuated by occasional percussive industrial metallic rumbles. The woman's body and strange face paint echo the unsettling, strange discovery scenarios that begin both Blue Velvet and the first episode of Twin Peaks, and we're back in the B&W world of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man.
0:05-0:12: A crackling sound calling to mind both a campfire and a needle on a record soundtracks a fade to black, and Angelo Badalamenti's foreboding ambient score continues. The black fades back to white, and an anxious, nervous woman sits on a couch in a modest living room. The frame here is very Lynchian. The woman looks worriedly toward the right of the frame at something we can't see. She wears an apron over her clothes that matches the pattern of the drapes behind her. We may be in the same neighborhood that Kyle McLachlan and Laura Dern inhabit in Blue Velvet, but the century-old camera makes us feel this moment predates that film by many years. The woman also calls to mind a worried Grace Zabriskie waiting to hear news about her daughter in Twin Peaks. Is this worried woman connected to the lifeless woman discovered by the policemen in the previous scene?
0:12-0:23: The screen turns black for six full seconds. The next image we see is far stranger than the preceding images. Two women lie on a bed, one facing the camera, the other with her back to it. A third woman sits on the bed, facing the camera. The bed appears to be outdoors and is framed by trees on both the left and right. The right frame also contains a deer. The women appear to notice something outside of the frame, and the sitting woman stands up and walks toward it. The prone woman facing us gets on her hands and knees and crawls across the bed. Her nightgown is open, revealing her breasts. The frame flashes bright white. Who are these women? What is their role in this narrative? Is it a narrative at all? Why does the screen stay black for so long? Are these women being held against their will? Are these women cousins to the women in danger in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks? The crawling woman's movements echo Bob in Twin Peaks, but she seems the victim, not the aggressor. Her nudity connects her to the use of women's bodies in Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and much of Lynch's subsequent work.
0:23-0:36: The flash of white turns into smoke. The haze from the smoke provides an incomplete view of moving shapes. The smoke clears after three seconds, and the shapes become five strange beings in identical, nondescript dark uniforms. The creatures appear to be males with strange deformed faces. A nude woman floats in a large tank full of liquid. The beings walk around the tank, one holding a smoking round object while another taps on the tank's glass with another object. For the first time, the camera moves. It glides quickly toward the right, past a small spiral staircase before stopping on what appears to be a dark piece of cloth covering the frame. The deformed faces of the beings resemble aspects of the woman in the radiator in Eraserhead, certain alien species in Dune, and the real deformities of "elephant man" Joseph Merrick. Unlike those referents, these beings seem to have sinister motives. We've moved from possible murder mystery to surrealist abstraction to science fiction in 36 seconds.
0:36-0:55: The dark cloth bursts into flame and burns down the middle (shades of Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks, and what comes after) revealing the living room from the second sequence. The camera is farther from the action than in the second sequence, and we see the woman on the couch again as well as a man in an easy chair on the left. The camera is once again stationary. The woman gets up to answer the door. When she does, a shadowy figure on the outside of the window behind her moves synchronously with her. A policeman appears in the doorway, hat in hand, face grim. As he tells the couple (I'm assuming here that it is a couple) what is surely bad news, the shadowy figure appears in the window again, this time no longer in tandem with the woman but peering in and moving on its own. UPDATE: After watching the film again several hours after writing this post, I realized that the shadowy figure in the window always moves in tandem with the woman. My mistake.
I have my own interpretation of the narrative and the connection between scenes, but I think it would be more fun to keep that to myself and let you have your own fun with it. My polite suggestion is that you pay attention to how long the transitions are between scenes, what form those transitions take, and how it connects and separates the events depicted. I admire this short film a great deal, and I'll stop jibber-jabbering about it now and let you see it.

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