A Guide to Lynchian Moments in ‘The Short Films of David Lynch’

In his 1995 essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” David Foster Wallace has trouble finding a place for the filmmaker David Lynch. Lynch’s films straddle genres; as Wallace notes, their appeal extends to the Hollywood crowd, and curiously retracts from it. Perhaps the only thing one can say about a Lynch film with any certainty is that it’s inherently Lynchian – but what exactly does that mean? Wallace seeks an answer. Lynchian might refer “to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter,” he writes in a mock academic tone. “But like postmodern or pornographic,” Wallace continues, “Lynchian is one of those Potter Stewart-type words that’s definable only ostensively – i.e. we know it when we see it. Ted Bundy wasn’t particularly Lynchian, but good old Jeffrey Dahmer, with his victim’s various anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk and Shedd Spread was thoroughgoingly Lynchian.” 

Of course, “Lynchian” can’t really mean anything – it’s not a tangible thing, but rather that unpindownable something that makes Lynch’s films remarkable, and in some cases, terrible. To the notion of “Lynchian,” we might apply the words of the critic Paul Taylor, when he said that Lynch’s films are “to be experienced rather than explained.” Nonetheless, a little elucidation wouldn’t go amiss. With Lynch’s shorter, weirder films streaming on Hulu through the weekend (you can watch them on YouTube), here’s our humble endeavor to shed some clarity on the crazy brilliance that is the mind of David Lynch.

“Six Men Getting Sick,” 1966

When Pauline Kael left the cinema after a screening of Blue Velvet, she overheard another moviegoer saying, “Maybe I’m sick, but I want to see that again.” With “Six Men Getting Sick,” whether or not you want to, you will see it again. Six times, in fact, in this short film that was made (ahem) in 1966. Though the numbers suggest some order in the piece, they’re not what’s Lynchian about the film; there is a semblance of order, but really it’s chaos. Perhaps what is most Lynchian about the film is the viewer’s exposure to the repeated vomiting as the six grim charcoal figures move their limbs with sharp, staccato movements, convulsing to produce streams of pink vomit that pour out of their mouths like paint. In fact, the entire piece looks something like a Francis Bacon-illustrated cartoon, plenty of gray and black interposed with splashes of intestinal color.