Lynch, Maddin, Strickland, Phạm – Four Short Films

I had no idea what I was going to write about this week. None of the movies I watched struck enough of a chord to inspire me to share them with others. I’ve had much better luck with my choice of TV viewing – but for a blog with the word “eclectic” in the title, I feel like I’ve spent far too much of the last year simply defaulting to writing up yet another K-drama. So in an attempt to better meet my own brief, I spent this morning diving into a more or less random selection of short films and have picked the most interesting four to share with you. Featured here are three of my favourite directors – David Lynch (Eraserhead), Guy Maddin (The Heart of the World) and Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) – plus, for a bit of variety, a Vietnamese director I’ve never previously encountered.

Stump the Guesser (2020) is a typically delirious work from Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, whose oddities derive from a divergent celluloid history in which the style and techniques of early 20th century cinema never went away. Maddin lovingly conjures the more fantastical elements of Soviet cinema to tell the tale of The Guesser (Adam Brooks), a carnival worker with an uncanny knack for guessing the answer to any question he’s asked, such as the age of a man of ancient appearance (41) or the number of fish concealed upon the person of a fishmonger (Randy Unrau) who is temporarily triumphant until, much to his chagrin, the Guesser pulls a tiny flapping minnow from his trousers. All is well for the Guesser until one tragic day he is confronted by a man (Greg Blagoev) who asks no question but simply stretches forth a dangling pocket watch. Frantic at the discovery that someone has finished his last bottle of Guessing Milk, the Guesser’s performance swiftly unravels after the Pocketwatch Man spontaneously vanishes into a puff of smoke. Before long he has fallen in love with his own long-lost sister (Stephanie Berrington) and had his Guessing Licence revoked by the Guessing Inspector (Steven Black) – with an additional demerit for incest. A chance encounter with dodgy Soviet geneticist Trofim Lysenko (Brent Neale) leads the two to join forces, as the Guesser seeks to help him prove his theory that genetic heredity is a myth so that he can marry his own sister. Needless to say, things don’t work out quite as he would wish – or, indeed, as anybody not occupying Maddin’s headspace might expect.

Amongst the film’s many visual highlights, the sequences in which the Guesser applies his brain stand out for their inventive range of techniques. Operating at the height of his powers, the camera zooms in on the Guesser’s forehead to reveal a duplicate of his own head in miniature. When trying (less successfully) to guess the eye colour of his yet-to-be-identified sister, an iris-like halo radiating from their two heads shimmers with alternating sprays of colour as each prospective option temporarily disrupts the black & white image. The Guesser’s final mental exertions result in a sequence reminiscent of the hallucinatory climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as astronaut David Bowman descends into the monolith.

By focusing solely on Maddin I’m being unfair to his collaborators Evan & Galen Johnson, who have shared writing and/or directing duties with Maddin on all of his works since 2014 – but while I’m sure that they were an integral part of the creative process, it’s difficult for me to say much more about their specific contributions as Stump the Guesser is very much of a piece with Maddin’s solo work. I’ve written more about a selection of Maddin’s work here, which includes Seances (2016), an experimental online work to which Evan Johnson contributed some story elements – although since Seances is a project which randomly generates a new story every time you watch it, it’s impossible for me to say whether I previously encountered any elements of his work there!

Many of Peter Strickland’s short films can be seen as companion pieces to his feature length works, experiments in form which have the purity of focus of a short story exploring themes which, in a longer work, are of necessity are merely part of a more complex whole. Strickland’s last feature, the previously-reviewed In Fabric (2018), was heavily influenced by the phenomenon of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos – an element on which Strickland elaborated for his short film Cold Meridian (2020). GUO4 (2019) is a precursor of sorts to his next feature, which he has said will explore homosexual male relationships in a similar way to his exploration of a female couple in The Duke of Burgundy (2014) (if “similar” is at all an applicable term to an artist whose works are quite distinct).

Paying homage to the homoerotic photography of Bob Mizer, GUO4 is constructed entirely from a montage of still images. Focusing initially on the harsh metal cabinets and flaking wood of a men’s changing room, the rattling discordance of the soundtrack by experimental noise duo GUO foreshadows the violent interchange to come. The appearance of the two naked male protagonists (Csaba Molnár & Gyula Muskovics) heralds the beginning of an ambiguous interaction which sees them first sizing each other up before beginning to shove each other back and forth – but whether this is the aggression of rivalry or simply a rough form of foreplay is obscured by the inability to hear their voices or to see anything other than disjointed montages of still images, suggesting movement while eliding the details that link each image to its neighbours. The choice to keep switching the focus to their swinging genitalia suggests there’s something more sexual going on here, but aggression dominates the imagery – and while the two men end up joined together horizontally on a bench, it remains impossible to tell whether either man is actually enjoying himself – their wide yet silent mouths conveying an impression more like yelling than moaning.

Although the ambiguous nature of GUO4 is clearly deliberate, I found it hard to latch onto what Strickland was aiming for beyond an experiment in filmic narrative technique. While there is clearly an escalation in the interactions between the two men, it felt to me like this particular Strickland short just stopped after 3 minutes without reaching a conclusion. It’s possible that the forthcoming release of Flux Gourmet (2022) will throw some light on what role this film plays in Strickland’s development, but for now I’ll have to go with the assessment: “reasonably effective but puzzling.”

The Unseen River [Giòng sông không nhìn thấy] (2020) from Vietnamese director Phạm Ngọc Lân is a gently-paced meditation on interrupted journeys, dwelling on the moments of indeterminacy in two human relationships. At one end of life we have lo-fi indie pop duo Naomi & WEAN playing an unnamed couple in their 20s, visiting a Buddhist monastery in search of a solution for WEAN’s insomnia. Although everyone they know insists that they belong together, including the young monk (Hoàng Hà) with whom they consult, they don’t yet know where their relationship is heading. At the opposite end, an older woman (Minh Châu) visiting a hydroelectric plant has a chance encounter with an old flame (Nguyên Hà Phong) from a relationship that never quite happened due to the vagaries of life taking them in different directions – although the ghost of a connection remains in the presence of the man’s dog (Gilmo), the offspring of a puppy given to him by the woman long ago.

Largely dialogue-free, much of the film’s running time consists of peaceful contemplation of the river and its surroundings, with the soundtrack dominated by gently rippling aquatic sounds. These sounds are complemented by the multi-mirrored columns of the Buddhist temple, breaking the imagery up into strips of light and colour in a visual echo of the ripples of light and sound generated by the river. The few dialogue-based scenes are formal in their writing and mannered in their delivery, with the older couple’s scenes in particular registering as two people moving around independently of each other while reciting speeches with which they have no emotional connection – and yet somehow they work, as if the serenity of their surroundings is allowing them to tap deeper into themselves to bring forth words they didn’t know they contained. Although the juxtaposition of the two pairings might suggest that the older couple provide a glimpse of the younger couple’s future, the film shies away from making any such connection and I suspect that this would be too simple a reading – the overall meditative tone sits more comfortably with a focus on an indeterminate now in the middle of life’s flow, an invitation to live in the present without undue concern for the outcome of things which can’t be guessed.

What Did Jack Do? (2017) is a film noir vignette which sees director David Lynch playing a homicide detective interrogating a suit-wearing capuchin monkey (“Jack Cruz”) at a train station. The surreally disjointed interrogation plays out as a mixture of cliched noir dialogue, a protracted series of bird metaphors which are more literal than usual in the genre, and some typically Lynchian non sequiturs which seem less deliberately obstructive and more like two sides of a conversation which don’t entirely occupy the same reality as each other. Out of the confusion forms a relatively straightforward noir tale of suspected infidelity leading to murder – although in this case the femme fatale is a chicken named Toototabon.

As is usual for his acting roles, Lynch plays a version of himself with little interest in making any effort at delivering naturalistic dialogue, utilising his lack of performative range to underline the strangeness of the encounter. Jack’s dialogue is delivered through a set of human lips smoothly superimposed over the capuchin’s own mouth – although no human performer is credited for his side of the exchange, my guess is that the voice is either that of Michael J. Anderson (Twin Peaks‘ Man From Another Place) or, more likely, Lynch himself speaking through a slightly slowed audio filter. Jack even gets the opportunity to burst into song towards the end, an original composition by Lynch in collaboration with sound mixer/editor Dean Hurley which crosses the lyrics of a Julee Cruise song that never was with the style of a faded crooner. Also making a brief appearance is Lynch’s wife Emily Stofle as a waitress delivering two steaming cups of coffee with a side serving of exposition, preceding a short but pivotal cameo from Toototabon herself (the least of the performers – I suspect nepotism).

Whether or not you’ll like What Did Jack Do? will depend entirely on what you think of David Lynch’s work in general. If you’re a fan like me, you’re already on board; if you don’t get what other people see in him or his work, this short film is unlikely to make you a convert. It’s pure Lynch in whimsical mode, doing his best to dump the experience of living in one of his dreams directly onto the screen for those on a similar wavelength.

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