A dumb place to visit, but wouldn’t want to live there.
“If it is funny, it is funny because we see the absurdity of it all.”—David Lynch
Okay, picture this: An ugly, bloated man walks out into his backyard to strike up a conversation with his neighbor, on the other side of a picket fence. The man expresses admiration for his neighbor’s wooden shed. When the neighbor responds with “It’s my shed,” the man retorts with an angry profanity. The neighbor then reveals he has a fake arm, removing said arm and throwing it on the ground. At this point, a helicopter flies overhead, and the man shouts a loud stream of obscenities at it. Finally, the neighbor admits that he has a bizarre sexual preference, one too disturbing to divulge here, and the scene ends.
What’s going on here? Simple: You have entered David Lynch’s Dumbland.
It’s the daily life of an unnamed man living somewhere in suburbia. He’s fat, bald, and short-tempered. He wears a tank top, and his mouth is always wide open. He lives with a woman, presumably his wife, who is always shaking with terror, on the verge of absolute hysterics. They have a child, a small and nondescript kid whose shrill voice repeats the same few lines over and over.
In this series of eight vignettes, we witness this family as they deal with an out-of-control treadmill, a cruel doctor, an unsightly clothesline, a sick uncle, a man with a stick in his mouth, and some very well-organized ants. Are your teeth bleeding yet?
A few years back, David Lynch (Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Dr.) decided to start his own members-only Web site, providing original content for subscribers. Many outsiders, hearing about short cartoons directed by Lynch himself, wondered what this original content could be. Well, wonder no more, because Lynch has teamed up with the mysterious forces at Subversive Cinema to release some of these shorts on DVD for the whole world to see. Now everyone can experience all eight episodes of the “comedy of the absurd,” Dumbland.
Animation is not a new medium for the director, for some of Lynch’s early films—such as Six Men Getting Sick, The Alphabet, and The Grandmother—were animated or partially animated. Comedy is also nothing new for Lynch. As dark and freaky as some of his films get, he usually sneaks some of his odd humor into them. Consider Grandma tossing the salad in Eraserhead, Andy and Lucy in Twin Peaks, or the “deer woman” in The Straight Story. So, for this animated comedy, what does Lynch give us? A lewd, lowbrow look at family life, with an emphasis on absurdity.
At first glance, Dumbland appears to be nothing but a bunch of shorts about disgusting people being horrible to each other. But this is David Lynch we’re dealing with, so it’s never about what’s on the surface. Dumbland is Lynch’s critique of “normal” people. The male protagonist—his name is never given, although some Lynch fan sites call him “Randy”—is an ape-like brute. He always has an angry ferocity in his eyes, and his big round mouth is always wide open. Any little annoyance sets him off into a violent rage. The wife (assuming they’re married) is a terrified, shrieking thing, no doubt from having to live with such a foul-tempered man. Their child—I’m not sure if it’s male or female—is little more than a stick figure, with a bulbous undetailed head atop a skinny, barely formed body. The kid can’t say something once, but instead has to repeat everything over and over. So how does this bunch represent the ordinary to Lynch? These are people who would never go to see a Lynch movie, or if they did, wouldn’t “get it.” They are the boorish, unwashed masses. We like to think we’re better than them, but it worries us that we see a bit of ourselves in them.
Further making this Lynch’s satire of normalcy is a sense of repetition. These people’s lives are the same old thing, over and over and over. One short begins with the man watching a game of football, represented here by two players continually whacking their helmets against each other. This is cut between shots of the man taking swigs from his beer. It’s just whack, whack, whack, swig, swig, swig, whack, whack, whack, swig, swig, swig, and so on. Characters tend to repeat the same lines over and over—not just the child, but all of them. A sick uncle repeats the symptoms of his disease repeatedly in an almost rehearsed, choreographed manner. In each case, events cycle over and over until we in the audience can’t stand it and we’re eager for something, anything, to break the tension. The hulking male protagonist feels the same way, because he usually interrupts the monotony with some violent or shocking act. One short is nothing but repetition, where the man’s eyes dart from his quivering wife, to his hyper son, to wrestlers bludgeoning each other on TV, and then back to his wife to start it all over again. As this pattern repeats, as if in a loop, the repetition gets louder and more intense each time, until only the tiniest distraction (or, in this case, a new annoyance) is welcome. All this is Lynch’s view of the day-to-day grind as being a bad, frightening thing.
But aside from the satire and the tension, Dumbland is first a comedy. A crude and lowbrow comedy, to be sure, but still a comedy. Yes, there are fart jokes. The main character apparently has serious gastrointestinal problems, judging from his explosive emissions. Why does Lynch go down this road? Are we to laugh at the fact that this character has gas, or are we to find humor in how overly unfunny it is? It’s all part of Lynch’s fascination with the grotesque. We had the severed ear in Blue Velvet, the head-to-the-coffee-table moment in Lost Highway, and Willem Dafoe’s teeth in Wild at Heart. Similar grotesqueries abound in Dumbland, such as when a man with a stick caught in his mouth ends up in our hero’s backyard. The main character, good Samaritan that he is, attempts to remove the stick, all while his child whines “Get the stick! Get the stick! Get the stick!” endlessly. The resulting mess is about three minutes’ worth of cruel, violent slapstick that gets a lot worse before it gets better. And, as in any good comedy, the whole thing is punctuated by a memorable one-liner from our protagonist.
“Crude” describes not just the humor here, but also the style of animation. The visuals have a rough, made-in-someone’s-basement look. Movement is minimal, mouths barely match the dialogue, and again with all the repetition. Yet this rough, almost unfinished style suits the mean, ugly nature of Dumbland. By capturing everything in thick black lines against a white background (no grey here), Lynch gives the entire cartoon a sense of stark emptiness. Just a few dots represent the ground in the yard, for example. By not filling up the backgrounds with details, Lynch not only cuts a few corners budget-wise, but he reveals how much of a void these people’s lives are.
Few directors are able to capture dreamlike imagery in film like Lynch. Sure, just about anybody can concoct a weird dream sequence, but Lynch somehow understands dreams well enough to make viewers really feel like they’re dreaming. In the final Dumbland episode, the main character has a run-in with some ants that leads to a musical dream easily comparable to the “radiator woman” song from Eraserhead. Not only does this show how Lynch can still tap into the unconscious like no one else, but it’s also the moment in which the foul hero of Dumbland finally gets what’s coming to him.
You might be wondering why I haven’t gone the obvious route and compared Dumbland to its televised kindred like The Simpsons or Family Guy. That’s because the humor Lynch shoots for is of a different quality than that of the others, despite some similarities. Lynch insists that Dumbland is a “comedy of the absurd.” A quick flip through my dictionary reveals “absurd” to mean, among other things, “ridiculously incongruous or unreasonable” and “manifesting the view that there is no order or value in human life or in the universe.” That doesn’t sound very comedic, but Lynch derives his comedy from it nonetheless. The characters in Dumbland are indeed unreasonable human beings with no order or value. And the events they find themselves in are certainly incongruous. Do we laugh at them because of their absurdity, or do we laugh with them because their absurdity is our own absurdity? That’s the question Lynch leaves with each viewer. How you answer it is up to you.
Although the animation is low-rent, the digital transfer is not. These are hardly flashy visuals, but they make the jump from a tiny computer screen window to your TV nicely. The aspect ratio is fullscreen, but there’s an odd quirk to it (this is David Lynch, after all): The entire image is surrounded by black. Not just above and below, but on all sides, putting an all-black frame around the picture. Although this will make the cartoon look pretty small for those of you with huge widescreen TVs, it’s intentional on Lynch’s part.
Like any good director, Lynch knows that sound is just as important to movies as the visuals, and Dumbland is no exception. Lynch pushes the 2.0 stereo to its limits, especially whenever cars, helicopters, or any kind of machines enter the story. In fact, pretty much everything here is abnormally loud, so you can give your system a good workout with this one if you like.
There are no extras. Nothing. I get that Lynch prefers his films to speak for themselves, but how about a look at the technical side of the project? I’m sure more than a few aspiring animators would appreciate a look at how these shorts were created.
Also, at a run time of little over a half hour total, Dumbland is a quick watch. It’d be hard to justify the $15-20 price for something so short unless you’re a diehard fan. With plenty of other shorts available on the website, including the postapocalyptic series Rabbits, it would have made more sense to provide a more complete offering of shorts, to give consumers more entertainment value for their hard-earned dollars.
Anything with the words “directed by David Lynch” is worth seeing. That being said, Dumbland isn’t up there with Lynch’s best work. It’s more of an appetizer than a full meal. The more of a fan you are, the more likely it is you’ll enjoy this. But if your opinion of Lynch is “he’s that really weird dude,” Dumbland will do nothing to change that view.