Originally released back in 2002 on the Internet, and compiled for Region 1 territories on DVD in 2005, David Lynch’s ‘absurd animated comedy’ series Dumbland has now made its way across the Atlantic. Dumbland consists of 8 short episodes (totalling around 35 minutes); it is devised, written, voiced and crudely animated by Lynch himself, and contains little more than grotesque, exaggerated snapshots of the daily life of the main character, a gaping-mouthed, protuding-browed, wife beater-wearing troglodyte reportedly called Randy.
Each episode is focused on one aspect of the minutiae of Randy’s existence, from an over-the-fence conversation with a neighbour, to being tasked with minding an old relative. Such boring, everyday subject matter becomes twisted and malformed in Lynch’s hands. Randy’s family are dysfunctional and caricatured, with his shrieking, grimacing wife and squeaky, wide-eyed child getting in the way of his eruptions of anger. Taking inspiration from real life, and filtering situations and relationships through a surrealist lens is one of the cornerstones of David Lynch’s style, and his films typically have these moments of off-kilter, quirky tension – such as the most horrific meet-the-parents dinner scene committed to film in Eraserhead, his first feature, or the particularly uncomfortable scene in Mulholland Drive featuring composer Angelo Badalamenti and a cup of espresso.
However, the vignettes that make up Dumbland are for the most part purposefully artless. The black and white, Flash-based animation is just plain ugly, yet it achieves a raw, rough form of expressionism. Its comedy is based around the absurd extremity of the situations: Randy is all-swearing, all-dangerous and all-stupid, like a lobotomised version of Mr Eddy from Lost Highway, or Dennis Hopper’s Frank in Blue Velvet.
In the first episode, when chatting with the neighbour, Randy expresses interest in the man’s shed. The neighbour reveals he has a prosthetic arm, and in response Randy shouts obscenities at a passing helicopter, before accusing him of having sex with ducks. It ends with the punchline “I am a one-armed duck-fucker”. It is classic absurdism, full of non-sequiturs and jarring developments – but its success is debatable. Other episodes have similar moments of spotty quality, including a graphically violent sequence involving a man with a stick lodged vertically in his mouth, which Randy forcibly removes (in the process completely demolishing the man himself), and a scene in which the sounds of the living room coagulate into a cacophony of distorted mania.
It is visceral, unsettling stuff, buoyed by Lynch’s restricted and unadorned format and his own, surprisingly versatile, voice work. Unfortunately, the proceedings are too easily dismissed as dumb – hey, it’s in the title. Lynch, even at his most indulgent and wilfully obscure is always stylistically interesting, thought-provoking and thematically complex. There is nothing in Dumbland that truly matches any of his live-action endeavours (be they feature-length, televised or short-form); there is an inkling of hope in the series’ last episode, which centres around a joyous, playful dream-hallucination involving a singing and dancing parade of ants, but it is short-lived.
Crucially, there is a distinct lack of warmth in Dumbland. Even though Lynch may be known as a director who creates nightmarish landscapes, a ‘mindfuck’ filmmaker, in his best work there is still a boyish innocence that runs alongside his deconstructionist, artful impulses – which usually helps defend him from most charges of pretension. In that regard, Dumbland isn’t just crude and shallow, but also incredibly bitter, and full of patronising resentment. It is troubling that these sketches come from the ‘eagle scout’ writer who revelled in gee-whizz America so well in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and The Straight Story.
Dumbland was created for a select group of people; specifically, it was created for those who had paid to access Lynch’s members-only website. The series was only one of a handful of projects Lynch provided for those who joined – including a sitcom called Rabbits, a short called Darkened Room, and a notable daily video featuring the man himself giving a short LA-centric weather report. The Internet context gave Lynch the opportunity to experiment a little, rough things up, and create something outside of the film industry. Furthermore, he could release the results to an audience that have not only already paid for the privilege, but would also probably lap up whatever he foisted on them. Such is his auteuristic standing, that even these mostly disposable bits of relatively half-arsed work have now trickled out into the general DVD marketplace.
The set comes with just the episodes. Nothing else. 30-odd potentially-hilarious, potentially-offensive, purposefully-awful minutes. The production company could have sweetened the deal by combining Dumbland with other Lynch rarities, such as last year’s The Short Films of David Lynch set, also released by Scanbox Entertainment (which, despite being a much better set, was still incomplete and could have included more material). At an RRP of £16.99, or even at Amazon’s reduced £12.49 price, Dumbland just isn’t worth buying. And, unless you have consumed every other work that bears the name David Lynch, yet hunger for more, it is barely worth watching.