This eight part series of animated shorts — episodes clocking in at around three minutes each — first appeared at film director David Lynch's website, Davidlynch.com, back in 2002: part of the subscriber only content that now finances much of his digital film work, along with features like the oddball 'soap opera' "Rabbits" and Lynch's home made weather reports.
The self-contained impossible worlds conjured in animation seem always to have fascinated this director, justly famous for his dark surrealist imagination. In fact Lynch fell into film making accidentally when, as a young art student in Philadelphia, he created an installation at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art - "Six Men Getting Sick"- which superimposed, on top of a sculpture screen of figures created out of plaster casts, an animated film of some grotesque heads vomiting and bursting into flame, which he conceived as a "moving painting".
When Lynch made his early short live-action film "The Grandmother" - a wistful yet disturbing tale of a bedwetting boy terrorised by deformed, abusive parents, and who grows his own dotting Grandmother from a seed planted in the centre of his bed - animation, reminiscent of the work of Monty Python's Terry Gilliam, was made an integral part of the work. Even 1976's 'Eraserhead", Lynch's first full-length feature, makes use of an animated claymation style sequence at one point. For many years, starting in 1982, Lynch also wrote and drew a comic strip called "The Angriest Dog in the World" for the L.A. Reader. Every episode of the strip featured the same four frames of a snarling dog tethered to a post outside a nondescript house, but with different speech balloons each time, issuing either from the dog or from the always unseen occupants of the house.
That simple, crude strip was in many ways the prototype for "Dumbland", which looks like a moving version of a comic strip drawn by a deranged five-year old: the animation style consists of shaky, inked line-sketches, deliberately crudely rendered by Lynch in the most basic fashion possible, and detailing the unsavoury exploits of an ogre-like brute called Randy, his nervous wife and their squeaky-voiced son Sparky. All the action takes place in-and-around the home of these three main characters and involves crude, rude and violent animated comic scenarios that erupt from the screen like an uncontrollable tourette's-like expression of the director's Freudian Id.
Traditional Lynch motifs are much in evidence — the flashing electrical discharges and the deadpan non sequitur dialogue — but the overwhelming impression is one of "South Park" style scatological humour but shorn of all the defining satiric content of that series, and even less animated sophistication. Randy is drawn by Lynch as a great ape-like lump with a gaping maw of a mouth that hangs open the whole time, displaying three tombstone teeth at crooked angles. He's perpetually in a state of extreme anger, swears at great length at everything that moves and regularly farts loudly and prodigiously. His unnamed wife is a shaking, downtrodden wreck, always in a state of nervous hysteria, sketched as a haphazard hazy scrawl. Their son Sparky, looks like a hastily penned gingerbread man outline - all misshapen and withered. The sweary crude violence of the episodes takes on a darker tint through repetition; it becomes obvious after a while, for instance, that Randy's wife must suffer regular beatings at the hands of her dyspeptic husband.
The majority of the short episodes rope in other characters to interact with the family. Episode One - "The Neighbour" - has Randy admiring his one-armed neighbour's shed, ranting at a passing helicopter and finally getting the neighbour to admit that he's "a one-armed duck fucker". In the second episode -"The Treadmill" - an accident with his wife's treadmill results in Randy getting a hammer wedged up his ass and then assaulting a salesman who quotes the Gettysburg Address. In "The Doctor" Randy electrocutes himself on a broken lamp. A doctor arrives and subjects him to some increasingly invasive procedures, all the while inquiring in quavering but neutral tones "does that hurt you?" These procedures culminate in the doctor stabbing Randy in the ear with a kitchen knife!
Randy's abusive behaviour comes to the fore once again in "A Friend Visits", when he crushes his wife's head to the size of a pin in an argument about a clothes line; he then has a detailed conversation with his friend about killing animals. "Get The Stick" is a bizarre episode which sees Randy literally tearing a man to pieces while being goaded by his son Sparky into retrieving a stick that has become lodged in the man's mouth. "My Teeth Are Bleeding" is the most avant-garde episode, recalling the repetitive, siren-noised art project of "Six Men getting Sick": Randy sits in his living room, glowering at a fly; his wife sits shaking and wailing in her chair; their son is jumping up and down on a small indoor trampoline. There is a violent wrestling match on TV. Outside the window cars are passing and the sound of gunfire can be heard. While Randy continues to be engrossed and annoyed by the buzzing fly, his wife and son start bleeding profusely; Sparky squeals as he jumps up and down: "my teeth are bleeding! My teeth are bleeding! My teeth are bleeding!"
In "Uncle Bob" Randy is left in charge of a sick relative who seems to have some kind of mental problem that compels him to repeatedly punch himself in the face, stamp his foot, fart loudly and then vomit his guts up on the floor! He does this again and again until there is a huge pile of black vomit on the floor in front of him. The final episode sees Randy attempting to kill an army of ants which are marching through his front room. But the nozzle of the insect killer is facing towards his face and the chemical causes him to hallucinate the ants doing a tap-dancing routine, all the while chanting, to a jazzy Badalamenti-type song, "when we look at you, we see an ASSHOLE!; when we look at you, we see a SHITHEAD!; when we look at you, we see a DUMB-TURD!"
"Dumbland" is as strange an experience as you'd expect from David Lynch, but the crude vulgarity of the episodes often mask the director's sly wit and dry humour. The cartoonish violence escalates with each repetition and more and more over-the-top instances of uncontrollable behaviour from Randy. He's like a crude, childlike iteration of the Frank Booth character from "Blue Velvet": purified brute fury, boiled down to its crudest, most starkly drawn expression. Lynch has not always been at his most successful when working in out and out comedy. His rarely mentioned follow-up to "Twin Peaks", "On The Air" (also co-created with Mark Frost) ,was a weak half-hour sitcom that never made it past its first series. Humour in David Lynch's films always seems to work better when its pressed up hard against the extremes of life - paired with violence and horror, as it was in "Twin Peaks".
"Dumbland" is a shortend burst of brutalist, unabashed, anarciac craziness shaded with the suggestive existential fear that was always lurking behind "Eraserhead". This surreal violent world continues to be as entrancing as it was back when Lynch first gave it life in those far off days when he was a struggling art student. Lynch enthusiasts will be most amused.