Dropping short films without warning is the new rock’n’roll for A-list directors right now: Paul Thomas Anderson did it with the dance piece Anima and Jonathan Glazer did it with his nightmarish The Fall. Now it is the turn of no less a figure than David Lynch, who has released a characteristically strange and funny 17-minute two-hander entitled What Did Jack Do? on Netflix, created under the production auspices of the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris. (Perhaps it will be on permanent view there after it leaves Netflix.)
It is in black-and-white, with cod-scratches on the print, the result being something not merely ancient but unearthly looking, as if recovered from some cinemathèque archive on a distant planet. It looks very much like Lynch’s famed debut Eraserhead, but with an eerie cop-procedural grammar, and an emphasis on coffee that might put you in mind of Twin Peaks.
Lynch himself plays a cop in dark suit and tie, distractedly smoking a cigarette, in what could be any modern era before the indoor smoking ban. Across a tiny and oddly secluded table in what appears to be a railroad station cafe, he is interrogating a suspect, whom he has managed to track down to this station because his train was delayed. And this suspect is … a capuchin monkey named Jack Cruz. This trained animal speaks in a croaky, strained voice (possibly provided by Lynch himself) out of a human mouth deepfaked into the lower half of the monkey’s face. The closeups on Jack’s face and head movements contrived by Lynch and cinematographer Scott Ressler give us a bizarrely convincing sense of someone defiant, yet haunted and evasive, and also pleadingly wide-eyed. As their tense confrontation continues, it becomes clear that Jack may or may not be guilty of murder: killing someone called Max for carrying on with a chicken named Toototabon (is this an anagram?), with whom Jack is passionately and noir-ishly in love.
While they wait for their coffee to arrive, their conversation is surreal, disjointed, speckled with bizarre non-sequiturs, like a dialogue between two sleep-talkers: it sounds as if Lynch has mischievously generated the script by some sort of quasi-randomised computer programme. The dialogue is always on the verge of collapsing into gibberish, but never quite does. There is something oddly poignant about the way Jack complains about how he is being treated in this highly irregular interrogation: “You toss an animal on the roof just to see the look on his face.”
There are walk-ons from the long-suffering waitress and the co-respondent in this crime of passion, and Jack himself gives us a song: a thoroughly and almost parodically Lynchian moment that I couldn’t help laughing at. No more than an exercise in style – but what distinctive style.