(H)e(r)metic Art Ad Nauseam: David Lynch’s Six Men Getting Sick (1967)
Part of our makeup as social animals is that certain of our activities, when visualised, tend to create a mirror effect in the viewer. See someone laughing, and you may feel unable to resist chuckling along with them. Watch a person weep, and you are likely to tear up too. And witness someone throwing up, the chances are you will experience at least a strong sense of shared disgust, if not a compulsion to heave up the contents of your own stomach. The notion that vomit begets more vomit is encapsulated in David Lynch’s directorial debut, Six Men Getting Sick, not least because the one-minute sequence of sickness was designed by Lynch for its initial exhibition to be looped six times, in an emetic ‘repeat’.
Before he became a filmmaker, Lynch had been – and still is – a fine artist. In 1966, he was in his second year studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (after an earlier stint at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts), when he hit upon the idea that he would like to see his paintings move, and so purchased a cheap 16mm camera to animate his art. The result was Six Men Getting Sick, which begins with three hand-drawn head-and-shoulder busts – the third apparently already stained with spew. After numbers on screen count down from four to one, two more – and more abstractly drawn – heads appear to the right, and between (and from) them a sixth materialises. Below the first five heads, œsophageal pipes appear leading to stomachs, while the sixth has beneath it an X-ray of its belly. The screen flashes red, a caption reads ‘sick’, and the stomachs are seen filling with red fluid, as the alarmed figures clutch both their bellies and their faces with disembodied hands. Flames erupt on the side of the screen and atop the heads, and the figures, now clad in purple overcoats, vomit all over themselves in a cascade of white paint. And then the whole sequence starts up again.
The very title of Six Men Getting Sick bespeaks process, with the modally ingressive verb ‘get’ marking entry into a new state. Indeed, the piece captures the transition of Lynch as an artist, from painter to filmmaker. Mixing the media of pencilwork, paint and flame, and projected onto a sculptured screen of three further figures (cast from Lynch’s own head by his friend and soon-to-be-regular collaborator Jack Fisk), the film consists of a crudely animated static shot in which the heads’ positions are fixed, even if their colour and surroundings transform. In its original presentation at the Academy’s annual experimental painting and sculptural exhibit in 1967, it was accompanied by a looped recording of a siren – a reeling, alarming sine wave which only added to the film’s sickly vibe.
Six Men Getting Sick would become the joint winner of the Dr. William S. Biddle Cadwalader Memorial Prize. An impressed and wealthy classmate, H. Barton Wasserman, offered Lynch $1000 to create a similar art installation for his own home. That project would eventually fall through, but not before Lynch had purchased a better camera – a second-hand clockwork Bolex – with some of the advance on the commission, and caught the filmmaking bug. The remaining money was used to make The Alphabet (1968) – a more elaborate blend of live action and animation whose young heroine spits out the letters of the alphabet, and finally her own blood, in much the way that Lynch’s six men heave up their insides. And so a filmmaker was born, and the sick men of this debut would lead inexorably – after an even more elaborate short, The Grandmother (1970) – to the sick baby in his extraordinary first feature Eraserhead (1977), revealed under its swaddling bandages to be all insides. Meanwhile, another filmmaker was on her way out into the world: in the same year that Lynch created Six Men Getting Sick, he also accidentally conceived his daughter Jennifer, future director of Boxing Helena (1993), Surveillance (2008) and Chained (2012).
It seems entirely appropriate that Lynch’s filmmaking career should have begun with so queasily visceral a theme, given that the rest of his oeuvre has been dedicated to confronting viewers with their own inner unease, and splattering their buried subconscious all over the screen. Throwing up is a literally transgressive process of bringing up to the surface that which has been internalised, of making one’s insides appear on the outside, and of exposing the sickness concealed within – and so the six retching figures in this piece, anatomised in varying degrees of abstraction, are performing involuntary acts of inversion, eversion and subversion, unveiling their all too human nature for everyone to see. Put simply, what this short film shows, six times six, is the return of the repressed. These men literally cannot keep it down, despite all their hand-waving efforts – and its climactic release is a revelation that fills the screen with gloriously icky ectoplasm. No matter how many times it is repressed, it will keep on returning, in a loop and ad nauseam.
The art of Six Men Getting Sick is figured as a brain burp. Here ideas build and are forcefully expectorated – emerging from gaping mouths like the foetus-like creature born of Henry Spencer’s floating head at the beginning of Eraserhead. This unconscious eructation of irrational, amorphous materials, sputted from these six heads like sperm from upright penises,1 offers a visual metaphor for the messy imperatives of the (pro)creative process. For in Lynch’s moving tableau, these fictile figures – men literally of art – are shown struggling in vain to resist their own internal drives and abject corporeal function, before finally surrendering to sweet, if noisome, release. In that moment, the viewer too might well experience a certain gag reflex, in emulation of the sickness on screen – but with that feeling there also comes the relief of rising tension resolved through pure, gushing expression.
- The gender neutrality of the short’s alternative title Six Figures Getting Sick – which is not Lynch’s – effaces the decidedly phallic nature of the film’s imagery. ↩