David Lynch spins a weird noir short about murder and monkeys. Naturally.
Netflix seems to be going for surreal takes this month. We just covered Horse Girl, which deals with social anxiety, schizophrenia, and alien abductions. Now we’re on to What Did Jack Do? a short from noted weird auteur David Lynch. Lynch plays a detective giving a hard-boiled interview to a Capuchin monkey. Because of course he would.
What Did Jack Do? (Netflix, 2020)
A Capuchin monkey named Jack sits across from a detective at a train station. The lines have all been stalled; there is a murderer on the loose. As they converse, the conversation becomes a surreal chess game where the detective tries to get Jack to spill the bananas about his part in a steamy affair with a chicken, and the chicken’s murdered owner.
Appropriately, this short is brought to you by Lynch’s film company – Absurda. It has all of the bizarre elements you’d expect from a Tim and Eric sketch on Adult Swim. The monkey has a human mouth super-imposed over his, complete with a corny voice. There’s an impromptu singing number from the monkey. There’s a sultry chicken named Toototabon. The dialogue ranges from pulp-noir cliches to Dada-ist absurdity.
On top of this, you get classic Lynch-ian moments as well. Low key lighting, with heavy use of shadow. Wafting plumes of cigarette smoke. Coffee. A noir aesthetic that happily presses surreal elements into the form, like a mold stamping rough order on a mess of children’s Play-Doh.
I admire Lynch’s ability to turn absurdity into a narrative. With Twin Peaks or Lost Highway, the actual events of the film make very little sense. The overall flow of the plot, however, manages to make perfect sense despite all of the oddity. Twin Peaks is a detective story; never mind all of the dream sequences, back masking of audio, and occult imagery. Lost Highway is a wronged husband noir; ignore the creepy vampire guy on the phone or the sudden body swapping.
What Did Jack Do? functions in a similar manner. The dialogue features plenty of non-sequitur and fractured aphorisms…but you always get the feel for where the conversation is going. It doesn’t matter that names, events, and phrases pile up like cars to a highway accident. At the end of the day, the tropes of the genre will impose order and, to a lesser extent, meaning on the assemblage of gobbledygook Lynch throws into the blender.
You get a feel pretty quickly for what Lynch is doing here. When you peel the absurd shell off, you get a hard-boiled detective story that is fairly uncomplicated. A murder. A secret romance. A man/monkey on the run. Lynch is clearly trying to see how much he can twist, turn, stretch and mangle the individual parts of the formula yet still get a workable answer. That’s pretty neat.
My one detraction is that What Did Jack Do? doesn’t quite bet it all. It hedges. For every two or three non-sequitors, you get a plain bit of dialogue. The pair trade nonsense phrases just up until you wonder if the script was created by a Google bot, but then will plop back down to sanity and exchange some ordinary question-and-answer phases.
I’d love to see if you could go completely unhinged. Could you actually feed auto-generated text into a noir formula without any safety net and get an explicable result? I’d love to find out.