Like all of David Lynch’s work, What Did Jack Do? is as much a sensory experience as a story. Its every shot and special effect is fraught with cryptic clues to some terrible interior truth, its narrative at once simplistic to the point of parody and fraught with contradictory and frightening emotions. Jack the capuchin monkey’s disturbingly human CGI mouth, his aggrieved dullard’s voice, his frightened eyes — the unreality of him heightens the short’s fragmented, dreamlike tension while Lynch as the nameless detective drives the narrative’s more straightforward elements with questions which become steadily less diffuse and more personal even as Jack’s answers veer into the bizarre.
In its brief seventeen-minute running time, What Did Jack Do? sharpens itself relentlessly. It’s not that it starts off dull, but that the emergence of its narrative and tone attaches concrete and frightening emotions to incoherent events. Jack’s pain over his love for the chicken Toototabon, his rage at a man named Max for seeing another chicken named Sally, his strange and heartfelt musical number about the flame of his and Toototabon’s love; these things reflect not a single logical progression of theme and plot but a kind of fractal overview of a world in pieces. These strange people have reached a state of crisis. Something has gone irreversibly wrong.
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Signs and Portents
Lynch’s direction is crisp and unsettling, his purposeful picking at the line between reality and unreality rendering the simplest shots suspenseful. Coffee steaming in a white ceramic cup. Cigarette smoke hanging in the air.
When Lynch enters the diner in which the short is set he carries the burning stub of his first cigarette between his first two fingers, an omen that time is already running out. Certainly Jack’s fate seems predetermined from the first, his interrogation at the detective’s hands a discursive irrelevancy before the film reaches its climax. Lynch uses the capuchin’s body language masterfully, playing with its twitchiness and lack of affect, contrasting its quiet stare with the highly mobile and obviously constructed mouth.
Something Lynch has managed time and time again that countless “meta” films and television shows have fallen flat pursuing is to push against the structural weak points of the medium not to parody or crack wise but to elevate those elements. His special effects are clearly just that — special effects — not because he lacks the craft or resources to make them seamless but because there is power in the artificial and the false. What Did Jack Do? is eerily obvious in its constructed nature, a strange little diorama of Lynch’s most unique and fascinating skills at work. It is not something to miss.