By Matt Hanson
After rewatching What Did Jack Do? a few times, I still don’t really know what the hell I just saw. But I decided that I don’t care, because I kept laughing my ass off anyway.
Of the many things that could be attributed to the films of David Lynch, a sense of humor would be pretty low on the list. Twin Peaks had a light tone and there are some funny bits in some of the other work (I mean, come on, who takes Wild at Heart seriously?) but Lynch isn’t known for a taking a comic view of the human condition. I could conceivably see how some people might think that Eraserhead was funny, but anybody who claims it’s a laugh riot either has an incredibly dark sense of humor or is trying way too hard to sound hipper than thou. Lynch has cited Kafka as one of his artistic heroes, but at his best I’d put him with the likes of ace surrealists like Buñuel and Dalí who, for all their subversion and radicalism, believed that surrealism was to be found in everyday life — the crucifix found at a flea market that instantly clicked into a switchblade, for example.
I vividly remember how Blue Velvet shook me to the core after watching it alone late one night on a scratchy VHS. I’d never seen anything quite like it before. The film haunted me for weeks afterward. I needed Roger Ebert’s expert analysis to break the symbolism down; it turns out that it is a fairly simple story of good and evil in a small town. When I saw it at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge years later the audience (mostly college kids) were whooping it up (with laughter) after pretty much every line. That was annoying but illuminating. But I also noticed how all the laughter stopped abruptly in its tracks when Dennis Hopper’s wild-eyed, psychotic, gas-huffing Frank Booth made his entrance. The realness, as the kids say, was overwhelming.
It’s been a while since Lynch has released anything mainstream (the sequel to Twin Peaks was only on Showtime), and so the unheralded appearance of his new short film What Did Jack Do on Netflix is remarkable in and of itself. After I clicked on it, I had no idea what to expect. After rewatching it a few times, I still don’t really know what the hell I just saw. But I decided that I don’t care, because I kept laughing my ass off anyway.
Needless to say, the question posed by the title isn’t ever really answered. But over the 17-minute running time, a vague outline of a plot emerges. No spoilers here — and in a certain sense none are really even possible — but just to give an idea, here’s what happens. Lynch himself walks into a black-and-white, noirish diner and sits down. The film crackles like old film stock. He wears all black and smokes a cigarette as he commences to interrogate a Capuchin monkey about a possible crime the fellow might have committed. The monkey’s real, or at least seems to be, with a superimposed mouth that speaks in a Lynch-like nasal pitch, as his furry little head darts around.
Lynch is evidently some kind of authority figure who is trying to get to the bottom of things. Jack, the monkey, is alternately defensive and evasive. Questions are posed that seem to correspond to some kind of narrative we don’t know much about. It is revealed that our monkey is wrapped up in some serious amour fou. The obscure object of his desire is named Tootatabon. I’ve been repeating the name ad nauseam over the past couple of days, to the profound annoyance of those around me. It’s just fun to say: Tootatabon. At one point the monkey even sings a little ditty about Tootatabon, written by Lynch himself. Evidently, it will soon to be commercially available.
On repeated viewings it seems pretty safe to say that there’s both more and less here than meets the eye. Some true non sequiturs pop up in the conversation: at one point, Lynch’s character pointedly asks if the little guy has ever been a member of the Communist Party. But there is some semblance of meaning here and there, as well as parody and wit, if you’re willing to look for it. And some will. Lynch devotees are a notoriously devoted bunch. David Foster Wallace wrote about being on one of Lynch’s sets but did so only on the condition that he not interview the man himself. Mulholland Drive is a fabulous fantasy about Hollywood and its illusions. I can’t think of another film that kept as many of my college friends busy spitting out increasingly passionate and complex interpretations. Some think Lynch is a genius, others think he’s just a weirdo. Personally, I lean more toward the former.
So, if this eccentric artist wants to make a short but ineffably intriguing film out of an elliptical confab with a monkey, what’s your problem? The end result is too much fun to make me want to split any interpretative hairs. Tying up stories with a neat little philosophical bow is often a total drag. Is there something we’re supposed to take away from this short film? Some auteur’s meaning or statement that will make us wiser or more attentive to the world around us? Probably not. Does it make any real difference if we sit down and figure out exactly what Jack did? I don’t think so. But who cares? I was enormously amused each time I watched it and, in the end, isn’t that all that matters? It could be that Buñuel and Kafka (who, after all, wrote “A Report to an Academy,” in which an ape delivers a lecture about his transformation from monkey to human) are a lot funnier than they are often given credit for. Perhaps they would nod in approval and even merrily sing along with the love song of Tootatabon.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at The Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in The American Interest, The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.