Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. David Lynch's Premonition Following an Evil Deed (1995) is free to watch below.
We’ve heard it often in relation to Twin Peaks: The Return (2017): “David Lynch has pulverized television” (or “dynamited television,” or “dropped a bomb on television”—pick your favorite variation). Despite being somewhat annoying, especially when repeated incessantly as a mantra, these slogan-like statements carry some truth. Every genuine act of innovation starts with a bit of destruction. However, it’s not the medium that Lynch blows up, but the rules and conventions associated with it. He has done this many times throughout his career: with the aesthetics of analogue film and low definition cameras, with serialized narratives, and compact (even ultra-short) durations. For Lynch, exploring the possibilities of a given medium often means turning it upside down in order to shake off the expectations attached to it, to unfold it like a glove into which he places his own, particular world, to extract from this medium what seems impossible, even utterly inconceivable.
Premonition Following an Evil Deed (1995) was David Lynch’s contribution to the anthology film Lumière and Company, a tribute to the Lumière brothers and a celebration of the first century of cinema. The original idea for this collective project came from Philippe Poulet, researcher at the Museum of Cinema of Lyon. He restored the Lumière brothers’s original Cinematograph, a hand-cranked camera/projector built with brass, glass, and mainly wood, resembling a small box. Poulet also created film stock replicating the formula used by the Lumières, but employing acetate instead of nitrate. 39 directors from all over the world were invited to create a short film for this project. In order to simulate some of the early shooting conditions, the pieces had to comply with three rules: a single sequence-shot of 52 seconds; no synchronous sound (non-synchronous soundtracks were allowed); only three takes.
A great number of the participants aimed for pieces that were inspired, more or less directly, by some of the best-known films of the Lumières. Much is invested in the long-lost innocence of cinema’s first steps. Directors such as Jacques Rivette or Claude Miller come up with cleverly staged, graceful contributions. But the truth is that most of the attempts in this vein tend to be too obvious, facile, and obliging. The meta-cinematic element attached to many of the shorts often plays out in a quite superficial manner. A project of this kind always poses a difficult temptation toward easy nostalgia; that’s why some of the most interesting efforts here are those of directors able to maintain a link with early cinema without overlooking the 100 years of history that film has behind it. In this category, Lynch’s short stands out.
Premonition Following an Evil Deed opens with the image of three uniformed policemen who, having just jumped a fence, walk toward us, approaching the corpse of a young boy lying on the ground. From the very beginning, two truly Lynchian sonic landmarks are present throughout the whole film: the eerie music by Angelo Badalamenti, and the scratching noise of a record needle. As the three policemen get closer to the camera, we also hear something resembling two distorted gunshots. The screen turns black for three seconds, and then we see a woman in a living room. Framed in a medium shot, she wears a flowery apron and sits in the corner of a sofa. When she turns her head screen-right, the image goes black again. This time, for six seconds.
Now we see a tableau of three young women gathering in an outdoor porch bed, surrounded by vegetation. They all wear white, laced dresses with large cleavages. One of the girls stands up, gives a few steps, and raises her gaze in an off-screen direction. The image turns white and we can hear the flapping wings of a bird. After some seconds, the pure white becomes foggy. Underneath the smoke, another setting—half sci-fi lab, half macabre torture chamber—is revealed. Three masked men perform different activities. One of them repeatedly knocks a huge, liquid-filled, cylindrical tank with a baton. In this tank there stands a naked woman with her arms and legs spread.
The camera executes a fast, lateral tracking movement, passing a banister and stopping in front of a curtain. Then, a flame grows in front of our eyes, taking up the whole screen, turning the image white again. The fire burns out, revealing a new, wider view of the previous living room location. The woman in the flowery apron is now seated next to her husband. Suddenly, she stands up and walks to the door. A policeman enters the living room and takes off his hat. The husband too stands up, and holds his wife’s hand. Distraught, the couple listens to the presumably bad news delivered by the policeman.
The narrative of Premonition Following an Evil Deed is ambiguous regarding the relation between the different actions, characters, spaces, and times. Are the girls in the porch bed the future victims of the masked men? Is the boy’s death somehow connected to his discovery of the experiments? Are the images seen in the third and fourth segments part of the premonition announced by the title? This ambiguity extends itself to certain details (the two gunshots, the flapping wings) that we can’t quite explain, but which seem to allude, directly or symbolically, to events that may have happened previously (the boy’s death) or in-between the fragments (an escape attempt).
The use of artificial sets, the experimentation with optical tricks and special effects, the creation of a narrative that is closer to fiction than to everyday reality: all this situates Premonition Following an Evil Deed closer to George Méliès than to the Lumière brothers. But, undoubtedly, the most striking aspect of the film is its conception of the one-take sequence-shot. Lynch does break the rules a little (his piece is 56 seconds, 4 more than what was initially allowed), but he scrupulously respects the mandate to film in one single sequence-shot. By doing this, he liberates the sequence-shot from its most common applications, and opens up new possibilities for its practical use and theorization.
In its capacity to deliver a continuous block of space-time, the sequence-shot has been associated with a realist tendency in cinema. André Bazin hailed it as superior to montage. Analyzing examples from Orson Welles, William Wyler, or Jean Renoir, he explains, however, that this superiority has little to do with a passive, raw capturing of reality. Rather, the sequence-shot (thanks, in large part, to depth-of-field) also allows for an organization of reality—a kind of montage integrated into the mise en scène—that is, nonetheless, capable of respecting both duration and spatial continuity.
In recent years, it has become increasingly normal to see films that use the sequence-shot as an advertising hook to sell themselves. More often than not (like in the cases of Birdman or Children of Men, to cite only two examples), these sequence-shots are, in fact, the product of careful planning and elaborate digital effects, thanks to which the cuts uniting several different takes are hidden. Such craft has little to do with the principles of spatio-temporal unity and physical continuity that define the sequence-shot. These directors tend to insist that what they pursue is an effect of reality guaranteed by the long take. But the effort involved in these constructed takes is such that one wonders if anything other than the shooting itself ends up being invoked by the finished images. In other words: the cost of displaying such a perfectly seamless reality is its very disappearance. It’s in this context that Premonition Following an Evil Deed plays a radical counter-move.
One could argue that Lynch’s sequence-shot is also, even if on a more modest scale, a virtuosic tour de force. But if so, it’s completely opposite in its nature, and leads to different consequences. The fascinating ‘behind-the-scenes’ footage included in the DVD of Lumière and Company offers a valuable peek into the making of Premonition Following an Evil Deed. Here, the camera is turned onto Lynch who, megaphone in hand, directs the scene; its action has been carefully rehearsed and choreographed in advance. We are not permitted to see the actual sets, but we can assume they are built in a line, one next to the other. What we see, instead, is how Lynch shouts a few indications at crucial points, mostly calling out for the tricks (wipes, opening and closing of the lens, smoke, fire) that will allow the camera to move from set to set without the spectator noticing this displacement.
In his short film, rather than using a bunch of shots that appear as an unbroken long take, Lynch conjures a real sequence-shot that doesn’t look like one—his long take can easily be mistaken for five distinct shots and, precisely because of this, he renders the effort behind the achievement invisible. Where others mask the cuts digitally to create a false continuity, Lynch uses on-location effects to suggest discontinuities that are expressive in themselves. In Premonition Following an Evil Deed, these transitional moments, where the screen turns completely black or white, constitute almost one third of the running time. They function not only to hide the camera movements, but also as temporal punctuations, as exit/entry points to a new universe, as figures of abstraction from which something concrete emerges.
Premonition Following an Evil Deed is profoundly at odds with Bazin’s ideas on the long take, but for very different reasons than those slick films mentioned earlier. Lynch doesn’t falsify something essential (in the physical continuity) to take advantage of the benefits (that hackneyed ‘effect of reality’) associated with the sequence-shot. Rather, he puts in crisis the very idea of reality as defined by its space-time unity. The film’s title is already playing with this: going against the good sense that tells us that all premonition is anticipation, Lynch places the words “premonition” and “following” together. But if the premonition can come after an evil deed, it’s only because we are dealing with different bits of time and space that intervene upon each other.
Lynch does indeed pulverize the sequence-shot, but only because his universe is one in which linear chronology and spatial succession have already been pulverized. From this destruction, something new emerges: the sequence-shot as expression of a (meta-)physical continuity between multiple times and spaces, as a perceptual short-circuit with its blackouts and whiteouts – an uncertain site where impossible connections happen.