What Did Jack Do? An Analysis

On 20 January, 2020 David Lynch’s short film What Did Jack Do? was released on Netflix. It’s not exactly a new film, although it’s had limited distribution until now. Lynch shot it in 2016, around the same him he was filming Twin Peaks: The Return. The short was shown once in Paris in 2017 during for the launch of a book of Lynch’s photography, and again at a festival in New York in 2018.

I am not positioning myself as an expert on Lynch; that would be this guy (some of my conclusions are based on his slam-dunk analyses). Lynch does have his own visual iconography, themes and motifs that he returns to again and again, though. Based on those, I’d like to share my own interpretation of what I believe this short film means.

The Groundwork

What Did Jack Do? is in black and white, which to Lynch represents the world of film. The noir-ish elements establish that as well; it’s not known as a television genre. We know that Lynch respects film and has low regard for television, so what he’s saying here is that this short is within his comfort zone.

We’re not in an interrogation room. It’s a train station, a location associated with transition. People move from one place to another. At the beginning Jack, the monkey, is already there. The Detective, played by Lynch himself, enters early on. In the end Jack leaves, followed by the Detective. He’s telling us that this film is about change.

The Characters

The Detective is Lynch playing himself, or a version of himself, much as he did when he portrayed FBI Director Gordon Cole in Twin Peaks. The director playing the Director. It’s an intentionally meta self-insert. It’s easy to assume that’s what he’s doing here as well.

Jack is also Lynch, or an aspect of Lynch. I’m fairly certain that’s his voice. Jack and the Detective are even wearing the same suit. What the two characters are discussing is a serious issue, and both of them are giving it the gravity it deserves. But Jack, as a monkey, is also creepy and funny. This is the way many people perceive Lynch and his work. The audience, presumably, is going to focus on the monkey, not the context or the entirety of the film. That’s why he didn’t case an actor. It wasn’t just to be weird or surreal. Jack symbolizes something.

The Message

Coffee has been ordered, but it takes a long time to get there. One trope of Twin Peaks is that coffee fuels investigation. When people are going to look into something, and answers are going to be found, the investigators are always drinking coffee first. But it’s not the Detective who ordered it here. Jack, the suspect, did. When the Detective asks if he’s going to drink it, Jacks says he may or may not. He never does. The message is that this isn’t an investigation. Lynch is simply talking to us.

The Detective smokes cigarettes, though. Lynch uses images of fire, electricity, and flashing lights to indicate when he’s making commentary on television and film. Within the film he’s the authority figure, he’s in control. As the director, he controls the fire here. He’s the persona in charge of this narrative, the non-monkey avatar that’s taken seriously.

The waitress that finally brings the coffee is played by Emily Stofle,  Lynch’s real-life wife. She wasn’t cast for convenience; the crew listed on this film is long, and he could have gotten anyone to do a walk-on. It’s Stofle for a reason. I interpret this to mean that she’s peripherally supporting his endeavors. Notably, she waits on the creepy comical persona, the passionate Jack, and not the serious one, the Detective.

What Jack did, he did for love. He doesn’t care what happens. He did it because he had passion. People don’t understand why he fell in love with a chicken, but that doesn’t matter to him. This describes Lynch’s whole career. He doesn’t rightly care if you get his films or his TV show or not. He never explains himself, or his work. What he does, he does his way, in his time, to his vision.

Twin Peaks

This is where I think it connects to Twin Peaks. Not the continuity of the show, but the making of it. Again, this was filmed during the period when he was making Twin Peaks: The Return. We need to revisit a little back story here.

During its original run, the network wanted Laura Palmer’s murder to be resolved. Lynch didn’t want to do it. To oversimplify this, he was making a commentary on the episodic procedurals where murders were neatly solved in an hour. He was interested instead in exploring the impact of the murder, the things that happened and the way people were affected as the result of the killing. When you solve it, you cut the heart out of it. The thing becomes forgettable because it’s just like a hundred other shows.

After the reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer, Lynch left the show. It went on without him for the remainder of the second season. The chicken, Toototabon, represents Twin Peaks. The rational and grounded Detective, the real Lynch, knows that she wasn’t unfaithful. Jack, the creative and emotional Lynch, still got his feelings hurt. In the run-up the The Return, there were reports of battles between him and Showtime over budget and creative direction. At one point it was even announced that the project was cancelled Lynch won. He killed Toototabon’s other suitor, i.e. the other influences over the object of his affection.

The Conclusion

Upon seeing Toototabon, Jack runs after her. He has an opportunity to pursue what he loves. The Detective follows. Off-screen, where we cannot see the characters, the Detective orders that Jack be locked up.

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Lynch released this to Netflix on his 74th birthday. It was filmed in 2016, as he was completing what might be his last major project, and shared sparingly before going public. This was the coda on his career. I think he just announced his retirement, a transition from public life to private. It’s something that already happened behind the scenes, with the full support of his wife. He’s now sharing it with us, even if we don’t completely understand what he’s saying.

Published by