Sunday, July 1, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.1: David Lynch's Eraserhead

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. July’s director is master surrealist David Lynch.

While he’s been more interested in painting, music, and other esoteric pursuits as of late than filmmaking, David Lynch is undeniably one of the most influential directors of his generation. Almost every filmmaker or playwright interested in the surreal or psychological horror owes a debt to Lynch, from modern horror directors Lars von Trier and Darren Aronofsky to independent darlings Joel and Ethan Coen. Even Stanley Kubrick, a major influence on Lynch, was so enamored with Lynch’s debut film Eraserhead that he screened it to the cast of The Shining to give them the idea of the mood he wanted to evoke. Myself? I’m basically a David Lynch junkie. Even his worst films fascinate me, and I took to devouring his work early in high school. Over the course of July, I’ll be rewatching his ten feature films, his short films, his beloved TV show Twin Peaks, and (hopefully) his less known TV show On the Air.

Grade: 97 (A)

David Lynch began as an aspiring painter before switching to filmmaking. After a series of fascinating short films, Lynch came up with the idea for his debut feature film, Eraserhead. Developed out of a canceled film about adultery titled Gardenback, Eraserhead was deemed too bizarre by studios and was initially funded by a grant from the American Film Institute. Filmed sporadically over the course of five years and further financed by donations from friends and family (including production designer Jack Fisk’s wife, actress Sissy Spacek), Eraserhead was finally released in 1977 to polarized reviews. But the film became a major hit on the midnight movie circuit and was seen and loved by filmmakers as different as Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, and Mel Brooks, who would later hire Lynch. Eraserhead is now seen for the surreal, creepy masterpiece that it is, one of the greatest directorial debuts in film history, and one of the most original movies ever made.

The plot of Eraserhead is difficult to describe, to say the least, but here goes: Henry Spencer (Lynch regular Jack Nance) is works as a printer in an unnamed, decrepit industrial city. His estranged girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), invites him to dinner, where he meet’s Mary’s bizarre parents. Henry learns that Mary has given birth to an extremely premature baby and that he and Mary are to be married. Henry and Mary move in together with their hideously deformed child, but the baby’s incessant wailing drives Mary to leave their apartment and let Henry take care of the baby himself. Henry struggles to take care of the baby while having a series of strange encounters and/or dreams (it’s often hard to parse through which is which), including but not limited to visions of worms, a liaison with the “Beautiful Girl Across the Hall”, visions of
“The Man in the Planet” (production designer/childhood friend of Lynch Jack Fisk) operating a series of levers inside a planet, and the “Lady in the Radiator”, a woman with gigantic cheeks who dances and sings, insisting that “in heaven, everything is fine…”

Obviously this isn’t a movie that’s easy to summarize or make perfect sense of. But then again, it isn’t a film that’s necessarily to follow rigid narrative expectations so much as it’s supposed to be experienced. More than anything else, Lynch wants to evoke a mood of ever-present dread and horror in the viewer, and by god, does he succeed. Eraserhead plays like a long, twisted nightmare of young adulthood, industrial wasteland, the fear of parenthood, and the truly inexplicable. Attaching a by-numbers description of what every little thing is supposed to mean is largely beside the point, which Lynch himself more or less confirms, considering that he refuses to tell anyone what the film means.

Eraserhead establishes Lynch’s unique style right from the get-go: there’s a slow, creeping existential sense of dread and doom pulsating throughout the film. The film’s deliberate pacing only extends the uneasiness throughout the film: whenever someone takes slightly too long to answer a question or Lynch cuts to a wider shot to call attention to how long everything is taking, it only increases the creepiness of the situation. The film is more linear than some would think, but the surreal horror of it all is just as effectively disorienting as the nonlinear structures of later Lynch features. The nightmare imagery that occurs throughout the film is terrifying (see: Lady in the Radiator smashing wormlike creatures and giggling, a bizarre chicken dinner, the baby), but Lynch’s gonzo versions of normal situations are arguably just as creepy. When Mary X starts pulling on their bed for apparently no reason, it gives off the intended “what the fuck?” feeling that doesn’t dissipate after it’s revealed what she was doing.

Original as the film is, attentive viewers could pick out Lynch’s diverse influences. Earlier surrealists like Luis Bunuel (who shares Lynch’s interest in deformity) and writer Franz Kafka (whose nightmarish narration style clearly influenced Lynch’s work) are clearly visible in the margins. The creeping sense of dread and claustrophobia is reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s earlier works, particularly Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby (another film about the fears of parenthood). The characters all feel like nightmarish takes on Fellini or Tati characters, with their exaggerated forms and expressions. And the deliberate pacing and often terrifying sound design makes Eraserhead feel like a twisted disciple of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

An artist like Lynch and his production designer Jack Fisk certainly come up with a series of nightmarish images and spaces that are impossible to forget, from the crumbling hallways and industrial buildings to the brainlike planet Fisk’s character inhabits to the stage the Lady in the Radiator lives on. The dark lighting design (complete with Lynch’s trademarked flickering lights) certainly add to the creepiness, but the look of the film doesn’t even compare to the frightening sound of the film. If ever a film’s sound design was more crucial to its success than it is here, I don’t know it. The film’s spare music (mostly written by Lynch, with a Fats Domino piece somewhere in there) is all creepy, particularly the Lady in the Radiator’s famous song “In Heaven”. The howling wind and industrial whistles, and creaking machines certainly paint a portrait of urban decay, but the more organic sounds don’t exactly allay fears. Eraserhead is filled with sounds of squishing, squelching, and screaming, all of it the stuff of nightmares. If anyone can listen to the sound of that baby without wincing, they’re made of sterner stuff than I am.

Speaking of the baby: dear holy god. Lynch’s films all feature an obsession with deformity, but he might not have ever matched what he does in Eraserhead. Certainly the deformed Man in the Planet and the giant-cheeked Lady in the Radiator add to the nightmares, but nothing quite tops the baby, which looks like a cross between a worm, E.T., and an aborted fetus. The creature’s existence is a sad one: it’s so premature that it has to be kept wrapped in bandages, it doesn’t look human, and it’s even more susceptible to disease and harm than most babies. But pity can’t quite top the revulsion that comes with looking at or hearing that thing, particularly after it falls ill, gets covered in boils, and starts wheezing. When Mrs. X (Jeanne Bates) announces that her daughter has had a baby, Mary says that they’re still not sure it is a baby. You’d better believe it. The film joins Rosemary’s Baby as the most memorable film about the fear of parenthood.

Eraserhead is also Lynch’s most successful film in terms of portraying industrial nightmares and urban decay. Lynch has said that the film was at least partly inspired by his experiences living in Philadelphia, where he, his first wife, and his daughter lived in a lousy, crime-ridden neighborhood and a smog-filled hell. Lynch turns his own experiencers into our nightmares with what’s likely one of the most memorable industrial wastelands in movie history. Everything in Eraserhead either looks broken or very, very dangerous (a crime happening outside Henry’s apartment doesn’t help matters). When we see a dinner with “small, man-made chickens”, the idea that the chickens were man-made is probably even creepier than their smallness (of course, the fact that they leak some sort of oil-like goo doesn’t help it). The title of the film comes from a nightmare Henry has in which his head is turned into product to make erasers for pencils. A wasteland where man can be made into mass-consumed product? Sounds like a nightmare to me.

The most frightening imagery in Eraserhead is likely the inexplicable dream imagery. The opening of the film features Henry’s head superimposed on a space background as his mouth opens and a wormlike creature falls out into a puddle, a twisted birth nightmare. It’s compounded with a vision of the Man in the Planet, who pulls creaking levers to no clear end (I always figured the planet was Henry’s brain and the man an element of his psyche, but it’s anybody’s guess). A later dream shows the Lady in the Radiator squishing worms, each of which resemble the worms Henry has encountered. We might have wished for Henry to smash them earlier, but now it’s horrifying (as is Lynch’s effective use of slow motion as Henry tosses worms against the wall at another point in the film). When Henry’s head pops off in the dream and is replaced by the head of the baby, it’s even more disturbing.

The surreal situations don’t limit themselves to dream sequences, however. Many sequences in Eraserhead play out like warped versions of real young adulthood fears. Henry’s dinner with his in-laws is fraught with inexplicable behavior, uneasy exchanges, a lecherous and stern mother, a catatonic grandmother, and a seemingly inedible dinner. The father (Allen Joseph), meanwhile, is an effective piece of black, surreal comedy that’s equal parts creepy and hilarious. He says (often shouting) every single one of his lines with extreme earnestness (“SO, HENRY, WHAT DO YOU KNOW?”).

Lynch has called Eraserhead his most spiritual movie, a comment that might seem utterly insane unless one takes into account the man’s life. Aside from living in an industrial wasteland, Lynch married his first wife, Peggy Lentz, after she got pregnant. Lentz described Lynch as a “reluctant father, but a very loving one” to their daughter, filmmaker Jennifer Lynch. Still, that description shows how Lynch might have been frightened of his own daughter’s birth, or how any parent might be frightened of the birth of their child. What if the baby gets sick? What if they can’t take care of it? What if the screaming and wailing ruins the marriage (Lynch and Lentz divorced while the film was still in production)? What if the in-laws are nuts? What if I’m tempted to sleep with another woman (as Henry does)? What if the baby drives me crazy? The film is, in a sense, a spiritual movie- it’s a yearning for escape, any escape, from a twisted nightmare that won’t let up. That nightmare could be called parenthood, misery, or life itself. All of the sudden, a promise that “in heaven, everything is fine” makes a lot of sense.

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