"IN HEAVEN/EVERYTHING IS FINE/YOU'VE GOT YOUR GOOD THING/AND I'VE GOT MINE"
It’s been a long, long time. Long before the year turned over, many films were viewed, many passages read, with much rumination ensuing, but not a peaceful moment in the eye of an unusually windy holiday-season storm to gather them out and share them with my legion of eager devotees. Until now.
This is just for starters. I’ll honor the film that finally kicked my ass into gear and inspired me to explicate my thoughts...
I received David Lynch’s first feature, 1977’s Eraserhead as perhaps my most-treasured Christmas gift (though a very intuitive friend did give me the book The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, by Diana Lovell, which runs a close second, and you may expect a review of it very soon). Eraserhead has been very spiffed-up, lovingly restored, and released on disc exclusively through Lynch’s overpriced but still impressive website.
This is one of the most original and bizarre films I’ve ever seen (these words seem to fade even as I type them; almost any viewer would be forced to describe the film as I just did, and I’m sure many before me have). As with Todd Haynes’s similarly underground-legendary Superstar, if this film is not the most accomplished or coherent articulation of its creator's vision, it is still probably the most pure, the rich topsoil out of which the rest of the work has blossomed. The ideas here- the images, the sound, the editing, all of which can clearly be seen, in hindsight, as eternally recurrent in the rest of Lynch- are almost too concentrated. Surely, every disturbing image in the film has some remote correlate in “reality,” but I find that allegorical symbolism doesn’t do Lynch’s work justice. His films are too hermetic in too many ways for this; somewhat similar to Godard, it may actually take viewing more than one David Lynch film to “get” his system of symbols, an emotional and observational lexicon as unironic as it is strange.
There aren’t really words to do justice to the “story” of Eraserhead[, but: A very stifled and anxious-appearing young man named Henry (John Nance) lives in a city that’s all back alleys and industrial anonymity; he loves his girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart), but the sexual nature of their relationship has led not only to the displeasure of her creepy-catatonic, cloistered-in family, but the birth of a grotesque, inhuman, effluviant “baby”/creature that mocks the now-married young couple from its place on the dresser with its incessant cries and cackles. A dark, mysterious woman from across the hall beckons Henry from his unhappy home. Also, there’s a not-so-nice man in the moon (shades of the homeless man in Mulholland Dr.) and a deformed but angelic lady that lives in the radiator (as with any Lynch movie, the genius is that all this makes perfect sense, in a way- he creates an atmosphere that allows it to make sense).
Lynch’s obsession with orifices and the desperate human discomfort toward the organic rivals that of David Cronenberg's, but where Cronenberg’s version is precise, cerebral, and relatively literal, Lynch’s seems to come from the heart; whether it’s the nebulous planetary and parasitic holes the camera penetrates in Eraserhead or the more recognizable ear canal of Blue Velvet or the “box” in Mulholland Dr., it’s clearly been present from the beginning.
There’s an extremely displaced yet almost comfortingly symbiotic connection in Eraserhead, as in all of Lynch’s work, between the shapes (images, many of which are literally geometric) and patterns (editing), which is a beautiful thing all by itself- it’s self-contained. You could knock yourself out trying to decipher what all the inimitable and unforgettable things you’re seeing “symbolize,” but it works just as well to follow Lynch’s dream-plots through their inspired, sometimes gorgeous convolutions (when everything stops for a moment so the “radiator lady” can appear out of the darkness to sing a simple, soaring little ditty that goes, “In heaven/Everything is fine” on the film’s own smaller-scale version of the controlling-metaphor Mulholland Dr. stage, I was completely transfixed; it has a place in my personal Most Perfect Cinematic Moments). The black-and-white cinematography of Frederick Elmes (who later went on to light Blue Velvet, The Ice Storm, and Storytelling) is wonderful and more key to setting the atmosphere (along with that famous Lynch sound, which sonically saturates Eraserhead); the film looks, period-wise, like something that’s been discovered on reels in someone’s closet and projected for the first time in decades, something simultaneously very familiar and wholly foreign.
In the Eraserhead interview section of the book Lynch on Lynch, ed. Chris Rodley, Lynch elaborated upon the multifarious quarters from which the unequivocal acclaim for the film emanated: “Well, Kubrick paid me the highest compliment. Just before we started shooting The Elephant Man in England, some guys from Lucas Films came over. They stopped in... we were all talking in the hall and they said, “We’re glad we saw you, David, because last night... we met Kubrick, and we were talking, and he said, “Do you guys want to come to my house tonight and see my favourite film?” And so they went, and it was Eraserhead. That was a hair of euphoria. Because I think Kubrick’s one of the all-time greats. Almost every one of his films is in my top ten.”
Later in the same chapter: “John Waters is another guy that helped me out a lot. He did a Q and A or something after a screening of his new film, and he didn’t talk about his new film. He just told people they had to go and see Eraserhead!”
The next widely seen film to even attempt what was evidently Lynch’s ambition for Eraserhead- to let the audience in on your dream, the most insane idealizations and the most demented horrors of it, risking all the revulsion and accusations of pretension or willful obscurantism that inevitably result- was Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3 (and, to a lesser extent, the others in the Cremaster series), with its similar obsession with cause-and-effect as experienced in dreams; all out of proportion, but with its own immutable, assured logic.
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