Monday, April 18, 2011

Babies, Crazies and Ladies in Radi...ators: What is Eraserhead?

Damn. I nearly made that title rhyme, didn't I?

Last night I went to see David Lynch's bizarre 1977 debut feature Eraserhead on the big screen in a new 35mm print at the Astor Theatre. A marvellous experience - "experience" being a very apt word to describe any David Lynch viewing, especially on the big screen - to be sure, and one that left me rather speechless. Having seen it once before on DVD, I couldn't have estimated the power that the film has on a cinema screen. Of particular note are the final 30 minutes or so, during which the strange peculiarities that Lynch had been stirring for an hour finally start to sputter and boil out of control, becoming a deranged fever dream of surreal and even spiritual images.

But what exactly is Eraserhead? That, I couldn't possible answer. Is it a grave look at the consequences of bringing a child into the world? Is it a look at the suffocating and depressing lives of the lower class? Is it merely a look at the gradual mental breakdown of a couple, brought to the brink by the cruelness of life? It could be one, all or none of these things.

It rightly secured it's place amongst the original and the greatest cult films ever made, but if you look carefully there is so much to admire from a pure filmmaking stand point. Firstly, surely Eraserhead ranks as one of the most assured directing debuts of all time. The audience would instantly understand what "a film by David Lynch" is and he has, more or less, continued to give audiences just that for decades since to cheers and chagrin of viewers. And while several aspects of this film have been reworked by Lynch into his other films - the discovery of a body part (Blue Velvet), the art design (Twin Peaks), the peculiar bond of family (The Straight Story), the dread-filled sound design (INLAND EMPIRE), even the fade to white operatic final shot (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, right) - never were they done so authentically and as honestly as here. With his budget of only $10,000 - some of which provided by Sissy Spacek and Jack Fisk! - this is a vision Lynch absolutely had to believe in and while it's not my favourite of his films, it stands up as perhaps his most daring and personal work to date.

In fact, while we're on the subject, while I've always believed Mulholland Drive - my favourite Lynch film - was a "best of David Lynch" type of affair, I'd never really noticed just now much was taken from the 1977 film and supplanted to the 2001 film. The man cranking the levers behind the scenes in Eraserhead could easily be altered as the mysterious homeless man in the alley off Sunset Blvd; the radiator and the blue box are both mystical portals; Laurel Near and Rebekah Del Rio, hello!; the deranged descent into madness of the final scenes; the excruciating meet-the-parents dinner sequences. It doesn't make me think any less of Mulholland Drive mind you, just might make me look at it in a different light upon next viewing. A modern day Eraserhead, perhaps? One without the main character having her brain processed into the little eraser nubs on the ends of pencils, obviously.

Other than Lynch's obvious filmmaking skill, however, there is the performance by Jack Nance. The man who would go on to become a Lynch regular - most famously as Peter Martell in Twin Peaks - gives a performance that somehow manages to emerge clear as day from all that surrounds him. His assortment of confused faces mix perfectly with several moments of inspired, if under-appreciated humour. I particularly love the moment after the chicken has bled on the dinner table and he calmly puts down the carving knife and fork. It's hard to explain, but if you see it I think you'd see what I noticed.

And while Charlotte Stewart (the future Log Lady), Allen Joseph and Jeanne Bates are all macabre and odd as the family X, I want to single out Judith Anna Roberts as the "Beautiful Girl Across the Hall", who I always think looks a bit like Sandra Bernhard. Lynch's camera - cinematographers Herbert Cardwell and Frederick Elmes, presumably two due to the five year filming schedule - frames her gorgeously, constantly emerging and disappearing into pitch black. Those close-ups in the bedroom sequence with Jack Nance are perfection. There's a real old school glamour (to coin a frequently used phrase) and film-noir classiness to the way she is shot, which is surprising giving the rest of the film is not filmed like that at all, instead taking inspiration from the likes of German expressionism.

To say nothing of Laurel Near's "lady in the radiator"... well, even if I haven't the foggiest idea what it means, yet is pure bliss. As has become a regular thing with Lynch, his soundtracks are given just as much prominence as anything else, and while Eraserhead doesn't have much in the way of a traditional score - instead relying more on the omnipresent industrial sound effects and ominous sound design - the moment when Near's heavily made-up, blonde-wigged radiator girl starts to sing a song called "In Heaven", you'd be forgiven for thinking you had in fact been taken there. She's like an older, grotesque Shirley Temple, and it's a rare moment of peaceful clarity in an otherwise terrifying, exhausting and stunning movie. A

1 comment:

Drew Mackie said...

I agree with the theory that the Radiator Lady is the Devil or Death, with her song being a ploy to the protagonist to abandon his troubles by committing suicide. The squished worms? Think of them as sperm -- the potential for more trouble. And look what kind of trouble his sperm got him into with the horrible salamander baby.