Friday, November 11, 2005

Picked Flick #72: Eraserhead

I conjectured further down on this list that Michele Soavi's Cemetery Man would be the hardest entry to write about, but having now arrived at Eraserhead, David Lynch's roomy and surreal yet utterly cohesive debut feature, I realize that I was wrong. How many times has a David Lynch movie proved somebody wrong? He proved beyond question, and to the chagrin of many more timid artists, that you can hop from a first feature this singularly bizarre to the basically conventional Elephant Man, a film that remains distinctive and troublingly irreal even as it parlays so comfortably into narrative paradigms and popular favor. That you can reframe comfy, Eisenhower-era iconography within the savage, huffing, sadomasochistic framework of Blue Velvet and still galvanize a core of fans who will journey to the outer, saturnine limits of your own obsessive images. That you can suavely oscillate between film and TV projects, even before such a thing was fashionable for our auteurs, and without the protective auspice of a paid-cable channel. That you can court incoherence in Fire Walk with Me and honor the simplest classical traditions in The Straight Story all in the same decade. That you can alchemize a rejected television pilot into the ranking apotheosis of your own feature-film career, and maybe of postmodernism more generally in the American cinema.

Lynch keeps daring us and daring himself, and the film world tenses with anticipation at each new step he takes—which, more than four years after the trip down Mulholland Drive, could hardly appear a moment too soon. There is no question in my mind that Mulholland is Lynch's best and richest movie, but if that masterwork is missing anything, it's the daft, piquant riskiness of a film like Eraserhead, which reflects not the trained professionalism that comes with decades in the business and a cohort of frequent collaborators, but from a pure will to test the on-screen viability of an almost id-level sensibility. Lynch is the credited director, writer, editor, composer, production designer, special effects technician, and sound-effects editor on Eraserhead, and I suppose I feel, with no particular justification, that assigning any more chefs to this dada dish could only have diluted the flavor. Though quite evidently a workshop for sonic concepts, experiments in framing, and poker-faced acting styles that would later be redrawn in finer detail, Eraserhead works marvelously on its own terms. A dreamscape to equal Un chien andalou, the film also traces a clear narrative line through nervous courtship, an excruciatingly anxious paternity, and a kind of fantasy life that isn't so much stifled as it is genetically rearranged by an oppressive, penurious existence in a post-industrial no man's land.

I'm sure all of Eraserhead's fans have their own favorite moments. Unquestionably, one of mine is the non-diegetic soundtrack of whines and slurping sounds beneath Jack Nance's first painful meeting with his girlfriend's parents, belatedly linked to a dog suckling her litter in the same room. Close behind that is the Tod Browning shot of Charlotte Stewart's strained expressions as her head rests on the foot of a mattress, only tangentially indicating that below the sightline of the frame, she is reaching for a suitcase beneath the bed. All of the scenes of the titular and pustulent dino-baby are unforgettable, as is that famous shot of Nance's startled grimace and his backlit pile of wiry curls while the spores released from his baby's abdomen fill the air around him. What does any of it mean? Please don't make me guess. I haven't even tried to delve into the connotations and integrated resonances of Eraserhead because the pleasures it imparts as pure collage are so profound, so inexpressibly funny, and so relatably sad. And I cop to finding enjoyment in the fact that Eraserhead is, for all its notoriety and the prestige of its director, so totemistically difficult to locate, making the movie rare in every sense—uncommon, exquisite, and served up all but raw. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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2 Comments:

Blogger damion said...

brilliant post, beautifully written.

3:59 PM, November 12, 2005  
Blogger tim r said...

Hey, so glad you liked Pride and Prejudice! Seems you really liked it! I can't wait to hear your take, but I hope it makes mention of the beautiful last scene with Donald Sutherland, and all that gracious and generous Altmanesque eavesdropping on lonely souls at the ball. Keira's damn good too, no?

8:37 PM, November 12, 2005  

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