The Movie Mezzanine Filmmaker Retrospective series takes on an entire body of work–be it director’s, screenwriter’s, or otherwise–and analyzes each portion of the filmography. By the final post of a retrospective, there will be a better understanding of the filmmaker in question, the central themes that connect his/her works, and what they each represent within the larger context of his/her career. This time, we delve into the strange world of David Lynch’s mind, attempting to make sense of things along the way.
There’s really no other filmmaker like David Lynch. Though “Lynchian” has become a term for offbeat, surrealist cinema, and many other directors do attempt to replicate that distinct “Lynchian” brand of surrealism—sometimes with success, other times with failure—there’s still nothing quite like watching a true David Lynch film.
Naysayers will tell you that Lynch only makes his films weird and random all for randomness’ sake. These same people also like to think that anyone who embraces the cinema of Lynch is a snob who pretends to understand his films just to look and sound smarter than they actually are. But to accept this misconception is to ignore the true craftsmanship that Lynch uses to bring us to his world, resist convention and logic, and take us to places that most movies wouldn’t dare explore, in ways that are breathtakingly unique, and sometimes quite terrifying. You don’t just watch David Lynch films. You give yourself up to them.
That quality is what we’re celebrating for the next few months, as we delve into Lynch’s filmography, and explore his deranged, twisted world together. Starting now, The David Lynch Retrospective begins. The first course on the menu is a good ol’ helping of man-made chicken, just like pa used to make…which is basically just a referential way of saying we’ll be taking a look at Lynch’s debut film ‘Eraserhead’ this week.
“In Heaven, everything is fine.”
Before we officially begin: A History Lesson. David Lynch got his filmmaking-start producing and directing many short films, many of which hinted at his discordant, eerie, surrealist style that would later define his work. The most famous of his pre-debut shorts is ‘The Grandmother’, the strange tale of a young boy who’s abused and neglected by his parents and decides to grow himself a grandmother (you didn’t misread that) to be his companion. It’s a short that encompasses a lot of Lynch’s stylistic and thematic obsessions: striking black and white photography, eerie sound design, surreal visuals, strange characters, and most important of all, dreamlike logic.
The short was funded in part by the AFI Conservatory, where Lynch went to study film in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The AFI Conservatory also helped fund his debut feature film, which was supposed to be a project entitled ‘Gardenback’. As you can already tell, this project didn’t come to be, thanks in large part to mounting pressures with members of the Conservatory supporting Lynch’s script while also asking for changes like more dialogue and a longer length. After a lot of frustration with the project, he threatened to quit working at the Conservatory, yet was asked to stay by many members of the faculty, who believed him to be one of their most talented students.
Lynch agreed to stay under the condition that his next project would allow him 100% creative control. The result was a film that few people knew what to make of, but was undeniably like nothing else many people have seen.
Before truly delving into the film, I feel it necessary to share that I have a strong, personal connection to Eraserhead in that I personally find it the most terrifying film ever made; even above my all-time favorite horror film The Shining. Don’t get me wrong, The Shining is a terrifying experience, yet I find myself watching it over and over, admiring its craft more with each viewing. I can’t do the same for Eraserhead. The second half of the film gives me panic-attacks, and the entirety of it creates an astounding level of discomfort that no other film does to me.
Rewatching it for this retrospective was something of an ordeal. When I saw it for the first time, I was almost out of breath by the end-credits. Seeing it again, I was still able to manage, but only out of sheer willpower not to breakdown into a mess of terrified, incoherent babbling as I rocked back and forth in my chair like a mad-man. It was basically like taking a really disturbing road-trip through hell, remembering how traumatizing it was, then experiencing it again and remembering a whole slew of new details about the trip that you happened to repress but are now surging back into your mind like an amnesiac discovering his identity.
It’s easy to pinpoint what exactly it is about ‘Eraserhead’ that I find so damn affecting to me. David Lynch as a director is obsessed with dualities, the most obvious of which being the connection between what many critics consider to be a “dayworld/underworld” sort of dichotomy, with the underworld part usually taking place in the realm of dreams and nightmares. But though you can interpret ‘Eraserhead’ through a thousand different meanings (as is the case with most if not all of Lynch’s films), ‘Eraserhead’ looks and feels 100% like a nightmare, and there isn’t a single point in the film where we surface from its dark, murky waters into consciousness. It’s pure, unadulterated nightmare, to the point that it’s near-unbearable.
The nightmare of ‘Eraserhead’ is one that is unrelentingly oppressive. We like to use the phrase “like a nightmare” a lot for our horror fiction, so much so that the phrase has become meaningless. ‘Eraserhead’, however, is one of the rare films that truly does feel like a nightmare in just about every respect. Not only because of its aesthetic and atmosphere, which is haunting in its own right, but because it is truly a product of the subconscious. Littered with Freudian imagery as subtle as a deformed woman stomping on giant sperm-like organisms with her shoes, or a giant cock shooting through a man’s neck thus decapitating him, psychoanalysts can practically (and dare I say literally) treat the main character through this disturbing nightmare that Lynch presents us with.
What’s truly special about Lynch’s nightmare aesthetic is that it’s not entirely obvious. Sure there’s some over-the-top, downright bizarre and violent imagery throughout his films, but the film builds those moments up with rather subtle, silent passages that absorb us into the dream world. Usually just one or two elements are a little “off” at first, causing a strange sense of discomfort that we don’t notice until things get crazy later on down the line.
‘Eraserhead’ is a masterful example of this, as it starts out with strange visions of what’s to come, and then lets us settle into the world’s deranged perception of “normalcy”, with just a couple slight details that feel wrong in some subtle way. Some of my favorite examples include the protagonist, Henry (Jack Nance), pressing a button in an elevator to go up, then having to wait a good minute or so before the doors actually close and the elevator brings him up; and a moment near the very beginning where Henry steps on a puddle of water and the splash is completely inaudible. Little things like that keep adding and adding up until we start seeing Ladies in the Radiator and pieces of chicken twitching their legs and bleeding all over a plate.
Not all of Lynch’s films exist in dreams and nightmares, but when they do, no matter how seemingly incomprehensible they appear, there’s always some defining theme lurking beneath that pulls it all together. At first glance, the true purpose of the ‘Eraserhead’ nightmare is somewhat obvious. On a concrete level, it’s about a man who is unwilling to accept responsibility, fearing the possibility of committing to something like a child, or the very concept of fatherhood in general. In this dream world, the child is a hideous deformity–a monster, even–, and the women surrounding him are either just as deformed as the baby, temptresses that are only using him for their own end, or (perhaps the most problematic) more cowardly than he is.
The imagery and symbolism are fairly obvious; moreso than most of Lynch’s other works. And yet, I still think there’s more to it than just that. We can never know since Lynch wisely never resorts to needing to explain anything about his movies, which is something that I wish more directors would stick to. (For example, I’m clearly a huge fan of ‘Upstream Color’, yet I find it odd that Shane Carruth flat-out explained his intended meaning for the film in many interviews).
That being said, ‘Eraserhead’ is the closest of Lynch’s films to get a real hint from the director’s own mouth, stating in an interview that the film was inspired by his experiences living in Philadelphia, capturing its “fearful mood”. He even called it his own ‘Philadelphia Story’. That can mean all sorts of things, of course, but it does clearly indicate that the nightmare of ‘Eraserhead’ isn’t just of one individual, but one that encompasses an entire social and cultural identity.
Fatherhood isn’t the only fear portrayed in the film. It takes place in an industrial yet seemingly post-apocalyptic wasteland (it’s never clearly explained). These two factors support the theory of this being both a social and cultural nightmare as much as an individual psychoanalytical one. When Lynch was in Philadelphia, it was during the late 1960s, a couple of years after the so-called post World War II “Baby Boomer Generation” had ended.
The Baby Boomer Generation, for the two or three of you in the room who need a reminder, can’t be clearly defined but did have a few key characteristics: post-war trauma, sexual freedom (hence the name “baby boomer”), the Cold War and its perpetuating fear of Communism and Nuclear War, a surge in environmentalism, drug experimentation, and a more cynical outlook towards both the government and the commercialism that dominated the ’50s.
Each of these elements can be seen in play throughout ‘Eraserhead’, as the film acts like some sort of nightmarish, apocalyptic aftermath of the many elements that defined that era. Sexual freedom results in grave consequences (the deformed baby that is the film’s centerpiece), environmentalism has clearly failed this gray, desolate landscape, and the industrial dystopia that surrounds our characters (and supplies some sketchy “man-made chicken”) echoes both the fear of communism and the general distrust of the government at the time.
Tinging this dystopian wasteland is a post-apocalyptic feel, which goes back to the Cold War roots of the era. It’s never explicitly explained, but with all the mutant deformities, seemingly empty landscapes, and even a portrait of a mushroom cloud hanging in our protagonist’s apartment for no logical reason at all, the Cold War, and more specifically the nuclear threat surrounding it, is a strange fixation throughout the film, and displays the social and cultural aspects of this nightmare that Lynch has crafted.
It’s interesting to note how what many consider to merely be a trippy, weird movie may actually be a collection of the many fears of this very specific slice of American history. It’s especially interesting when you consider that the concept of American Dream is one that Lynch plays with even more further in his career. But that’s for another entry.
The question still remains, however: What does the social and cultural aspect of the nightmare have to do with the more personal and psychological one? To be quite honest, I’m still not quite sure. Maybe it was just important that Lynch captured all three facets of the collective subconscious rather than just one. Maybe there’s a connection between the government’s irresponsibility and the irresponsibility of a neglectful parent. We may never know, and this Baby Boomer interpretation is only one out of hundreds that can be made for the film, just as all Lynch films are wont to do. All we can do is watch and stare in wonder at this bizarre creation of mutant babies, bed bathtubs, and lonely men in planets pulling the levers like a puppet master pulls his strings.
No matter what it is that the film “means”, one thing that can’t be explained is its emotional power, its ability to conjure fear out of the mind by digging deeply into the subconscious, and just the simple fact that this deeply disturbed vision ended up introducing the film world to one of its most daring and important auteurs.
But how did the man who made this strange, experimental exercise end up finding mainstream success and a cult following? Find out as we delve further into Lynch’s filmography and see what happens when producer Mel Brooks picks him up to direct what would be Lynch’s sophomore effort and the first “hit” of his career: 1980’s ‘The Elephant Man’ starring Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt.
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