Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Eraserhead" Isn't So Weird

I am not a fan of self-indulgent and pretentious filmmakers who go far out of their way to make a weird film.  Aggressively weird films do not speak to me and are, in the end, a waste of my time.  But Eraserhead (1977) is amazing because, despite its extreme weirdness, it is an understandable and relatable film.  The film's director, David Lynch, wanted the film to reach people even though he knew not everyone would like or understand it.  Lynch said, "Each viewer gets a different thing from every film.  So there are some people where Eraserhead speaks to them, and others it doesn't speak to them at all.  It's just the way it goes." 

This is a matter that was astutely discussed by Keith Phipps and Tasha Robinson in an article for The Dissolve titled "The five-year nightmare of Eraserhead."  Phipps wrote, "[R]e-watching Eraserhead made me aware again of how personal Lynch's films feel, as if they were saying something the director had to say, even if it only makes sense to him.  And the wonder of Lynch's films is that they're clearly the work of a singular creator with no interest in watering down what he does for others, but they still find a way to reach so many people."

It is, in its own way, a man-child film.  The protagonist, Henry (Jack Nance), is a young man who stumbles forth on the difficult journey to maturity.  You can tell that Henry is outgrowing childhood faster physically than emotionally by a simple stock clue - his pants legs are too short for his legs.  Mike D'Angelo of A.V. Club wrote, "Attempting to describe Eraserhead tends to be an exercise in futility, but it's easiest to process as a young man's worst fears about impending adulthood.  The protagonist, Henry, whose vertical shock of hair makes him look perpetually alarmed, has just had a child with his girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart). . . Swaddled in bandages and looking more reptilian than human, the baby, or whatever it is, cries piteously day and night, resisting all efforts to be fed or comforted; Mary is so stressed out that she abandons the family, leaving Henry to cope as best he can."

Henry's facial expressions speak volumes to viewers.  Vulture's Bilge Ebiri wrote about "a permanent mixture of befuddlement and fear playing out on his face as he confronts responsibility, love, loss, and death."  The Dissolve's Scott Tobias wrote, "More crucial to Spencer's appearance, however, is his face, which is as easy to read as the action around him is wildly enigmatic.  Anxiety, discomfort, bafflement: That's the repertoire of expressions that settle around his eyes, and make Eraserhead identifiable as a character piece and a mood piece, no matter how far Lynch drifts into the avant-garde.  It takes time — and perhaps repeat viewings — to unpack the film's internal logic, but Spencer's basic fears of intimacy, fatherhood, relationships, and the hostility of the world around him are easily and intuitively understood."

Tobias noted that Eraserhead had a strong influence on the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink (1991).  The two films do in fact have many similarities.  Eric Hoffman, a film critic with on-line magazine Mental Contagion, pointed out that Fink replaces Henry's reptilian baby with something else that needs care and nurturing: a script.  The blank sheet of paper in Fink's typewriter cries piteously day and night in a desire to be fed with action and dialogue. 

Most obviously, Fink was inspired by Eraserhead's bizarre sound design.  Tobias wrote, "Lynch and sound designer Alan Splet spent a year of the film's five years in production coming up with dense layers of noise that create a low-level ambience in one scene, and rise up to an overwhelming crescendo in the next. . . Beyond the howling wind, the driving force is the sound of machines: The hums and hisses of a radiator, the clanks and chugs of some unseen factory that seems to operate perpetually beyond the walls.  This is the relentless soundtrack of Spencer's life — and of modern life more generally.  It sustains (and frequently aggravates) the stress that dictates his waking hours, and the troubled subconscious that dictates his dreams."

How does Fink compare?  Vikram Murthl of Criticwire wrote, "The first thing that stands out in Barton Fink is the sound.  Skip Lievsay's eerie sound design coupled with Carter Burwell's score almost immediately puts the audience at unease, packing the aural walls not only with strings, but with murmurs, phone calls, ringing bells, screams, guttural cries, humming, peeling wallpaper, and just about everything but silence to create the feeling of a world that's slowly falling apart."

Henry lives in a bleak, seedy, mostly vacant apartment building.  Fink lives in a bleak, seedy, mostly vacant hotel.  Trapped within these ugly and alienating confines, the characters find themselves becoming claustrophobic and paranoid.  Kempley wrote of Fink's habitat, "There is the decidedly rank smell of brimstone in the air at the Earle (its slogan is "Stay a Night or a Lifetime"), the primary setting for this latest version of the Mephistopheles story.  It's 1941 in Los Angeles and a heat wave has settled over the city like a sticky gravy.  It's so hot the wallpaper is peeling off in Fink's room, the paste running down the walls in gooey rivulets.  That this is a leaky, living hell there is no doubt. . . The Earle is also alive with the sounds of night: the creaking of ceilings and the protests of bed springs, grunts, thumps, screams, wails and wheezing doors. . . A gurgling, heaving purgatory, it seems a most likely place to teach understanding and punish arrogance."

It is also possible that Lynch and the Coen Brothers were influenced by Roman Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy" (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant).  Brian Eggert, the author of "Deep Focus Review Blog," wrote, "Polanski specializes in obsessions and madness, particularly those purveyed within a limited space. . . Each [of Polanski's trilogy] takes place in an increasingly confining apartment, the respective protagonists wary of neighbors, sounds, and the history of the building itself.  The walls seem to gradually close in and suffocate the interior, whereas the world inside their heads has long since gone mad.  These films each force the audience to question the reliability of the central character.  Is the world really out to get them, or are their fears a symptom of some mental malady?"  Film critic Will McKinley praised Polanski for "his artful juxtapositions of silence and ambient sound."  Chris Alfino of Chris Alfino's Film Blog wrote, "Sound design plays a critical role in the way suspense and fear are built. . . Polanski accentuates smaller sounds, sounds like the squishing noises of lips while people are talking.  He often mutes other audio tracks at the same time.  In such a way, he uses audio to effectively point at what he wants us to pay attention to, even more subtly using it to point at what isn't relevant in a scene (a sort of auditory ellipsis)."  Eerie sound design plays an important role in Repulsion (1965).  Catherine Deneuve embarks on her descent into madness during an early scene in which she finds herself repulsed by the sex sounds that filter through her apartment's walls.  Norman Hale of Movietone News wrote, "The film is chockfull of the attic-thumpings and disembodied sounds Polanski is so fond of rendering."

It was the same with the other films of the trilogy.  Hale makes mention of "the creaky Gothic nightscape of Rosemary's Baby." 

For the protagonist of The Tenant, the smallest of sounds can be unnerving.  He lies awake at night listening warily to the sounds of a ticking clock and a dripping faucet.

Sound effects often heighten the stressfulness of claustrophobic spaces in films.  This is evident in films as diverse as Alien (1979), Das Boot (1981) and 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016).  Would Alien's deadly hitchhiker be as scary without the blasts of steam, the hiss of respirators, or the blaring alarms that warn of the alien's attack?  Kelley Baker, author of The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide, said of Das Boot, "You care about the damn boat. . . You hear this submarine creaking, and you hear rivets popping off, and you hear all these sounds that the guys in the submarine are hearing.  And it's just like the submarine is a character.  And you want that submarine to get up.  You don't want these guys to die.  You want the submarine to survive all this. . . You want that submarine to live." 

Genevieve Koski of The Next Picture Show podcast thought that the interesting use of sound effects in 10 Cloverfield Lane made the film's claustrophobic bunker "seem almost like a living, breathing entity in and of itself."  She referred specifically to the "groaning and clunking [pipes]" and the "wheezing vents."

Like Henry, Fink is a man-child.  The Washington Post's Rita Kempley appropriately called Fink "a smug whelp."  Fink's understanding of the world, his perception of people and his insight into himself is grossly undeveloped.  Christopher Orr of The Atlantic wrote, "Turturro's character is manifestly unlikable in almost every way: sanctimonious, patronizing, hypocritical, and utterly devoid of self-awareness."  Fink is a New York playwright who has come to Hollywood to write for motion pictures.  His first assignment with his new employer, Capitol Pictures, is to write a wrestling picture for gruff, beefy actor Wallace Beery.  As he struggles to begin his screenplay, he acts more like a child unable to figure out his homework than a professional writer.  He whines to anyone willing to listen about his painful struggle with writer's block. 

You can resolve writer's block in one of two ways.  First, you can free yourself to write anything that comes to mind.  It doesn't matter if it's good or not.  Don't judge, just write.  Chances are that, when you take a look at what you have written, you will find something onto which you can build.  Fink doesn't write a word.  Your other option is to get input from outside sources.  Fink intends to get help from novelist W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), but he gets so caught up in pontificating to the man about his lofty ideals that he never gets around to asking him about his wrestling script.  He should talk to his new friend Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), who knows about wrestling and Wallace Beery movies, but he cuts off the man before he can tell Barton anything useful.  He could buy a wrestling magazine at the newsstand for inspiration.  He choses instead to dawdle like a lazy, irresponsible and unfocused schoolboy.  Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), the president of Capitol Pictures, lets him know that he needs to "grow up a little."  Lipnick sees him as being as useless and helpless as a child.  "You ain't no writer, Fink," says Lipnick.  "You are a goddamn write off."

As it turns out, Fink's friend Charlie is a serial killer who decapitates his victims.  A severed head is likely in a box that he gives Fink to hold.  In Eraserhead, Henry finds that his wife's head has been torn off in a photograph. 


Later, Henry has a nightmare in which he is decapitated and his head is converted into pencil erasers.

Henry receives solace from a tiny imaginary mutant woman, The Lady in the Radiator. 


Barton receives solace from a lady in a photograph.

J. Martin Cassady Jr. noted on a discussion forum that, in each film, a character has problems with an involuntary discharge (puss leaking out of Goodman's infected ear in Barton Fink and blood dripping out of Nance's nose in Eraserhead).

The Coen Brothers have been very much focused on sound design since Barton Fink.  Unnerving sounds play a prominent role in their latest film, Hail, Caesar! (2016).  The plot centers on the kidnapping of Hollywood star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney).  The kidnappers drug Whitlock and carry him off to their hideaway.  Whitlock awakens in a storage room, stirred by jarring sounds seeping through a closed door.  First, he hears a vacuum cleaner, then he hears a barking dog.  In the very next scene, Josh Brolin attends a tense lunch meeting at a Chinese restaurant.  The occasional sound startles him.  A beaded curtain crackles as he passes through.  A filter pump in a tropical fish tank burps and gurgles.

This is the type of weirdness that I enjoy.

You can read more on the man-child in my new book.

Additional notes

Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes in Rosemary's Baby (1968)
I realized as I researched this article that Rosemary's Baby has a couple of connections to The Shining (1980).  First, the two films both involve the unraveling of a marriage after the husband and wife take residence in a building that has a long and ominous history.  Jack Nicholson, who plays the husband in The Shining, was also considered for the role of the husband in Rosemary's Baby.  Polanski rejected Nicholson for a very good reason.  The husband is supposed to be corrupted by the various evil forces in the building, but the director believed that Nicholson had qualities that would make him come across as dark and sinister as soon as he appeared.  This is actually a complaint that many people, including The Shining author Stephen King, have expressed about Nicholson's performance in The Shining.  Polanski wanted an all-American boy-next-door type to play Rosemary's husband.  His first choice for the role was Robert Redford.  Polanski ended up with John Cassavetes, who ironically seems even darker and more sinister than Nicholson.  It is the one flaw of the film that Cassavetes seems to need little coaxing to betray his wife to a witches' coven.

Leigh Janiak said that Rosemary's Baby and The Shining were the main inspirations for the sad and creepy Honeymoon, which involved the unraveling of a marriage that occurs when a couple visits a creepy cabin.  It was one of my favorite films of 2014.

A more recent film that falls into this category is The Witch, which also has a family moving into a claustrophobic new home and then being set against each other by malevolent forces that plague the home.

My last observation is that the elevators in these films are creepy.

 Rosemary's Baby (1968)

 Eraserhead (1977)

Barton Fink (1991)


The Shining (1980)

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