not in our stars, but in ourselves
36/52: A movie in black and white
Usually, when you think of cinema in black and white, you think of elegant movie stars; gleaming whites and soft, deep blacks; lushly artificial outdoors and ceilingless indoors; immaculately lit closeups; smoosh-face kisses; that kind of thing. That’s what I think of, anyway, and I confess that I was somewhat looking forward to staying in my comfort zone with this installment. But my darling, helpful boyfriend, upon hearing that one of the categories for this challenge was black and white, very kindly pointed out, “Eraserhead is black and white.” Please note, dear reader, that David Lynch’s Eraserhead is a movie he’d already seen, and determined too disturbing to re-visit on his own. I am trying to broaden my horizons, however, and he’s darned if he won’t help me out. What a great guy. (No, he really is.)
I read a review of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me that described it as “a horrible masterpiece. […] it’s like having someone else’s nightmare.” I don’t think that’s a bad description of Eraserhead, though perhaps “sleep paralysis” is a more appropriate term for the way I felt while watching it. The plot is, in its surreal logic, simple enough: Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) lives in a dingy apartment somewhere in an industrial wasteland of a city. During a sequence that’s either a dream sequence or a representation of sex (as Fred and Ginger’s dance numbers used to be representations of sex), the Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk) pulls a bunch of levers, and a weird spermatozoon shoots out of Henry’s mouth while Henry is floating in space. As you do. Henry goes to see his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), at her parents’ place for dinner. It’s weird and awkward and horrible, especially when the chicken-like things Mary’s dad “made” start spurting blood and ooze as soon as Henry tries to carve them. Mary, it turns out, has had a baby – and her parents insist that the lovers get married. The baby doesn’t look entirely human, and all it does is scream and bleed. Henry, Mary, and Baby X go back to Henry’s apartment. Mary gets fed up, and leaves Henry to deal with the baby himself. He drifts in and out of reality, spying on the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts) and seeing the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) in his dreams, but he seldom leaves his room. The baby’s body is tightly bandaged, and Henry decides he’s going to cut the bandages open. The baby has no skin, or muscles, or bones, and all its organs come seeping out. Henry goes one better, and stabs at one of the organs – recreating the oozing and spurting with the chicken-thing at the X dinner party. Everything starts sputtering out of control – the Man in the Planet seems to be having trouble controlling his levers – and the Lady in the Radiator embraces Henry as the world goes blindingly white, and then black. Finis.
The thing about Eraserhead that most disturbed my boyfriend, and that made him reluctant ever to see it again by himself, was the sound design. Not the score, or the songs, or anything as conventional as that: the constant droning, screeching, howling, plodding sound that fills every frame, unrelentingly. Lynch was somewhat inspired by the nasty, industrial part of Philadelphia where he used to live, and he wanted to bring that soulless (and hopeless) machinated urban noise to Henry’s world. One of my friends has misophonia, and Eraserhead has taught me how she must feel most of the time: constant aural grating. There will be low, rumbling deviltry happening just within the ear’s ability to hear – and then, without warning, that maddening hum will shoot up to a roar. It’s stressful. Eraserhead is an INCREDIBLY stressful film.
If it’s “about” anything – and please note, Lynch hates to say what his work is about; he just wants to make what he wants to make, and let people interpret it as they will – it’s about the fear and neurosis of becoming a father for the first time. It’s also, therefore, pretty freaked out about sex. I would like to commend Lynch, therefore, for not mistaking a fear of sex for a fear of women. It seems like it should be a no-brainer, but I’m sure we all can recall a few examples of white male filmmakers whose sexual hangups lead them to vilify women, to blame women, to demean women, etc. Not even Hitchcock is exempt from that crime, in some of his darker moments. While I haven’t sampled all of Lynch’s body of work, I have noticed his refreshing tendency to keep his neuroses to himself. Ten points for you, David.
That’s not to imply that it’s some kind of feel-good movie. It is very much not a happy viewing/listening experience. It is, if you’ll pardon my French, completely fucked up. It all works, and it’s all cohesive (impressive considering that the film took years to complete), but it’s a wild fucking ride. Above, I mentioned sleep paralysis. I am thinking of a particular painting when I use that term:
Where a nightmare (in the middle there – get it?! night mare?!?!) bucks and gallops and throws you all over the place, sleep paralysis renders you helpless while the demon (or entity, or sprite, or whatever the hell it is) toys with you. It’s the difference between falling off a cliff and being pressed to death. Eraserhead feels like being pressed to death.
You should see it anyway. It’s not easy. It’s not fun. It’s not like the lovely black and white of Hollywood’s Golden Age; it’s much more like the angst-laden black and white of Weimar cinema, both in how it’s used artistically and in how it works thematically. I think you’ll find it hard to come up with much more than “what the fuck” afterwards (as this entire post is basically “what the fuck,” over and over and over again). Nevertheless, it’s worth a watch. It’s beyond surreal, beyond absurd, beyond everything you’re likely to have seen in your life (unless you only watch collaborations between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, in which case…good for you? I guess?) But as John Waters says, and as David Lynch would probably reaffirm: