Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Clouds of Gory: Perfection and Eraserhead

Considering David Lynch's 2003 DVD transfer of Eraserhead (1976), I am struck with the obsessive determination to achieve perfection that imbues every aspect of the effort. I have read that Lynch took control over the already-laborious restoration process, cleaning the film frame by frame, removing everything that was not a pure, straight-into-the-lens image. If the camera didn't see it, neither would the DVD viewer. And of course I am duly impressed by the result: The movie, which has always been a dark and shadowed thing, is nonetheless clear and deep on DVD. I've seen some gorgeous B&W on DVD, and Lynch matches the best, including some of The Criterion Collection's beautiful work--as well as Something Weird Video's fanatically frightening perfectionism for the happy dregs of exploitation movies. Even the marketing and packaging of Eraserhead mirrors this compulsion: you can buy it only from davidlynch.com (check out this site; in its own uneasily grimacing way, it too is The Happiest Place on Earth), which mails it to you in an ominous black box worthy of the Necronomicon (or a pair of top-of-the-line athletic shoes). The disc comes in an arresting, odd-sized (I assume so that it cannot rest comfortably with other DVDs) fold-out display case. The on-screen menu features a deleted scene in which Henry's pants-cuff gets entangled by some wire and indefinable drek--and what seems to be the infamous dead cat that Lynch procured from an understandably nervous veterinarian and took apart over a period of time, freezing it, I believe, between examinations. But I digress. This menu scene goes on for a creepily long time until we are presented with three unadorned options: the movie--without chapters, a Lynch trademark; no jumping around for you, you nosy home viewer--the trailer, and a commentary. The last involves David himself rambling on quite entertainingly about the years spent making the film, providing not only minute details of production but deadpan homespun yarns about food, driving, cat dissection, and so on--all overlaid, of course, with the distinct fascination of a fetish discovered. I hate to put it this way, but the whole affair is perfectly Lynchian.

Perfect, indeed; on the back of the DVD box the Woman in the Radiator assures us that "everything is fine in Heaven." Well, on one level we, the Lynch faithful, are indeed at last in Heaven. The arrival of Eraserhead on video--at least, video that isn't a pirated, murky mess--has been twenty-plus years in the making, and this Humble Viewer is suitably breathless. But how close do we get to Heaven while watching the film? For the sake of those who have not seen the movie, allow me to provide a brief synopsis (SPOILER WARNING--which you really don't have to worry about; plot is NOT why one watches this movie):

Henry X, a nervous, apprehensive, and uncertain young man, discovers that his girlfriend, Mary X, who is even more nervous, apprehensive, and uncertain, if that is possible, has had a baby--at least they think it's a baby. Reluctantly, Henry settles down with Mary and the "baby"--a special effect of eerie realism combined with the hysteria of denial (that's as close as I can get to a description, unless you're willing to accept "baby-sized truncated worm/sperm thing"); he then descends into a miserable fantasy world in which a seductive neighbor lady, small grimy objects, tiny worms, and a Woman in the Radiator--actually, behind the radiator, standing on a little stage, either sweetly singing or gleefully squishing falling worm/sperm things; I'm really trying to help you here--combine to alternately increase and alleviate (the latter unsuccessfully) the tension and eventual panic of marriage and fatherhood. The baby gets sick--loudly, wetly, relentlessly--Mary goes home to Mother, and Henry literally loses his head over the whole mess, first becoming a resource for pencil erasers and then finding himself drawn within the radiator, locked in a chaste embrace with the Woman. It ends in a blinding whiteout.

Where does all this come from? Well, there is an old Daffy Duck cartoon in which, as Duck Twacy, he is confronted with a number of villains, including one "Eraserhead," who announces, "I'm going to r-r-r-rub you out" (by the way, a line echoed somewhere--help me out, Humble Readers--in a Clash song). I'd like to think Lynch knows the Daffy cartoon (considering this is a man who once purchased a string of win-'em-at-the-carny-sized Woody Woopeckers); it would provide some comic relief from the unease that permeates most of the film. And maybe he does know the Daffy version; there is some comedy in Eraserhead, especially in Jack Nance's perfectly (that word again) controlled performance. His first scene has a Chaplinesque quality as he meanders through an industrial waste-landscape, skittering up and down dirt mounds, around--and in--puddles, and so on. His face, topped with that groundbreaking hairdo, seems plucked straight from a Mack Sennet comedy; I can see him as a hapless truant officer or innocent bystander, there only to await a brick on his head or pie in his face. There is also the Woman in the Radiator, who, despite her ghastly, deformed, Kewpie-doll simper, does sing beautifully; Lynch has reminded us time and again that the female upper register, so to speak, hath charms.

But I think the real source of Eraserhead is a deeply engrained, post-adolescent fear of adulthood, in which jobs--Henry, when asked what he does, replies that he's on vacation--marriage, and parenthood seem equivalent to a loss of freedom, youth, even life. Lynch captures this basic--perhaps we should admit adolescent--fear with repellent simplicity. I won't go into details, but there are a number of scenes--at Mary X's house, in Henry's apartment--in which emergent sexuality is seen not as fulfillment but as a trap; the snare is hairy, gooey, sweaty adulthood itself. This kind of sexual/body dread is taken up by David Cronenberg in the late '70s, and of course Lynch himself right after, beginning with The Elephant Man (1980), which also explores body issues, to put it mildly.

The fear Lynch dissects is in some ways an "American fear"; baby boomers especially have been encouraged to sustain adolescence indefinitely. There is an entire culture dedicated to campy, kitschy, self-conscious memorializing of the trivial minutiae of one set of "happy days" or another. I must admit I suffer from this as much as, if not more than, many. How else can I explain my minor satisfaction in hearing a Hanna-Barbera sound effect in a Ren and Stimpy cartoon--or my more-than-minor satisfaction in Ren and Stimpy themselves--or my covetous relationship with a small but prominently displayed collection of childhood toys--a few Matchbox cars, a tattered Popeye doll, a Wham-O Air Blaster--right in my living room, or my insistence that Ray Bradbury is one of the greatest writers who ever lived? (Although I might be right on that last one, if you squint a bit.) And let us not linger too long on the American attitude toward sexuality, at least as it is filtered through the lens of basic cable, which sees men as flatulent cholesterol-aholics who peer through life's peephole at Girls Gone Wild, and which asks women to perform for the peephole while indulging their own body-needs via conspicuous consumption--sometimes of men, a la "reality" TV (those weird Sadie Hawkins experiments in mating-as-a-game-show) but more often of cosmetics and cosmetic surgery.

Eraserhead expresses this fear as a nightmare, a wish-fulfillment of nauseating thoroughness, and in so doing edges us closer to not only awful understanding, to be sure, but also, to some extent, resolution. However. When Wordsworth--with, of course, lots more delicacy--examines the loss of childhood, he offers consolation via faith, communion--he uses the phrase, "primal sympathy"--and "years that bring the philosophic mind." He even seems determined to accept adulthood, asserting that he will not grieve over the loss of that "splendour in the grass," and is willing to accept "the light of common day." Lynch's resolutions, on the other hand, tend to occur in a perfected landscape, one often explicitly depicted as a kind of Heaven or childhood. (It's reverse Wordsworthian Romanticism; for Wordsworth, one begins in Heaven, "trailing clouds of glory," and ends up in an almost-equally glorious early childhood before entering a hopefully resolved adulthood in which one can, for instance, love a brook more so than when one could run as quickly as one.) Even death itself--as in The Elephant Man and (I think) Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and Mulholland Drive (2001)--can become an entrance to childhood. John Merrick chooses to sleep like other people, particularly like the painting of the child that hangs above his bed. In so doing, he spells his doom, for to lie down is to stop that tortured breathing. But he finds rest, and his mother. Sailor in Wild at Heart (1993) bypasses biology and finds his fairy godmother. A robin, albeit an obviously mechanical one--more on that in the next paragraph--sings at the end of Blue Velvet (1986); the female voice once again rises in welcome in Mulholland Drive; and, shorn of his usual awful adornments, all the stars come out to shine on the reunited brothers in The Straight Story (1999).

I would suggest that Eraserhead, in its own slippery way, marks the recurring Lynchian desire to resolve adolescent dread without making the resultant adult irresolute. But if the means of resolution is childhood or death/entrance into Heaven, then the operating principle of resolution is surrender to innocence. Simply put (and at that word you may sigh or yelp your relief), the way to resolve adolescent dread is, as Springsteen says, to be "ready to grow young again." We're back in the radiator, Heaven, in which the morass of adolescence is cleared by a simple--but at its best not simple-minded--acceptance of innocence, though tempered by uncertainty: we return to the fake robin, the unmistakable whiff--sometimes reek--of irony in Lynch's tone. But I would argue that when his endings express uncertainty of the value of the innocence gained, it is a hesitation that does not negate his conviction that we need to be like little children. After I watched The Straight Story, I felt deeply justified for crying at the end of Lynch movies. I've always been one of those who feel that Lynch may be cruel, but he is not jaded. He knows how bad things can get, and he worries about this all the time. Scoff if you must, but he expresses toward his characters a parental level of concern, as well as helplessness. In Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Jesus is asked if he loves humanity, and he replies that he pities it. The questioner comments that pity may be enough. At the least, it is indispensable to a tragedy worth the name; at the most, it can "build a Heaven in Hell's despite," to quote another master of irony, crazy Bill Blake, who also nonetheless tells straight stories, in his own way.

In reaching this point--where Eraserhead stands at the front of a long line of films that dip deeply into ugliness in order to extract, rescue, even reward anything that could remain innocent in all that "muck and mire," and does so with an unflinching but pitying gaze--I am reminded of Tom Kromer's semi-autobiographical, unforgettable book, Waiting for Nothing, which chronicles the harrowing experiences he and others suffered on the road during the Great Depression. In one vignette, he is in the lavatory of a mission flophouse with another "stiff," one who will soon blow out his brains in a toilet stall. During an exchange that over the years for me has become almost scriptural, the two agree, "She sure is a tough life, buddy." That expression of mutual pity shows up in the oddest places, including Kromer's flophouses, but also outside Lynch's kitchen windows, on his front porches, atop his car hoods--and even behind the occasional radiator.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

I Sing the Projector Electric

The Walt Whitman Theatre in Camden, NJ--actually, right across the city line in Pennsauken--was the only pre-mall movie theater I went to in New Jersey, as opposed to traveling across the river to Philadelphia, where the Goldwyn and other richly lobbied wonders still stood through my college years in the '70s. You can go here if you're really interested in seeing and reading about virtually every old-time theater in Camden, including peripherally the Whitman; however, poor man's Proust that I am, I'm not concerned with a sense of history as much as of remembrance. Only two visits to the Whitman remain with me. Both mark a bridge between the dimming past of my childhood and my clearer, albeit less formative, perceptions of adolescence and adulthood. For now, I'll write about one of those visits.

When I was a child it was not unusual to have "movie parties," relatively low-maintenance affairs for the parents, who only provided transportation to and from the Saturday matinee--and, given my memories of the experience, minimal supervision--followed by a half hour of cake and present-opening back at the house. I actually remember only one of these--not my party, but, I think, my friend Louie's. The Whitman, high-ceilinged, dun-colored, and dim, was jammed with screaming, flailing kids, liberated not only by the absence of their parents but by all that space and darkness, and the glory of the mob. After a few hard-hearted cartoons--maybe Little Lulu (or Little Audrey), Casper, or Baby Huey--or worst of all Herman and Catnip, denizens of the semi-psychotic netherworld of Famous Studios, in which the antagonist's sadistic rictus remains frozen amid the Bosch-like excess of all that tearing and rending and dynamiting--Louie and his guests, as well as another kid's party, were forced to stand before the screen to allow the audience to sing "Happy Birthday." Of course, we slunk up there reluctantly, knowing full well that this was definitely not an opportunity for rousing fellowship but for ridicule and target practice--the disconnect between adults and kids being yet again a source of literal pain--and, half-crouching, our shoulders raised, our faces averted, we were pelted by the crowd with popcorn, Milk Duds, empty Sno-Caps boxes, and eye-threatening Jujubees, all the while derided by their squawking rendition of the natal hymn--you know the version, of course: Louie was unflatteringly compared to one of our primate cousins, with insulting olfactory references. And in true kid fashion, this misery did not bond us with foxhole fellowship to the other party; no, somehow we managed to form a mutual enmity, promising pain and ignominious defeat apres-theatre (which of course never came to be).The movie itself was King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962); what I remember most was that we cheered wildly whenever King Kong, by default the "American monster," was on screen--or better yet, besting Godzilla, the Japanese monster, whom we booed and jeered, perpetuating old antagonisms. I guess the memory of the Bataan Death March died hard for eleven-year-olds in 1967.

Looking back, I will confess I have, as usual, romanticized the event almost beyond recognition. On the other hand, to assert that it was actually just another everyday childhood experience belies the deep weirdness of childhood, the isolated imbroglio down there at hip level in which such impromptu parodies of adult sturm und drang were indeed everyday occurrences, played out with, again, minimal chaperoning and arbitrary convictions. Jammed into the Whitman and left on our own, we were vigorously shaken like bees in a jar; little wonder we emerged tumbling, squinting like Plato's imbeciles in the sun for the first time, unaware we had invented the world once again, this time in the cacophonic darkness of a matinee.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Ripley's Believe It or Not

I still own an old paperback copy of Carlos Clarens' Illustrated History of Horror Films. (According to Amazon, it's still in print, with "Science Fiction" added to the title.) I read it when I was in seventh or eighth grade, right around the time Karloff died. I'd like to write about both Clarens and Karloff in more depth some time, but for now the image that floats to the surface is one of the book's stills, a shot of Jason sword-fighting a skeleton in Jason and the Argonauts (1963--and how lucky was I to have been seven years old when it was released?); the caption simply reads, SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF. And while the intent is to indicate the sense of wonder such images conjure, for me it was all about the shocking disconnect between what I knew as I watched a horror film and what I could not help but feel: electrifying fear, a soul-deep shiver that forced me to wince, to look away, to flee. Scary movies erased all comfort, all cozy certainty. At such moments, I was abandoned by everything in and around me that could reassure. A truly instinctual response.

I've written about this fear before, and will probably do so again, but as the years passed I began to suffer from a different fear: that I had lost the ability to suspend disbelief, at least in terms of the breathless terror movie images could once so easily churn up. And I'm not sure when the fear waned to the point that I noticed it had done so; but I know it happened late, well into adulthood (even though a dry whispering voice tells me in uneasily reassuring tones that It isn't done with me yet; but more on that later). All I'm certain of is that I began to have to will myself into that feeling, give myself reasons to be very afraid. And that marked the beginning of the end; once I had intellectualized fear, I snarled the primal throughline, maybe for good and all, into an oxymoronic knot I'd never unravel. All I was left with was the memory of fear, and for someone attracted to horror films, that's like showing a picture of a steak to a hungry man. I already needed my imagination to be afraid of a movie; how was I going to imagine that I was afraid? A dead end, boos and ghouls.

Again, my only consolation was that the feeling had lasted so long. I can still recall, with embarrassment but also queasy joy, how deeply afraid I was in 1979--at age twenty-three!--watching Alien. My sister--three years older than me but even more firmly strapped into the electric chair of movie fear--and a friend of hers went with me, at my insistence. I remember when things got really ugly, I glanced over, worried I had asked her to take on too much--I still recalled my sister walking out of a movie theater in Miami midway through A Clockwork Orange. But silly me: Kubrick's movie is not scary, simply morally nauseating. Neatly done, of course, but not much fun.After all, she was the one who only four years earlier had orchestrated her Summer of Jaws, seeing it over and over with any poor innocent who hadn't gone yet--including a younger cousin whose eye I believe is still twitching a bit. (And let's not forget that Alien has been called "Jaws in outer space.") She looked back at me, as Ripley (the dogged Sigourney Weaver, who stuck with the character through an alarming number of sequels) and the crew of the Nostromo* recovered as best they could from the sight of Kane's (John Hurt) exploding chest; I saw the shine in my sister's eyes, the grin/grimace of suspended disbelief in the service of giddy terror. Everything was fine. Afterwards, we laughed and shook ourselves like people coming off a roller-coaster ride. What fun, ho ho. But she wouldn't drive us home until we'd popped the trunk to make sure nothing lurked, and checked in the back seat--and under the seats--lest, well, you never know. And even though you do know, you allow your intellect to take a break, at least until you peer into the glove compartment.

As I hinted at earlier, the loss of such terrors has recently not seemed absolute. Maybe it's the jump-cuts, shadows, and ongoing ominous hum of the Japanese horror films I've been watching. Maybe I'm getting old enough to remind myself that one should respect the dark. Maybe it's because I continue to see movies with people--my children and spouse--who still twist and shout when It arrives onscreen. Because there I was with my twelve-year-old watching The X-Files on DVD the other night, and Mulder and Scully were in an underground mining facility, the tunnels lined with filing cabinets--puzzling evidence, elided once again--and of course the light fails and they separate; and Scully is alone in the dark when a gaggle of little Somethings scurries by, bulbous heads bobbing, while violin strings are plucked atonally and she stands saucer-eyed. I had no choice but to stiffen and draw back a little; and what an unwholesome relief to be reminded that I still had It in me.

*By the way, the connections between Joseph Conrad's novel of the same name and Alien can be intricate, if a bit frayed at the edges.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Now Is the Time to Act

Watching Stanley Tucci act is like reading a universal truth: you recognize something good any old time, real and acceptable as needed, comfortable in its own skin. I can easily imagine Tucci in The General (1927) fruitlessly pursuing Keaton, in Casablanca (1942) shaking cocktails for Bogart behind the bar, imposing on Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (1960), even leaning into the microphone to sternly inquire into Al Pacino's ties to organized crime in The Godfather (1972). His career reflects this universality, although early on he seemed mostly to fit snugly into pinstripes; he pops up as Lucky Luciano in Billy Bathgate(1991), and in the early '90s seemed to play swarthy or oily--a tendency he transcended with Big Night (1996), which he co-directed, -wrote, and also -starred in with another "ethnic type," Tony Shaloub, playing an Italian restauranteur with a underappreciated chef brother in Atlantic City circa 1955. It is a small and perfect world, dominated by food, loss, and love. I am so attached to this movie that I fear I am suspicious of anyone who doesn't have at least some affection for it. Like Kevin Spacey, Tucci brings a precision to his performances, an almost clipped reserve that opens doors into the insecurities and hopes of his characters.

Tucci's strengths are evident in Big Night, but the movie I can't stay away from is The Imposters (1998), in large part an homage to the Marx Brothers by way of Mel Brooks. Tucci and Oliver Platt play out-of-work actors who flee the misguided ire of another, more successful, actor (played by Alfred Molina) to a passenger ship--on which, of course, is Molina's Sir Jeremy Burtom. There we meet an almost-too-crowded collection: con artists, a Sheik, a dowager and her spinsterish daughter, a saboteur, a suicidal lounge singer, a "veiled queen"--that's what it says in the credits--and a variety of oddball crewmembers. The cast is a who's-who of indie films--Tony Shaloub again, with Lili Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Campbell Scott, Billy Connolly, Hope Davis, and the forever-amber Isabella Rossellini--and the set used for the ship has a cozy artificiality that invites us into the joke. All in all, a wide-eyed romp that sometimes stumbles, but always manages a Pee-Wee-Herman-like, "I meant to do that," and scrambles on.

But The Imposters' deepest value lies in the way it both interrogates and celebrates the idea of performance. From its opening scene, in which Arthur (Tucci) and Maurice (Platt) sit opposite one another and perform acting exercises, silently expressing emotions on command ("No hands," Platt is warned)--we are immersed in lives sustained by performance. As Lynne Anne Blom and L. Tarin Chaplin remind us in their 1989 book on dance improvisation, The Moment of Movement, "the senses are not verbal." And gosh, wasn't it just a few years earlier that Aristotle pointed out that action reveals character? In a pivotal moment in The Imposters, Tucci and Platt agree, "Now is the time to act," setting in motion a furious round of saves, near-misses, couplings and uncouplings, and revelations of the movie's central conceit: We reveal ourselves via the disguises we adopt. These double-plus entendres are often punctuated by musical interludes, the most emblematic of which are two renditions of "Parlez-Moi D'Amour," one surreal (Platt and Tucci disguised beneath harem veils execute a pas de trois with the Sheik as the Victrola plays Edith Piaf's immortal version), the other sweetly yearning (Hope Davis' lonelyheart serenades Steve Buscemi's suicidal singer, Happy Franks). I mention the music because song of one kind or another floats and flings itself around this movie, underlining the need for movement, performance, pretense, as a release from inertia and a relief from despair. At the end, like the Blazing Saddles fistfight that extends through the Warner Bros. backlot, while the credits roll the cast of The Imposters dances in Groucho-esque abandon through the set--then off it, past the cameras and crew, and across the soundstage.

The Imposters always makes me happy. Case in point: Oliver Platt has been running around in drag, attracting the attention of the aggressively sexually ambiguous Mr. Sparks (Billy Connolly)--shades of Some Like It Hot--and finally confronts Sparks with the truth, tearing off his wig and, Jack-Lemmon-like, shouting, "I'm a man!" to which Sparks lustily cries, "And so am I!" It is a line I can't stop finding hilarious, if only because it not only reveals the toothy-grin core of Sparks' character but also speaks to The Imposters' general air of whoopsy-daisy--or is it topsy-turvy? No matter, for while some moments seem a bit forced, Tucci still runs Arthur gleefully through the movie, befuddled but eager, Platt exploits Maurice's quirky uncertainties and sporadic commitments, and everyone, even the stop-or-I'll-jump Happy Franks, has fun, including me.

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