Retro Review: In ERASERHEAD, Everything Is Fine: A Lynch Classic Lurks into Landmark Midtown Art Cinema

Posted on: Feb 26th, 2015 By:

MPW-30819ERASERHEAD (1977); Dir. David Lynch; Starring Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates, Judith Roberts and Laurel Near; Tuesday, March 3 @ 7:00 p.m.; Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Tickets $11; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Landmark Midtown Art Cinema continues its “Midtown Cinema Classics” series with ERASERHEAD, the debut feature from one of this country’s most iconoclastic and distinctive filmmakers, David Lynch. Though made with an almost non-existent budget and shot over the course of five years, it quickly became one of the defining films of the “Midnight Movie” circuit and established Lynch as a singular artist with a visual strength and innovative storytelling style that must be reckoned with.

First, a summary: The Man in the Planet pushes a lever and things go into motion. Grey, desolate cityscapes. Harsh concrète pulses of industrial noise interspersed with the jaunty organ music of Fats Waller. Flickering lights in the hallway. Henry Spencer, a man with a questionable hairstyle. A family dinner with a bleeding, miniature roast chicken. “They’re new!” A revelation. “They’re still not sure it is a baby!” Something that looks like a goat fetus swaddled in bandages. The Lady in the Radiator. “In Heaven, everything is fine.” Crying. Oh, the crying. The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. Visions. We have a title. Scissors. Confrontation. Explosions. An embrace. And despite the Man in the Planet’s attempts, those levers will not go back. No way to slow down.

There is no effective way to critically assess a movie like ERASERHEAD. It just exists, monolithic. Even discussing the making of the movie is a faulty way to approach the film. It’s too mundane. Too workaday. Is it interesting that Lynch filmed it while on an AFI scholarship and used their campus as filming locations? That it took over five years to complete and that he shot it around his schedule as a newspaper delivery boy? That star Jack Nance’s then-wife, assistant director Catherine “The Log Lady” Coulson helped fund it by donating her entire salary as a waitress? That nobody will speak of the nature or construction of the baby prop? Perhaps. But none of that is nearly as interesting as the movie itself.

eraserhead2You can try to analyze it and its symbols, but as David Lynch has always been such a closed book when it comes to discussing his own work, that approach depends entirely on what you bring to the table. Is it a horror movie about the terror a parent faces when an unwanted child is brought into the world? Sure! Why not? It’s an easy read of the text. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d say if you were to attempt to summarize the plot in a linear fashion. But try to tie that to a theory that this reflected Lynch’s mindset at the time, and that’s all on you. Lynch isn’t talking, and he’s never going to tell you that you’re right. For all you know, he thought the movie was high comedy. From on-set reports, that’s precisely what he thought about the Dennis Hopper/Isabella Rossellini scenes in BLUE VELVET, and those are freaking harrowing. No, the only way to approach the film on any interpretive level is to take the postmodern stance that the “meaning” of any work of art is dependent entirely on the viewer. And for what it’s worth, Lynch is completely on board with that. You come to it with the baggage you bring, and you walk away from it eyeing your baggage suspiciously.

Universally speaking, and without getting into personal interpretation, the only thing I can do is insist that you undertake this experience without hesitation, and try to relate to you the film’s ugly beauty. The production design is incredible, and Lynch establishes early on that he is expert at bringing on board cinematographers who can translate his inner visions to celluloid. ERASERHEAD is photographed beautifully. What it captures is often bleak, horrifying and miserable, but depicted with incredible detail and economy. Though the film presents incredibly unpleasant themes and sets its sights on incredibly unpleasant visuals, it does so with such a striking aesthetic impact that you cannot help but appreciate the care, passion and technical precision and accomplishment behind every frame. Lynch, trained as a painter, knows how to work effectively within a frame and does so with a remarkable style and uniform visual sense.

eraserhead-645-75What’s more striking, though, is how this single work has come to define David Lynch as a filmmaker. Even more than his many early short films, this is the lynchpin (and may the Man in the Planet strike me dead for making that pun) for all of his subsequent works. The unnerving sense of “is this supposed to be funny?” bubbling up from the depths of the darkest sequences. Trademark visual motifs (figures emerging from shadows, the unreliability of electric light sources), storytelling elements (the blurring of dream and reality, odd chanteuses appearing at crucial moments to perform for us), visual composition (alternating black-and-white set design, long establishing shots, seemingly random inserts) and sound design (ever-present ambient noise, strangely anachronistic musical score) all find their wellspring here. Even in casting, Lynch’s oeuvre is tied together by this film, in which he first cast his most frequently-used actor, the late Jack Nance as Henry Spencer. Nance’s distinctive presence and oddball style made him a perfect choice for many subsequent cult films, and Lynch continued to use him in nearly all of his subsequent features (save for THE ELEPHANT MAN) until Jack Nance’s death in 1996.

Frank Zappa coined the notions of “conceptual continuity” and the “Project/Object,” in which he posited that all of his work—every album, song, interview, etc.—was all part of the same Big Work of Art that he was eternally designing as he went along. In a way, this is true of Lynch’s work as well. You could spend days going back and forth about the concepts of identity in his films and how MULHOLLAND DR. is the feminine flip side to the male-dominated diabolism of LOST HIGHWAY, and how all of that relates to the shifting and blurring definition of “self” in INLAND EMPIRE. You could follow the threads of adultery and its repercussions that pop up with regularity throughout his work. You could focus on the almost religious reverence he consistently devotes to the physically aberrant. And you could easily use any of those examinations to tie all of his work together as one big Project/Object. But you’d be hard pressed to do so without coming to the conclusion that it all comes together perfectly in one spot and flows out from that source: ERASERHEAD.

Or maybe not. It’s kinda up to you.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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30 Days of The Plaza Theatre, Day 4: Hot Patootie, Bless Our Souls, It’s a Time Warp of a Rocky Horror Trivia Quiz!

Posted on: May 11th, 2012 By:

Lips Down on Dixie performs a live stage show at THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, midnight every Friday at The Plaza Theatre.

Tonight, there are two great reasons to get down to The Plaza Theatre and support this city’s one and only longest running historic independent nonprofit cinema! First off, cult classic THE ROOM starts a three-day run at 8:30 p.m., made extra special by special guests stars Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestaro.  May 11, 12 & 13 at 8:30 p.m. SPONSORED BY FANTASYLAND RECORDSThe film’s so-bad-it’s-freakin’-awesome vibe has attracted a devout army of aficionados whose membership includes the cream of Hollywood’s comedy community.  Dubbed the “CITIZEN KANE of bad movies,” it’s a must-see and we’ll be writing about it tomorrow, but first, we’d like to remind you that The Plaza is the only place in Atlanta to catch the mother of all midnight movies, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW every FRIDAY NIGHT at MIDNIGHT just like it’s meant to be seen with audience participation and a full floor show by the incomparable Lips Down on Dixie. We’ll be talking to Lips Down soon, but first we thought we’d have some fun by testing your ROCKY HORROR knowledge. So we contacted our secret arcane mistress of all things ROCKY and asked her to come up with a mix of both easy questions and ones to really test your sweet transvestite stripes. If you don’t score a perfect 10, then that’s just another reason to plan another visit to Transexual Transylvania. And remember if you don’t buy some tickets to the Plaza soon, there may be no more Plaza and Brad and Janet won’t ever get undressed and do the Time Warp again…

Questions (answers at end):

1. What number is tattooed on Frank’s leg?
2. What does it say on the back of Eddie’s jacket?
3. What is the bride’s name in the wedding scene at the beginning of the movie? (Add a bonus point for correct spelling!)
4. What is the religious denomination of the church where the wedding is held?
5.  How many Transylvanian guests (unconventional conventionists) are at the castle?
6.  According to the criminologist, in what month does the movie take place?
7.   When Dr. Scott rolls through Columbia and Magenta’s room, what magazine is Columbia reading?
8. What is depicted on the stained glass window over Frank’s bed?
9.  Who is the first person who gets turned to stone?
10. In the floorshow, who is the last person out of the pool?
OK, here’s a tasty pic of Tim Curry to give you a little antici…pation before you check your answers….

Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N Furter in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, every Friday night at Midnight at The Plaza Theatre. 20th Century Fox.

1. 4711
2. Baby
3. Betty Munroe (Munroe, not Monroe, is the correct spelling according to the credits.)
4. Episcopal
5.  19
6.  November (late November)
7.   Movie Life
8. Atlas holding the world on his shoulders.
9.  Brad
10. Janet
Also Playing This Week at The Plaza:

AKA BLONDIEMay 14, May 16 and May 17 at 9:30 p.m. An intimate view of the most famous exotic dancer in the Southeastern U.S., the new documentary provides a fresh, provocative look at the complex, morally ambiguous world of the 55-year -old Atlanta icon. Anita Rae Strange, also known as Blondie, recounts her childhood with an absent father, her brief stint as a prostitute, the loss of loved ones to AIDS and the infamous Clermont Lounge.

THE ROOM, with special guests Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestaro.  May 11, 12 & 13 at 8:30 p.m. SPONSORED BY FANTASYLAND RECORDS!  Win CDs and LPs every month by grabbing the most spoons after the show! The film’s so-bad-it’s-freakin’-awesome vibe has attracted a devout army of aficionados whose membership includes the cream of Hollywood’s comedy community. Role Models star Paul Rudd and Arrested Development’s David Cross are both fans, as is Jonah Hill, who uses a still from the movie as his MySpace photograph. Heroes star Kristen Bell hosts Room-viewing parties at her house and last year attended the film’s monthly Laemmle screening with Rudd, Hill, and Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright. ”There is a magic about that film that is indescribable,” she says. The Room has even infiltrated the halls of cinematic academia. ”It is one of the most important films of the past decade,” says Ross Morin, an assistant professor of film studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. ”It exposes the fabricated nature of Hollywood. The Room is the Citizen Kane of bad movies.”

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. Every Friday at Midnight. With live stage show by Lips Down on Dixie.

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