Eraserhead

Eraserhead (1977)

Dir. David Lynch

Written by: David Lynch

Starring: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart

 

Finally getting to write about Eraserhead, something that I’ve avoided ever doing despite enjoying the film for the last 15-odd years, should be a liberating experience, but it feels very daunting at the same time. It’s a film that I know well, having watched it over a dozen times since first experiencing it in my late teens via a little red Netflix envelope, but it’s a film that still vexes me in many ways. It’s the auspicious debut of my favorite filmmaker, and a dark indicator of the themes and content that would make up his ensuing output. Lynch’s filmography is celebrated, but also troubling, with his films asking audiences to bear witness to dark urges that exist buried deep within themselves. His films are designed to trigger deep-seeded anxieties and fears that rest at the core of the human experience. Eraserhead begins this trend with its look at the anxieties surrounding bringing new life into a flawed, disturbing world. Though it’s presented in an exceedingly strange package, at its core, Eraserhead is a look at the struggles of an everyman trying to get by in a world that is designed to sap him of his energy and his will to live. It took me a long time, and many, many repeated viewings to come to some sort of understanding of this film, but it was a process that was richly rewarding, and one which helped to open up my mind to new analyses of the films of my favorite director.

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I wasn’t really ready for Eraserhead when I was 19 and I first saw the movie. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, because I did enjoy the movie, and I thought that it was delightfully weird and esoteric, but I didn’t have any sort of framework with which to really understand it. I had seen visually experimental, non-narrative films in college, but those didn’t seem to apply here. Eraserhead was using some of the tools of experimental cinema in a symbolic and narrative way that I had trouble reconciling. Even in reference to the other David Lynch films that I had seen, Eraserhead was something totally foreign and new. In Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr., I recognized the world that Lynch was depicting as somewhat similar to my own; even if I did find Mulholland Dr. narratively inscrutable, I still felt that I had some foothold into its world. Eraserhead, on the other hand, felt hermetically sealed, existing in a separate and decidedly interiorly-focused cinematic space, one that I could observe but not enter into in any meaningful way. The film’s bleak industrial-noir setting felt at first familiar, but it gave way to the unfamiliarity of tiny, misshapen chickens that ooze black inky liquid, hellish factories that turn men’s heads into pencil erasers, and, of course, one monstrous and insatiable infant. This was uncharted cinematic territory. Trying to cobble together meaning out of the film’s disparate and confusing imagery seemed impossible, but I was still drawn to the film. By the end of my first viewing of Eraserhead, I wasn’t sure exactly what I had watched, but I knew that I wanted more of it.

I’ve encountered countless films in my life that I’ve held up as seminal or formative in some way, and I encountered many of those for the first time in my late teens and early twenties, as my cinematic world was rapidly being expanded, and my understanding of the medium was growing by the day. Eraserhead found itself firmly in that group of highly meaningful films. Though I didn’t screen Eraserhead again for two years, it lingered around the periphery of my consciousness, its iconic images popping up from time to time. I expanded my viewership of Lynch’s films, but I still wasn’t able to find a direct line into the heart of Eraserhead through an auterist critical approach, which was often my preferred critical approach to films at the time. Even within this singularly weird filmography, Eraserhead stood as an outlier, defiantly experimental, refusing codification by my young brain. I read critical analyses of the film, which attempted to parse out its dense symbolism and orient it within the larger context of Lynch’s body of work, but still Eraserhead remained a mystery. Eventually, I just chalked up my lack of ability to come to complete grasps with the film to the mark of Lynch’s true artistic genius, and my own woeful shortcomings in that department.

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While I’m certainly still not a genius on the level of any of the filmmakers I’ve been writing about for this project, much less on the level of a visionary like Lynch, I do think that I’ve come to a much more comfortable place of understanding with regards to Eraserhead. Clearly, Lynch is using the film to help work out some of his anxieties about his newfound status as a father, but it’s also obvious to Lynch fans that Eraserhead sets the table for all of the films and media projects that would come later. The film’s chaotic, densely-layered soundtrack points forward to Lynch’s continued sonic experimentation. He is known as a master of film sound, and that use of sound as a mood setting and narrative device is very much on display in Eraserhead. The film’s soundtrack swells with an omnipresent whooshing, intermittently interrupted by industrial banging and cranking. The way Lynch records the plaintive cries of Henry’s monstrous baby results in an unnerving caterwaul that stops far short of invoking sympathy in the audience.

Thematically, Eraserhead finds Lynch already mining the source material for his later films. Paranoia, anxiety, and voyeurism all factor heavily into Eraserhead, and Lynch will return to these ideas more explicitly in films like Blue Velvet and Lost Highway. Eraserhead is also one of Lynch’s most complete explorations of a dream space, as much of the film could be interpreted as an extended dream triggered by Henry’s fear of his impending fatherhood. Even if you eschew that reading, the film contains several notable scenes that explore Henry’s interior fantasies, including his obsession with the tiny woman who lives in the radiator, and the nightmare that gives the film its title, in which Henry’s head is stolen and sold to a factory where it is ground down to make pencil erasers. Dreams are privileged sources of symbolism and truth in Lynch’s work, and he often attempts to explore the liminal space between dreaming and the waking world, in which that truth is most accessible. We see dreamlike sequences in all of Lynch’s media, but Eraserhead is a bold film that spends nearly all of its time locked into its protagonist’s interiority.

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I’ve neglected the plot synopsis that I typically write for each film because Eraserhead’s narrative can be summed up in just a sentence or two. Henry (Nance) is informed by Mary (Stewart) that she has given birth to his child, though she isn’t sure that their offspring is a child at all. The couple marry and take the baby back to Henry’s one room apartment, where it is revealed to be a monstrous lizard creature, without arms or legs, that cries incessantly. Mary can’t handle the crying and she leaves Henry alone, to go insane as he tries to care for a creature that he can’t understand or relate to. The film is narratively straight forward and simple, though its surface weirdness might obfuscate this, but it is incredibly symbolically dense. Henry is trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare and the only logic that can prevail is the logic of the dream, therefore we are presented with a stream of imagery that makes no narrative sense, but carries deep symbolic truth. Henry’s responses when faced with the responsibility of caring for his child are all in some way attempts to infantilize himself. He dreams of the lady in the radiator, which represents a womblike space, and when he finally connects with his beautiful neighbor (Judith Roberts), they have sex in, and eventually submerge themselves in, a pool of milk. Henry’s apartment is strangely symbolic itself, with mounds of dirt on his furniture, many of which are sprouting small trees or shrubs. The apartment should seem like a productive, organic, space, but instead these strange dirt piles give the room a fetid and decaying feeling. Of course the most obvious symbolic element in Eraserhead is the baby itself, which both Henry and Mary view as a monstrous Other. The baby is an unwanted imposition in their lives, and, as such, they view it in a way that allows them to disassociate themselves with their offspring. This disassociation leads to Mary’s abandonment of the child and Henry’s ultimate infanticide/mercy killing. These are just a few of the more obvious symbolic signifiers in Eraserhead, but the film is rich with impressionistic dream sequences, non-sequitur dialogue, and other-worldly imagery, which allow for a richness of unique interpretations of the film.

This fluidity of meaning is one of the things that I think initially drew me to Eraserhead, and that has kept me coming back to the film as frequently as I do. Although I’ve settled on my own interpretation of the film, I still find myself challenged by it with each subsequent screening, and I often find myself considering it in a new context, based on my own changing life experiences or on my changing relationship to the film and to related media. Watching Eraserhead in 2018 with the viewing experience of Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return fresh in my mind was a totally different experience than any other time I’ve seen the film. For me, the newest season of Twin Peaks functions as Lynch’s magnum opus. It contains throughlines and references to Lynch’s earlier films and serves to bring all of his disparate thematic and aesthetic concerns together in one dense, strange viewing experience. I felt several affinities between Lynch’s first feature and what I believe will be his final visual media project, and my recent screening of Eraserhead only strengthened those connections for me.

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I found a thematic kinship between Henry’s abandonment by Mary and subsequent retreat from adult responsibility and Audrey Horne’s (Sherilyn Fenn) curious appearances in The Return. Though the narrative circumstances in each case are quite different, something about the dreaminess and illogical, circular dialogue used in both Eraserhead and in Audrey’s scenes with her husband Charlie felt very similar. Both characters are being neglected and emotionally abused by people close to them, though Audrey’s victimhood seems more obviously apparent, while Henry seems to be in a more mutually dysfunctional relationship where he, too, adds to Mary’s mental anguish. Both characters are infantilized, with Charlie’s gaslighting of Audrey keeping her in a subservient and dependent role, and Henry’s chosen retreat away from responsibility and into the safety of a childlike interior fantasy world. In the end, both characters are also last seen in a blindingly white space. Eraserhead has a superficially happy ending, with Henry finally uniting with the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), whose earlier song reminded the audience that “in Heaven, everything is fine,” indicating that Henry has killed himself after killing the baby. This marks the furthest expression of Henry’s retreat, as his suicide can be read as a rejection of all of life’s responsibilities.

In The Return, Lynch reverses this dynamic to some extent with Audrey’s final scene, in which she reprises her iconic dance from Twin Peaks. Audrey’s dance is interrupted by a fight breaking out and she rushes towards Charlie, who is sitting at the bar, imploring him to get her out of there. There is a brief crackle of electricity, and Audrey appears in a starkly white room, staring at her face, sans makeup, in a vanity mirror. She, and the audience, are stricken by this jarring change of scenery, and it throws into question the handful of scenes in which Audrey has appeared thus far in The Return. This being Twin Peaks, the most operative reading of the scene is that there are two Audrey’s, and we are discovering that the “real” Audrey has been trapped in a Lodge all along. However, there is some indication to support a reading that Audrey’s interactions with Charlie may have been a dream or a vision that she had, before waking up, confused, in the white room, which appears not dissimilar to a mental hospital. Though there is very little of the white space around Audrey shown, she appears to be wearing a white hospital gown, and the sheer blankness of the space indicates a sterile, clinical setting. This reading, when coupled with the ending of Eraserhead, provides for a very bleak vision, indeed. Audrey dreams of a sad and dysfunctional life, from which she is ripped during her one moment of ecstasy performing her dance, while living a reality that may be even more maddening. Henry’s narrative begins with an unhappy reality from which he retreats into a dream that is by turns menacing and seductive, ultimately succumbing to the temptation to live in the dream by taking his own life and murdering his child. For these characters there isn’t any easy way out, and the few reveries they get to experience are symbolically and explicitly linked to madness and death.

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Eraserhead is a landmark film, a bench mark and a step forward for modern surrealist filmmaking. While Bunuel and Jodorowsky were making films that set their aims on societal structures such as religion and class through an experimental and surrealist viewpoint, Lynch sought to examine the more personal territory of the human mind and emotion. He had trouble getting financing for the film and it took over five years to complete, as the production was plagued with complications. When Eraserhead finally arrived, it was a film that was seen as a visionary work by some and a confounding mess by many, although its stature in film history has certainly appreciated over time to the point that it is almost universally regarded as a classic. I have come to love the film for what it represents as the true foundational text in my favorite filmmaker’s body of work, as well as for the singular viewing experience that Eraserhead provides. There’s not a film that I can think of that is quite like it, and it is a film that two people can walk away from with markedly different opinions about and experiences of, and I really like that. More than many of the movies that I’ve written about, Eraserhead isn’t for everyone, but for the initiated it’s a rewarding treasure of a cinematic experience, with iconic visual imagery, rich symbolic nuance, and a terrifyingly original vision.

Dead Man

Dead Man (1995)

Dir. Jim Jarmusch

Written by: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henrikson

 

I’m excited to finally write about another Western for this project, as the Western genre is one of my favorite types of film to watch and think about. One of my overarching interests in college was writing about depictions of masculinity in films, and I often found the Western genre to be rich with films that explored examples of classic machismo and also depictions of traditional masculinities in crisis. As a whole, the genre has often stood for Americana, and classical American mythmaking, but individually, Western films can serve as prisms to explore the underlying tapestry that makes up these unifying myths or as powerful critiques on the societies that produced them. My favorite Westerns to think about, like Dead Man or Blazing Saddles, are revisionist Westerns, ones that challenge and critique the accepted myths of Americana and offer up alternative narratives to the settling of the West. I love the films of John Ford and John Wayne, and we’ll get to a few of those, but I more appreciate the later films of the genre that used the existing conventions of the Western to deconstruct the genre and allow some light to seep through the cracks in the linear narrative of conquest and Manifest Destiny that the Western has come to represent. Dead Man doesn’t offer much overt criticism of the Western genre or social commentary, but it does inject mysticism, psychedelia, and some trademark Jim Jarmusch “cool” into the genre.

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The film opens with William Blake (Depp) onboard a train from Cleveland to the frontier town of Machine, where he has been offered a job as an accountant with the Dickinson metal works. Blake is instantly set apart from the rest of the passengers on the train, as they eye him suspiciously from beneath the brims of fur hats, clutching long guns tightly. The film’s surrealism is apparent from the opening scenes, as well, as the train’s Fireman (Crispin Glover) emerges, covered in soot, to engage in a strange conversation with Blake in which he warns the newcomer against going to the frontier. All the while, the passengers are shooting buffalo from the moving train behind the two men. Undeterred, Blake arrives in Machine, and sets off to claim his job, however, when he arrives at the metal works, his job has already been filled and he is driven from the property at gunpoint by Mr. Dickinson himself (Robert Mitchum). Without the job he was promised, and having just buried his parents in Cleveland, Blake finds himself with no money for a return ticket and no prospects, but he shows some kindness to a flower girl, Thel (Mili Avital), who in turn takes him back to her room at the local hotel. Their post-coital bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Thel’s former lover, Charlie (Gabriel Byrne), who tries to shoot Blake, but instead shoots Thel when she throws himself in front of the bullet. Blake, with some difficulty, uses Thel’s gun to shoot Charlie, and then realizes that he has been shot by the bullet that passed through Thel’s chest. Wounded, he jumps out of the window and steals Charlie’s horse, riding off into the desert. When Blake comes to, he meets Nobody (Farmer), a Native American who will act as a spiritual guide for Blake as they continue into the frontier, possibly into the afterlife.

I first became aware of this film in my Sophomore or Junior year of college in a class on Westerns. I don’t believe that we screened the film in its entirety in class, but we watched a handful of clips from it, and I saw enough that I was intrigued and purchased the film on DVD. I knew Jim Jarmusch, as my Wu-Tang obsession had led me to the RZA-soundtracked Ghost Dog in high school, and Broken Flowers had been one of my favorite movies of 2004, but I hadn’t explored much into the director’s filmography beyond these and a couple of other films. Even with this cursory introduction to the director’s style and having seen some clips from the movie, Dead Man was a very weird film to me the first time I watched it. I was used to modern Westerns that called into question ideas of national identity and American exceptionalism, but Dead Man is much more inwardly focused, raising questions of personal identity, life and death, and humanity. Critics, including myself earlier in this post, have called it a psychedelic Western, and it certainly is that, but perhaps it is more accurate to think of Dead Man as an Existentialist Western. It lends itself, with its moody score and monochromatic visual presentation, to the same sorts of reflection as Existentialist philosophy. Its subject matter, a dying man (who may or may not be actually dead already) being guided to the afterlife speak to these same concerns of being and nothingness, and of Man’s place in the spiritual and mystical realms. Dead Man has little time for inquiries into political or social commentary as it sets its goals on a higher level of exploration of the human condition. It was certainly a bit of an adjustment from what I had been expecting of the film at first.

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Of course, after consuming much, if not all, of Jarmusch’s oeuvre, these lofty thematic concerns don’t surprise me at all. His films often strike a balance between a perfect Zen koan and a late night, pot-fueled, dorm room philosophy session. They often provide deep truths about the human experience, but their presentation is a bit hazy and nebulous around the edges. From top to bottom, Dead Man makes for a great cult film. Like most of Jarmusch’s output, the film is just a little bit too strange to fully connect with the mainstream, but it has fared pretty well critically, and it has a fan base among critics and audiences. Its literary allusions, including a running gag in which Nobody believes that Blake is the deceased Romantic poet William Blake, and its philosophical context will satisfy the intellectuals in the audience, while its hazy, mystical presentation and brief moments of gore will satisfy the midnight movie crowd. The film celebrates the history of the Western genre with its casting of Robert Mitchum (in what would be his final role) as Dickinson, while also turning the typical Western narrative on its head. Like many Westerns, Dead Man depicts a great journey, but the nature of this journey is spiritual rather than physical, and it’s being led by Nobody, a Native American rather than a White cowboy. These type of inversions are typical of a revisionist Western, but Jarmusch pushes the genre to its breaking point, by merging the Western journey with a picaresque, peopled by strange, obtuse characters. The intended effect is to keep the audience off balance, unsure of whether Blake is really having these experiences or whether he’s hallucinating them, or if his journey is through some purgatorial space. What appears, initially, to be a stylish modern take on a classic genre turns out instead to be using that classic genre as a landscape upon which to project a rumination on life, death, violence, and human nature.

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These themes are primarily explored through the character of Nobody, played expertly by Gary Farmer, whose job it is to enlighten the dying Blake, whom Nobody often refers to as a “stupid fucking White man.” Nobody’s character walks between two worlds, having been captured by English settlers as a child and toured around museums as an attraction. In this way, Nobody has closely inspected and become educated by White culture, but as a result has been unable to fully assimilate into his own Native culture. Like Blake floating between life and death, Nobody, too, is pulled between two different types of existence. Farmer provides much of the film’s comic relief, though not in the typical Western style, with Native Americans and other marginalized characters serving as the butt of cruel jokes. Nobody is smarter and more cultured than Blake, and the film’s humor often stems from Nobody’s offhanded quips about Blake and White culture. Farmer, a member of the Cayuga Nation, brings authenticity and respect to his role, as does Jarmusch’s treatment of Native American culture in the film. The film employs several Native languages throughout, and it presents Native culture as more enlightened and sophisticated than the brutal, rapacious culture of the White characters. Though he’s capable of great violence, Nobody is full of joy and life, while Blake and the film’s other White characters are morose and associated with death. In fact, Blake becomes a sort of avenging angel over the course of the film. Though he is initially unable to shoot straight, Blake develops lethal potency during his journey with Nobody, who teaches him to let his pistol speak his poetry. Depp’s performance is worthy of praise, as well. He eschews the scenery chewing that will become his trademark later in his career, employing instead a laconic, trancelike performance style. It gives the sense that Blake is some sort of conduit, channeling the energies of the Universe as the mysteries of death are revealed to him in his spiritual journey.

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The rest of the film’s cast is excellent, as well. As is typical of a Jarmusch film, big names pop up in small roles throughout the film. Though this really is Depp’s and Farmer’s movie, several of these cameos are worth mentioning as they simply add to the overall strangeness of the film. Lance Henrikson is a standout as Cole Wilson, the deadliest of three bounty hunters that Dickinson sends to bring Blake in for the murder of Charlie, who happens to be Dickinson’s son. His performance is built around his quiet menace and the rumors that the other bounty hunters whisper about his sadism and depravity. His riding partners, Conway Twill (Michael Wincott) and The Kid (Eugene Byrd), hatch a plot to kill Wilson and split the ransom among themselves, but Wilson is too crafty for them and in a memorable scene, proves the truth in the rumors of his cannibalism. Alfred Molina has a brief but memorable cameo as a bigoted frontier missionary. Blake and Nobody come upon his outpost late in the film and the missionary feigns piety when dealing with Blake, but treats Nobody with disdain and malice. Finally, Iggy Pop and Billy Bob Thornton are fantastic as two thirds of a group of outlaws who plan to rape and kill Blake. Thornton is almost unrecognizable, covered head-to-toe in fur, but his distinctive drawl is hard to mistake, while Iggy Pop is very obviously himself, despite wearing a dress and a bonnet. Their brief scene is an interlude, and not particularly important to the film’s overall plot, but, like many of Blake’s encounters in Dead Man it deepens the sense of alienation and psychedelia that the film traffics in, and it enriches this offbeat world.

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Dead Man is a film that exists wholly within its own space. While it certainly comments on and dialogues with the Western genre, it is not wholly of that genre. The film offers up little in the way of concrete narrative resolution, but instead leaves the audience with a profound sense of mood. The film’s visuals, its idiosyncratic performances, and its spare, improvised, Neil Young score, all enhance the strangeness of the film, and help to build this mood. Viewers looking for a traditional Western action film might be disappointed by Dead Man, although the film does have plenty of action, but anyone who wants to immerse themselves in a cinematic journey would be well advised to check out this somewhat lesser-known movie. It’s often said that a trip is less about the destination than about the journey, and Dead Man is a perfect example of this. While the film ends without much narrative clarity, its presentation of a moody, psychedelic trip is as enjoyable as it is inscrutable.

 

Post-script:

I missed a post last week for the first time during this project. My plan at the outset was to post once a week. The film that I had planned on writing on for my post on the 22nd of October was George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, however when I opened up the case, the disc was missing. Rather than replacing the disc, as I had with Better Off Dead, or advancing my schedule by a week, I decided that my project would be better served by me taking a week off to catch my breath. I have a demanding and time consuming job, and I also devote a good portion of my free time to volunteering and community service, so I needed to take a brief break to get my writing back on schedule and to ensure that I could continue providing the quality of content that I have striven to maintain throughout the life of this blog. I hope to not miss any more posts going forward.

Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet (1986)

Dir. David Lynch

Written by: David Lynch

Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper

 

The camera descends from a cloudless, blue sky, settling on vibrant, red roses highlighted against a white picket fence. A shot of a firetruck slowly crossfades in, a firefighter riding alongside, casually waving at the camera. Children cross a street with the aid of a crossing guard. An unidentified man in a hat is watering his lawn, struggling with a kink in the hose. As an ominous hum fades in on the soundtrack, the man drops to his knees and then falls, grabbing his neck, the hose remains in his grip as he writhes painfully, spraying water into the air. A dog comes along barking and nipping at the water as it sprays from the hose wildly, and the film briefly shifts into slow motion, focusing on the snapping jaws of the little dog, giving his playful nips a sinister undertone. The camera cuts to the lawn and begins a slow zoom, turning the blades of grass into a topiary, under which a teeming nest of beetles writhes, crawling over one another. We are then greeted by a bright sign, featuring a beautiful woman waving and welcoming us to Lumberton. We are in suburbia, but something seems slightly off about this glimpse into the heart of Americana. No time is wasted in showing the audience the rotten core underlying the myth of small town tranquility. The opening sequence of Blue Velvet is seared onto my brain, representing something primal, seminal, and profound. It was my first brush with the perfect oddity of the cinema of David Lynch, who would go on to become my favorite filmmaker.

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I’m really not sure how or why I decided to pick up Blue Velvet. As I mentioned, it was my first experience with David Lynch and I do remember purchasing the DVD without having seen the movie before. I must have seen something about it online, on a list of movies, or maybe I had heard about David Lynch in the commentary of some other movie I’d seen, although I don’t know what that would have been. Regardless, for some reason I picked up a copy of Blue Velvet at my local Circuit City, likely sometime in 2003. When I watched the movie for the first time, I really wasn’t sure what to make of a film like this. Though it doesn’t traffic in the same overt surrealism and narrative disjointedness that have become Lynchian calling cards, Blue Velvet is a perfect introductory film for those looking to get into David Lynch. Leaving The Straight Story aside, Blue Velvet is one of Lynch’s most straightforward and least narratively complex films, but there is plenty of weirdness and mystery creeping around the edges. Like its opening montage, the film seeks to take a look behind the idyllic white picket fences of Middle America and reveal the rot and decay hiding therein.

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The film stars Kyle MacLachlan as Jeffrey Beaumont, who is returning to Lumberton from his first year of college after his father collapsed while watering the lawn. While returning home from visiting his father in the hospital, Jeffrey finds a severed human ear in an abandoned lot. He inspects the ear, which appears to have mold on it, and takes it to a detective who he knows from the neighborhood. Det. Williams (George Dickerson) thanks Jeffrey for providing him with the piece of evidence and suggests that he not concern himself in the investigation any further. However, after a chance meeting with Williams’s daughter, Sandy (Dern), Jeffrey’s curiosity is once again stoked, and the two decide to continue looking into the mysterious ear themselves. Information gleaned from Sandy eavesdropping on her father’s phone calls leads the junior detectives to the apartment of lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini), who has recently been under police surveillance and who may have something to do with the ear. Sandy agrees to help Jeffrey break into Dorothy’s apartment, against her better judgment. Using a key that he had stolen earlier, Jeffrey sneaks into the apartment one night while Dorothy is performing. He’s nearly caught when she returns, but is able to hide in a closet where he spies on Dorothy taking a phone call from a man named Frank (Hopper), who has kidnapped her husband and child, and who is using them to blackmail and coerce her. Dorothy discovers Jeffrey and forces him out of the closet, making him strip off his clothes at knifepoint. Her initial desire is to humiliate Jeffrey, who she takes for a peeping Tom, but then she begins to kiss him. They’re interrupted when there’s a knock at the door, and Frank arrives at the apartment. Jeffrey is again forced to watch from the closet as the sadistic Frank shouts at and assaults Dorothy. All the while, he’s huffing amyl nitrate and practically foaming at the mouth with rage and desire. After Frank leaves, Jeffrey tries to comfort Dorothy. They end up having sex and she asks him to hit her, which he initially refuses, though he will eventually, reluctantly, do it. After their encounter, Jeffrey seems disturbed by what he’s seen and experienced, but also feels a responsibility to help Dorothy, so he continues his investigation into Frank and his crime syndicate, despite Sandy’s protestations. Jeffrey becomes caught between two worlds: one bright and promising, represented by the blonde, youthful Sandy, the other dark and sinister, represented by the seductive Dorothy. He risks getting in too deep with Frank and his dangerous friends, but by the time he realizes just how dangerous they may be, it’s too late. The sickness and malice that Frank represents have begun to infect Jeffrey’s formerly benign day-to-day life in the small town paradise of Lumberton.

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I mentioned being somewhat perplexed by the film after my first viewing, and that certainly isn’t due to any lack of narrative clarity. I had understood the film fine, but I was left unsettled. I don’t remember if I watched it again in quick succession, or if I let myself stew on the film for a while, but the weirdness of Blue Velvet was lingering around in my head for days. Bugs crawling out of the ear, Isabella Rossellini singing “Blue Velvet” bathed in an ocean of blue light, the savagery of a dog’s jaws opening and closing in slow motion. The images from the film were persistent and strange, and they suggested a certain sort of world view that was maybe a bit skewed. I watched Blue Velvet again and again, becoming more comfortable with its tone and appreciating more and more Lynch’s cynical, surreal take on small town Americana. Growing up in a small town myself, although one that was more urban and was certainly a bit more populous than Lumberton, I had first-hand knowledge that the mythos of the pristine, Middle American, small town experience was often belied by what happened after dark when the shades were drawn.

Blue Velvet launched my obsession with the work of David Lynch. Even though his feature output isn’t necessarily as large as some other filmmakers, Lynch is undoubtedly an auteur, having developed an unmistakable style, sonically, visually, thematically, and in his choices of subject matter. I went next to Mulholland Dr., at the time Lynch’s most recent film, and I was shocked and often terrified by the strange film. If Blue Velvet had left me vexed, then Mulholland Dr. had me flat-out stupefied. I couldn’t put the film together coherently in a narrative or thematic sense, and I really had no idea how to process what I’d just seen. I wanted more, but I couldn’t find copies of Eraserhead or The Elephant Man or anything else Lynch, so I just watched Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr. repeatedly over the last two years of high school. After I came to college, I had access to so many more movies, and I would start to work my way through Lynch’s filmography. I remember well a bus trip to the Regent Theater to see INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch’s most recent film, in 2006. When I had the opportunity to take a class on the films of both Lynch and Luis Bunuel (which I mentioned when writing about Belle de Jour), I jumped at the opportunity and my fandom was cemented. I filled in most of the gaps in the Lynch filmography through this class and I relished the opportunity to write at length about Mulholland Dr. which had become my favorite of his films, and try to work out some of the questions that I still had about the film. After college, I had less and less time to watch films as I’ve mentioned many times before, but I always came back to Lynch. Every five years or so, I take another deep dive into his work. In 2012, it was sparked by a rewatch of Twin Peaks on Netflix with a roommate. In 2017, it was another rewatch of Twin Peaks in anticipation of the release of the currently airing Twin Peaks: The Return. Lynch has been on my mind quite a bit lately, and rewatching Blue Velvet reminds me of where it all started.

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Lynch’s original cut of the film was rumored to have run nearly four hours before he cut the runtime in half. Nearly an hour of that excised footage has been recovered and was included on the Bluray rerelease of the film. I don’t have that edition and I haven’t seen the footage, but from what I’ve read, it hints that Lynch’s original version of Blue Velvet was to be a much darker and stranger film, more in line with his later style. Though I would be interested to see some of these deleted scenes, I think that Blue Velvet works best just the way it is. Keeping the Lynchian surrealism to a minimum makes the film’s dark undertones seem all the more sinister. Unlike the later fictional town of Twin Peaks, Lumberton feels like a real place that could exist, indicating that the evil contained there is linked to the evil that exists in our own world. The final cut includes a (seemingly) happy ending that sees Frank defeated, Jeffrey and Sandy united as a couple, and order seemingly restored to Lumberton. The film’s final shot is of a robin crunching on one of the beetles from the film’s beginning, a callback to an earlier line by Sandy where she describes a dream in which there was no love in the world, only darkness, until thousands of robins were released, symbolizing the return of love to the world. However, I think that this happy ending is somewhat facile, because even though the robin eating the beetle might signify the return of natural order and the triumph of love and goodness over evil, it just serves to remind me that there can never be enough robins to do away with all the beetles. Digging deep into the soil of any town will turn up a nest of vile creatures. Lynch films tend to want to expose the teeming underbelly of their worlds, forcing the viewer to confront ugly truths, although often in a distorted, surreal manner.

Even after excising some of the film’s stranger elements, Blue Velvet retains many of the key elements that would come to define Lynch’s cinema over the years. Not only does the film explore themes of hidden darkness and the depths of depravity, it also engages in a light/dark dichotomy that becomes central to Lynch’s symbolism. Lynch loves doubling and doppelgangers and in Blue Velvet, the light/dark dichotomy is very literal, pairing Sandy and Dorothy, whose contrasting hair colors are symbolically representative of their moral standing. The symbolic use of night and day in this film and throughout the Lynch filmography is another example of this light/dark dichotomy. The film additionally features many actors who have come to make up something of a stock cast for Lynch, appearing in multiple films, often playing roles that share some similarities from film to film. Kyle MacLachlan has worked with Lynch frequently, most notably here and in Twin Peaks, while Laura Dern would go on to star in Lynch’s follow up to Blue VelvetWild At Heart. Jack Nance, who plays Paul, a member of Frank’s gang, was a close friend of Lynch’s and the star of his debut feature, EraserheadBlue Velvet also features many of Lynch’s iconic visual motifs, such as lounge singers and night clubs, highly staged and stylized interiors, and overtly performative acting style. The scene where Ben (Dean Stockwell), an associate of Frank’s, lip syncs to “Candy Colored Clown”  is the best example of this type of performative style, and is a decidedly Lynchian set piece. Though the film doesn’t go over the top with its strangeness, its core is rooted in Lynch’s avant-garde, surrealist style.

I think there is a temptation, particularly among those who are maybe not as acquainted with the entire corpus of Lynch’s work but I have even seen it in academic writing, to lump discussion of Blue Velvet in with its obvious influence of Lynch’s television series, Twin Peaks. There are many similarities between the two, and Lynch has even admitted that the idea for Twin Peaks began germinating while he was directing MacLachlan in Blue Velvet, but I think it’s important to point out a major difference between the two texts. There is no hint of supernatural or metaphysical forces at play in Blue Velvet. While both works explore the duality of human nature and the darkness that can be revealed when the veneer of polite society is stripped away, Twin Peaks attributes the evil in its universe to malevolent beings who live in an interdimensional space called the Black Lodge, the entrance to which happens to be in the woods near the town of Twin Peaks. In Blue Velvet, the evil infesting Lumberton is inherently a part of the town. It is represented by a figure of pure destruction in Frank Booth, one who is not being controlled by any forces other than his own desire to hurt others. Frank is an unrestrained id, manifestly evil, but he is real, and represents the terrifying reality that anyone could potentially break bad like this. That realization fuels Jeffrey’s nightmare and anguish the morning after he hits Dorothy during sex. He doesn’t know why or how Frank’s psychosexual fury developed, but he fears that he may have taken the first steps down that same path. I think this insistence on reality makes Blue Velvet a more successful and compelling work of art than the later television show. I love Twin Peaks, but one of my only criticisms of the show is that its insistence on an intentional artificiality makes its darker themes seem less serious, particularly in its troubled second season. I think that Lynch took steps to resolve that in the harrowing prequel film Fire Walk With Me, which he released after the show was canceled, and which marks one of Lynch’s most overt forays into out-and-out horror filmmaking.

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When I do go back and watch Lynch films, all of which I’ve seen more than a few times now, excepting The Straight Story, I sometimes pass over Blue Velvet. Probably because I’ve seen it so many other times earlier in life, I’ve felt like my time is better spent familiarizing myself with Lynch’s 90’s works, Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, both of which are incredibly interesting, but neither of which work nearly as well as a film as Blue Velvet. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to love about Blue Velvet in this post, from Angelo Badalementi’s gauzy score, to the actors’ strange, exciting performances, to Lynch’s subtle attempts to drop surrealist tropes into a more straightforward narrative. Blue Velvet is packed with information and symbolism; Freudian critics can have a field day with this film, and with the dreamscapes that Lynch creates, in general. While I don’t subscribe to that line of critical thinking, I do find myself finding new ways to arrange the tapestry of signs that make up Blue Velvet, even after 15 years and more than 15 viewings. The film still feels fresh and transgressive after all this time, and I think that makes it the perfect introduction to the cinema of David Lynch. It provides a strong enough narrative foothold to give viewers a sense of security while still introducing the darker elements of Lynch’s visual style and his thematic obsessions. Form and content match up well in the film with its traditional mystery narrative masking Lynch’s more subversive content, which mirrors the idea in the film that there are hidden evils coursing just below the surface of Lumberton. If you’ve been wanting to get on the Lynch bandwagon after hearing about the Twin Peaks revival but don’t know where to start, this would be the perfect place.

Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Dir. Spike Jonze

Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Starring: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich

 

Being John Malkovich is quite a feat as a debut feature for its writer/director team of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze. At the time of its release Kaufman was a relative unknown, toiling as a television writer, all of whose feature scripts had been rejected. Jonze was best known for his music video work, having directed iconic clips for artists as diverse as The Beastie Boys, Weezer, Björk, and Fatboy Slim. After the release of this film, however, both would become, if not household names, celebrities of the indie film world. Though its off-kilter premise and subtle sense of humor made the film’s release a slow build and prevented it from being a true commercial success, Being John Malkovich achieved near-universal critical acclaim, and more than made its budget back. Eventually the film would be rewarded with Academy Award nominations for both Kaufman and Jonze, as well as a nomination for Catherine Keener for Best Supporting Actress. As I alluded to in my post about Adaptation., Being John Malkovich announced its eccentric creative brain trust as major players in the film world going into the 21st century.

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I remember hearing about the movie when it was released, but I don’t think that I had any interest in seeing it. Being John Malkovich is a weird comedy for adults, and I was only 14 at the time. I didn’t know who John Malkovich was, and I certainly wouldn’t have appreciated or understood the film’s strange sense of humor if I had seen it when it was released. I know this because I didn’t appreciate it when I did see Being John Malkovich for the first time on cable a few years after it came out. I turned the movie on, near the beginning, on Comedy Central, and I can remember thinking to myself, “What the heck kind of weird movie is this?” I’m pretty sure I didn’t watch the whole thing, but if I did, it didn’t make an impact outside of its deep strangeness. At that time, probably 2001 or 2002, I had never been introduced to surrealism, and my tastes in comedy were certainly not geared towards something this strange and cerebral. Being John Malkovich was simply too much of a head trip for me and, to be fair, it probably was for many people on their first encounter.

The film follows Craig Schwartz (Cusack) a skillful but struggling puppeteer who is encouraged to go looking for a job by his wife, Lotte (Diaz), to bring in some income and take his mind off of his failures as an artist. He takes a job as a filing clerk for LesterCorp, which is located on the 7 ½ floor of a New York City skyscraper, home to an array of unusual characters, not least of which is Dr. Lester himself (Orson Beane). While working at LesterCorp, Craig develops a one-sided obsession with his coworker, Maxine (Keener). One day, Craig finds a small, hidden door in the filing office and opens it to reveal a dank, earthen tunnel. After crawling into the tunnel, Craig finds himself inside the consciousness of actor John Malkovich (playing himself), where he experiences the world through Malkovich’s eyes for 15 minutes before being unceremoniously dropped onto the side of the New Jersey turnpike. Craig shares this discovery with Maxine, in hopes of winning her affections by sharing this surreal and one-of-a-kind experience with her, and the two go into business together, selling the opportunity to inhabit Malkovich to sad-sack losers for $200 a trip. While a love trapezoid forms between Craig, Lotte, Maxine, and Malkovich, Craig finds a way to put his skills as a puppeteer into the service of controlling Malkovich’s body so that he can remain inside him indefinitely. And that is all before the movie starts getting really weird.

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I came back to Malkovich after seeing and loving Adaptation. I was a little older, and I was coming into the experience this time with a better handle on Kaufman’s unique voice. So, the pieces all fell into place for me, and I was able to appreciate the film on its own deeply strange, darkly comic terms. While I fell in love with Adaptation.’s lofty narrative ambition, I appreciated Being John Malkovich for its straightforwardness. Even though its plot is completely bananas, with each passing scene only serving to up the ante for strangeness, the film is played straight. Its humor is often deadpan, to the point of absurdity. It lacks the temporal shifts and narrative overlapping of later Kaufman films, opting instead for a linear structure. Characters don’t spend great periods of the film fretting over the metaphysical or cosmic implications of the bizarre scenario in which they’ve found themselves, as does the fictional Charlie Kaufman of Adaptation., they simply react as if finding a portal into a celebrity’s brain behind a filing cabinet is the sort of thing that could happen to any average office drone. That a film like Being John Malkovich could be described as straightforward at all is a testament to the skill of Kaufman and Jonze at crafting a believable, lived-in world, peopled with characters who feel like they could be real. Just like the 7 ½ floor, it seems like Being John Malkovich exists in a parallel world to the real one, where objects and people from the real world are easily recognizable, but the perspective is slightly skewed. The setting is familiar, but the characters’ relationship to it is somehow off.

That skewed perspective is reinforced by the choice of Cusack and Diaz as the film’s leads, as both actors are asked to play against type for their roles. Though often cast in comedies, Cusack was coming off of a run of serious dramas including Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil and The Thin Red Line, and according to reports he discovered Malkovich after asking his agent to find him the “craziest, most un-produceable script” he could find. Craig is a typical Kaufman protagonist, an artist who can’t reconcile his own ambitions and talents with the needs of the day to day world, and Cusack perfectly embodies the depression and malaise that come along with that character. In the film, Craig’s hair is long and greasy, he’s unshaven, and he is shabbily dressed, a far cry from the typically suave, handsome on-screen persona that Cusack is typically associated with. Although he is sometimes associated with the sorts of mopey, lovelorn character that he plays in Being John Malkovich, none of Cusack’s other comedic roles (save for possibly Lane Meyer in Better Off Dead, but we’ll get to that one soon enough) skew this dark. Craig’s attempts to maintain control over his life, the people in it, and the façade that he’s built up using Malkovich as a puppet push him to extremes.

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If Cusack is playing against type, Diaz is asked to make a full on transformation for the role of Lotte. Diaz had burst into the mainstream the year prior playing the titular character in There’s Something About Mary. After that role, she was poised to break out as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and she did, but Being John Malkovich marks a definite detour into fertile territory for her. Rather than capitalize on his lead actress’s fame, Jonze opts instead to make Diaz nearly unrecognizable in the film. Her signature blonde tresses are traded in for a brown, frizzy wig, while her figure is obscured behind lumpy sweatsuits. Everything about Lotte suggests a life of quiet desperation and Diaz’s subtle performance early in the film pull that off well. Her interactions with the chimp, Elijah, who is a part of the menagerie that Lotte has acquired in place of human children, are both comfortingly maternal and heartbreaking at the same time. While she is adept at portraying a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, Diaz’s best work comes later in the film when she reveals her desire for Maxine, and her insistence of returning to Malkovich’s head to experience life as a man. After her experience, Lotte declares herself to be transgender, and she gains satisfaction and self-actualization that she could have never gotten from Craig through her relationship with Maxine. At this point, Diaz’s performance becomes more assertive, and she takes on the role of the detective in the story, trying to uncover the mystery of the portal, rather than just exploit it, as Craig and Maxine do. Though Craig is, ostensibly, the film’s main character, it’s Lotte who does the most changing throughout the film, and in whose character some of the film’s most interesting themes about identity, consciousness, and sexuality are embodied.

Watching the film in 2017, I was struck by how progressive its attitudes towards sex, relationships, and gender identity were for a film that was released in 1999. While it was far from the dark ages, with respect to representation in media, 1999 was still a much less enlightened time for the general public with respects to sexual diversity. I’m sure that watching this movie must have marked the first time I ever encountered the word “transsexual,” though it didn’t register at all then. The idea of a woman entering into a man’s body, experiencing his view of the world, but maintaining a feminine spark that can still be seen through the eyes, as Maxine asserts that Lotte’s can, suggests a gender fluidity rather than a binary relationship. While this is obviously not the way that a transgendered person in the real world exists, the experience does lead to a revelation in Lotte, and a turning point in her character, as she articulates her own chosen identity and decides to actively pursue a happier and more satisfying relationship. Maxine and Lotte’s relationship, which is eventually achieved without a physical male surrogate, is the healthiest one in the film, and their ultimate production of a child and happily-ever-after ending stands in stark contrast to the loveless marriage that Lotte and Craig were both searching for an escape from. Craig, who attempts to be domineering in his relationship with Lotte and manipulative in his relationship with Maxine, is ultimately rejected by both and ends up alone, forced to watch their happiness through the portal, as it connects to the consciousness of Maxine and Lotte’s love child (conceived through Malkovich), Emily.

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The other aspect of the film that interested me on this rewatch was its treatment of celebrity. In 1999, famous actors and other celebrities existed in a world that was out of reach to the common person, accessible only through tabloid newspapers and gossip shows. Now, in an age of pervasive social media, the film’s portal into John Malkovich’s brain has been actualized through celebrities’ Twitter feeds, and Instagram videos. Fans now have a window into their favorite celebrities’ private lives. Being able to actually see through the eyes of, and effectively inhabit, a famous person would still probably be a valued commodity for some, but with access to our idols’ innermost thoughts and feelings on a stream-of-consciousness Twitter feed, it seems less attractive. Want to know what life is like for John Malkovich? Follow his Twitter feed and find out his pet’s favorite Starbucks order.

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Despite all of that, Being John Malkovich never really feels dated. The film is nearly 20 years old, but aside from the obvious advancements in technology, it is set in such a unique world that, rather than reflecting the time in which it was made, it seems to exist just outside of time. The film’s satire of Hollywood culture and the arts scene in general still ring true, and the film’s central theme of longing to break out of one identity and into another is a universal concept. Ultimately, underneath all of its cerebral meta- trappings, Being John Malkovich is a love story, and a story about the lengths to which these characters will go to make themselves feel lovable. If the film’s strange setting is a bit alienating, its emotional core, and the performances of its cast shine through and give the viewer something to cling to. I hadn’t watched this movie in many years, and while it still doesn’t rank among my very favorite Kaufman films, I could understand why it might for others. The building blocks of his future scripts are in place here, and many of the themes that he continues to explore in his films to this day are fleshed out quite well in Being John Malkovich. I’ll probably end up going back to this movie with more frequency than I have in the past.