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, Day 20: Don’t Let Us Be Too Bad – Why We’ll Always Be WILD AT HEART For David Lynch

Posted on: Jul 7th, 2012 By:

WILD AT HEART (1990); Dir: David Lynch; Based on the novel by Barry Gifford; Starring Nicholas Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Dafoe, Crispin Glover, Diane Ladd, Harry Dean Stanton, Isabella Rossellini; Sat. July 7, 9:30 p.m.; Co-presented by and featuring a live performance by Women’s Work, come dressed as your favorite Lynch character, coffee and pie in the lobby; Plaza Theatretrailer here.

“I’d go the far end of the world for you, baby!”

“A man can’t ask for more than that.”

“You rope me, Sailor, you really do.”

These immortal lines are exchanged between Lula Fortune (Laura Dern)and Sailor  Ripley (Nicholas Cage), but in 1990, I’d have to admit I would have gone to the ends of the world to see any piece of celluloid created by David Lynch.

If you were a certain type of young person drawn to the deepest darkness but still enchanted by the lure that true romance can exist even if it kills you, you worshipped at the insane, amazing altar of Lynch back then. You saw a college or midnight revival of ERASERHEAD, and your head throbbed with pain while watching it, yet your eyes were glued to the screen. ELEPHANT MAN was even more excruciating because of the toll it took on your emotions, but you knew brilliance onscreen when you saw it. You really, really wanted to embrace DUNE and liked some of the visuals, but …well, but then came BLUE VELVET, and every time you heard that song ever after, it had a different meaning and while you didn’t want to admit it to anyone but your diary, Dennis Hopper made you all hot and bothered ever after. So, of course, you tuned into TWIN PEAKS like an addict desperate for a Lynch fix and told your lover “don’t let me too bad,” hoping just the opposite as you twisted a cherry stem into a knot behind your ruby lips.

Sailor Ripley (Nicholas Cage) in his iconic snakeskin jacket is WILD AT HEART for Lula Fortune (Laura Dern). Polygram/Propagada Pictures, 1990.

Into that era of Lynch euphoria arrived WILD AT HEART, perhaps the best example of how behind the violence, Lynch is sweetly sentimental about love. Based on the Barry Gifford novel of the same name (though Lynch changed the ending), the movie didn’t test well with audiences and was not completely critically well-received, but yet walked away with the Palme d’Or at Cannes. In other words, a typical Lynch movie. You either love Lynch or you don’t.

Without giving too much away for anyone who has not seen it before, the plot hinges on a simple love story–boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl’s mother (Diane Ladd) forbids them to marry and hires a hitman to take out boy, boy goes to prison and serves his time, girl picks him up and they hit the road, mom hires another hitman (J.E. Freeman) and craziness, violence – and yes, beauty ensue topped off by a cameo by Glinda the Good Witch (Sheryl Lee, aka Laura Palmer)! Yup, this road movie may be set in contemporary America and include all the requisite stops at seedy motels, but it’s also a fairy tale with heavy references to the Road to Oz.

Diane Ladd as Marietta Fortune in WILD AT HEART. Polygram/Propagada Pictures, 1990.

Like Woody Allen, Robert Altman or Quentin Tarantino, Lynch has been a genius in assembling an intriguing ensemble cast, and WILD AT HEART is no exception. It may be hard to remember now but Nicholas Cage was once a fine actor and just weird enough to make him a perfect Lynch leading man. In those days when he put on a snakeskin jacket and impersonated Elvis, he was sexy, not creepy. Pretty but still real-looking Laura Dern brings just the right mix of passion, forthrightness and stroppu Southern accent to pull off Lula without turning her into a cliche. Casting Laura’s mother, Diane Ladd, as her domineering, disapproving and crazy-as-a-Lynch-movie Marietta Fortune, though, was pure brilliance. At the time, Ladd was at that middle age where she wasn’t getting many great roles, and this one proved a comeback that earned her both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. The supporting cast also includes Harry Dean Stanton as a private dick and Marietta’s boyfriend, a scary-toothed Willem Dafoe as a psychotic gangster hired to kill Sailor, Crispin Glover as Lula’s cockroach-eating cousin (isn’t insect-dining a David Lynch movie prerequisite?!), Lynch favorite Jack Nance as a loony rocket scientist, a gone-blonde Isabella Rossellini (then still Lynch’s lover) as a gangster moll, and a cameo by Sherilynn Fenn (Twin Peak’s Audrey and then every Lynch-boy’s fantasy and every Lynch- girl’s role model) as a car crash victim.

Sheryl Lee (TWIN PEAKS' Laura Palmer) as Glinda the Good Witch in WILD AT HEART. Polygram/Propagada Pictures, 1990.

Sigh, because I’ll only be there “In Dreams.” Nope, I won’t be able to take that wild ride with Sailor and Lula tonight because I alas already am committed to other plans. So all I’m going to say is I hope you’ll go in my stead and fill up the Plaza as it should be for a special screening like this (come early and see STAND BY ME for a double feature if you can! If you missed Plaza Day 19, catch up here). If you haven’t seen WILD AT HEART, you should and encourage all your friends. If you haven’t seen it in a while or even more if you’ve never seen it on the big screen, this is a rare opportunity and another reason why Atlanta needs The Plaza.Remember, your ticket and any concessions purchases help keep Atlanta’s longest-running, locally owned historic independent cinema and Retro treasure alive!

 

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Retro Review: GHOULIES: Satan’s Little Helpers Attack Splatter Cinema at the Plaza This Week

Posted on: May 8th, 2011 By:

By Mark Arson, Contributing Writer

Splatter Cinema Presents GHOULIES (1985); Dir: Luca Bercovici; Starring Peter Liapis, Lisa Pelikan, Michael Des Barres, Jack Nance; Tues. May 10;  9:30 pm; Plaza Theatre; $10. Trailer here.

GHOULIES (not to be confused with GOONIES) came out one year after GREMLINS. You could almost call it part of a wave of GREMLINS-sploitation; the following year there was CRITTERS, and later MUNCHIES. All these films revolve around tiny monsters, but GHOULIES is the only one where they are creatures summoned by a satanic ritual. The basic plotline involves a man named Jonathan Graves (Peter Liapis) who has just inherited a house with an evil history and his gradual discovery that he’s from a long line of, you guessed it, satanic cult leaders. Liapis gets more screen time than the titular creatures, and honestly, he deserves it. The thing that sets this film apart from the other GHOULIES films (as well as many of the aforementioned similar films) is his totally unhinged performance.

GHOULIES. Empire Pictures/MGM Home Entertainment

One might consider such a performance to be “overacting,” I’d say personally that there is no such thing as overacting in a movie where a man summons evil creatures and dwarves with satanic rituals. If there’s anyone who is a match for Liapis in this film, it would be Michael Des Barres as Jonathan’s late/undead/much more evil father Malcolm. The whole descent into madness/family destiny thing could easily be interpreted as a metaphor for alcoholism or abuse. I just think it’s great fun to watch actors see how far they can push their craft over the edge into something that resembles sheer madness. How loud can they scream during their unholy rituals? Pretty loud. Oh, and Jack Nance is in it too, but not for as long as you’d want him to be.

Peter Liapis and Lisa Pelikan in GHOULIES. Empire Pictures/MGM Home Entertainment

The other attraction here (the main attraction for most people, I’d think) is the ghoulies themselves. They were designed by the great Stan Winston (ALIENS, TERMINATOR), who gave them plenty of charisma. At times it even seems like they’re channeling the Muppets (that’s a good thing). They drool and squirm and their eyeballs roll back into their head. They also hide in toilets and other places, and kill people. Did I mention there were other people in this film? Well, they are mostly just there to do drugs, fall under Satan’s hypnotic trance, and get killed by ghoulies. It’s that kind of party, people. If you can’t enjoy a bunch of squirmy creatures running around attacking people and an angry satanic priest screaming with glowing green eyes, then you don’t know what fun is.

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