Showing posts with label Buster Keaton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Buster Keaton. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and Silent Film





Like a lot of people, my first introduction to Eraserhead was at a midnight movie on a college campus. It resonated with me in a way that it didn’t with my companions, who dismissed it as nonsense. The film is still divisive, and for every person who praises it as a masterpiece, you’re likely to find one or two who didn’t make it through the first five minutes. It’s understandable, really, considering that films like Eraserhead and its surrealist counterparts are practically a whole different medium than traditional films. Like opera, or poetry, or improvisational jazz, it requires an understanding and acceptance of the genre to crack its code. It’s not a matter of elitism. It’s simply a matter of some people just don’t like this kind of stuff.

It occurs to me that the manner in which some people don’t “get” Eraserhead is similar to the way that some people don’t get silent film. I’m willing to bet that there may be a few silent film fans out there that appreciated Eraserhead when it came out because they were already used to weird films with little dialogue. For me, it was the opposite. When I first started to seriously watch silent films, part of why they appealed to me right away was because I came to love the world of Eraserhead so long ago.

In a lot of ways, Lynch’s first feature film is a silent film. It’s almost a full 11 minutes before anyone speaks at all (“Are you Henry?” asks the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall). There’s only brief, intermittent dialogue thereafter, amounting to only a few minute’s worth. Jack Nance (the film’s lead, and a Lynch regular until his death in 1996) remarked in an interview that it was “a little script.” He continued: “It was only a few pages with this weird imagery and not much dialogue and this baby kind of thing." He wasn’t being hyperbolic. The entire transcript of the dialogue takes up surprisingly little space (have a look). It’s easy to imagine the dialogue being presented silent film-style, on intertitle cards, without it changing very much about the film at all. You could even remove the spoken words entirely and still have something quite special (I’d argue the same with the title cards for F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise).

Harold Lloyd.


Those who mention the fact that Eraserhead is like a silent film are usually quick to point out that, of course, it does have sound. It’s an easy way to launch into a paragraph about the film’s soundtrack, which is as important as its visual imagery. Lynch went to unusual lengths to record just the right sounds for his film (filling bottles with microphones and putting them in a bathtub, for starters), and the results show. The atmosphere is pervaded by constant, unsettling sounds that seem alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) industrial and corporeal. The hissing sounds might be the steam releasing from a machine, but sometimes you’d swear you also detect the gurgling of saliva. It’s a disturbing effect, and a distinctly Lynchian one, that keeps the lines blurred between what is alive and what is mechanical. (Metropolis, anyone?) Keep in mind, though, that silent films were never presented soundlessly, and if you’ve ever tried to watch one without music, you know that they lose their atmosphere just as much as Eraserhead does with its sound turned down.

Eraserhead’s similarities to silent films go beyond the fact that it has little dialogue or even that it’s filmed in black and white. Its whole world is within the silent film milieu. The bleak factory setting is straight out of the Depression, with trappings far older than the year the film was made: a wall telephone with a flared mouthpiece, an old phonograph (used to play Fats Waller records from the 1920s), a curtained stage straight out of vaudeville. Henry’s filthy, sparse room looks like something from Chaplin’s The Kid, while the factory elements are as unsettling as those of Modern TImes. From the very beginning, Eraserhead looks both bizarre and familiar. Lynch would come to reuse many of the elements from the set, so the lobby will evoke both Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge and Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio for those who have seen his later films. But, that’s not the only reason it’s so recognizable. It’s a world we know, because it’s an old one. It’s been captured on film for more than a hundred years.

Jack Nance’s Henry is a throwback as well, with a fright hairdo that resembles Harold Lloyd’s at the end of Haunted Spooks and an ill-fitting suit that’s the trademark of every silent clown. Like most of the popular silent comedians, Henry is a hapless innocent in bizarre circumstances, and he faces most of them with the stone-faced stoicism of a Buster Keaton. When his facial expression isn’t blank, it’s puzzled. Henry is part of a big, crazy world that he doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t do things so much as things happen to him. One of the first things we see Henry do is one of the oldest comedy tropes in the book, but it establishes his character in an instant: he steps in a mud puddle. We’re on very familiar turf, and we know something that is equally true for both silent comedy and surrealism. Anything can happen (and it probably will). As soon as Henry enters the warehouse, things turn dark, strange, industrial. The silent clown enters Metropolis.


Chaplin and Nance as caretakers.


Reduced to its basic plot elements, Eraserhead is a sequence of familiar ideas. While the more bizarre elements and visual effects make it difficult for some viewers to distill, there’s nothing here, story-wise that would be out of place in a classic film. Henry is a factory worker whose girlfriend’s parents convince to marry their daughter after she has a child (if that is indeed what it is). Mary has a hard time with motherhood and leaves Henry to largely care for the child on his own. Henry is seduced by a beautiful woman (the classic vamp of the silent film world) and things begin to fall apart. It’s the absurd details that make the film what it is, but those details are also part of what makes the film an echo of the films that precede it.

Take, for example, the film’s opening: a double exposure trick juxtaposes Jack Nance’s giant, sideways head with what appears to be a planet, or a moon. As we get closer, the planet/moon looks like it’s not made of rock, but something organic. It’s a rotten orange, or decaying meat. It’s possibly even alive. It’s not only a photographic trick that’s more than 100 years old, but it’s a visual that looks strikingly like something Georges Méliès would have done, or even more precisely, Segundo de Chomón.

Some of Lynch’s most grotesque elements in Eraserhead would be right at home in a de Chomón short, and both directors have a fascination with disembodied heads and decay. In one of Eraserhead’s scenes, Henry pulls sperm-like ropes from Mary’s body and flings them against the wall. One of them cavorts around in a stop-motion segment that de Chomón would have found quite familiar. A pioneer of stop-motion, he often used it to shock or disgust, as he did in Panicky Picnic (1909), wherein a cake is cut open to reveal an interior filled with worms. Lynch’s animated, blood-filled chicken in the family dinner scene is no more absurd than de Chomón’s sequences featuring self-slicing sausages or cracked eggs with live rats inside.


Above: de Chomon. Below: Lynch.


The tiny theater inside Henry’s radiator is not far removed from the miniature performances that take place in de Chomón’s Metamorphoses, but Henry is not controlling the show. He is merely a voyeur. When Henry steps into the radiator, it’s a shocking moment. We’ve come to accept the woman in the radiator as part of a different world—why, it’s not even his size! Like Keaton stepping into the movie screen in Sherlock, Jr., it’s a breathtaking moment that shatters the reality we’ve come to accept, and in this case, it was a bizarre reality to begin with. Henry has broken a fourth wall that exists inside a larger four walls. While things get pretty crazy on that stage, with Henry’s head falling off and the creepy baby wearing his suit, my favorite moment is one that’s easy to miss.

As the giant tree (or miniature tree, as we’re inside the radiator) is wheeled onto the stage, something unusual happens. Henry looks afraid, and at first it seems as if the big tree, an exact copy of the one on his bedside table that sits potless in a pile of dirt, is what has him in a panic. But, he looks out to the audience. As he backs away, he continues to steal nervous glances at the theatre’s audience, at us. He is acutely aware of being watched, of going from voyeur to the object of the voyeurism. The camera pans out to remind us that this is all taking place on a stage, perhaps to emphasize that it’s not taking place in the “real” outside world. It reminds me of the convention in some very early silents wherein the film would begin and end with a curtain’s rise and fall, especially in the case of thrillers, as a way of making the audience feel more at ease. (“It’s not real, folks!”)

If there’s a single silent film that Eraserhead resembles, though, it’s Un Chien Andalou, the surrealist Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali collaboration from 1929. It’s often been remarked upon, but easily dismissed because Lynch claims to not have seen it prior to making his film. Even if the similarities are unintentional, they’re relevant, as the list of oddities the films have in common is long enough that it could be a separate post, so I’ll just name a few. Both films deal with voyeurism, first depicted in each film when a violent act is seen through the window. Both contain scenes of mundane domesticity  punctuated by gruesomeness. Un Chien Andalou’s most famous scene, still cited more than seventy years later as one of the most disturbing ever filmed, features a woman’s eyeball being sliced with a razor. Shock factor aside, what’s oddest about it is the fact that it seems to take place in an ordinary home, as if it’s an ordinary event, much like the disturbing aspects of the family dinner in Eraserhead. 

Un Chien Andalou's most famous sequence.

Both films contain dismembered body parts as well as live creatures emerging from human body parts. (It’s hard to believe that the ants crawling from the hole in a hand in Un Chien Andalou didn’t inform the infested ear in Blue Velvet, so even if Lynch hadn’t seen the short film in 1977, he probably saw it before 1986). In some ways, Eraserhead is Un Chien Andalou in reverse, as the Bunuel film opens with the slicing of an organ, while Lynch’s film saves it for last. Both films contain a ray of hope at the end, or at least of finality. Eraserhead’s baby is destroyed, and Henry steps into the world of the radiator, embracing the woman who has continually sung to him that “In heaven, everything is fine.” In Un Chien Adalou, it’s the mysterious box that’s destroyed, and the protagonists frolic on the beach. The final title card of the latter film informs us that it is spring, and we see the couple unmoving, buried in the sand up to their necks. Are they dead? Is this a happy ending or not? You could ask the same questions at the end of Eraserhead.

Bunuel and Dali insisted that their film had no meaning at all, and that creating a meaningless film was their whole purpose. “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted” said Bunuel of the filming process. Lynch’s film is presumed to have some meaning, but the director has said repeatedly that no one has ever interpreted it correctly, and he’s keeping mum about what it (or any other film) really means. Is there a big difference between a film having no meaning and one whose meaning is kept in the dark? Even with Bunuel and Dali’s attempt at making a meaningless film, it’s impossible to watch it and not begin to form a plot in your head. As humans, we see patterns and make connections between things. It’s what we do.

And perhaps it’s what I’m doing when I spot silent film influences in Eraserhead. Maybe they are there, and maybe they are not. It’s funny to me, though, that even people who claim Eraserhead “makes no sense” also describe it as disturbing, or as a nightmare. That means they’re making sense of it in some way. Something recognizable is coming through to them as fear. And that’s because Eraserhead, like the best silent comedies (or the best surrealist works), speaks to universal truths. It’s about universal human struggles. The awkward family dinner, the fear of parenthood—it’s all really very simple. Those moments that are never explained (why are there peas in the dresser drawer?) are absurd, but so are our lives, and there are just as many questions in our own that we will never answer.

This post was written for the Criterion Blogathon. You can find the full roster of entries, each featuring a different Criterion film, at Criterion Blues.

Update: I’m pleased that my post was chosen for one of the daily jury selection awards in the Criterion Blogathon (most original post). 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Silent film review: Buster Keaton in Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

I hear a lot of people say that they can’t “get into” watching silent films. I understand—I really do. Silent film has its own language. As with reading poetry or watching an opera, one has to first crack the code. Some films require less code-breaking than others, and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. is a case in point.

Silent comedy can sometimes be easier for the silent film beginner to appreciate than some dour drama. What’s perhaps most fascinating isn’t seeing how much has changed, but seeing what hasn’t. While some will laugh more than others at the antics in Sherlock, Jr., I defy anyone to avoid laughing at all. And when you do—that’s an almost 100 year-old joke that’s cracking you up, which is pretty amazing.

Buster Keaton daydreaming on the job in Sherlock Jr.


Sherlock, Jr. isn’t just a good intro to silent film comedy: it’s a good intro to Buster Keaton. Keaton was 24 when he starred in and directed the film for his own production company, Buster Keaton Productions. The film takes full advantage of Keaton’s physical comedy agility—honed from childhood when he took pratfalls as part of a family vaudeville act—but manages to transcend broad humor. It’s funny, yes, but you’ll find it’s something more.

Keaton plays a movie theater projectionist who daydreams about becoming a detective. When a romantic rival sets him up to take the fall for a stolen watch, he sets out to catch the real thief, aided by tips in his amateur sleuthing book—but he fails spectacularly. In a sort of reverse of Purple Rose of Cairo, Keaton falls asleep in the projection room and dreams himself into the film on the screen. We see him leave his body and enter the film as a suave, top-hatted gentleman detective who, in the film-within-a-film, cracks the case and gets the girl. 

His skills as a projectionist are about equal to his skills as a detective.


The storyline allows for lots of comedy sequences, and it’s almost astounding how many big ones are packed into this film. Keaton is balanced on the handlebars of a motorbike, unaware that the driver had fallen off, as the bike propels him across the countryside for a ridiculously long time. The sequence is as funny as it is breathtaking—a triumph of stunt work.

Perhaps the most famous comedy sequence in Sherlock, Jr. comes when Keaton tails his suspect, literally following behind him as he goes about his business. Trying to evade detection, Keaton ends up on top of a moving train car (Oh, Buster!) and is then doused by a reservoir. Keaton famously did his own stunts (Jackie Chan cites him as a major influence), and it’s a wonder he wasn’t killed. In fact, Keaton broke his neck performing the water tower stunt, and didn’t discover it until much later, when he complained to his doctor of a headache. 


Water tower sequence during which Keaton broke his neck:



A lesser-mentioned comedy sequence that deserves mention is a billiard game played by Keaton (as the gentleman detective) and his suspect. The eight-ball has been filled with an explosive in an effort to take out the detective, yet he manages, in a series of increasingly ridiculous shots, to avoid hitting it completely. At one point, Keaton lets the minor characters get the laughs, as the butler describes the inept shots. As the film is silent, it’s interesting how well the shots can be visualized with a few hand gestures. The unseen shots are even funnier than the ones we see.

Yes, the film is funny, and that can’t be overstated, but as I said, the film is something more, which is almost something you have to see for yourself. Keaton’s fantasizing of himself on the screen speaks to the way in which we watch films ourselves, dreaming of ourselves in the roles. When he awakes, he finds that his girl has made everything right, and all is well with the world, yet we see Keaton sneak peeks at the playboy on the screen for tips on how to woo her. There’s an obvious blending of the unreal and the real, as his fantasy affects reality. 

Keaton literally gets into the film he's screening.

Kathryn McGuire is perhaps best known for playing the girl in the film (she’s literally credited as “The Girl”). She started as a Mack Sennett comedienne and later made some cowboy flicks before retiring from film in 1933. Keep an eye out for the girl’s father: he’s played by Joe Keaton, Buster’s dad, and head of the family of vaudevillians in which he grew up and honed his great physical comedy skills.

The Kino DVD (which is also the version streaming on Netflix) features a jazzy score by the Club Foot Orchestra that manages to seem both modern and timeless. Of course, if you get the chance to see Sherlock, Jr. in an actual theater that shows film, don’t miss the chance. You might just find yourself, like the title character, transported right into the movie.

Sherlock, Jr., full film on YouTube. (Good quality. Does not have the CFO score, though it is scored.)

Full film on Netflix (with account).

Buy Sherlock, Jr. at Amazon.