Friday, December 07, 2007

NINE QUESTIONS ABOUT ERASERHEAD


Late last week I got an e-mail from one Violet Lucca. I have no reason to suspect that Violet Lucca is not this person’s real name. She is a student at New York University, and if V.L. is her real name, then all’s the better, for it strikes me as one of the best names I’ve ever heard. I want Violet Lucca to grow up to be famous so I can one day say I got an e-mail from Violet Lucca before she was Violet Lucca! Anyway, Violet was stumbling around on the Internet in search of material on David Lynch’s Eraserhead and, through the magic of Google, no doubt, found herself amongst the SLIFR archives, where she uncovered the story, told by my best friend Blaaagh, of the time the two of us crept out of the movie in disgust the first time we’d seen it. Well, turns out Violet, who I am assuming is a film student at NYU, wanted to hear more, as she is writing a paper on how people reacted to Eraserhead when it first came out. Violet asked me if I would submit to some questions regarding the experience, which I immediately agreed to, and when I asked her if I could double up and post my answers for the amusement of SLIFR readers, she agreed as well. So, in the interest of informing the young, as well as preserving a place for myself in the Intolerant Moviegoers in the Presence of Future Classics Hall of Fame (I did redeem myself re the movie at a later date; I hope Violet asks me about that!), here then are my answers to Violet Lucca’s Nine Questions About Me and Eraserhead.

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1) How did you first hear about Eraserhead?
Since it was a film Lynch produced under the auspices of the American Film Institute, there may have been some mention of it in the AFI magazine American Film, to which I subscribed throughout the ‘70s. It premiered at the Los Angeles Filmex Film festival in March of 1977, and theatrically in New York in September of that same year. But I think the first time I was aware of it was in an article published around that same general period in Newsweek magazine. It was in an article about cult/horror films and some of the ones on the horizon that might be of interest. There were two or three others mentioned in the article, but the magazine’s description of Eraserhead, however ill-informed and misleading—I came away thinking the movie was an X-rated, gory horror shocker in the mold of Night of the Living Dead-- made it seem the most interesting. (And that may well have been—I don’t remember the titles of the other films.) Newsweek’s piece was accompanied by a shot on Lynch on the set—it might have been this accompanying picture, or perhaps another— and the article hinted strongly at the film’s underworld nightscape of twisted dreams, the concertina-wire ensnarement of domestic life, a mutated baby (the natural result of that hellish domesticity) and crater-cheeked singers warbling about transcendence from behind a radiator. It would be about two years from when I saw this article to when I first actually had an opportunity to see Eraserhead for myself. During that time, I imagined I could actually imagine what the movie might be like. Needless to say, I wasn’t even close.

2) Where did you first see it?
My best friend Bruce and I took a break from our studies one Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1979—it was not hard, as I recall, to pry us away from our studies—and walked into downtown Eugene from the campus of the University of Oregon, about a 20-minute walk at most, to a small art house called the Cinema 7. The Cinema 7 was a tiny auditorium tucked into a corner on the third floor of a very homegrown shopping mall called the Atrium Building. I had a lot of seminal college moviegoing experiences here. This is Werner Herzog Central, where all the German director's filmed played (and played, and often played again) – I saw Aguirre, the Wrath of God, The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, Nosferatu and Woyzeck all at the Cinema 7. The spark that ignited my great love for Nashville got kicked up here. I saw Behind the Green Door here, as well as North by Northwest, Duck Soup, To Have and Have Not, Seven Samurai, Once Upon a Time in the West and countless other important contemporary and classic films. This is also where my love-hate relationship with just about any film that challenged my sturdy preconceptions of American narrative constructs took place. On that Sunday afternoon, Bruce and I took in a double feature that suggests we were not the only ones who had pigeonholed Eraserhead into very limited wacky-midnight-movie expectations—our $5.00 got us in to see Lynch’s movie along with its notorious co-feature Myra Breckinridge. Somehow we made it through Rex Reed’s transformation into Raquel Welch. That, somehow, was not the stuff to make us bolt for the exits, traumatized. Eraserhead, being the real deal, of course did.

3) How many people were in the theater with you that first time?
The Cinema 7 had, at most 75-100 seats, and that may be overestimating the situation. It was small enough that 16mm prints, especially of the older films shot in Academy 1.33 aspect ratio (an aspect ratio not instantly compromised by standard 16mm), were routinely screened, and the image was plenty bright enough. Both Eraserhead and Myra Breckenridge, if I’m not mistaken, were screened in 35mm, and the audience on that Sunday afternoon—the movies were booked for a very typical three-day run—was a smattering of what you’d expect for such an anticipated movie. (Even Myra Breckenridge, only nine years off its original run, was very rarely screened and carried with it a cache of, at the very least, novelty.) Had the Cinema 7 booked Eraserhead for a month or two as a midnight attraction it might have made more of a splash—by 1979 Rocky Horror mania had gripped Eugene’s other regular midnight movie source, the decrepit Mayflower Theater just off campus. But Eraserhead didn’t offer Rocky Horror’s decadent glam-rock good time, and besides, the Cinema 7 was pretty solidly committed to its repertory of popular porn films of the day-- Behind the Green Door was the figurehead, but it would occasionally rotate out with Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones and another epic from Green Door’s Mitchell Brothers, Sodom and Gomorrah. So Eraserhead was limited, in its first couple of engagements in Eugene anyway, to standard repertory bookings and never did build up much of a cult following there on the big screen. The day we saw it, there might have been 40 paying customers.


4) Did you know of other people who had a similar reaction or saw it more than once?
As I suggested in the last response, Eraserhead was still pretty rarified viewing as far as the general student population was concerned. Campus screenings of everything from Fellini to Altman to Mizoguchi to Monty Python were available in fistfuls every weekend. But I don’t recall much of a movement on campus to get behind the film. And though I’m sure everyone who went to the same criticism and film production classes that were my staples throughout my last three years of school saw Eraserhead, I just don’t remember much discussion about it. A woman in my senior year film production class must have seen it, however. Her class project, a black-and-white homage to Kenneth Anger featuring her husband and his very proud penis slapped on top of the gas tank of a revving motorcycle in some sort of pre-Cronenbergian man-machine coitus scenario, also showed some visual, but even more aural evidence (the soundtrack faintly reverberated its biker rock as if being transmitted from behind that radiator) that Lynch’s movie, along with Anger’s, were among her influence.

5) Did you attend other midnight movies during that time? Were the audiences similar or different?
Well, as I said, I never saw Eraserhead as a midnight movie, though that was certainly how it gained much of its notoriety throughout its run in the ‘70s, so I can only imagine that its audiences at that hour were fairly typical—cult film aficionados, wild and crazy college kids, wilder and crazier high school kids, and perhaps even remnants of “head-trip” viewers who made lysergic experiences out of El Topo, 2001 and Fantasia (though any medically enhanced viewing of Eraserhead would, I would think, be a very bad trip indeed). I can’t help thinking that the same audiences who flocked to everything from Clockwork Orange, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Two-Lane Blacktop, Slap Shot and Yellow Submarine, to name just a few of the midnight movies I saw my freshman year of college, would have found something to get behind in Eraserhead. I attended midnight movies straight up through the end of my senior year, which was right at the beginning of the VHS-Beta years (some of the last ones were Peeping Tom, Sisters, Help! and The Duellists), and audiences always seemed to remain the same, even when the programming was monotonous and predictable. I like to think Eraserhead would have done very well as a regular midnight movie on the University of Oregon campus, but we never got to find out.

6) Do you remember how long it played? Did it have multiple runs in the same theater, or did it play elsewhere?
As far as I know, that spring 1979 booking at the Cinema 7 was about it as far as Eraserhead was concerned, although it certainly could have appeared after I graduated. (I left Eugene in the spring of 1981; the Cinema 7 lasted for a few years after that.) The only other place in town that would have touched it would have been the Bijou Theater, an art house that cropped up during my last year in Eugene. It was converted from an old mortuary—the main auditorium was where they used to display the open caskets—and it still does ripping business in Eugene to this day. So sometime in between 1979 and the present, it would stand to reason that Eraserhead might hae popped up in that grandly creepy venue at some point, but I don’t know for sure. I suspect that it got much more play in the homes of film fans throughout the city when it appeared on videocassette in the mid ‘80s—that’s certainly where my relationship with the movie was cemented.


7) What prompted you to walk out of the theater?
Walking out of a movie is a very rare occurrence for me. Until Bruce reminded me that we bolted from this one, I would’ve said that the only time I ever did was out of a screening of a movie called Turtle Diary starring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley as two introverted and lonely souls who bond over trying to return some rare turtles out of captivity and back to the sea. Turtles as heavy metaphors for emotionally caged humans who just need to be set free from their inhibitions and phobias. Lots of close-ups of Ben Kingsley. Written by Harold Pinter. I fled, and I don’t regret it. But as far as Eraserhead was concerned, I don’t remember any specific conversation, but I can imagine it had a lot to do with seeing such a claustrophobic, oppressive, relentless, and relentlessly impenetrable universe in such a small, claustrophobic theater, knowing full well the light of day was just a door away. It was an offer we ultimately could not refuse. I regretted that decision for a long time afterward, simply because I knew what we’d seen on that screen was in many ways extraordinary. It was a chore to sit through, but only after a few days I remember wanting to give it another try. I wouldn’t get the opportunity for three more years, but when I did, that’s when the movie opened up to me as a singular, organic vision, not just as a piece of bleak set design and a series of randomly wacky occurrences.

8) Why did you go back to see it again?
I realize I’ve already partially answered that question—because it was eating on me that I’d dumped out of a movie that, even though I found it unpleasant, was like nothing else I’d seen before. Eraserhead was a movie in which I could sense the intelligence even though I had no handle on how that intelligence informed it. I also didn't know how that intelligence was able to access its at times ephemeral, at times anatomical (in both a biological sense and in how the interior structures we see were made to feel) imagery, or how that intelligence unified the film without tidying it up in a neat little Freudian package. I knew the key to the film wasn’t in pinning it down but in experiencing it and finding connections that may have been only specific to my own perception of it. And I was annoyed that I let myself talk myself out of having that experience. I mean, for God’s sake, I stayed to the bitter end of so many worthless movies in my college days-- Up the Academy, King of the Gypsies, Midnight Express, just to name a few. It annoyed me that I had more patience for those individual turds than I did Lynch’s movie. (Of course I’ve always considered that those movies, and hundreds more like them, simply petrified me with boredom, preventing me from doing the obvious thing and bolting like lightning.) Upon my first visit to Los Angeles in Spring 1982, I ran across Eraserhead again, this time on a double feature, ironically enough, with Night of the Living Dead. It was playing at the New Beverly Cinema, a place with which I would become intimately acquainted over the next 25 years. Not without some trepidation, perhaps fearful of what such a pairing might do to my fragile psyche—little kid alone in the big city and all that—I ponied up to the New Beverly box office for the privilege of having my dreams and my waking world shattered and expanded simultaneously.

9) How did you feel after you saw all of it?
By the time I finally saw Eraserhead in its entirety, I had already seen The Elephant Man, which David Lynch infused with much of the industrialized horror of his earlier, more intense inside-out "narrative." In a strange way, I had been prepared for the tangential oddities and visual schemata of Eraserhead by seeing the beloved later film that was its direct result. The 1977 film seemed at once stranger, and more accessible at the same time. It still wouldn’t fully speak to me until I saw it again a few years later, on videotape, even with the stark contrasts of Frederick Elmes’ cinematography flattened out by the unapologetically mediocre quality of VHS. It’s not a movie that depends on life experience so much as a way of seeing its world in the way that it does, though certainly Eraserhead draws on connections with real-life fragility and personalized terrors for some of its visceral, insinuating power. Anyone who was my age when I saw it the first couple of times (late teens, early 20s) would surely be able to tap into the near-universal fear of having your future closed off by a suffocating marriage, or even just the uncertainty of a future that might hold love, but also might hold endless nights where the clanking of pipes and hissing of radiators (and the warbling of those within) might be preferable to the howls and shrieks of a baby (unwanted?), even one far less obviously frightening and mysterious as the one in the film. When the movie finally did burrow under my skin for good, in the days of the marvelously weird and operatic Dune and just before Blue Velvet recast Eraserhead’s worldview into a oversaturated, picket-fence and Panavision-ized canvas of subterranean, primal madness and sensuous wavelengths of inexplicable evil, I watched it repeatedly, fascinated by Lynch’ unique methods, his ability to tap into moods and desires without making a big show of his peculiar mechanisms. After all these years, Lynch’s sensibility has been familiarized by exposure to more of his films, good and bad, and copied by filmmakers whose application of the term “Lynchian” to cover their own flimsy tracks with a patina of oddball humor or random violence has become increasingly desperate. Yet Eraserhead has aged well. It is of a certain time, but it is not betrayed by that time, and despite its slow seepage into film culture and, to the extent that David Lynch has become a brand name, into the culture at large, its effects remain elusive, its intent pleasurably masked by the dark heart of its games of time and space. It is not a horror film, yet it is at times horrifying. It is not a comedy, yet how can one not laugh at its absurd parody of courtship and, eventually, family dynamics? It may have had its reputation made on the midnight movie circuit, but it was never engineered to be a cult film. It is, of all things, sincere. Eraserhead plays as though it was never intended to be seen, like a precious and weird artifact from a bizarre universe, an interior projection of horrible, muffled, and horribly funny REM imagery. Still, tucked away in a dark, moist, brick-and-pipe-lined corner of an unknown basement, it finds its way into the hearts and minds of those prepared to see the world differently through its darkened eyes. It is the landscape of a mind, and the beasts within.

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39 comments:

bill said...

I just bought "Eraserhead" this past weekend. I watched the first five minutes, shook my head, and turned it off. To be fair, I hadn't been planning to watch the whole thing, but it had been so long since I'd seen it, so I wanted to get a sense.

I don't really have much to say about it, without having seen it again. It's boring, there's nothing else like it, it's unforgettable, I don't know when I'll ever actually sit down and watch the whole thing, and I'm glad I bought it. How's that?

Incidentally, I feel the need to tell anyone who might not know that IFC is showing part one of Mizoguchi's "The 47 Ronin" tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM (Eastern time), with part two to be shown the following Saturday, the 15th, also at 8:00 AM. To my knowledge, this film isn't available on DVD in America, so set your DVRs.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I started watching Myra Breckenridge one night on Fox Movies a couple of years ago and couldn't stop. Man, it is a train-wreck of a movie! But oddly fascinating. I mean really, I had to watch it through to the end so in a way, I guess I could recommend it to people.

But Eraserhead has none of that fun which is what I think people expect when they first see it. It's not a "midnight movie" but an art film that may not make sense to some viewers but has its own purpose and intentions that do make sense to the artist. It's this confusion that has alternately disappointed people or turned them into total posers where they loooove the film but they don't know why.

But if taken for the experimental art film it is I think it can be a rewarding experience. I'm going to sound a little pretentious here so bear with me. When I look at a Rothko or a Pollack and I realize there is no representational design it may seem simple at first, since it doesn't employ the astonishing techniques of the mannerists. However, in many ways one can walk away from a mannerist painting with less of an intellectual arousal than a Rothko or Pollack.

I think the same can be said for Eraserhead. If you walk into expecting standard filmic coherency or wild and wacky midnight fun you will surely be disappointed. As disappointed as you would be walking into a showing of the above Rothko expecting to see madonnas and halos.

Eraserhead, unlike so many films out there, succeeds or fails based on audience expectations, rather than reactions (the bread and butter of all serious criticism), so from its release to now it maintains an other-worldlyness to it that few works of art do.

Flickhead said...

To see Eraserhead in the proper environment, travel back to 1977 and go to a midnight show at the Cinema Village or the Elgin. There, you can smoke all the grass you want, right in your seat. You're gonna need it.

Some films are of their time, and Eraserhead is certainly one of them.

Watching Eraserhead at home, by yourself or with one or two people, is too silly for me to even think about.

bill said...

So my problem with "Eraserhead" has always been that I don't own a time machine? Well, Christmas IS coming...

Until then, I suppose I'll have to make do.

Dave S said...

i agree with flickhead that watching "eraserhead" at home just doesn't make sense. it only really seems to work in a theatre with strangers present. like bill, i own a dvd copy of which i've only watched the first few minutes. and sorry jonathan, but i looove "eraserhead". when i first saw it at the local university's film society, it got me excited about movies again to the extent that i enrolled in a film prodution program, made short films, and even did a series of 2-minute animated movie reviews, one of which was of "eraserhead". you can see it online at:

http://zed.cbc.ca/go?POS=18&CONTENT_ID=96887&c=contentPage&
FILTER_KEY=7552

Jonathan Lapper said...

Hey, I thought Bill was the only one who was supposed to misunderstand me (and I him. Apparently I never know when he's joking). Dave, I didn't mean someone couldn't loooove Eraserhead, I was just trying to separate out the posers who really don't love it. They simply say they do just as they say they love anything that confuses them.

And Bill, I have a time machine you can borrow but I need it back by next Tuesday. I just used it to see the premiere of Behind the Green Door. Wow! It was incredible.

bill said...

You watched porn in it?? Eesh. Thanks, but no thanks.

Jonathan Lapper said...

I saw it for the writing. Geez. And how did Marilyn Chambers miss out on Best Actress that year? Boy, that Academy sure is stuffy.

bill said...

I guess we should be talking about Lynch, though. Dennis, you say that "Eraserhead" is not technically a horror film (you do say that, right?), but I've heard him described as a horror filmmaker, and hearing that sort of opened up his stuff for me. I'm sure Lynch himself would dismiss the label, and wouldn't want himself to be pigeon-holed or categorized, and that's fair enough, but at least two of his films ("Fire Walk With Me" and "Lost Highway") are clearly and firmly part of the long and by definition bizarre tradition of definition of horror films.

Other Lynch films, like "Mulholland Drive", "Inland Empire" and especially "Eraserhead" have been described over and over again as having the logic of nightmares. The only films of his I can think of that are more or less completely removed from the genre are "Dune", "The Straight Story" and "The Elephant Man", and even that last one has a Gothic vibe to it.

My point being, can't we just say what this guy does, once and for all? He makes horror films!

Greg said...

Dennis - I remember Cinema 7 very well and must have attended some of the same screenings you did in the same timeframe. I don't remember walking out of Eraserhead, though :).

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bill: My mother-in-law bought The 47 Ronin for me as a Christmas present years ago... on VHS! It's letterboxed, however, and looks as good as a movie ever did on that once-revolutionary, now obsolete medium. If you miss it on IFC, I may be able to help you out... :)

Jonathan: I actually heard someone say something similar to that as the lights came up after No Country for Old Men last week: "I loooooved that... Now I just have to go figure out why." I chose to find that an encouraging comment to overhear!

If ever there was a movie that confounds classification and expectation, it's Eraserhead. I don't know that Ben Barenholtz, who distributed the movie, necessarily marketed it deceptively, though. I think it was write-ups like that one in Newsweek (which is quoted on the poster art at the top of this page) that led audience expectations in a certain direction. Surely some were as confounded and perplexed and, yes, repulsed when they first saw it-- if you could see me right now, you'd notice I'd be raising my hand and identifying myself as one of the initially perplexed. But the movie is what it is, and I like your analogy to Rothko and Pollock. Like those artists, Lynch found his audience by sheer loyalty to his vision (and a little help from Mel Brooks) and the movie stands as an exceptional foundation for a career that probably has no true correlary in popular American film.

Flickhead, Dave S.: I did have one complete experience with the movie and a captive and sympathetic audience, and it was a good one. But Eraserhead is such an interior piece of work that I guess I just don't understand why viewing it alone or in a small group would necessarily be a ridiculous undertaking. Less preferable, perhaps, but then we can say that about a lot of films, big and small, and we do. Like a similar experience I had watching Taxi Driver on home video in the '80s, I found that seeing Eraserhead in a solitary situation lent itself to a heightening of some of the movie's emotional effects, at least on me. Depending on your point of view (especially in the Taxi Driver scenario) this could be a good or a bad thing. But I never felt I was missing out on any key components of the film simply because I only ever again saw it with an audience once, on a bill with Dune and Lynch's short The Grandmother.

By the way, Dave S., given your interests on your blog Bloody Terror (which is a pretty keen site, by the way, everybody), I'm wondering if you've yet made your way over to Cinebeats. If not, you're missing out on a site I think you'll truly love. Kimberly knows her Edwige Fenech inside and out, and then some!

Bill: Thanks for steering us back to this question, which I think is an interesting one-- how do you define a horror movie, or a horror filmmaker? Because clearly Eraserhead has horror elements in it. My point, especially about the Newsweek article was that they were framing it within a very specific context of homegrown horror films like Romero's, which certainly led me (and maybe I was the only one who was so susceptible to these preconceptions) to expect a certain kind of film which played within certain rules, which were themselves bending and mutating with each new landmark film of the period. And nightmare logic is definitely someting I would ascribe to just about all of Lynch's movies, save The Straight Story. But it's also how I approach something as aesthetically conservative (by comparison) as Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That movie was so true to nightmares as I experienced them that I dreamt horrible dreams about it before I even saw it, and when I finally did I was shocked to discover the movie was just like the dreams. Surely Twin Peaks has a strong streak of "traditional" horror running through it, and even The Elephant Man, in part because of its Victorian England setting lent itself to many of the visual trappings of the Hammer horror film (and it didn't hurt that it was shot by the brilliant cinematographer and Hammer director Freddie Francis).

But just as Lynch's movies squirm and skitter around strict genre classifications, I hesitate to make a claim that he's a horror film director. I don't say that condescendingly-- there's no inherent dishonor in directing horror films. Maybe it's that the boundaries of the genre itself have stretched beyond those classifications too. But even as I recognize that element in his work, when you're speaking of the most general idea of what a horror film is, the first person I think of is not David Lynch. His tactile, hissing dreamscapes seem to me a genre of their own.

Greg! Tell me more! This is one of the great pleasures of blogging-- connecting up with people you probably rubbed shoulders with 30 years ago who know all of your old haunts! One of the folks who worked at the Cinema 7 was a woman by the name of Katherine Wilson, who ran the local casting company that provided extras for Animal House. This is how my friend Bruce and I got to know the Cinema 7 so well-- she was always encouraging us and inviting us to come see films there. And as embarrassing as it is to recall walking out of Eraserhead, I recently came across some old Cinema 7 calendars and refamiliarized myself with some of the fare we passed up altogether. Is this what they mean when they say youth is wasted on the young?! Please write back!

bill said...

Dennis - I know that you, of all people, would not see anything dishonorable in making horror films. I think I just have a broader definition of the term than you do. You mention films playing by certain rules, which get stretched and broken with each landmark film in the genre. Why shouldn't Lynch's work -- "Eraserhead" specifically -- be one of those landmarks? You can't watch that movie without feeling deeply unsettled. Some people know what's so unsettling about it, others would have trouble defining (without having seen it in years, I would probably be one of the latter), but it's unsettling in a way that only horror can be.

I read on a book forum, which had a thread about movies, a great description of what is so troubling about "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre". When that door opens and you see Leatherface that first time, this guy said, your brain (and I'm paraphrasing here) scratches around for some frame of reference, some way to explain to yourself what you've just seen. To me, that describes the entire running time of "Eraserhead".

I don't want to sound like a broken record, but there are certain horror writers who have helped me redefine and better appreciate the genre at its top (and to utterly disdain most of what passes for it): if you get a chance, check out the short fiction of Robert Aickman and Thomas Ligotti. Their stuff is more grounded in recognizable reality (most of the time, and then only at first, anyway) than "Eraserhead", but the final effect is not dissimilar.

PS - How are you coming along with "Flicker"?

PPS - If my DVR craps out on me re: "The 47 Ronin", I might just take you up on your very kind offer. Thanks!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bill: I'll never forget the faint trailing off of sound as Leatherface slams that metal door shut and the camera just stays there for an extra moment or two...

I agree that the definition of what a horror film is quite broad, and thankfuully so. It's part of what makes the genre, whether the filmmaker sticks by the rules or, as Lynch does, makes new ones, so malleable and interesting and receptive to subtexts. I think I'm thinking of it in the most general terms as a way of anticipating what the average viewer would expect when hearing a description of Eraserhead, or any Lynch film, as a horror movie. There would be, I suspect, some disconnect there.

But we'd have to work very hard to disagree further than that. Lynch has, at the very least, redefined horror on his own specific terms. Thanks for the sharp comments.

By the way, I just saw No Country for Old Men for the third time last night and should have something (not as much as Jim E.) on it very soon.

Also, I turned Flicker back in to the library unfinished. It became clear to me after about 50 pages that I wanted to own it, not just borrow it. My wife promises me it's in the "seriously consider" column of my Christmas list!

bill said...

"But we'd have to work very hard to disagree further than that."

Well...should we try? I'll start: All movies are horror movies. "The Exorcist", "E.T.", "Wild Strawberries", "Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael", everything. If you disagree, then you don't really like movies. Why are you such a poser, you poser?

Okay, now you go.

Anyway, now I want to watch "Eraserhead", but I can't. I have to free up DVR space, and I just got a Netflix shipment, plus we bought "Superbad" tonight...Christ, I may not have time to eat this weekend.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Brrr! Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael! Now, there's a honest scare!

And I'd be remiss if I were to fail to mention Robby Benson and Jack Lemmon in Tribute, perhaps the most frightening film ever made.

Check in with me and let me know how that Superbad DVD works out, would you? I've heard the "Everyone Hates Michael Cera" feature is as good as the movie itself, and I'm very curious about the "unrated" version-- whether it is a bust or is in fact loaded with even funnier stuff. Between this and Live Free or Die Hard, I must be developing some sort of rep as an undiscriminating "unrated" apologist. What can I say? I prefer hearing the entire phrase, "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker!"

vlucca said...

I thought I'd take a break from my papers and throw in:

I've read/written a lot about horror films, and the more I continue to do so, the more I realize how much I love them. I would argue that Eraserhead has horror elements, such as the baby (its skinlessness, its guts, its transformation) or the setting, but it also has a lot of traits of silent/almost silent comedies as well. If you think about it, Playtime is very similar in both production (Tati built a special city, controlling all aspects of the production), sound design (the constant hum of the air conditioner, the strange, engineered squeaks of the vinyl chairs), setting (an inorganic environment), as well as the use of awkward pauses/silences that lead to a laugh. (I would also peripherally add tall socks and short pants.) There is a lot of humor in Lynch's work (with the exception of Inland Empire), so I think that you're kind of supposed to be with Henry but still kind of laugh at some of what he goes through. It certainly doesn't play with identification in the same way a horror film does; you don't ever cheer for the man in the planet the way you might cheer as Leatherface cuts up someone annoying. Also, while what you're seeing is strange (and a little scary because of its ambiguousness), so much of it is based in your own reading of the film. It's subversive in that it defies a specific meaning.

As such, I would argue that Eraserhead is a highly subjective experience, and as Lynch has said, religious. Along with dreams/nightmares, religious experiences are so personal that they defy verbal description. Further, some of the aforementioned techniques relate to certain principles of transcendental meditation, and the way in which it was originally screened (as many here have pointed out) is impossible to replicate and added to the power of its effect. Going to the theater became like going to the church. There's nothing quite like going into a theater at 12:00 and not getting out until 2:00; there's something about having a collective experience that late with a group of people you know share, at some level, some crazy passion/masochism for a specific type of film. When I saw Inland Empire in Chicago and waited two hours in a blizzard to get into the theater, I knew I was among friends.

Or you could just not categorize the film at all as Lynch would prefer--it's more fun that way.

At any rate, I'm definitely going this weekend to see it at midnight at the IFC theater in NYC.

bill said...

Man, I really need to see "Playtime".

As for the rest of it, I've never been one for cheering on the killer in horror films, and don't count those films as among my favorites, so I don't believe the absence of anything like that in "Eraserhead" is evidence against it belonging to, or at least fitting in to, the genre. And really my objection to any evidence I've seen brought against the idea is that horror is big enough to encompass it all.

Somebody (I wish I could remember who: Douglas E. Winter? Ramsey Campbell) said that horror isn't a genre; it's an emotion. And as long as that emotion is predominant, you can do all sorts of other things.

I hate the idea of rules in any genre. There ARE rules in many of them, and many great books and films follow them, but they don't need to be used, or they can be subverted in some way. I actually read a review, in the Washington Post, of "No Country for Old Men" that said the biggest problem with the film is that it didn't follow the rules and deliver the payoffs traditionally associated with the genre it undeniably belongs to, the crime thriller. But how can that be a bad thing?

bill said...

I just realized that I lied, I do sometimes root for people to do in horror movies. I've enjoyed all of the "Final Destination" movies, and I don't know what those are for if not that.

Greg said...

Dennis - I know I was there a lot in the late 70s, but the only films I actually *remember* seeing at Cinema 7 were Behind the Green Door and The Devil and (in?) Miss Jones. I also remember spending a lot of time at the Valley River Twin during that time period going to midnight movies. I generally avoided the Mayflower because the sound system sucked, I remember sitting through all of Star Wars (because that was the only place in Eugene it was playing in 1977) not being able to hear much of anything. Oh, and they had a giant fan going through the whole thing as well because the theater wasn't air conditioned. All in all not an ideal experience, but it *was* right across the street from the Animal House :). I also used to spend time at the West 11th Drive In (now a Fred Meyer) to see things like Superchick (!) and Twitch of the Death Nerve, which I still remember whole sequences from, even though I haven't seen it since.

Oh, and I used to cruise Willamette a lot too :).

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"It certainly doesn't play with identification in the same way a horror film does; you don't ever cheer for the man in the planet the way you might cheer as Leatherface cuts up someone annoying. Also, while what you're seeing is strange (and a little scary because of its ambiguousness), so much of it is based in your own reading of the film. It's subversive in that it defies a specific meaning."

Violet: It's a honor to have you here. I sincerely hope you'll become a regular!

I think a lot of what makes the experience of Eraserhead scary is exactly what you describe: there is never a point where we recognize exactly who these people are, where they're at, what the "rules" are that govern their world, so we can never be granted the assurance of identifying with them and therefore somehow stabilizing our emotions. The movie is subversive and ambiguous, and that's where, for all of the horror imagery it dabbles in, is where the true horror in the movie lies: you can always feel the ground shifting under your feet while you watch it, and this has been true every time I've seen it (probably seven or eight times). And I must admit, I'd never thought of a midnight movie in quite those terms before, but there is a religious, or more accurately I think a ritualistic quality about them, especially if it's not a regular Rocky Horror-esque event, where people gather together, presumably of the same general perspective, to experience and celebrate, if you will, a specific film. This is true even if the movie has been a home video staple for years-- just the act of dragging your ass out to a theater at that hour suggests a certain commitment to the theatrical ritual and, no matter what the movie, a certain kinship with, or at the very least a compelling curiosity with what it being shown. It was true when I drove clear across town a few years ago to see Dirty Harry on the big screen at a Nuart midnight show in West Los Angeles, and it'll be true when you visit the IFC Center this weekend.

Bill: Rules in genres are why they are genres. There are certain expectations set up when what you're seeing is a western, for example, and the filmmakers are certainly usually aware of when they're fulfilling the genre or, the Coens' case, when they're weaving something new out of it. I love the old Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and pre-Ford John Wayne oaters for their very predictability and exuberance. I also like a western that looks and lives and breathes as a western (like Red River or The Searchers or Bend of the River) which at the same time provides rich subtext, like red blood coursing through the veins that connect it to American, and American film history. But I also love revisionist westerns like the Dollars trilogy, Once Upon a Time in the West and many of the other spaghetti westerns which tend to want to turn those conventions inside out and subvert them into something new. As for the ding-a-ling at the Washington Post, it ought to be fairly clear to anyone on that movie's wavelength that some of No Country for Old Men's greatest strength, especially in the last 45 minutes, can be found in the ways it diverts from the well-worn path-- there are deaths that would be big showpiece climaxes in any other movie that are not seen at all here. And the emotional payoffs it delivers are far richer than the ones the Post critic was depending on would have come up with. (Was that Stephen Hunter who wrote that review? It's kind of sad when a critic just wants to be pacified by something familiar and doesn't recognize the value of coloring outside the lines.) My point is, I love genre, and I love that genres have rules, because when they are fulfilled artfully it can be just as exciting as when geniuses like the Coens riff on them.

Oh, and I had a chance to see Playtime two weeks ago in 70mm and blew it. My dunce cap is in the mail.

And I've said this before, but I think Final Destination 2 is tons of fun!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Greg: My head is spinnin'! I completely forgot that the Valley River Twin did a whole run of midnight movies too. That place looked like a bomb shelter built into a little bunker from the outside. I spent a lot of time at the Mayflower. When I think of midnight movies, that's the first place I think of. The first movie(s) my best friend and I ever went to together were there-- Star Wars, where they completely fucked up the masking on the screen and showed it in some weird impromptu aspect ratio, with the rest fo the frame bleeding onto the black curtain, of course. Immediately following that was a midnight double feature of Monty Python and the Holy grail and then starting at 1:45 a.m., Jabberwocky. Talk about the air hissing out of the late-night balloon!

And the West 11th Drive-in: I remember hardly anyone ever being there, but I saw a LOT of good ones there, including The Van, The Pom Pom Girls, Torso and my very first screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I actually do remember Superchick and Twitch of the Death Nerve playing there, but I never got to go. (You should see TOTDN again-- it is very good.) And I'll never forget them playing an all-nighter of the Dollars trilogy AND Hang 'Em High!

I was partial to the experience of the Oakway Cinemas, but they hardly ever played anything worthy of that giant screen. And I did spend a lot of time at the McDonald and the National downtown, especially when Animal House opened at the McDonald. We got to know the staff very well during that movie's run!

I occasionally cruised the Gut, a.k.a. Willamette Avenue, a lot too. I was dismayed, though, when I visited last summer. My friend and I drove through a Wendy's at around 10:00 pm and the street was as empty as Tombstone at high noon. We asked the girl working the drive-thru if kids still cruised the Gut. She said, "Oh, not too much anymore. My mom used to, though, when she was in college way back in the '70s." We drove away, muttering into our Frosties.

Greg, I hope you'll keep coming back. We must determine if we were ever in the same movie theater at the same time!

bill said...

It was Stephen Hunter, all right. Amazing how all I had to do was say "Washington Post" and "the guy's a jackass" and you immediately knew who I was talking about.

I don't fully buy your argument regarding genres and rules. I see where you're coming from, but if you were to see a movie, knowing nothing about it, and see at the beginning that it was set in Wyoming in 1882, you would think it was a Western. That's all you would need. No genre rules would be needed. And if you saw a movie begin with a bank robbery, you would know (or at least reasonably assume) it was a crime film of some sort. If none of the rules that you might associate with a crime film were to be used, but the film revolved around this bank robbery and its perpetrators, would you not think of it as crime film? Of course not.

I absolutely agree that what we think of as genre rules (really, they're formulas) can be used to brilliant effect. I never intended to argue otherwise. I just don't believe their absence negates the genre.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bill: Forgive me if I seem a little fuzzy-brained, but it really is past my bedtime!

I can see your point about crime films. But as regards westerns, the question for me is, is the setting all that tells me a western is a western? If so, is Little House of the Prairie then a western? Crime films seem to me to be a little more fluid in that they aren't restricted to a time or place, and though they have archetypes-- cops and robbers, right?-- it seems they can take, leave or vary the basic elements and emotional notes of their genre more readily than a western can. Thieves Like Us is as much a crime film as Bonnie and Clyde, White Heat or Reservoir Dogs, but the four of them couldn't feel more different from each other.

Westerns have archetypes too, but they also have certain visual motifs that are fairly consistent within the genre, as well as costumes, modes of transportation and even codes of character and ways of engaging the landscape to inform character and theme that make them what they are. This may be an unfair comparison (but it's all I can come up with!), but movies like Young Mr. Lincoln and Old Yeller share a basic time frame and location with many westerns, but I don't think of them as westerns strictly because of their settings and time periods. Can you think of examples of a movie like this that exists outside the strict rules of genre that you would still think of as a western?

bill said...

Touche' to your "Little House on the Prairie" move.

Westerns may not be the best example for me to use to make my point, and you may have me stumped with your challenge, but let me sleep on it. I also feel like there's something I'd like to say regarding how you and I may differ on how we define "genre rules", but I don't know...I need to think about it, and I'm sleepy. It's 1:00 AM on my end of the country, and I have to turn on the commentary track for "Superbad" and go to sleep.

As for the "Superbad" DVD, the extended stuff within the movie itself is good, but not essential. There are a lot of bonus features we haven't checked out, but as for "Everybody Hates Michael Cera", well, it is pretty funny, but it's also only about six minutes long. I'm not sorry we got this edition, and there is much left to watch, but what I've seen so far hasn't blown me away.

bill said...

Oh, wait, "Dead Man"!

I definitely do not have the energy to go into any more detail than that. Also, one example, even if you agree with it, isn't enough to make my point, but damn it, I'm getting one title down on paper before I conk out.

David Lowery said...

This was a wonderful post, Dennis. I still remember well my first experience with 'Eraserhead' (which I still, to this day, have not seen on the big screen). It was circa 98, I was a junior in high school, and I'd become a Lynch devotee one year prior. Eraserhead was, at this point, impossible to come across. Eventually, a friend of mine (who is coincidentally producing my new feature film) bought a VHS copy on eBay. We sat down to watch it and made it through about twenty minutes -- not because we didn't like it but because it was past midnight and we were falling asleep. We resumed the viewing a week or so later, and I quickly became obsessed. It's a work of art unlike any other, and it had (and continues to have) a huge impact on me. It's especially fascinating, I think, to follow the path of Lynch's early work as a painter, through his first short films (which contained a lot of those paintings in them) all the way to this first feature. It puts his aesthetics, and the manner in which he presents them, in a very particular perspective.

EW said...

Bill: I looked for Robert Aickman on Amazon; most of his short story collections are out-of-print. I've read a little bit of Ligotti's stuff, and am interested in anyone who would fall in line with that type of horror. Now I gotta dig around for more information about the author. Thanks for namedroppin'!

Dennis: I love your blog! I've been reading it for almost a year... Always wonderful reading!

Thom said...

Great post, great memories, Dennis. I'm probably scooping a post I intend to write for my own blog sometime in the coming year but for me the cinematic attraction of Eraserhead lies in the way Lynch unleashes artistic motivation to the detriment of a clear narrative structure. It scared the bejesus out of me mostly because the film is dominated by stylistic elements--visual, aural and structural--not story events. I always think of Lynch as the kind of filmmaker that woud've been widespread in this country if the import The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) had made money back in the day. Again, excellent post.

Chris Stangl said...

Thoughts various/ sundry:

1) Genres have rules for narrative structure and iconography checklists insofar as they exist in the here and now, and in retrospect, but those rules are fluid and ebb to a point that we may wonder if "rules" is a description that truly applies. Consider instead that genre is in a continual state of becoming, and continual state of reevaluation; for the critic, for the audience, for the producer, for the artist, for the marketeer.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN isn't a pure, unproblematic crime thriller, it belongs to a lineage of crime thrillers. What is a "crime picture"? THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY was not understood as a "Western" at the time of release, but as a crime film, and a railroad adventure. But we no longer have a genre we discuss as railroad pictures, and it is usually reframed as a Western. We think of SCARFACE ('32) as a crime movie, a gangster movie, or a Howard Hawks movie, but while in production and on release it was understood as a contemporary-issue drama; a torn-from-the-headlines drama. From that equally valid, historically accurate point of view, SCARFACE might be linked in useful fashion to CRASH (2004) or LIONS FOR LAMBS or whatever is currently being torn-from-the-headlines. The point is simply that genres are never static, never were, and every film is of mixed genre. We sometimes talk about genres as strict, natural categories or frameworks, but that blinkered view, while useful for shelving DVDs at the video store, can prevent us from understanding a film in certain ways. Surely the mark of a good film should not be how well it fills in a regimented genre Mad Lib form.

NO COUNTRY is also marketed as a semi-prestige picture, star directors adapting the work of a modern lit giant. So as a "quality", "literary" film, a "modern Western," "neo noir" or "black comedy" - or even a "Coen Brothers movie" perhaps it is less rule-violating than when considered as a crime thriller. Which is not to say it isn't also a crime thriller.

2) ERASERHEAD is properly a student film, and an avant garde experiment, which are genres: they're production-reality genres. It's certainly a horror film, since it seems to aim to horrify the audience sometimes. It's a dream narrative, a domestic drama satire, and it's a black comedy. Sometimes it has been marketed or reviewed as a youth head-trip film, as a splatter movie, as high art and as gutter trash. To degrees it satisfies or stymies the viewer who has been told ANY of these things. It's a nervous horror-comedy about language, body and communication, a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story about sexuality and poverty and the astral plane, and where the hell do you shelve that? You shelve it in the David Lynch section. When writing about it, you follow through on whatever genre tact is most useful for your argument. So thank the gods that Lynch has had such a long career, and become a "brand", become an author-genre, because it gives us context for ERASERHEAD. It now belongs, and all Lynch work belongs, to the star-filmmaker director-god genre.

Do you really read Hitchcock films as suspense, comedy, noir, espionage or horror pictures, and try to understand where they fit into the lineage of their most obvious genres? Sometimes, but the general trend is to grapple with them as Hitchcock Films. That's not the only way to consider them, but them's the breaks.

3) So personally, that's why I'm most jealous of late '70s ERASERHEAD midnight audiences. I'm not excited about Hoberman and Rosenbaum's description (in MIDNIGHT MOVIES) of audiences cheering as Henry kills the baby, or anything. And I've seen it in theaters several times, with little audiences, with big audiences, in classrooms and revival houses, so it's not that. But I've never seen it without the context of David Lynch, knowing who he is, knowing something about his technique and intentions, and having had some of the "work" of the film done for me. It's my favorite film, and I wish I could've been blindsided by ERASERHEAD, instead of expecting to love it before I saw it.

Which does not mean it didn't pack a wallop the first time. It's just so much more ERASERHEAD-y than anyone can warn you about beforehand.

4) You guys need to back off on WELCOME HOME, ROXY CARMICHAEL.

Dave S said...

hi dennis.

thanks for mentioning my blog. i'm sloooow at posting, but i'm going to keep at it.

yep, i'm a big fan of kimberly's cinebeats blog. she's introduced me some great films, including the terrific 'the house with laughing windows'.

i always enjoy the conversation your blog provokes, dennis. whether i agree with some of the comments or not, it always makes me think.

bill said...

EW - I'm always happy to get the word out about these two brilliant writers.

Robert Aickman was a British writer whose work, I believe, was done mostly from the late 60s into the early-to-mid 80s. A lot of people refer to his writing as "ghost stories", but he preferred the term "strange stories", and once you've read some of it you'll realize that the latter phrase is far more accurate. I generally finish one of his stories thinking, "What in the hell just happened there?" Aickman isn't going to tell you. In fact, I've only read one story by him that had a more or less clear explanation (relatively speaking), and it's one his weaker stories (although it's by no means bad).

In your Amazon search, you may have also noticed that much of his work that is being sold used is a mite pricey. You should be able to find the same three titles I have for a fairly reasonable price. Those three are "Cold Hand in Mine", "Painted Devils" and "The Wine-Dark Sea".

Oh, and also, many of his book covers were drawn by Edward Gorey. If you're familiar with that genius's work, you might have some further idea what Aickman is like.

Brian said...

Terrific "anatomy of a walkout" post, Dennis! And I'm enjoying the discussion of genre, though I'm not sure I have much to add to that.

It's comments like flickhead's I've read over the years that made me stave off watching Eraserhead, even though I knew it was an aesthetic touchstone for a lot that came after it, and would especially be helpful as context for David Lynch's subsequent films. I avoided home video screenings and even a theatrical digital video projection of the film. But my patience eventually paid off and a couple days before Halloween this year I finally got to see a gloriously pristine 35mm print on the Castro Theatre's huge screen. Wow. I'm not sure it was necessary for me to wait to see it with an audience my first time, but I sure am glad I did, if only because if I had seen it before on video I might have found an excuse not to go the the theatre that evening. The "snow" looked incredible projected this way. The blacks were incredibly deep. The sound was great (is it a coincidence that the film was made at the same time that the term "industrial music" was coined to describe emerging artists like Throbbing Gristle?). I'm starting to think about my favorite theatrical experiences of the year, and this screening certainly is among them.

Of course, the Castro is a huge house, and this was a Monday night, so attendance was pretty sparse. In a way it felt almost like being in that cavernous theatre all alone, which certainly mirrors the alienation themes of the film. I don't remember the crowd reacting audibly at all (perhaps I was just too absorbed in the picture for it to register).

Dennis Cozzalio said...

David: You wrote "It's especially fascinating, I think, to follow the path of Lynch's early work as a painter, through his first short films (which contained a lot of those paintings in them) all the way to this first feature. It puts his aesthetics, and the manner in which he presents them, in a very particular perspective."

Somewhere up there I think I mentioned something about the Nuart here in L.A. running a short Lynch festival to coincide with the release of Wild at Heart (or maybe it was Twin Peaks) some years ago. My wife and I attended and had the choice of seeing either Blue Velvet with The Elephant Man or Eraserhead and Dune, along with Lynch's short The Grandmother. (There may have been another short on the bill, but I can't remember.) Anyway, seeing Eraserhead followed by The Grandmother made for a fascinating and vivid demonstration of how to trace the visionary lineage, in method and result, between the two films, and both came away seeming even more organic and resonant than before. The big surprise was how well Dune played for me in this context as a result. I've always been a big fan of that movie and had seen it seven or eight times theatrically before this screening, but it was really enlightening to see the aural/visual connections with Lynch's other noncommercial work woven into this big-budget oddity. Not that they'd never been noticeable before-- hardly!-- but I loved having the experience of connecting Dune so clearly and plainly within the context of the director's signature film.

EW: Thanks for the very kind words! I'm very pleased to think you've been reading here for that long. I may be mistaken, but I think we had occasion to meet about a month an a half ago. Would you mind dropping me a line at my e-mail address (you can find it under "My Profile")? I've already asked Bill, and I would love to get some of your thoughts on some other horror authors, particularly Ramsey Campbell and Ligotti.

Thom: I don't take as much occasion to do so as I should, so let me just say right now how much I appreciate the fascinating stuff you always have available on your
blog.
It's one of those sites that I always masochistically measure myself against, knowing full well how short I'll end up! Anyway, you wrote:

"It scared the bejesus out of me mostly because the film is dominated by stylistic elements--visual, aural and structural--not story events. I always think of Lynch as the kind of filmmaker that woud've been widespread in this country if the import The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) had made money back in the day."

First, I got a huge kick out of thinking how different film history-- hell, history-- would have been had Caligari been a box-office phenomenon! Kids running around in asymetrically designed expressionist T-shirts (one sleeve longer than the other)! Sleepwalking as a hipster indulgence! But seriously, you pose an interesting thought. Would things be so different that someone like Michael Bay might be considered the freak, the outsider?

But more interestingly is that disorientation you refer to that Lynch suffuses the film with. We're unmoored from the get-go, and Lynch never provides the solid footing we initially think we need (want?) in order to get comfortable and begin to try to piece the film together in a literal way that it's perhaps not meant to be pieced. Less than having the rug pulled out from underneath us in Eraserhead, Lynch never gives us a rug to begin with.

Chris: Like Thom, I just wanted to take a second to tell you how much I appreciate your occasional participation in the comment threads here, as well as the great stuff to be read on your own blog. I'm really enjoying "The Ballad of the Hermenuetic Circle," and I'm still thinking about the Bergman/Hellman confluence on those Criterion covers. (Re "Hermeneutic," have you been keeping up with Peet Gelderblom's "Directorama"?) Anyway, I always look forward to your comments because they always have a certain tang and intelligence that really raises the bar of discussion and keeps everyone here, myself included, honest. I hope there'll always be a reason for you to continue checking in.

I was thinking about your thoughts on the fluidity of genre, in particular The Great Train Robbery. I know that the dime novel accounts of western heroes and bandits, as well as the mythologizing of Buffalo Bill Cody, were well underway by the time GTR was released. But it strikes me as interesting that what you and I will necessarily see through a prism of historical record and perspective, the audiences that were GTR's contemporaries saw, as you said, a crime film, not necessarily a western. But whatever genre it belonged/belongs to, it was seen then as a movie that audiences outside Los Angeles and New York may have felt looked a lot like the world they lived in as regards some aspects of the frontier life depicted in it. But however one perceives it, I think your point about the fluidity and cross-polination of genres is a good one, and that the breaking of those "rules" of genre, even when they are not perceived as self-conscious, or progressive, or even transgressive, are necessary to prevent the complete loss of interest and relevance for audiences down the time line. If westerns were still and only the kind of movies made by Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry, then yes, the western would truly be dead. Fortunately, the death of the western like that of Mark Twain, has been greatly exaggerated mostly by think piece writers looking for an angle, but not looking very hard.

Re Eraserhead, you make an interesting point about the ability to go in fresh, without an excess of foreknowledge about the film. I'm sure you've often imagined just how exciting that must have been for some of those early midnight audiences in 1977 and 1978, provided, of course, they didn't read a lot of Newsweek. But frankly, exposure to the film is exposure, and for reasons other than having a virgin mind regarding preconceived notions about the experience beforehand, I've never much regretted that I missed the communal experience of Eraserhead screenings. Of course, seeing any film theatrically is preferable to seeing it on video, especially for the first time. But when you grow up in a place like the one where I grew up, in Southern Oregon, you take what you can get. This is why the video revolution was such a meaningful one for cinephiles living outside the big metropolitan areas: the beginnings of access. I was just happy to be able to see something like Eraserhead and relish it without being beholden to the whims of midnight movie programmers who knew they could probably make a lot more money showing The Road Warrior or Woodstock or A Boy and His Dog. And though I'd give a whole lot to see that sparkling new print that Violet Lucca likely saw this past weekend at IFC, or the one Brian writes about seeing at the Castro, I'd have to hope for a reverent audience, not one that's there primarily to make sure everyone else knows they know the ins and outs of this unusual and disturbing film. I've had many a movie ruined by knowing laughter and other boorish behavior generated by people who obviously love the movie they're watching but don't know how to express it, or whether they even HAVE to express it, without ruining the experience for someone else.

Finally, would you like to talk about this Roxy Carmichael thing? I only saw enough on cable to know to go no further. :)

Brian: As always, I enjoy reading about your experiences at the Castro. And I really like, in your comments about seeing Eraserhead there, how you describe the contrast between the glorious clarity and richness of the image, the impact of the sound design, and the relative emptiness surrounding you in that cavernous palace. You're right-- I would think, especially in the presence of a hushed audience who keep their reactions mostly hidden, the film's themes of alienation and fear would come right to the forefront. One can almost imagine Henry himself in the front row, gazing at the silver screen and munching away on movie snacks in blissful escape from the horrors of his own life.

I owe you an e-mail, my friend, and it is on its way! Lots to catch up on! And thanks for the pics!

blaaagh said...

I remember well going with you to see ERASERHEAD at the Cinema 7 (along with many other memorable moviegoing nights there), and turning to each other: do you want to leave? I think it might have been me who suggested it, to be honest. Certainly glad I later gave it a second chance (and a third, and...), since I think it's great now. I know what has made me want to leave a movie, then and now: almost-unbearable violence, cruelty, or sadism--or, in this case, grimness--along with the feeling that either the film is worthless or that I am just not getting anything from it, that there seems to be no point to my sitting there suffering (and watching others suffer). Of course, sometimes I'm wrong, as in this case, or at least I later change my mind. I felt this way the other night when we saw ALPHA DOG, and the poor younger brother was about to be murdered near the end; it was so drawn-out, and I had that sense that I was just watching all this ugliness for no good reason; later I found out that it was based on a true incident, which helped a little bit. Still didn't think it was good enough to warrant all the misery I went through watching it.

Thom McGregor said...

Dennis, I know why you and Blaaagh abandoned "Eraserhead" midway-- you both knew how much more fun you'd have just hanging out together, talking. I know this personally-- you two are the perfect best buddies. I'm way out of my league here on this blog, but the only genre I would list Lynch under would be "dream movies." Like dreams, his films (excepting Straight Story) feel exactly like dreams to me-- full of absurdity and vaguely familiar but weird images, and are sometimes inexplicably frightening and disturbing. Also funny as hell. "Eraserhead" especially. I've watched it at home with Dennis, at home by myself, and at the movie theater with friends. The only difference in the experiences to me is that at home, alone, even the funny parts scare me. Most of Lynch's films do that to me. Even the ones that make no sense-- There's a slow tracking shot in "Lost Highway" of a long hallway that doesn't really go anywhere, yet even now when I think of it, it makes me feel a bit like running, screaming, out of the house. Why? It's a bad dream.

Chris Stangl said...

Naw, there's nothing to particularly recommend ROXY CHARMICHAEL, but for the ( fixated) Winona Ryder devotee there is a moment of triumph when she first appears transformed and still sad, a vision in that pink dress.

The film was finally released on DVD this year, and for the three people waiting it was some kind of event.

Thom said...

Dennis, high praise indeed coming from one who's blog is a favorite read of mine. Thank you.

I like where your going with the post-Caligari alternate history idea...imagine things would look pretty much like one of Special Agent Dale Cooper's dreams, or the sets in any Tim Burton film more likely!

blaaagh said...

Hi, Thom McGregor! I dunno about you being out of your league--indeed, I found your comments about ERASERHEAD and Lynch's other films among the most interesting here. I know what you mean about LOST HIGHWAY and that hallway tracking shot...I also remember that movie like a very bad dream, so bad I'd want to run away screaming! I'd say I want to see it again, but I'd have to work up the courage.

You're right that Dennis and I are the perfect best buddies, and though I'm not sure that's why we left the screening of ERASERHEAD, I'm sure we did have a great time hanging out talking and watching other movies deep into the night, me stirring up a disgusting cup or two of Taster's Choice!

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