Tag Archives: David Lynch

I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  Each week I’ll cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

Many movies are forgettable, even some good ones.  But if a film makes you think about it for days, weeks, months, or years after seeing it, that usually points to its quality.  2001: A Space Odyssey and last year’s Take Shelter (already an all-time classic, if you ask me) are the first examples to come to mind.  Sometimes, though, those initial lingering thoughts aren’t always positive.  That’s what happened to me in the years following There Will Be Blood‘s release.  On first viewing, I thought it was plodding, its characters impenetrable, and the ending felt like tacked-on shock value.  But I would often think about it and ultimately its problems bothered me less.  Then I saw it a second time, read the script, and its nuanced character study grew on me.  Growing up a little and experiencing more cynicism certainly didn’t hurt my understanding, either.  I still don’t know if it’s a great film, but I feel it’s at least very good.

And now, a week after finally seeing Eraserhead, David Lynch’s directorial debut, I feel a similar transformation may be in its early stages.  I say this because Eraserhead is a “difficult” film.  It’s one you try to understand, and in that process, feeling it gets lost.  It’s a clinical movie about ideas and themes rather than real emotion.

Eraserhead is a film in which nothing feels right.  Everything about it rings false and constructed.  This is intentional and not particularly bad, given the context.  Its sets all feature a beaten, post-industrial look with exposed pipes and no decoration; nobody in Lynch’s dreamlike world has much use for brightening their spaces.  The characters dress in plain business clothes, but their style is offset by odd physical distinctions, such as Henry’s (Jack Nance) eponymous hair cut.

It is Henry whose odd story we follow.  He knocks up his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), and after meeting her family for the first time — it goes about as well as you’d expect — they get married and move in together to raise their mutant creature baby.  From there, for all the film’s purported difficulty, it follows a simple parable about the angst of growing up and starting a family.

There is nothing wrong with that story.  In fact, I really like it.  However, where I feel Lynch falters is, instead of fleshing out his worries about impending fatherhood — “What if there’s something wrong with the baby?”; “How do I react to my child’s imperfections?”; “Will I find it in me to love my child?”; “What do I do if it gets sick?”; et cetera — and struggles with monogamy, he presents them as ideas and themes within a nightmare rather than forming a human connection.

While all of these characters feature human personality attributes, no one feels fully human.  I don’t mean to say I require a character to root for in a film; I don’t care about connecting to the characters as people I would like to meet.  That said, if you want me to fully appreciate your work, you should try your hardest to make your characters rounded people, even if they are tough to understand.  This is a lesson Lynch learned later in his career, particularly when working with Kyle MacLachlan.  MacLachlan’s characters in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks are oddballs, but they’re oddballs with motivations and previous experiences that lead them to their eccentricities.  In Eraserhead, though, Lynch’s characters arrive fully formed and they are weird for weird’s sake.  We know Henry works in an industrial plant, but learn nothing of his background.  His reactions to things usually consist of a silent, pained expression.  Stewart’s Mary fares a little better, as she deals with a loveless marriage and deformed baby, but her characterization consists mainly of shouting and crying before storming out of nearly every scene.  Mary’s parents exist purely as nightmarish caricatures to unsettle Henry and, by extension, the audience.  Even the character portrayed most naturalistically, Judith Roberts’ Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, is a cookie cutter seductress from the film noir stock used only to throw another wrench into Henry and Mary’s marriage; her lack of a name lends more credence to her being devoid of character depth.

Where Lynch excels in Eraserhead is his ability to execute themes within a well-rendered tone.  I’ve written a lot about the nightmare state in which the film takes place, and that does not waver for the entire run time.  Everything Lynch does is to question reality, not only in terms of consciousness but in societal mores.  Is the American family truly an ideal to which we should strive?  The X family’s long pauses, inappropriately sexual treatment of Henry, and generally menacing demeanor would suggest otherwise.  Mr. X’s droll story about his numb arm point to the meaninglessness of small talk, and perhaps human interaction as a whole.  As for the baby, that Admiral Ackbar-meets-Xenomorph grotesquerie, Lynch projects his worst fears about procreation.  Maybe some people should be barred from having children, whether it is before they’re ready or simply because they don’t have parenthood in them, Lynch suggests.  As for the segments involving the Lady in the Radiator literally turning Henry’s head into erasers, I’m still struggling to make heads or tails of it.

Eraserhead may not be a great film, but it enthralls me.  It’s bold in its themes and executes them well, despite obvious deficiencies in character, which is no small task.  It’s also a springboard of ideas which Lynch would later use to magnificent effect in more fully formed films like Blue Velvet and Lost Highway.  In the week since seeing it, I have found my mind drifting to its memorable imagery and trying to make sense of its more esoteric notions.  Perhaps, in time, I will be less concerned with its issues and more ready to accept its importance in avant-garde filmmaking.  Until that day, though, I will have to live with its messy, absorbing nature.


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Rob’s Creative Midterm Paper

I’m 22 years old and still haven’t finished college, so to say I’m a little bored with writing traditional papers would be underselling a bit my feelings on the subject.  I’m sick of never being able to use my own voice, feeling distanced from the material, and checking my passion at the door in order to churn out an auto-piloted version of something that would probably be far more interesting in a different medium.  It is for those reasons I’ve decided to get a little creative for my Social Media class, as this paper’s prompt says, “Social Media has had a profound impact on society and the process of communicating. How have these changes affected the process and what does it mean?” Given the title of the class, I felt writing a Ten Commandments-sized blog post an apt way to complete the assignment.  Instead of regular in-text citations — ones which you know won’t really be checked — I’ll utilize hyperlinks and videos within the body of my text to not only show that I did my research but so you can also check things out for yourselves.  Besides, I don’t know how you can write about films without offering actual footage of them.  So chew on my punk rock aesthetic, college, because I’m totally too cool for school.  And now, without further ado, here is my Social Media midterm paper.


Rob Samuelson

Don Krause

Social Media

2 March 2011

Filmmakers Further Their Careers Using Social Media

The New Crew

That looks familiar, right? You’re somehow acquainted with it, but it’s different from what you know, leaving you with a deja vu sensation which you can’t quite place. That’s probably because you spent the summer of 2009 being inundated with the imagery developed four years earlier in this short, Alive In Joburg, by director Neill Blomkamp and expanded into the feature film District 9.

Blomkamp is among the crop of modern Hollywood success stories who have scrounged for years in film schools and dead end jobs, searching for financial support in order to fund their little passion projects; they are the people who have slickly used social media websites like YouTube to market their skills to Hollywood.  In Blomkamp’s case, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson took notice and originally shepherded him in an attempt to adapt popular video game Halo into a film.

And yet nobody has seen a Halo movie.  Why not?  Because that’s what happens in Hollywood.  Sometimes things don’t work out as expected/hoped/fantasized.

When Halo didn’t pan out, Blomkamp and Jackson refocused their energies on something they knew had potential: Blomkamp’s original Joburg short.  All’s well that ends well, as they completed District 9 on a budget of around $35 million — chump change for a science fiction ‘splosion spectacular such as this — garnering critical praise and earning a cool $115 million in box office receipts. Oh, and it also received four Oscar nominations, including Best Motion Picture of the Year and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published.

Blomkamp has since returned to the viral video well, releasing a minute-long teaser for Wired Magazine that may or may not have anything to do with his upcoming project, Elysium, other than generating interest in his abilities as a filmmaker who can tell a compelling story.  Or maybe he wants his fans to know he’s still around and has not forgotten them.

Blomkamp’s story may be the most complete, but he’s not alone in finding success through YouTube.  Federico Alvarez, an Uruguayan director, has found himself being mentored by Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spider-Man) based on the merits of his produced-on-the-cheap alien invasion short, Panic Attack!, which was released on YouTube in 2009.

Panic Attack!, which runs less than five minutes, currently has upwards of six million YouTube views, which is no small feat considering how it only cost Alvarez a few hundred dollars to produce.  Now that Raimi’s production company, Ghost House Pictures, has signed Alvarez to develop a “genre” — probably in the science fiction realm — project, Alvarez appears set to reap the rewards of a professional filmmaking career.

This is not a phenomenon which will disappear anytime soon.  Given Hollywood’s obsessive-compulsive need to replicate success, agents, producers, and studio moguls will feel the pressure to find the next Blomkamp or Alvarez, even at the expense of the sanity of parents everywhere.

YouTube: The New Bootleg

Up and coming filmmakers aren’t the only ones benefitting from the exposure YouTube provides. For all intents and purposes, YouTube has replaced typical street vendors at the bootlegging game, providing for the masses things that had only previously been available in rare collections and by illegal means.

Fans of such Oscar winners as Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers can view early work and oddities, and compare those with the filmmakers’ more famous output.

Take Scorsese’s (Goodfellas, Raging Bull) NYU student film, What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing In A Place Like This?, for instance.  It’s a surrealist comedy so far removed from his typical subject matter of gangsters and male inadequacy that it’s almost unrecognizable as a Scorsese film. But that is just part of the fun of exploring the depths of what YouTube has to offer.

In startling contrast to Scorsese’s attempt to find himself as an artist, all 30 minutes of noted auteur Paul Thomas Anderson’s (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) short film Cigarettes & Coffee — not to be confused with Jim Jarmusch’s almost identically named Coffee & Cigarettes can also be found on YouTube.  It finds Anderson already with a firm grasp of what kind of storyteller he wants to be, as much of the film was expanded into his first feature, Hard Eight; or Sydney, if you ask Anderson himself.  To the best of my knowledge and research, I cannot find any other form in which this film has been released, and given the cult following the man has developed in his career, this is an important satiating resource for fans to utilize while they await his next film, whenever he makes one.

Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, No Country For Old Men), much like Scorsese, would not have the chance for people outside of Region 2 DVD releases to see their section of the film anthology Chacun son cinéma (To Each His Own Cinema), entitled World Cinema.

This short, while a simple oddity filmed during the production of No Country For Old Men, displays a certain playfulness creeping into the collective consciousness of the biggest names in today’s filmmaking.  It’s a feeling that not everything needs to be a sweeping epic in order to excite audiences.  Writers and directors can simply play a little; they can use these shorts and miniature conversations as practice for their larger, more long-term projects.  Whether they’re attempting to create a new visual style for themselves or write in a dialect that’s eluded them thus far, I can’t imagine the creators doing anything other than having a blast working on these things.

Twitter; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Fan Interaction

Jon Favreau.  David Lynch.  Rian Johnson.

It’s all right there in Johnson’s Twitter profile description: “[B]ig time [H]ollywood director.”  That’s what these people are, and they are 140 characters away from interacting with their fans.

The connection of modern artists to their fans is at the highest point it’s ever been, thanks in large part to social media, particularly Twitter.  Instead of fearing about even more of their private lives being exposed, these celebrities act to be even more connected to the people who follow them.

Favreau, a one-time prolific actor now doing mostly big budget directorial work like the Iron Man movies and the upcoming Cowboys & Aliens — a film I absolutely cannot wait to see, but that’s a story for another time — tends to connect to fans the most, utilizing Twitter’s @ function with great regularity to answer questions and voice his thanks for the support he receives.  He also offers updates from first the set and now the editing room of Cowboys & Aliens, providing an insider’s peak into the process of how a massive blockbuster gets made.

Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) does much of the same, although he generally takes a more businesslike approach to selling his film, the currently filming Looper.  He often cross pollinates his promotion by posting to Twitter production photos located on the film’s Tumblr site.  He takes a mysterious approach to doling out information about the film, which follows the lead of recent ad campaigns for films like Cloverfield, which are supposed to be all about the suspense and “what could this possibly be about?” hype.

Lynch tends to take a more relaxed, day-in-the-life approach, as he is not currently producing a film.  Given his tendency toward dark and idiosyncratic filmmaking — to put it lightly — it is surprising to see him writing thoroughly normal things like birthday wishes to actress Laura Dern (Jurassic Park, huzzah!).

These three directors display the symptoms of a phenomenon which is creating an even stronger sense of connection between artists, their art, and the art’s appreciators.  Where these artists take this phenomenon remains to be seen — 140-second short films? — but what can be assured is the presence of social media at every turn.

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