Archive for the The David Lynch Chronicles Category

The David Lynch Chronicles: ERASERHEAD (1977)

Posted in 1970s Movies, 2012, Bizarro Movies, Classic Films, Cult Movies, David Lynch, Enigmatic Films, Just Plain Weird, Midnight Movies, Nick Cato Reviews, Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel Columns, The David Lynch Chronicles with tags , , , , , , , on August 28, 2012 by knifefighter

The David Lynch Chronicles (Volume Three):
“A Dream of Dark and Disturbing Things”
By Nick Cato and Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

Nick Cato: It was inevitable we’d get to David Lynch’s famous first feature, ERASERHEAD (1977) for this column. However, we didn’t think we’d tackle it so soon. At first, my Lynchian sister and yours truly felt the film had enough coverage over the years, and for Lynch fans, is simply played out. But upon further thought, we agreed ERASERHEAD is the kind of film that can never have enough written about it, and its historical significance as both a classic midnight cult movie, as well as Lynch’s first feature, make it more than worthy of a closer look.

ERASERHEAD initially played at NYC’s Cinema Village, where it premiered in the fall of 1977 and played as a midnight attraction until the summer of 1978, when it switched over to the Waverly where it played for 99 consecutive weeks, becoming a genuine midnight cult hit. Today, the Waverly Twin is now known as the IFC Center, where they show the film about 4 times a year. Over the past few years, I’ve seen the film there 3 times and Sheri has seen it 6. There’s a certain aura that comes with seeing ERASERHEAD in the same theatre where it has earned its reputation and dazzled, baffled, and just plain freaked-out countless people over the past 34 years…so this column begins with a 35mm midnight viewing we attended there on a hot August night in the summer of 2012. The film print was a tad scratchy, but nonetheless beautiful, and as soon as it began (despite this being at least my 20th viewing), I still had goosebumps running all over me. And two minutes into it, I again felt as if I was experiencing something I had never seen before.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: Although I’ve seen ERASERHEAD more times than I can count, I always get the feeling I’m experiencing something truly remarkable each time I view it. Seeing it at the place where it all began has a special significance. The 35mm print we saw in August added to the nostalgic beauty of the David Lynch experience.

One thing I find especially endearing about viewing ERASERHEAD in a theater setting is experiencing it along with others, some of whom may be seeing it for the first time. ERASERHEAD is, for the most part, a very dark film with disturbing imagery and a thread of despair running through it. Even so, there are absurdly hilarious moments. Hearing a few people laugh uproariously during those moments really made the experience meaningful to me.

ERASERHEAD is as hard to categorize as it is to forget. Part post-apocalyptic tale, part horror flick, part art film, it could be one of the most polarizing films ever made. Some critics pooh-pooh it as nonsensical garbage. Fans see it as a masterpiece. I’m of the mind that almost everyone can take something away from this film. The message may not be pretty. It’s not intended to be a lighthearted tale. But sometimes reality is hard to swallow.

Nick Cato: The first ten minutes of ERASERHEAD are perhaps the most surreal and unusual among all of Lynch’s work. And it’s within this opening sequence where audiences are either drawn in or turned off.

We begin with a strange-looking man’s head seemingly floating through space. We eventually learn more about him (the main character, Henry Spencer), but here we don’t know what to make of this guy wearing a business suit with his hair piled high above his forehead. As Henry’s face coasts in and out of the frame, we see what looks like some kind of asteroid or planet floating behind him, and soon the scene shifts to a room where another strange-looking man sits looking out his window, pulling heavy-looking mechanical levers. Cut back to Henry, as a ghost-like embryonic creature comes from his mouth and begins its own otherworldly drifting.

After multiple viewings, this odd introduction can be taken many ways. It’s apparent the man pulling the levers represents God, or at least a god, and Henry is somehow seeking him, or aware that this being is not only watching him but “pulling the strings” of his life. The embryonic creature is Henry’s child, who comes in to play a bit later in the film. We later learn Henry and his girlfriend Mary had the child out of wedlock, so perhaps the entire opening of the film is a huge portrait of both Henry’s guilt and growing apprehension of fatherhood.

It should be noted that Lynch’s musical score—which at this point consists of odd-sounding winds and crashes—makes this sequence as eerie as it is fantastic. These sounds have become a staple of Lynch’s films, but here they’re raw and add a sense of uncomfortable surrounding. The film has barely begun and we’re already in a world we’ve never been in before.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: The sound for ERASERHEAD came courtesy of sound pioneer Alan Splet, who also did the sound for BLUE VELVET (1986) and DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989). If you’ve seen several Lynch films, you’re probably familiar with the eerie buzzing noise present in the background, just low enough to cause disquiet, and sometimes building to drive home a particularly stress-inducing scene. An interesting side note about Splet. Apparently, Mr. Lynch keeps some of Splet’s ashes in his studio.

The noise is the perfect background for our introduction to Henry (Jack Nance). In contrast to Nick’s interpretation, I’ve always felt that Henry doesn’t realize he’s being watched by the Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk). The man, who is decrepit and weary, could be a direct symbol of God, or perhaps he’s symbolic of predestination, those things over which we have absolutely no control. I’ve never felt that Henry realized that his fate was being decided by this God-like individual. Henry has set these things in motion, of course, by having sex with his girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart).

One thing I find fascinating about this film is that it is told in chronological order, despite the surreal circumstances. Many of Lynch’s later films do not necessarily follow a linear storyline. ERASERHEAD starts, albeit symbolically, right at the beginning, when that sperm is released, and the wheels are set in motion for a nightmare.

We then see Henry stumbling along in a bizarre city. He has to walk over muddy hills against a backdrop of poverty and industrial waste. He lives in a dingy, tiny apartment, in between the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Roberts) and a brick wall. The girl across the hall tells Henry that a girl named Mary called for him on the payphone and left a message for him to come over for dinner that night.

His apartment is small, that of a bachelor. It’s a one-room apartment just large enough for his bed, which is covered with a hole-riddled blanket. We later discover that those holes came from Henry’s nervous habit of picking at the material. In fact, Henry maintains an exasperated, desperate expression throughout. He always looks like he’s being chased by a monster.

Nick Cato: After we see Henry at home in his apartment, he goes to his girlfriend’s house for dinner, where he meets her truly bizarre family. Mary’s mother is a ball of anger, waiting for the opportunity to confront Henry about the baby Mary recently had. Her father, in contrast, is quite happy, despite being a bit irritated on the state of their town’s plumbing (he claims to have laid every pipe in the city over his lengthy career). And in the kitchen we meet Mary’s grandmother, who we’re never quite sure is dead or alive, like the grandfather in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974). Mary’s mother helps the seemingly deceased senior to mix the salad, and even places a cigarette in her mouth which we never see her inhale.

Once dinner is served, Mary’s father asks Henry to carve the chickens. They’re small game-hen-sized birds, and when Henry begins to slice, the chicken begins to bleed out, as its legs kick in stiff spasms. If ever there was a film that portrayed the awkwardness of meeting your girlfriend’s parents, ERASERHEAD nailed it, albeit in a most unusual fashion.

When Mary’s mother takes Henry away from the table, and asks him if he is responsible for Mary’s baby, the house turns dark. Henry’s paranoia and guilt begin to bubble, especially when he’s commanded to marry Mary. And in this one crucial sequence, we see Henry accept the fact his single, lonely life is coming to an end, although he assures Mary’s mother he loves her daughter, despite the continually apprehensive look on his face.

Sheri Sebastian Gabriel: Life for the newlyweds is anything but happy. Their baby is a horrific monster—literally! The baby, who was born prematurely, is wrapped in bandages and cries all day and night. Mary can’t handle it, and bails on Henry. She heads back to her parents’ house.

The infamous baby from ERASERHEAD. Henry’s pride and joy.

Henry seems to handle the kid well enough, but every time he tries to leave, the baby goes berserk. This scene rings true for anyone who has ever made it through the body-sucking, brain-draining first year of a child’s life. You can’t leave. The fear of being trapped is played out very well here. Henry, the man who lives between temptation and a brick wall, can’t even step outside without his baby screaming.

Marriage is another trap for Henry. We see Henry and Mary, who has apparently returned to their apartment, battling it out over the bed. Mary, sound asleep, takes up the majority of the bed, nearly knocking Henry off. She chomps her teeth and rubs her squeaky eyes. It drives Henry mad. Again, the fear of being trapped and having to deal with someone else’s quirks is portrayed here. Henry is drawn in the night to a mysterious sperm-like object he found in his mailbox and put on a shelf. It’s a symbol with all the subtlety of a brick to the head. Your sexuality is on a shelf now, pal, because you’re married and have a baby. It’s all over.

It’s hard to tell if Mary is really back, or if we’ve just witnessed Henry’s own dream-world perception of his new wife. The girl across the hall then appears, and Mary is gone. Seems the girl across the hall has locked herself out of her apartment. She asks Henry if she could stay with him. Then things get really weird.

Nick Cato: And I think this is where the film loses most people. It’s a dream sequence taken to surreal heights as only Lynch can do it, although at times during it, it seems we shoot back to reality for a few moments, and then back again. After staring into his radiator and dreaming about an odd-looking woman who promises—through song—that, “In heaven, everything is fine,” Henry is now seriously contemplating suicide. His own personal Angel of Death (the singing radiator woman) has assured him there’s nothing to be afraid of and that what lies beyond his current world can only be better.

‘In Heaven, everything is fine….”

In the middle of this sequence, we flash back to Henry’s room where he attempts to have sex with his neighbor, all the while trying to distract her from his hideous child who’s just across the room atop a dresser, wrapped in a dirty cloth. Henry’s neighbor seems to make eye contact with the creature, but as they begin to consummate their short-relationship, Henry and the woman begin to melt into the bed, bringing us to another dark sequence where we follow a worm traveling around the rock-planet seen at the beginning of the film.

It is here where we also discover why the film is called ERASERHEAD: when Henry loses his head while listening to the radiator woman sing, it falls on the stage floor and eventually finds itself on the street in an industrial area, where a young boy brings it to a factory. The head is examined and it’s discovered it’s made of the same material used to make erasers in pencils. The boy is paid for his find. Perhaps this is Henry feeling his new, standard existence as a husband and father, illustrated in a most bizarre and comical fashion?

While this off-beat section of soul-searching symbolism still causes me to scratch my head, in the end Henry wakes up…he has denied his angel’s offer of the after-life (despite the vivid, eerie dream) and decides to go on with his child.

Albeit not for too long.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: The scene at the pencil factory really drove home the full message of this film for me. When I initially saw ERASERHEAD, I believed it was about the pure fear of becoming a parent, which is terrifying enough. After a few viewings, I realized that it’s really about the futility of life itself.

Henry’s head pops off to be replaced by the grotesque head of his child. Henry’s head is used to make assembly line pencils, all exactly alike. The message is clear to me. We are only here to reproduce and become as useless as Mary’s grandmother. I don’t necessarily think Lynch meant it to be prophetic. Perhaps it was meant as a way to urge people to break away from the futility of existence, to be individuals rather than accept our role as reproducers. The act of reproduction doesn’t have to mean that we lose our own identities. If we allow ourselves to live in this manner, to be replaced by our children and to become useless, the only way out of our inevitable unhappiness is suicide. It’s the feel-good movie of the 20th Century!

Nick Cato: As if the film couldn’t become darker, Henry survives his dream and is now alone in the apartment with his child. He wonders if his dream was real and knocks on his neighbor’s door, only to find no one home. He paces his apartment a few times, looks at his child, and then hears his neighbor in the hallway. He opens the door he sees her with a male friend, then closes the door and spies on them through his keyhole, a picture of Henry going back to the common adolescent practice of voyeurism. His life is now quickly unwinding.

Henry begins to come to grip with reality (something few audiences do during screenings of this). He’s a father…for all he knows, a single father as Mary seems to be gone for good. He’s no longer his own man. There was no sexy neighbor in his bed last night. He looks back at his child, or what passes for a child, and decides to grab a pair of scissors, where he cuts it free of its bandages…then its life.

Upon the release of ERASERHEAD, critics cited the ending as grotesque, classless and disgusting. Perhaps it’s a bit of each. But what few took the time to understand is that, when Henry stabs his child to death, he’s really killing himself (proved by the final shot of Henry embracing the woman in the radiator). He has finally agreed that the next life is where he belongs, that he has become the norm and the norm isn’t where he wants to be. For the sake of the film, his child has been put out of its misery; for the sake of Henry, he has gone on to better things. It’s a dark, depressing statement, yet, in its own way, one full of beauty, especially in the brightness of the film’s final shot.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: In fact, the final shot is the only time in the entire film in which we see Henry smiling. He’s free. If life means being trapped, death is the happy solution.

I think that Henry killing his child really drives home the point that you can’t take back your actions in life. You can’t undo what’s been done. After the heinous act is completed, some horrible infection begins spilling from the baby’s guts. The baby’s gigantic, disembodied head begins popping up throughout the room, as if to say that this solution was not for Henry to decide. If things are predestined, as Lynch seems to believe given the existence of the Man in the Planet, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Nick Cato: Some may wonder what has drawn so many people to multiple viewings of film that deals with such depressing, bleak topics. While on the surface ERASERHEAD may seem like a dingy, gloomy freak show, created only to cater to acid-taking crowds, when you let its simple messages sink in, it actually becomes a celebration of life.

I know many people who consider ERASERHEAD to be too strange and that it makes no sense. This is hardly the case. While Lynch may have used unique symbols and methods in telling his tale, when you take away the bizarre imagery, it’s basically a look at one man’s fear of fatherhood and marriage, and of the mistakes he has made in life. And unlike your typical by-the-numbers Hollywood movie, Lynch’s nightmare-ish vision only improves and has more to offer with each viewing. As far as debut films go, ERASERHEAD is simply incredible.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: I’d like to go on record as saying that ERASERHEAD is not for everyone. Some people see movies for an escape. Some enjoy a good action flick to get away from the doldrums of everyday life. Some people love romantic comedies because they provide some solace for the downtrodden. ERASERHEAD is a film for those who like to ponder big questions.

The broader appeal of Lynch—to me, at least—is that he gives you something you can sink your teeth into. Each time I watch ERASERHEAD, I pick up another layer. There’s always something else just below the surface that I didn’t pick up the last time I saw it. If you’re looking to escape the harsh realities of life, this film—and possibly most of Lynch’s films—would not appeal to you. But if you’re looking for something that will make you question existence, something that will force you to dig a little deeper, there are few films that come closer to perfection than ERASERHEAD.

© Copyright 2012 by Nick Cato and Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

(NOTE: although ERASERHEAD is easily available on DVD, it is strongly suggested you seek out a midnight screening. The film continues to screen in theaters around the globe to this day).

 

Henry (Jack Nance) sits abandoned by his wife in his small apartment, contemplating fatherhood and his future.

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The David Lynch Chronicles – Volume 2: BLUE VELVET (1986)

Posted in 2012, Classic Films, Crime Films, David Lynch, Intense Movies, Madness, Mystery, Nick Cato Reviews, Pabst Blue Ribbon!, Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel Columns, Suspense, The David Lynch Chronicles with tags , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2012 by knifefighter

(WARNING: The David Lynch Chronicles is an in-depth analysis of the films of David Lynch, and therefore contains spoilers. You have been warned…And now, on with the show!)

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THE DAVID LYNCH CHRONILES: VOLUME II
The Plain Weirdness of BLUE VELVET (1986)
By Nick Cato and Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

Nick Cato: Of all the films David Lynch has unleashed on the world, 1986’s BLUE VELVET is perhaps his most “normal.”  It plays out like a straight murder mystery and there are hardly any head-scratching clues or off-the-wall things happening in the background.  Everything is pretty much up front.  But what sets the film apart from your standard Hollywood fare are the characters.  While it’s set in present day, most of the cast seem to have a 1950s-retro vibe going on, especially Sandy Williams (played by Lynch regular Laura Dern) and night club crooner Dorothy Vallens (Lynch’s other favorite regular, Isabella Rossellini, in a ground-breaking performance).  The film’s protagonist, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) has an innocent, curious boyish charm, but doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of dangerous opportunities.  And unless you’ve been living on another planet these past 26 years, Dennis Hopper’s role as iconic bad guy Frank Booth is simultaneously terrifying and comical, threatening yet cool, a force of nature a hurricane wouldn’t want to mess with.  Lynch uses his cast here to their full potential before pulling out a few cameos to add just a bit of weirdness to the proceedings.

Jeffrey returns to his small home town to visit his ailing father in the hospital.  During his walk home through a wooded area, he happens to see something in the grass and discovers it’s a human ear.  He brings the ear to the police but is unsatisfied with their actions.  Eventually he gets info from Sandy, the police chief’s daughter, who points him to a seedy underworld Jeffrey never knew existed in his quiet home town.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: BLUE VELVET might be “normal” by Lynch standards, but I’d hardly call it a “normal” film. Lynch blends in some themes that are rather typical of his work. His characters live in the land of white picket fences, warm apple pies cooling on window sills, and cute girls with ponytails next door. This idyllic wonderland is juxtaposed against a dark place that threatens to rip apart the innocence. The thing that makes Lynch’s work truly magical is that he makes us question our own realities. Are we part of the half that’s good or the half that’s bad? Or is anyone truly immune from those dark places we try to pretend away?

Jeffery Beaumont lives in this 50s-esque landscape populated by Bermuda shorts-wearing folks who walk down the street without concerning themselves with drug lords or murderers or other unpleasantness. When Jeffrey discovers an ear bereft of its owner in an overgrown lot, his world is turned upside down. He also discovers a side of himself that he didn’t know existed. Jeffrey, an innocent college guy who initially tries to help imperiled songstress Dorothy Vallens, eventually finds himself treating her the way bad guy Frank Booth does. It’s a study in the wickedness inside all of us, even the pure and innocent.

Nick Cato: And it’s Sandy who tells Jeffrey that her father has been looking into Dorothy Vallens’s background, inspiring him to do his own investigating.  Jeffrey goes to see her at a night club (where we learn he’s a big fan of Heineken beer) and then follows her home.  He hatches a plan to sneak inside her apartment to spy on her and see if she may somehow be connected to his gruesome discovery.  Sandy reluctantly agrees to help him get in, and as soon as he does, BLUE VELVET begins an almost non-stop barrage of neo-noir suspense that lasts until the final reel.

While hiding in Dorothy’s closet, he watches her undress and is eventually discovered.  To his surprise, she doesn’t call the cops or throw him out, but insists he remove his clothes.  As soon as Dorothy begins to seduce Jeffrey, someone arrives home.  Dorothy tells Jeffrey to get back in the closet.  This is when we’re introduced to one of the most menacing villains ever to appear on film.  We learn Frank Booth (played with total anarchic chaos by Dennis Hopper) is holding Dorothy’s husband and young son prisoner somewhere, their safety depending on her bowing to Frank’s sexually psychotic demands.  As Jeffrey looks on, Booth forces Dorothy to pretend to be his mother as he inhales ether from a face mask he keeps stashed in his jacket.  It’s one of Lynch’s most disturbing scenes, and also one of his most fascinating.  Within seconds we understand Frank Booth can go in 100 different directions at once, we see Dorothy as both strong and submissive, and Jeffrey’s clean-cut image continues to crumble.

When Booth finally leaves, Dorothy tries once again to seduce Jeffrey…but when he refuses to hit her, she asks him to leave.  Again, within seconds, we see even more sides to these complex characters that drag us deeper into Lynch’s mystery.  We think that, for a second, Jeffrey is having some kind of sexual awakening, but his old self puts things on hold.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: Lynch does a great job of developing Jeffrey’s good-guy image in the beginning. He befriends the police chief’s daughter to discover more about that peculiar ear he found. There’s obviously a romantic attraction between them, but Sandy has a boyfriend and, by golly, Jeffrey is such a gentleman that he does his best not to cross any lines. When Dorothy has a brutal sexual encounter with the terrifying Frank Booth (who could be the most terrifying villain of all time), he tries to soothe her. It seems like he wants to make love to her, but she wants him to be violent with her. He can’t bring himself to do it, and he leaves.

I think it’s an interesting dichotomy between the sweet, gentlemanly Jeffrey and the brutal, violent Frank. Even near the beginning, however, we get a glimpse of a yin-yang quality to Frank, which we’ll eventually see in Jeffrey as well. From time to time, Frank Booth, criminal, sadist, and drug addict, switches from being controlling and violent to babyish and submissive. He frequently refers to Dorothy as “Mommy,” and there are few hints that he and his cronies have brainwashed Dorothy’s kidnapped son into believing that his mother no longer wants him. Frank is now her baby. We often hear her on the phone, presumably with her child, reassuring him that he is her baby.

Nick Cato:  After finding out Sandy has a boyfriend, Jeffrey attends another one of Dorothy’s gigs and sees Frank Booth watching the performance right near the stage.  He’s playing with a piece of blue velvet he had ripped off her robe, while drinking a Pabst Blue Ribbon (in contrast to Jeffrey’s beverage of preference, Heineken).  Lynch uses tiny details like this to begin building more tension between the two (who at this point in the film have yet to meet).  Jeffrey decides to spy on Frank, and over a couple of days discovers a pair of shady guys doing business with him.  When Jeffrey reveals this information to Sandy, they share a brief kiss, but Sandy feels too connected to her boyfriend and stops.  In turn, Jeffrey pays Dorothy another visit, although this time he knocks on the door first.  To his surprise, Dorothy claims she has been thinking of him and they indulge in sex.  She even convinces him to hit her, and while she enjoys it, we see Jeffrey is still uncomfortable with causing any more pain in her life.

When Jeffrey goes to leave, Frank comes down the hallway with his cronies and BLUE VELVET takes a rocket-leap forward in the suspense department.  The first time I saw this I was on the edge of my seat, and after a current theatrical viewing, I still had the same butterflies in my stomach despite knowing what was to come.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: Now the suspense begins to build. While spying on Frank Booth, Jeffrey discovers that some shady dealings are going down between Frank and some guy in a yellow sports coat, one that makes him look alarmingly like a Century 21 Realtor. Another gent with a mustache also appears to be doing some less-than-savory dealings in Frank’s neck of the woods.

Not long after, Jeffrey returns to Dorothy’s place. When he tries to leave, Frank and his cronies meet him in the hallway and kidnap him in one of the most terrifying rides you’re likely to see. After intimidating Jeffrey, Frank and the gang decide to pay their friend Ben a visit. Ben (portrayed by Dean Stockwell, in what could be the creepiest role of his career) is holding Dorothy’s son and husband hostage. Frank tells him to play Roy Orbison’s song “In Dreams,” at which point a spotlighted Ben lip syncs along in a scene that will ruin the song and your dreams forever. Frank gets angry at the song after a few minutes and screams at Ben to turn it off. Meanwhile, Dorothy is allowed to see her son, who is being kept in a back room. We continue to hear her reassure the child that she loves him and that he is still her baby. It occurs to me that perhaps this reassurance is what sets Frank off. He goes from being a menacing monster, scaring Jeffrey and intimidating Dorothy, to a weeping baby. Maybe he’s upset that his role as baby has been usurped or perhaps Dorothy’s love for her child reaches some emotion inside this evil man.

Once they leave, however, Frank goes back to being a professional bad guy. As they drive along, he starts sexually abusing Dorothy. Jeffrey, who is being held in the backseat by Frank’s henchmen, can’t handle this and tells Frank to leave her alone. Frank expresses his anger at being told not to get too hands-on with his woman, and Jeffrey gets beaten to a bloody pulp.

Nick Cato: WOAH! WOAH! WOAH!—let’s back up just a second here:  BEFORE Booth takes Jeffrey, Dorothy, and his cronies to Ben’s den of freaks, BLUE VELVET’s most iconic moment goes down: Booth stops at a local bar, and before they enter he asks Jeffrey what his favorite beer is, to which Jeffrey answers, “Heineken.”  Now despite the over-played response that comes from Frank Booth (it’s been plastered on t-shirts and even beer ads over the years), this is arguably the key moment where the audience understands what a true, uncompromising psychopath Booth is.  He tells the poor kid, “Heineken?  F**k that s**t!  Pabst Blue Ribbon!”

Having watched and meditated over this brief piece of dialogue for the past 26 years, the line manages to simultaneously crack me up and creep me out.  Booth’s comment sounds like a combination of an abusive father and a Marine drill Sergeant.  It tells Jeffrey his own personal choices are wrong and no longer matter because after all, he’s now a part of Booth’s world.

Its little sequences like this that set a David Lynch film apart from your regular, mundane Hollywood fare.  What could have been a simple, throw-away line has become a legendary comment that brings more meaning and menace to our villain the more you allow it to seep in.

In the middle of the party at Ben’s house, Booth becomes impatient waiting for the Pabst to be served … and it MUST be served in traditional beer glasses or YOU’D BETTER BELIEVE someone will pay for it.  Only Dennis Hopper could’ve made the relaxing act of sipping a beer take on a completely sinister dimension.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: All right, all right. The Pabst versus Heineken debate is an interesting point. You’ve got the good guy drinking his imported froufrou beer, and big, bad Frank Booth slugging down the workin’ man’s suds.

We know Frank Booth is the ultimate bad guy, not only because he demands that his brewski be served in the proper glass, but also because he drives the baddest car in the whole town. I assume no car in BLUE VELVET was built after 1970. Jeffrey drives the 1950s land yacht, like the good boy that he is. Frank Booth, on the other hand, has a Dodge Charger that burns up the city streets of quiet, idyllic Lumberton. It’s the classic good versus bad dynamic, but I think the two lines blur. Jeffrey discovers that he has a dark side. Frank is, in some ways, like the petulant toddler who must have his way or else he breaks down. Granted, this petulance is taken to the extreme, but he has a childish side to him.

Since we’re backtracking, let’s talk about the robins. When meeting up to discuss what each of them has discovered about Dorothy Vallens and Frank Booth, Sandy tells Jeffrey that she had a dream that the world was in disarray and everything was dark. A huge flock of robins brings in the light and makes everything okay. At the end, a robin is outside of the window, eating a bug. The good has crushed the bad. This aspect of the film made me happy. BLUE VELVET has its very dark moments, but in the end, love saves the day.

Nick Cato: And according to one of the extras on the BLUE VELVET DVD, they couldn’t get a real robin to perform properly, so a fake one was created just for that final sequence.  I have to say it looked pretty good, even on the big screen.

But back to the story: after a wild night of drinking and speeding down the highway with Frank and company, Jeffrey has his butt kicked and wakes up right where they left him.  After walking all the way home, he decides to pay a visit to Sandy’s father at the police station, only to find that her father’s partner is one of the shady men he had spied on while staking out Frank Booth.  And here BLUE VELVET gets a classic noir-type twist, adding even more of an old-school feel to the proceedings.  Sandy’s father listens to Jeffrey’s story, but asks him to stay away as to not spoil a proper police investigation he’s currently heading.

Then Lynch shifts into some classic Lynchian weirdness: Jeffrey and Sandy attend a dance, and are followed home.  But it’s not Frank Booth looking for more trouble: it’s Sandy’s boyfriend wanting to know what’s going on.  But before fists can fly, Dorothy shows up seemingly out of nowhere—filthy and stark naked—and looks to Jeffrey for comfort, mumbling something about them being secret lovers.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: There’s nothing quite like a disheveled, abused, naked lady to really break up a fight. It also draws us into some serious histrionics from Sandy. Jeffrey pulls the nude Dorothy into his home along with Sandy. During his attempts to comfort Dorothy and hide her nudity, he lets it slip that his interest in Dorothy has been sexual. The expression on Sandy’s face is over-the-top. She’s so horrified that she can’t speak. Sandy lives in a world where premarital sex is a serious taboo, and the knowledge that the guy she has a crush on has been doing the mattress tango with this mysterious chanteuse is simply too much to handle. She eventually gets over it, though, and the two decide to work together to bust Frank and reunite Dorothy with her son and husband.

Speaking of mysterious folks, we learn that the guy in the Century 21 jacket that has been doing underhanded dealings with Frank Booth is actually a cop. Lynch did such an amazing job of keeping this fact hidden that it elicited gasps from people in the audience at a recent big-screen showing. This is when it gets really weird. Jeffrey puts two and two together about the strange mustachioed fellow he’d seen around Frank’s building, giving a briefcase to Century 21 guy. He rushes to Dorothy’s place to warn her that the guy was none other than Frank himself, only to be followed by Frank in the wig and mustache.

Nick Cato: The next-to-final scene at Dorothy’s apartment is a real pressure cooker.  Jeffrey finds Dorothy’s husband dead with a hole in his temple and (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!) his ear missing.  He also finds one of Booth’s cronies in the apartment, standing in a sort-of daze, as if he has been zombified by some unknown means.  When Jeffrey goes to leave, he sees the man who has been following him coming up the stairs but realizes too late it’s been Frank Booth in disguise.  Jeffrey contacts Sandy’s father over the zombified crony’s walkie talkie, and lies about where he is in the apartment.  Frank Booth enters, having heard this on his own radio, and begins to call Jeffrey an idiot for giving away his location.  Jeffrey manages to hide in the same closet he had spied on Dorothy earlier in the film as Frank makes his way to the bedroom, where he hears Jeffrey’s walkie make noise.  Pissed off when he discovers Jeffrey’s not there, he comes out and fires his pistol sporadically, killing his zombified crony in the process.

Booth slowly approaches the only place Jeffrey can be—the closet—and as soon as he opens it, Jeffrey fires at point blank range with a gun he had taken off the crony, causing Booth’s brains to fly out the back of his head.  The grim image of Booth laying in his own cranium sauce looked doubly-demented on the big screen, and even as he lays dead, looking up to the ceiling, the man causes the viewer to be nervous.

BLUE VELVET then goes from sheer brutality to one of Lynch’s most charming conclusions.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: It’s amazing to me how the film ends on such a positive note. Everyone is happy, the robins are eating bugs, and Jeffrey and Sandy presumably live happily ever after in suburbia.

I read in an interview that Mr. Lynch grew up in this sort of tranquil wonderland but discovered horror when he learned that there were ants feeding on the pitch oozing from the cherry tree. That sums up BLUE VELVET pretty well.

BLUE VELVET is a ride through a clean-cut young man’s oedipal nightmare. We catch a glimpse at the very end of Dorothy playing in a park with her son. The cute guy gets the swell girl, and all is right with the world again. And isn’t that the fairy tale ending we all want?

Nick Cato: Believe it or not, I’ve always found this happy-happy, flowers and birds ending more disturbing than what precedes it.  Jeffrey and Sandy seem amazed that a robin has landed on the window sill, munching on a bug.  Is this a sign that good has conquered evil in their small town?  Or does it mean even the pretty things have dark secrets that the other person has to accept?  Despite how happy our couple looks, as well as Dorothy now being reunited with her son, Lynch manages to give even this bright, sunny conclusion a latent sense of unease.

If you’ve never experienced a David Lynch film before, BLUE VELVET is perhaps the best place to start: your mind won’t be too fried by the ending, and your appetite for his darker, more obscure works just may be kindled.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: Even in a Lynch film, a happy ending leaves the viewer wondering when the other shoe will fall. We don’t know what’s going to happen after the credits roll, but we assume that the characters’ lives, at least the ones who make it to the end, go on in some manner even after we leave the theater and move on to other pursuits. Maybe that’s a sign of good filmmaking.

Perhaps the happy ending sticks out because it’s one of the few Lynch films that end on a positive note. Those who are familiar with the awesomeness that is David Lynch come to expect some warped, bizarre, or otherwise dark ending. If you’re expecting your protagonist to wake up only to discover he’s really a serial killer keeping a basketful of ears as souvenirs after living in a delusional world where he’s a good guy, it’s a little disorienting to find that everything wraps up in a nice little package at the end. There’s a clearer division between good and evil here than in many Lynch films. Good and evil blur in films like LOST HIGHWAY (1997) and MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001). There’s a merging of the two even in BLUE VELVET, but it’s more subtle.

Although most of Lynch’s work appeals to those with a thirst for the strange, BLUE VELVET would be appropriate for anyone who likes a good mystery told in a unique way.

-END-

© Copyright 2012 by Nick Cato and Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) intimidates Jeffrey (he’s in the back seat of Booth’s car) as Dorothy (Isabella Rossolini) looks on in terror from the front seat.

The David Lynch Chronicles Volume One: MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

Posted in 2012, Art Movies, Classic Films, David Lynch, Experimental Films, Film Noir, Just Plain Weird, Plot Twists, Surrealism, The David Lynch Chronicles with tags , , , , , , , on March 21, 2012 by knifefighter

The David Lynch Chronicles Volume One:
Two Lynchians Take on MULHOLLAND DRIVE
By Nick Cato and Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel

Nick Cato: There are two kinds of people in the world: those who “get” and enjoy the films of David Lynch and those who think he’s simply filming whatever comes to mind in an attempt to con the artsy-fartsy crowd out of their money and validity.  When I was about 20 minutes into my first viewing of Lynch’s iconic ERASERHEAD (1977), on VHS back in the early 80s, I became fascinated with the surreal director, both by his demented images, and later with the craft of unraveling his stories: yes, I said the CRAFT, because a single viewing of most of Lynch’s films won’t reveal too much.  His films demand multiple viewings, and more often than not, major contemplation.  And while some of his films, such as ERASERHEAD and WILD AT HEART (1990), are easier to decipher than later titles such as THE LOST HIGHWAY (1997) and the super-brain twisting INLAND EMPIRE (2006), this first look for CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT at a David Lynch classic goes to 2001’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE, that, while head-scratching enough and open to various interpretations, does have several ideas running through it that a vast majority of the director’s fans agree on.

Sort of.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: “Sort of” is right. When it comes to interpretations, we could spend days going over the elaborate details and symbols. I’ve seen Lynch films with people who insist he’s just messing with the audience. On the surface, perhaps that’s true. It might even be just another trick up the genius’s sleeve. My first Lynch experience was also ERASERHEAD. It was an English major’s dream come true. As someone who had been taught to look for symbols under every bed and in every corner, the film clicked with me. MULHOLLAND DRIVE brings me back to that experience, as do many of Lynch’s films, sitting in a darkened room, unraveling these intricate knots he’s woven for us.

Nick Cato: Like most of Lynch’s films, I didn’t even bother trying to interpret what was going on during my initial viewing of MULHOLLAND DRIVE.  I was taken aback by just how addictive this gorgeously-shot film was, plus, as usual, simply enjoyed Lynch’s surreal images and several scenes that are creepier than anything you’ll see in a solid, seriously made horror film.  But things began to take shape in my mind, even before the second screening.  A brunette woman (played by the beautiful Laura Harring) survives a nasty car collision, seconds before two men were apparently about to shoot her.  She stumbles out of the wreck and makes her way down the Hollywood hills, taking refuge in an apartment where she notices the owner (and older woman) is on her way out.  Another woman named Betty (played by Naomi Watts) arrives in Hollywood to take her first screen test, and stays at an apartment owned by her aunt.  She soon discovers the brunette woman in her aunt’s bathroom, and discovers she’s suffering from amnesia.

So far, MULHOLLAND DRIVE gives an interesting and some might say “normal” set up, despite the unusual opening credits sequence, where Betty is superimposed over what looks like some kind of 50s dance program, and the sequences of the amnesiac surviving the wreck and eventually meeting Betty are divided by one of the most head-scratching things Lynch has ever done: Two men are in a restaurant, one claiming he wanted to be there as he’s been having nightmares about the place, as well as a spooky figure who lives outside behind it.  The men discover that the figure behind the diner IS real, causing the one who dreamt of him to pass out.

During the early meetings of Betty and Rita (a name the brunette takes off a film poster when Betty asks her name), we see mysterious men talking on the phone, saying things like “she got away” and “we missed her.”  Evidently, someone is trying to kill Rita.  Lynch’s mystery is off.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: There’s something dream-like about the opening sequences that really made me take note. To say the setup is “normal” would probably be misleading. Betty seems so saccharine that she can’t be real. Chipper to a fault, optimistic beyond belief, she charges into Hollywood, ready to take on her first audition with the kind of aplomb reserved for the mentally ill or children. She’s Dorothy headed down the Yellow Brick Road. Even the elderly people she meets on her flight out to Hollywood seem odd beyond imagination, excessively cheerful, nearly insane with joy, wishing their fellow passenger all the best on her journey to become a star. They also have the creepiest smiles this side of Mr. X’s in ERASERHEAD.

I found that even the scene in which Rita is about to be eliminated is so cliché as to be unreal. Lynch seems to be setting us up for something that is so far from reality that it has to be questioned immediately. Hit men only take beautiful women out in limousines to murder them in movies. It’s almost as if Lynch has established a film within a film. It’s even suggested early on that the real hit man in the story is a bumbling low-life who can’t even carry out a simple task without causing utter chaos. He’s no suave mobster in a limo, that’s for certain.

The man in the diner scene near the beginning gnawed at me for a long time. I have an idea that meshes with a sort of WIZARD OF OZ retelling, but to keep it simple, I feel he’s a cowardly lion of sorts.

Nick Cato: MULHOLLAND does a fine job of balancing suspense and straight drama, especially when Betty goes to her first audition, a sequence that not only displays the acting skills of Naomi Watts, but one that leaves me breathless every time I see it.  Between this scene, and the scenes of movie director Adam (Lynch favorite Justin Theroux) being threatened to alter his film by a group of gangsters and an extremely strange cowboy (played by real-life cult film producer Monty Montgomery), the film develops a deeper story on a few levels.  One classic Lynch staple put into play here are mysterious, underground people seemingly causing things to happen behind the scenes.  We’re never sure if they’re the mafia, or corrupt studio executives, or everyday goons hired out by a rival of the aforementioned director.  Either way, their presence here gives MULHOLLAND much of its mystery, and in the case of the cowboy enforcer, some latent humor that doesn’t take away from the film’s serious tone.

Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring) dealing with Rita’s amnesia

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: There’s certainly no shortage of suspense here. As a Lynch addict, I try not to take any plot point for granted. You never know when there’s a trick. I really do feel that Lynch is a magician of sorts. If you blink, you’re likely to miss something.

The cowboy is one of the more mystifying characters. He seems to be the enforcer for this whole underworld operation, at least on the surface. He tells Adam to pick a girl in a photograph, a blonde woman named Camilla Rhodes, to play the lead role in his film – the one that has been grabbed away from him by the Castiglione brothers (one of whom is portrayed by famed composer Angelo Badalamenti, who provides the chilling music to many of Lynch’s works). The brothers may be the leaders of this mob-like organization. Adam’s choices, the cowboy tells him, are to either pick that girl or have his career ruined. It’s the only option he has left after being kicked out of his house by his wife, who is having an affair with the pool boy (portrayed hilariously by Billy Ray Cyrus).

Nick Cato: When Betty and Rita visit an apartment that happened to pop into Rita’s memory, what they discover provides a turning point in the film, one that throws a curveball that put MULHOLLAND on a path I’m assuming most viewers never saw coming.  Now fully convinced someone is out to get Rita, they disguise her in a blonde wig, making the two look like sisters.

Shortly after they discover Rita’s pocket book contains $50,000 in cash, as well as a mysterious blue key, the women have their first sexual encounter, cleverly placed by Lynch where it is in the film’s progress; we’re so taken with the sight of these two beautiful ladies in bed together (and apparently falling truly in love) that the little hints Lynch has left for eagle-eyed viewers to notice are all but forgotten.  But it’s at this point where Betty and Rita really try to find out just WHO Rita is and where she came from.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: I’m not so sure this steamy scene is intended as a way to distract viewers from the clues. I think it’s a very big clue in and of itself. Rita is a vulnerable woman, someone who has forgotten who she is. Betty plays a traditionally masculine role here. She’s sweeping in to save the damsel in distress. She is compelled to save Rita, to help her remember who she is. I think you’ll find this extremely important later in the film.

Nick Cato: Perhaps some of us guys became more easily distracted than most female viewers?

In one of my favorite sequences, Rita has a dream where she takes Betty to a vaudeville-style show at an old theater.  It’s here where we’re told “This is all a tape recording.  It’s an illusion,” as performers lip-sync to music and verse.  Perhaps Lynch is telling us that the events going on in Betty and Rita’s lives have been pre-recorded, maybe even by the same people who are attempting to control Adam’s new film.  As the women sit watching one opera singer pass out as her song still plays on, we’re left to wonder if Betty and Rita have been brought here as a way to accept their coming fates.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: At the club, called Silencio, they encounter a dream-world emcee who firmly states, “No hay banda!” There is no band. It’s all an illusion. This seems to be the pivot point in the plot. We start to move into reality. Lynch is telling us, quite literally, everything leading up to this point has been an illusion. But whose illusion is this? Is it Betty’s illusion? Is there someone else pulling the strings?

Nick Cato: MULHOLLAND DRIVE really kicks into weird gear when Betty and Rita return home from the show.  Rita goes to get her hidden pocketbook from the closet, and when she turns around she discovers Betty is nowhere to be found.  Not knowing what else to do, she takes that blue key and sticks it into an odd, small blue box, and from her POV we’re sucked into the box, and then taken back to the apartment where they had just visited.  It turns out Betty is really named Diane and is in a relationship with Rita, whose real name we learn is Camilla, the same actress the corrupt studio execs were trying to force onto Adam’s film.

Don’t worry folks…it get’s even trippier from here.

Apparently Camilla is the real movie star, and has fallen for Adam, leaving Diane behind.  Diane acts out her rage in a furious masturbation scene, then the phone rings, and brings us back to an alternate (or is it the real?) opening sequence of the film.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: Mr. Lynch really loves doubles. He’s used them in myriad films, and even in his seminal series TWIN PEAKS. When Betty and Rita visit the club Silencio, they look nearly identical, both sporting short, blonde tresses. I see this as a huge symbol of Diane’s own disgust with herself, and her desire to pull Camilla down with her. She wants Camilla to be just like her, a loser who can’t get a starring role. Instead, Camilla is a rising star, living out Diane’s dream, and now about to marry a man. I feel the box has a very obvious sexual connotation. There’s a key in Camilla’s box now, folks. And Diane is not happy about that. The box is reality.

Rita is Diane’s way of handling her lover’s decision to leave her for a man. Rita has forgotten who she is. As far as Diane is concerned, Camilla has also forgotten who she is. She belongs to Diane, not to Adam. This anger and frustration drives her to plot a very nasty demise for her former lover.

Nick Cato: In the circular final section of MULHOLLAND, we learn Diane/Betty had paid hit men to take out her girlfriend Rita/Camilla, and we see the creepy homeless man behind the diner now holding the mysterious blue box in his hands, perhaps a symbol of a supernatural string puller.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: Everything up to this point is merely Diane’s way of justifying her decision to take a hit out on Camilla. She’s not the villain here. She’s really Betty, a confident, happy woman who will make her way in Hollywood. If only Camilla would remember who she really is, Diane wouldn’t be forced to hire that hit man. This is the story of a woman who has lost touch with reality.

Nick Cato: As Sheri mentioned, when Betty first arrived in Hollywood, she had befriended an elderly couple on the plane.  Now, they reappear during the final sequence, taunting Betty/Diane around her apartment to the point she blows her own brains out, falling onto the bed in the same manner they found the corpse upon their earlier visit in search of Rita’s memory.  While there’s plenty of discussion on who this elderly couple is, Betty had mentioned her parents during one conversation, making me believe this was her way of dealing with failing to do them proud.  And perhaps the entire film is a picture of Betty/Diane battling her demons as she tries to make a life for herself in Tinsel Town, the success of her lover making things that much harder.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: Much like the WIZARD OF OZ, the story all starts and ends in a bed. In the very beginning, we see sheets and a pillow, and we hear someone gasping for air. This comes full circle at the end. We now know that Diane shot herself in the head and collapsed onto her bed after being accosted by these menacing elderly people. Could these older people be symbolic of her mental breakdown? The film up to this point, it seems to me, all comes from within Diane’s mind. Betty is her breakdown version of herself. Camilla has been successful, and she can’t handle that success coupled with her own failure. Like Dorothy, Diane discovers the truth about herself in the end. And it’s too terrible to bear. Reality is a tough pill to swallow.

Nick Cato: MULHOLLAND DRIVE is David Lynch’s love/hate letter to Hollywood.  It’s pretty easy to figure out Betty and Diane are the same person: Diane the real-life failure, with Betty being Diane’s fantasized version of herself, as well as her desired relationship with Rita/Camilla.  Lynch—an independent filmmaker using Hollywood actors and sets here—basically portrays his own apprehensions and pleasures as a director and as one trying to deal with the Hollywood system.  And though at first the film may seem like the tired “it’s all a dream” thing, it’s a bit more complex than that, especially in the light of Diane/Betty’s dreams possibly being manipulated by other entities.

 Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: It might be the clichéd “it was all just a dream” story, but the person dreaming it is significantly disturbed, if not destroyed. Hollywood is very much like the Emerald City. Betty took a jaunt to find her calling, her home in a sense. But Hollywood, not unlike the Emerald City, is not all that it seems. There are mysterious forces that determine who makes it big and who doesn’t. It’s a tough world, baby, and the guaranteed success that Betty hopes to find rarely happens in reality.

Nick Cato: MULHOLLAND DRIVE is basically a surreal, modern film noir, with an incredible performance by Naomi Watts, complimented by co-star Laura Hanning’s often speechless speech and deathly-sexy mannerisms.  While we could easily take up another 15 pages breaking down what the cowboy symbolized, who the homeless man behind the diner was, and just WHY on earth Billy Ray Cyrus was cast as Adam’s wife’s lover (!), MULHOLLAND DRIVE is one of those films that reveals itself more and more upon each viewing.  It’s like staring at a surreal painting for hours on end, when suddenly things start to appear you hadn’t noticed before.

And with each viewing the film seems to unravel itself a little bit more, almost like Lynch somehow caused the film to work over periods of time.  Am I giving him too much credit as a director here?  Maybe.  Some would say definitely.  Either way, this is how MULHOLLAND DRIVE happens to work.

There are few films like it.

Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: MULHOLLAND DRIVE demands several viewings. Even taken at the surface level, it’s a thrill ride through a twisted world. The most cynical viewer will likely take something away from the film. Things crop up after a few viewings that never occurred to me before. Part film noir, part horror flick, part crime drama, it all comes together in a collage that sometimes leaves the viewer with just as many questions as they resolve.

The legendary Ann Miller makes her final screen appearance as Betty’s landlord.

© Copyright 2012 by Nick Cato and Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel