Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Eraserhead (1976)/Carnival of Souls (1962)

It's difficult to write about Eraserhead or Carnival of Souls, particularly out here on the interwebs, because every midnight-movie geek on the planet has been there--and yes, done that. But not only did I want to point out that these movies are now on Instant Play, but I think they work well as a double bill.

Although David Lynch certainly went places--as strange as they may be--since his "student film," Eraserhead, while Herk Harvey, the director of Carnival of Souls, returned to educational films (It's fitting that Harvey's next credit after Carnival of Souls is Pork: The Meal with a Squeal; sounds like a Lynch short), each of them followed his vision all the way, and produced, as the tagline for Eraserhead puts it, "dreams of dark and troubling things."

And what are these dreams? Both pictures confront mortality, our resistance to having to grow up only to die. I must confess, the older I get, the scarier Eraserhead seems, a horror-film metaphor for meet-the-parents anxiety, as well as the uncertainties of one's own parenthood, the loss of youth and the regrets of missed opportunity, the yearning for both a return to innocence and an immersion in experience--and in the end the suspicion that none of this is within our control--like that most frightening of clich├ęs: "Trapped in a world they never made!" Lynch hand-crafts an alternate universe, expressionistic and nauseating in its Freudian observation of instinctual urges beaten down by by neurotic hesitation/guilt, an aural-visual "happening" that denies all 1960s promises of freedom and rubs our noses in '70s malaise.

Now there's a ringing endorsement. Enjoy Your Feature Presentation!

But don't get me wrong: While Eraserhead may be a movie you will want to see only once, it has its own "dark and troubling" beauty; after all, Lynch and his cohorts spent more than four years building it, moment by moment, and it shows. The miniatures, the practical/special effects, the sets, the lighting--and above all the rich black and white cinematography: all these things combine simply to serve the film. There is nothing that doesn't belong here, no decorative elements, no lookit-me fireworks.

And in the end, Eraserhead may just be serving a Higher Purpose after all--this is when you may roll your eyes; but despite all its gory goo, its permeating sense of dread, the picture moves toward reconciliation with its horrors, even a kind of apotheosis--OK, I will not go so far as to assert it's an elevating experience--oh, why not: For me it is, as "surly bonds" are broken and Henry finds himself in--here it comes--Heaven. There is an irony here, of course (as the Woman in the Radiator sings, "In Heaven everything is fine"), but in the end I think the movie respects Henry's desires, and wishes it could help him. It's usually at a point like this that I bring up Pinocchio, as important in its own way as Citizen Kane in its examination of the desire to "become" something. There is a real Blue Fairy mood in the final scenes of Eraserhead, one that the movies, especially American ones, find hard to resist. It's possible that Henry becomes a real boy--which removes him from the muck-n-mire the rest of us share.

Speaking of muck: Enter Carnival of Souls, another Gothic parable, set in a bleak, salt-flat middle of nowhere. But what matters most is the almost entirely internalized geography it spreads before us, the shadowland of its protagonist's mind. Mary Henry goes for a joyride that ends badly--and from the moment of her coolly observed emergence from the water into which the car had plunged, as she steps along a little spit of sand, Mary slips away, closer to the pallid face and pale invitation of the Other Side. She refuses to die, to admit she’s not so much being pursued by ghosts as reclaimed by them. A church organist without faith, she fades (as do the sounds and human contact of the world around her), fluttering like a small bird held in soft, cold hands.

At the center of the movie is Mary's dance with/of the dead, which has a surprising resonance--an almost cruelly impartial observation of a nightmare, with its matter-of-fact slow decline, its relentless delivery of Mary into the hands of those pale revelers. It begins with the simple fact of universal mortality, and refuses to provide any reprieve.

And, like Eraserhead, it is beautifully directed, its sound editing, lighting and camera placement perfect. It looks exactly the way it needs to, and manages to overcome its budgetary weaknesses simply by staring at its subject without blinking. As the dead rise from the black water, or dance in delirious speed--and as Mary flees under the dark skies and shadowed streets, as the camera looks over, down and up, always holding just long enough to see, but not to break the mood, Carnival of Souls joins Eraserhead on the short list of films that move like dreams. Its very detachment becomes an invitation to the danse macabre, and its meager resources force us into the narrow passage Harvey demands we follow, back to the car wreck, the spit of sand, and the thing we've known all along, but had to be told--because we want it so little: that Mary needs to go the way of all flesh. It is a movie that, like Thomas Gray's poetry, tells me to see the world as a graveyard, and ultimately is not so much cruel as clear in that vision; in the end, almost with kindness, it "leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

While these may not be the happiest of movies, their complementary look and mood invite not only comparison but double-billing. So be brave, hold someone's hand, and walk through--as they say on Futurama--The Scary Door.


NOTE: The section on Carnival of Souls is adapted--all right, copied--from a piece I wrote for my other blog, The Constant Viewer. If you must steal, steal from yourself. You will have a tendency not to press charges.

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