Monday, June 13, 2016

The Nail in the Boot: Stylish Propaganda from a 1932 Soviet Silent

Don’t feel bad if you’re unfamiliar with The Nail in the Boot. In fact, don’t feel bad even if you’ve never heard of the director, Mikhail Kalatozov, or any of his other film works. The Soviets wanted it that way. For many decades, they got their wish.

The Nail in the Boot was the first feature drama from Kalatozov, who had previously focused on documentaries. Salt for Svanetia (1930), a film about the scarcity of salt in the remote town of Svanetia, is today considered a masterpiece of Soviet cinema. At the time, though, it was heavily criticized for what Stalinists saw as a fascination with the small mountain village’s simple-mindedness and belief in superstition. Kalatozov was on shaky ice with the powers that be. With The Nail in the Boot, the director set out to make a film that highlighted the importance of flawless production from industrial workers—an idea that should have put him back in their good graces—but it dramatically backfired.

The boot in question.
 
Painfully trying to climb the barbed wire.

The plot of The Nail in the Boot is so simple it could almost be a fairy tale, and it veers into territory that's decidedly Grimm. An armored train on maneuvers is attacked by imperialist forces, and the soldiers—all communist workers drafted from the same boot factory—send one man off on foot to deliver the message that they need immediate reinforcements. He sets off dutifully enough, but is hobbled by a nail that penetrates his foot from his poorly-made boots (ironically made by his soldier companions and co-workers at the factory, whose lives depend on him). He bears on, clearly in excruciating pain, attempting to soldier on with his shoes removed, but ultimately, the pain is too much. He sits down to bathe his foot in a stream, as his comrades speed towards their deaths on a doomed train, the message undelivered.

The film’s visuals are so raw, so stark, that in my memory they seem almost like still pictures. Kalatozov focuses on the detailed machinery of the train, the insides of gun barrels, individual shells, tracks, wheels, steam, and smoke. From these parts, we get a feel for the whole, and somehow manage to grasp the brutality of war from these pieces. This train is a battleground, but we also get a sense of the factory and the mechanized environment where the soldiers worked. While this is a late silent, the film feels loud, and if it had sound effects, our ears would bleed from the impact of the men shouting, the gun blasts, the steel on the tracks, explosions, and the train crash. 


Soviet propaganda: the parts that make the whole.



Objects get camera time far more than faces do (at least in the first ⅔ of the film), so when Kalatozov does linger on a face, it maximizes the impact of the emotion. The Dreyer-esque close-ups ensure that we see and feel every shred of what the characters are experiencing, from the soldiers awaiting their death to the defeated soldier with the wounded foot when he sees the miles and miles of barbed wire keeping him from his destination.

The last third of the film takes place after the attack on the armored train, at the court martial of the soldier. The dark scene takes place in a courtroom more frightening than any Brutalist architect could devise, presided over by a menacing officer who looks like he just ate glass for breakfast. The severe angles and dark atmosphere make things look pretty foreboding for our soldier, but we know he’s done nothing wrong—right? We saw the anguish on his face when he could walk no further. We saw how hard he tried to keep walking on his increasingly-infected foot, going miles further than even seemed possible, trying to scale the barbed wire, forcing himself to try to do what ultimately couldn’t be done. He is questioned:

“Does the accused know that on maneuvers it is the same as war?”

“Does he understand the importance of delivering the report?”

“Does he understand the oath of the Revolutionary soldier?”

He nods in agreement to each question, as if to say of course.

He is given a hypothetical situation: “You are captured. The enemy orders you to shoot at your own troops!...” He shakes his head: No, never.



Things look pretty bleak at this trial.




But according to the court, he’s already guilty. “You did shoot! A report not delivered … is the same as a bullet!”

“He pitied his own feet and destroyed the armored train.”

At this point, the courtroom, which seemed almost completely bare before, is teeming with men. It seems that every time the crowd is shown, it has multiplied, and now there are hundreds of jeering onlookers. Everyone is against him, and they call for his death. If this all seems pretty nightmarish, it’s only getting started. At this point, things take a turn for the twisted when something happens that I’m certain has never happened in any other courtroom scene before or since: a parade marches in. Drummers, cornet-players, and a gang of marching youths strut into the courtroom bearing a huge banner that says “We don’t want fathers like him.” It would be hilarious if it weren’t for the certainty that the soldier has been condemned not just by the court, but by everyone. His fate, like the fate of the soldiers on the wrecked train, is sealed.



An unexpected courtroom parade.


Kalatozov’s point seems clear enough. The shoddy work of one factory boot-maker has led to the deaths of a whole unit of soldiers, and has also destroyed the life of the man who held their fate in his hands (or his foot). At one point in the courtroom scene, the soldier tries to defend himself, asking if the workers who made the boot shouldn’t be equally at fault. This is proletariat propaganda at its most distilled. Every worker must strive for perfection for the good of all.

Yet, the Soviet censors didn’t see it that way. The film, they thought, was critical of the capabilities of the Red Army. They didn’t want to look like losers who could be undone by one man’s boot. The film was banned and never released.

Mikhail Kalatazov, one of the greatest Soviet filmmakers, was relegated to an administrative position at Tiflis studios. By 1939, he was allowed to direct again, but until the death of Stalin, he could only make official films. Finally loosed from the bounds of Soviet regulations, he made The Cranes Are Flying in 1957, which became the first Russian film to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It wasn’t until 2010 that the public saw the first retrospective of his silent work.

This post was written for the Order in the Court Blogathon. You can find more writing about the courtroom in film at Second Sight Cinema and Cinemaven's Essays from the Couch.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Lost Film Photo: The Callahans and the Murphys (1927)


In this now-lost MGM film, Polly Moran and Marie Dressler play neighboring Irish-American housewives who feud across the alley that divides their tenement apartments. To complicate matters, their children have fallen in love, and when Mrs. Callahan's daughter ends up pregnant, Mrs. Murphy's son disappears. Based on a novel of the same name by Kathleen Norris, the film was not well received by many Irish-Americans, who objected to a string of stereotypical elements in the film, including the fact that the families live in bug-infested apartments, drink heavily, and have rowdy fights to the extent that even a St. Patrick's Day picnic leads to several arrests. Polly Moran and Academy Award-winning Dressler would be teamed for more films afterwards, but Dressler's death in 1934 resulted in few subsequent roles for Moran. Most sites report that no parts of The Callahans and the Murphys exist, but the Library of Congress lists a very small fragment among its holdings. It is rumored that MGM may have destroyed the negative following its withdrawal from circulation due to the Irish backlash.


Monday, May 23, 2016

How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900)

I’ve always had a penchant for British humor, but until recently, I had no idea that it extended back to the beginning of the film industry. My knowledge of early film has always been focused on France (Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers), the United States (Edison and Edwin S. Porter), and the filmmaker-without-a-country, Segundo de Chomón. Thanks to Cecil Hepworth, I’m now embarking on a crash course (no pun intended) in early British film, and I’m downright giddy about it. 

From How It Feels to Be Run Over. You'll be finding out very soon.


While researching a film for my book on lost horror films recently, I fell into one of those rabbit holes of research that so frequently derail me from the task at hand. The lost film I was investigating was The Doll’s Revenge (a 1907 comedy short with some horrific overtones—the granddaddy of Chucky and other dolls on the rampage). Without much information on the film, I started investigating relevant threads, such as the young star of the film, Gertie Potter, and the director, Cecil Hepworth. That’s how I came across Hepworth’s memoir, Came the Dawn, a highly-readable remembrance of his days as a pioneer of the British film industry from the late 1800s until 1923 when his company went bust. Hepworth’s original negatives—amounting to around 2,000 films—were destroyed and sold for the silver content to pay his debts. Most of his feature films and shorts remain lost.

What interested me most were the stories of his earliest films, mainly comedy shorts that he made in the early 1900s. Unlike guys like the Lumières or Georges Méliès who had professional careers in other capacities before getting into the film biz, Hepworth was a youngster whose very first business was film. What I gleaned from the anecdotes in his bio is that there was very much a DIY spirit to his film company, made up mostly of amateurs, with he and his friends playing the roles, and whoever was free at the moment running the camera (sometimes that might even be one of the children). When some of his comedy shorts became popular, they went nuts coming up with ideas to film, and the wackier the better. Shorts were only a minute or two in length, so it only took one simple gag to carry a film, and I can almost hear the crew around the table: “What if someone falls in the water? No, what if a lady falls in the water? Hey, what if we have Cecil dress up as the lady? … Okay, let’s film it.”

Hepworth in a 1915 issue of Pictures and the Picturegoer.


It was during this frenzied period of comedy filmmaking that Hepworth’s memoir makes reference to a short with possibly the best title ever: How It Feels to Be Run Over. It became immensely popular, and it led to a follow-up called Explosion of a Motor Car. Both films were made in 1900, and not only was this an early year for film, it was an early year for automobiles. Consider what a wild novelty Toad’s motorcar is in Wind in the Willows, and it was written eight years later. Hepworth was capitalizing on not only a brand-new trend, but one that had a lot of people concerned for public safety. How It Feels to Be Run Over, then, is taking people’s fear of new technology and making it into a colossal joke.

That DIY spirit is in evidence here, as Hepworth himself is driving the motor car. He’s credited with the cinematography, so he no doubt set up the camera, but there’s no telling who’s actually behind it. His passenger is May Clark, by the way, who would star as Alice in the first film version of Alice in Wonderland, filmed by Hepworth in 1903.

Go ahead and watch it now; I’ll wait. It’s only 40 seconds long. (The version I’m linking has, for some reason, the beginning of another short attached to it, but this is the only online version that isn’t missing a crucial frame. You can stop at the :40 mark.)

 HOW IT FEELS TO BE RUN OVER - CECIL HEPWORTH - 1900



There’s a lot here for a forty-second film, and not just the newness of the automobile. It’s filmed in a single shot, for starters. We first see a horse and buggy, making the point that the old-fashioned way is plenty safe, before we see the car not only careening toward the viewer, but doing so on the wrong side of the road (this is England, so there’s no good reason for it to be on the right). There’s also the creative use of the POV shot, letting us see the car from the perspective of its victim. And then there’s the bizarre punchline: “Oh, mother will be pleased.” According to most sources, it’s the first known use of an intertitle in a silent film. Technically, it’s not an intertitle, as it comes at the end, so there’s no “inter” about it, but it does something you don’t otherwise see in film of this era: it communicates the inner feelings of a character. It’s believed that the words are scratched right into the film itself, and it certainly appears that way.

Cinema's first intertitles?


Just about anyone who watches the short has an opinion on what that line really means. Most agree that it’s meant as sarcasm, and that his mother most certainly will not be pleased. Some take it at face value, and think the joke is that he’s not well-liked by his mother, or even that she might be impressed at his collision with such a new-fangled machine. I think the real meaning is a lot simpler, and it’s one I haven’t seen explored. In Hepworth’s original catalogue description of the film, he describes the ending like this: “ … the car dashes full into the spectator, who sees ‘stars’ as the picture comes to an end.” From this description, it seems clear that the pedestrian’s words are not so much sarcasm as they are the nonsensical words of a guy with a bad concussion—the verbal equivalent of seeing stars. (I suppose you could say he’s speaking stars.)

Rescued by Rover made Hepworth famous—though his daughter Barbara was eclipsed by the family dog, Blair.


Hepworth went on to become an enormous success, and five years later, his Rescued by Rover made a star and a household  name out of Hepworth’s family dog. (It’s said to be Britain’s first major fiction film, and is the reason “Rover” became such a ubiquitous dog name.) It’s a tragedy that so much of his output is lost, but I’m grateful that 116 years later, his memoir has not only given me tons of amusement (so many great anecdotes—you really must read it), but he’s introduced me to the world of early British cinema. I won't be leaving it soon.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Waxworks (1924): Paul Leni's Early Horror Anthology Film Is Big on Style



If there’s anything I’ve learned from studying early film, it’s that one has to be very careful about throwing around the word “first.” With so many silent films gone forever, what we think of as the first example of a type of film is often merely the first surviving example. (See the Film Dirt post on the first werewolf film, which may just turn your ideas about film werewolfery upside down.) 

Paul Leni’s Waxworks is often referred to as the earliest horror film anthology, and while it could be argued that it’s the first influential one (or the first good one), it’s predated by 1919’s Eerie Tales. (If you know of one that beats Eerie Tales, by all means, let me know.) If there’s anything makes Waxworks questionable as an anthology horror film, it’s the fact that the stories are not strictly horrific, but a mix of fantasy, adventure, and horror—in a similar vein to a Weird Tales comic, if you ask me, and those are classified as horror. Horror takes many forms, from the somewhat thrilling to the truly gruesome, and  Waxworks covers the gamut. Most everyone who sees it will have a favorite segment, and which segment that is may depend largely on a person’s preferred genre (or favorite actor).

Wax figures on display in Waxworks. Note the third figure, whose segment was cut from the film due to budget constraints.


Waxworks was director Paul Leni’s last film in Germany before he headed to Hollywood at the behest of Carl Laemmle and made some of the most important horror films of the late silent era: The Cat and the Canary (1927)—which practically invented the “old dark house” genre—and The Man Who Laughs (1928). The film’s German title is Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, an example of the kind of thing Mark Twain likely had in mind when he wrote that “some German words are so long that they have a perspective.” If the “kabinett” part evokes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it’s no accident. Leni didn’t just make use of Caligari’s two leads (Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss); he patterned the whole film on its successful predecessor, right down to the fairground setting.

The film begins as a young poet (William Dieterle) answers a newspaper ad seeking a writer “for publicity work in a wax museum.” Though nothing seems to make sense about a wax museum needing an in-house writer, he takes a what-could-possibly-go-wrong attitude and applies within. The proprietor is played by John Gottowt, who silent horror fans will know from The Student of Prague, Genuine, and as Nosferatu’s version of Van Helsing. He has a lovely daughter as an assistant (of course), and they ask the writer to come up with some “startling tales” about the wax figures on display, hoping it will somehow drum up business. (“I wish there were more here to read”--said no wax museum patron ever.) While the three are perusing the figures in the wax collection, Harun al-Rashid’s arm falls off (making it even more puzzling that the proprietor thinks hiring a poet is the best use of his budget). The writer—proving he’s really keen to earn his paycheck—gets right to work, saying he’ll write a story about how the figure lost his arm.

Seems legit.
If he continues to print the whole story like this, he's going to need a lot of paper.


Thus, we are transported into an Arabian Nights tale, with Emil Jannings playing against type as a rather goofy, huge-bellied Caliph. The poet imagines himself as a humble pie baker whose billowing smoke causes al-Rashid to lose a game of chess and subsequently demand the baker’s head. He sends his Grand Vizier to do the head-chopping, but he returns sans head to report that the baker may be in possession of something much more interesting than his noggin: his sexpot of  a wife. The Caliph, in disguise, sets out to seduce the baker’s wife, and he couldn’t be more repulsive, making the hourglass shape with his hands, calling her “my casket of honey,” and practically drooling all over her. Meanwhile, the baker has stolen into the Caliph’s abode and stolen his magic ring (a pretty adventurous, not to mention stylish, scene unfolds as he is pursued). Hijinks ensue when he returns home, where his wife has locked the door and hidden the Caliph in the oven to avoid the appearance of infidelity. The magic ring ends up saving the day, and everyone ends up pretty happy.

A very stylish Baghdad.


The second segment features Ivan the Terrible, played by the unmatchable Conrad Veidt. Veidt is exciting even at the film’s beginning when he’s merely posing as the wax version of Ivan. He no doubt got some practice at being still when he played Caligari’s somnambulist, but here he’s wide-eyed, and somehow almost as expressive as when he’s in motion. His Ivan is appropriately terrible, skulking around in torture dungeons and relishing the deaths of his victims. The official Poison Mixer, who also seems to be something of a mystic, announces an impending victim by writing his name on an hourglass. After the glass is turned over and the poison introduced, the victim dies as the last bit of sand falls. Ivan becomes increasingly paranoid that he will be targeted, and even manages to have a nobleman killed by trading clothes with him and letting him be assassinated. We know Ivan’s number is up, though, when the Poison Mixer writes “ZAR IWAN” on his hourglass. Veidt is deliciously manic as he continuously turns over the hourglass, hoping to postpone his inevitable end. 

Veidt doing what he does best: playing insanity.


Segment three is the shortest, but is perhaps the most memorable of all the stories. The title cards refer to the third villain as “Spring Heeled Jack,” while the credits refer to “Jack the Ripper.” The Werner Krauss character bears the most resemblance to an updated Ripper as his wax figure comes to life and stalks the poet and the owner’s daughter through the museum’s twisted, expressionistic halls—which easily call to mind a stylized version of the streets of London, foreshadowing 1927’s The Lodger. (Spring Heeled Jack, it should be noted, was a character from urban legends, known for looking like a demon and jumping off of rooftops. Though many sources think he’s the character being referenced here, I respectfully disagree, and believe Leni simply confused his name with the other notorious Jack.) In somewhat predictable fashion (though common for the time), the poet awakes just as Jack begins to do his ripping. 

Screenshot from the exceptionally expressionistic Ripper scene.


The brief Ripper sequence was meant to segue into a fourth story, though budget constraints are said to have led to its elimination. The missing tale was to be the story of Rinaldo Rinaldini, a robber captain who appeared in a popular penny dreadful of the late 18th century. You can still see the wax figure of Rinaldini, who was to be played by Dieterle, in the film’s early scenes. (He’s the guy in the big hat.)

Even with all the German film luminaries involved, the film’s design is the true star of Waxworks. Leni has given Caligari  a run for its money with his deep shadows, neon signs, merry-go-rounds and warped staircases. While it’s far from realistic—the city of Baghdad looks like an abstract charcoal painting—it’s exactly what Leni wanted. In his own words, the director said, “For my film Waxworks I have tried to create sets so stylized that they evidence no idea of reality. All it seeks to engender is an indescribable fluidity of light, moving shapes, shadows, lines, and curves.” And: “I cannot stress too strongly how important it is for a designer to shun the world seen everyday and to attain its true sinews…”

Waxworks production sketch by Paul Leni.

 
Part of the cast and crew of Waxworks.

A word should be said about the score, composed and performed by Jon C. Mirsalis on the version I watched (part of Kino’s 2004 German Horror Classics collection, and also available as a standalone DVD). I’ve been lucky enough to hear Mirsalis play at live screenings, and here he is appropriately stylish—a musical counterpart to Leni’s work—without ever overshadowing the film. A perfect accompaniment.

Though not the first true horror anthology film, Waxworks set the standard for anthology films to follow, and its influence is evident in non-anthology films as well. Veidt’s performance as Ivan was the model for Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in 1946, and the Harun al-Raschid segment reportedly inspired Douglas Fairbanks to make Lawrence of Arabia. Leni’s influence would no doubt have made his name as huge as Murnau’s or Browning’s is today, had it not been for his death in 1929 at age 44, from blood poisoning caused by an infected tooth. Leni was slated to direct Dracula, for which Universal had recently acquired the rights, with Conrad Veidt to star. The teaming of Leni and Veidt for Universal’s Dracula may be one of Hollywood’s greatest what-might-have-beens  (though no one can really argue with the success of the resulting Browning/Lugosi film).

Leni may not have lived long enough to become one of the household names in horror, but all of his films deserve a long look, and Waxworks deserves its place in early horror film history. 


This film was originally watched as part of Film Dirt's 31 Days of Silent Horror. See the full list here.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Mantan Moreland: The Black Comedian Who Was Almost One of the Three Stooges

When I first saw Mantan Moreland in King of the Zombies, I became an instant fan. Really, I can think of no better instance of someone stealing the show from the supposed main characters.

I’ve written a piece on Moreland's career (and his connection with the Stooges) over at the Today I Found Out site. 

I’d love it if you’d take a look (and feel free to comment either here or there—all feedback is very welcome).


Mantan Moreland and frequent co-star Frankie Darro. In the pre-integration era, it's pretty cool that Moreland and Darro were always depicted as not only co-workers, but also friends and equals.

Friday, November 20, 2015

I'm Original, Apparently! (My First Blog Award.)


I'm humbled, surprised, and honored to have been given one of the jury selection awards in the Criterion Blogathon. My recent post on David Lynch's Eraserhead and silent film
was selected as "most original" among the posts for the day.  It's always nice to have positive feedback, and I can use the boost to help fuel my work on my book.




It's even more of an honor considering the company I'm in. Have a look at some of the other entries on the Criterion Blogathon roster— some of the most amazing critical work I've read in a long time. I found lots of new blogs to subscribe to, and you probably will too.








Wednesday, November 18, 2015

David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and Silent Film





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

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

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

Harold Lloyd.


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

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

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


Chaplin and Nance as caretakers.


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

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

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


Above: de Chomon. Below: Lynch.


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

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

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

Un Chien Andalou's most famous sequence.

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

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

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

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

David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and Silent Film