Posts tagged Eraserhead
A Review of "David Lynch: The Unified Field"

IMG_0735Special Agent Dale Cooper from the TV series “Twin Peaks” once said, “When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention." I never had the opportunity to visit Philadelphia, but I found myself there last week attending a conference. I was intrigued by the city because it had an enormous influence on my favorite filmmaker David Lynch. As it so happened, two months ago, Philly opened a special David Lynch exhibit featuring much of the work he created while a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). My worlds of inquiry had collided, and I had to take advantage of both. The David Lynch exhibit is located in the Historic Landmark Building of the Academy on Broad Street. The museum is a sanguine brick Victorian Gothic treasure in the heart of Philadelphia. “David Lynch: The Unified Field” exhibit is located on the top floor and is comprised of three exhibition rooms. It contains approximately 90 paintings and drawings from 1965 until circa 2013. The exhibit also displays several of his short films from his time at PAFA. Much of the work in the collection has never been on public display. According to the PAFA exhibition, David Lynch explained “I never had what I consider an original idea until I was in Philly.” This is really what the exhibition is about: the “unified field” both in terms of the external (the media through which Lynch explored his art) as well as the internal (the fields of the conscious/subconscious, dreams, nature, and urban decay in which he explored his art).

Buy or Rent A Voyage To Twin Peaks at Amazon. It is the documentary Scott directed about the 25th Twin Peaks Festival. See the actors, the set locations and interviews with the fans.

Lynch had studied art at schools in Washington, D.C. and Boston, but it was in Philadelphia where he discovered his true voice. Themes that reoccur throughout his career emerged during his time at PAFA. Although Lynch's first medium was painting, it was in Philly in 1967 that he crossed over from still art into the dynamic cine of moving images. The city was ground zero for his film career.

The first room of the exhibition contains early paintings and sketches from his years at PAFA. It also includes a TV, which plays his early experimental films on a loop while the attendees gaze upon his works. These early films include “The Alphabet” (1968, 4 min.), “The Grandmother” (1970, 34 min.), “16mm Experiments” (ca. 1967-1969, 21 min., 40 sec.), and “Opening of James Harvard’s ‘Crayola’ Exhibition, Dianne Vanderlip Gallery, Philadelphia” (1967, 3 min., 8 sec.). “The Grandmother” particularly struck me because it reminded me of the themes of Lynch’s film “Eraserhead” (1977). An abused young boy plants a seed in order to grow a benevolent grandmother who will help him escape the domestic violence in his home. Sexual violence, distortions of nature, birth and urban horror play out in ways that reminded me of his AFI film. (For my blog post about "Eraserhead," click here.)

One of David Lynch's early works of a man getting sick.

In this first exhibition room, I was impressed by the boldness, texture and elements comprising the paintings – including horsehair, cigarette butts and resin. A television played in rotation Lynch’s short films while the viewer gazes at an abstract painting of a man getting sick as well as a rendering of the “baby,” which would feature prominently in the 1977 film “Eraserhead.” At the center of the first exhibition room is a case comprised of sketches of the “baby,” too.

A drawing of the "baby" years before the film "Eraserhead."

The second exhibition room is titled “Home.” The explanation of “Home” really distills Lynch’s preoccupation with nostalgia, childhood and the importance of place on the subconscious. The PAFA plaque reads “These are issues Lynch is close to and partially explain why his work deals so often with violence, sexuality, and the potential for something sinister to be discovered in one’s backyard.”

A painting of a small child who shot a gun. The words read "I not know gun was loaded sorry." In the exhibition room "Home."

According to David Lynch, “[Home] is a place where things go wrong.” The featured paintings explore gun violence in the home and fleeing from the home – a place that should be a site of refuge rather than one of “bad thoughts,” violence and death.

One of the paintings in the exhibition room "Home."

The third and last exhibition room, “States of Being,” represent the last twenty years of Lynch’s work. As in much of his work, he explores the unnerving opposites of good and evil in an almost childlike dream. According to the PAFA exhibit, “Lynch’s vision can bear extreme darkness and optimism in the same work. ‘It is why we exist,’ he claims, ‘To gain divine mind through knowledge and experience of combined opposites.’”

"My head is disconnected." Featured in the exhibition room "States of Being."

The influences on Lynch’s oeuvre, including the importance of the subconscious and transcendental meditation, are especially evident in these more recent works. The 1994-96 work, “My Head is Disconnected,” is ambiguous in its connotation. Is the disconnected head a symbol of the mind's liberation or the body's death? It is this ambiguity and playfulness that I enjoy in his pieces. There is a kind of horror in transcendence and change. We mutter about it all the time – the fear of change. That’s why these pieces are so powerful. For example, the “Holding onto the Relative” (2008), features an exaggerated figure desperately clinging to earth while he or she is in the process of being pulled away from it. There is a desperation and futility to the clinging.

“Holding onto the Relative” One of the paintings in the exhibition room "States of Being."

The 2000 work, “Mister Redman,” features a character named “Bob” and “Mister Redman,” who, according to the PAFA exhibition, “has been summoned to punish Bob for his indiscretions.” A curtain protrudes from the painting as the viewer glimpses the violent scene. Is this the same evil “Bob” from the “Twin Peaks” universe? Will we see a “Mister Redman” factor into future storytelling?

“Mister Redman” featuring the ominous "Bob." This painting is displayed in the exhibition room "States of Being."

If you are visiting the exhibition, make sure to stop on the second floor for a parallel exhibition, “’Something Clicked in Philly’: David Lynch and His Contemporaries,” which features at least one work by Lynch as well as the work of the PAFA artistic community surrounding him. Artists in the exhibition include Morris Blackburn, Will Brown, Murray Dessner, Eugene Feldman, James Havard, Ben Kamihira, Leon Kelly, Kocot and Hatton, Rodger LaPelle, Noel Mahaffey, Virginia Maitland, Christine McKinnis, Eo Omwake, Elizabeth Osborne, Tom Palmore, Hobson Pittman, Peggy Reavey, and Bruce Samuelson. The curator for this exhibit is Althea Rockwell, curatorial assistant for the museum. There is a lovely portrait of David Lynch by Peggy Reavey, his first wife and fellow art student at PAFA. Please note that this smaller exhibition only runs through Dec. 28, 2014, which is a different end date than the "David Lynch: The Unified Field" exhibition.

A portrait of David Lynch by Peggy Reavey. Featured in the exhibition "’Something Clicked in Philly’: David Lynch and His Contemporaries.”

The first floor of the museum features David Lynch’s initial foray into filmmaking with the installation “David Lynch: Six Men Getting Sick.” According to PAFA, Lynch once paused before a canvas he was working on, and perceived sound and movement emerging from the work. He made the connection and thought, “’Oh, a moving painting.’ And that was it.” The film is a hybrid between moving images and art because it contains a projected image with sound, but the image is projected on the sculpture of bodies protruding from the wall, creating a three-dimensional screen. Fellow PAFA student Jack Fisk cast his body to produce the sculptures of the sick men. The film is set in a dark room in the exhibit and is played on a loop. The sick men’s stomachs fill up with liquid, which eventually protrudes through their mouths. One reacts with revulsion and fascination simultaneously.

David Lynch's film "Six Men Getting Sick.”

In her 2005 work, “The Uses of Cultural Studies,” British scholar Angela McRobbie explained how David Lynch’s films “exemplify postmodern thinking and also perform a kind of double take on academic postmodernism. It seems to engage directly with this body of writing, and it goes further so that there is an almost total ‘derealisation of the world of everyday life.’ This is done by fusing the cinematic with the psychoanalytical, the narrative with the anti-narrative, the aesthetic with the unconscious, the landscape of sexual desire with that of dreams of fantasy.” The unified field of David Lynch’s work plays out these themes on canvas and on film.

David Lynch reached into his subconscious mind to explore violence, sexuality, humor, home, childhood and loss. He gives the viewer no explanation of his images. Rather, his images encourage us to explore our inner selves. Once viewed, his works create a circle of experience of the subconscious. Finally, this circle of exchange and experience between the viewer and the artist are what becomes true art.

The exhibition could not have come at a better time for David Lynch fans – specifically fans of the 1990-1991 television series “Twin Peaks.” With the recent release of the “Twin Peaks” blu-ray, the publication of Brad Duke’s “Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks,” and the announcement of David Lynch’s and Mark Frost’s continuation of the show after 25 years, which is set to air in 2016 on Showtime, now is an opportune moment to begin immersing yourself in the Lynchian world. If you can make the journey to Philadelphia, you will not be disappointed, my friends.

“David Lynch: The Unified Field” is on exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and runs Sept. 13, 2014 through Jan. 11, 2015. The curator of the exhibit is Robert Cozzolino, and the William Penn Foundation is the presenting sponsor of this exhibition. Visit the PAFA website for more information.

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USC Screens David Lynch’s 'Eraserhead'

Courtenay Blog IconDon’t talk about the baby, the umbilical cords are real, and how many vanilla puddings it takes to fill a drawer. These are just some of the tidbits I learned after a fascinating screening of David Lynch’s iconic piece of surrealist film. Wednesday night, the USC School of Cinematic Arts and Outside the Box [Office] screened David Lynch's seminal work "Eraserhead" in 35mm. Lynch wrote, directed, produced, composed and edited the film when he was a student at the American Film Institute in the 1970s. The film took five years to complete.

“Eraserhead” takes place in an unknown industrial urban dreamscape. In this dystopian future, “Henry Spencer” (Jack Nance) is torn between his obligations to “Mary X” (Charlotte Stewart) as well as their mutated baby and his lust for his neighbor across the hall (Judith Anna Roberts).

EraserheadPosterAccording to Director of Programming and Special Projects Alessandro (Alex) Ago, the 35mm film was provided care of Criterion and Janus films.

After the screening, the following cast and crew participated in a panel and Q&A led by Ago. The panel included the following:

1)         CATHERINE E. COULSON (Assistant Camera, Assistant Director)

2)         JEANNE FIELD (Crew)

3)         LAUREL NEAR (Actor, “Lady in the Radiator”)

4)         CHARLOTTE STEWART (Actor, “Mary X”) Before starting the film, Alex Ago asked for a show of hands to see who in the audience had already seen the film. It turned out this was the first time seeing “Eraserhead” for the majority of the audience members. Ago paused and whispered ominously, “Good luck.” After the film, Catherine Coulson said, “That was amazing to see again.” Alex Ago astutely added, “It’s the baby who haunted my dreams.” Don’t we know it.

Catherine Coulson discussed Jack Nance’s stratospheric skyscraper hairdo as "Henry" in the film. She said David Lynch had an idea for a style of hair. When they took Nance to the barber, the barber hesitated and asked, “Are you sure you want it to go that high?” Lynch was sure. Since they were on such a tight budget, after a while Nance stopped going to the barber and his then-wife Coulson began styling his hair. Coulson said she performed many roles on set including styling Nance’s hair, holding booms, pushing the dolly, working the camera, cooking meals, etc. She said, “A lot of us did a little of everything” and we “were handmaidens to genius."

Charlotte Stewart described her entrée into the world of David Lynch and “Eraserhead.” She met David Lynch when he was at AFI and looking for actors for his student film. Stewart met Lynch through their mutual connection to Jack Fisk (“Man in the Planet”). Lynch came to Stewart’s house for dinner with the script and a sack of wheat seed. That’s right. Wheat seed. She said Lynch probably brought the odd gift because she lived in Topanga. (Topanga is known for its hippie, nature-loving community.)  She said she read the script but didn’t understand anything, but she said yes to everything, including student films. During the years of shooting “Eraserhead,” she was also acting as “Miss Beadle” on “Little House on the Prairie.” I can’t imagine having to switch back and forth between the hysterical “Mary X” and the demure and lovable “Miss Beadle.” The first scene she shot was “the dinner scene from hell.” She looked at David Lynch and thought to herself, “This guy will never make it.” He did, of course.

Stewart said Lynch’s style is often pushing a scene or situation “a step too far to the point of discomfort.” She used the example from “Eraserhead” when “Mary X” pulls the suitcase from under the bed when she is trying to leave “Henry.” Lynch told her to keep trying to pull it until he gave her the signal to stop. The situation goes on for an uncomfortably long time, but when she finally reveals the suitcase, the effect is comedic and cathartic.

Postcard courtesy of Charlotte Stewart

Jeanne Field was working with Neil Young on the film “Journey Through the Past” when she began her work on “Eraserhead.” Lynch needed crew, and she was staying at Charlotte Stewart’s house in Topanga at the time. She said they often did not begin production until 5 p.m. because the sound guy had a full-time job. She worked myriad jobs including electrician, painter, and chicken operator. She said she operated the chicken AND the baby (nicknamed “Spike” on the set), but Catherine Coulson, the keeper of all secrets David Lynch, cut her off. Coulson exclaimed, “We can’t talk about the baby! (Except we called him ‘Spike’).” Field did talk about operating the chicken, though. She said she was under the dining room table and operating the legs and liquid.

Laurel Near was a teenager when she began work on “Eraserhead.” At the time, she was performing in LA with the comedy singing trio the Near Sisters, which included Fluffy, Babe and Jewel. Charlotte Stewart brought David Lynch to the club to watch her perform. At first, Near was reluctant to participate in the film because she was afraid it might be too weird, but, according to Near, Stewart assured her it wouldn’t be. The best lie ever told!

Near had to wear prosthetic cheeks stuffed with cotton balls in her roll as the “Lady in the Radiator.” Lynch was reassuring but honest. He told her, “This might be painful for your face.” According to Catherine Coulson, Near’s dress was Coulson’s prom dress. When asked what her character represented, Near said, “unconditional acceptance.” Coulson said Peter Ivers sang (in falsetto) and played the haunting song “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)” while Near danced and smiled with her puffy cheeks, wearing Coulson’s prom dress while avoiding falling squishy fetuses.

Coulson described another strange assignment she undertook – filling one of “Henry’s” drawers with vanilla pudding and lacing it with peas. She went to Sunbeam Market on Sunset and had to figure out how many vanilla pudding boxes she needed to buy in order to make a drawer full of vanilla pudding. After they filled the drawer with pudding and laced it with peas, they inserted the vaporizer. She said she shot a great scene that was cut in which the vaporizer is pulled from the mass of pudding.

Apparently the first screening of “Eraserhead” revealed mixed reactions. Coulson said, “There was dead silence.” She said Lynch’s mother looked at him and said, “David, how could you?!” Then everyone got up and left. David Lynch asked Charlotte Stewart, “Well, Charlotte, what did you think?” She said, “It was like a toothache.” Lynch said, “Swell!”

After the initial screening several people suggested the film was too long, so Lynch “excised” some scenes. According to Coulson, there are actually a lot of scenes that are not in the film, including one in which she plays a nurse who hands the deformed baby to “Mary X” and “Henry.” She also played a woman in a slip tied to a bed with battery cables attached to her. She was in the apartment next to “Henry.” She was disappointed the scene was cut because “I thought I looked good!” A scene in which “Henry” pulls fetuses from the abdomen of “Mary X” was cut as well. Stewart said Lynch made a plaster cast of her naked torso for the scene. Unfortunately, according to Coulson, many of the cut scenes were destroyed.

Coulson, who was filled with the most incredible stories from the film, revealed something about the props that even shocked myself. Apparently, the fetuses “Henry” pulls from “Mary X” were actual human umbilical cords. Coulson said she paid a visit to UCLA and asked for umbilical cords for the film. The staff asked her if the film was “pro- or anti- abortion?” She said it was neither – it was about science. (The best answer ever, by the way.) She said she put on a blue robe and waited outside a delivery room. Near said the fetuses she stepped on as the “Lady in the Radiator” were not real. Thank God.

Alex Ago asked about the involvement of AFI and the long time it took to complete the film (five years). Coulson said AFI was not supportive of Lynch’s film at first. But Czech filmmaker Frank Daniel told AFI that Lynch would do the film or Daniel would quit. According to Coulson, Daniel eventually quit, but Lynch made the film anyway, so it worked out in the end. She said Lynch would “pay us no matter what.” The film took a long time because they were continuously raising funds. David Lynch and his brother built all the sets, with the exception of the kitchen and a few exteriors. “David still has that lump of dirt with the tree sticking out the top by his bedside,” Coulson revealed.  Coulson said she took her nephew – Thomas Coulson (“The Boy” who picks up the head) – to a pediatrician when he had an ear infection. She asked the pediatrician for money, and he’s credited at the end of the film! She said, “AFI turned a blind eye” to how long the film was taking to complete. Apparently, Warner Brothers opened their prop shop to AFI students. After five years, when the film was completed, David Lynch returned every single item that he had borrowed to Warner Brothers.

Alex Ago asked about the chemistry between David Lynch and Jack Nance. Coulson said they were “soul mates.” She said Nance and Lynch created the giant “planet”/”egg” in the movie. They kept the egg in Lynch’s back yard on San Vicente. Lynch was constantly asking special effects people how to make the egg smoother. They would say, “You’ve got to trowel it.” Lynch and Nance used to say the phrase over and over again in a variety of contexts – “You’ve got to trowel it!” Charlotte Stewart said they first bonded over Lynch’s luggage rack. When Nance met Lynch, he looked at Lynch’s luggage rack and asked, “Did you make that?” Coulson joked, “He was very impressed with his rack.” Coulson said Nance had a great sense of humor. He would perform Jerry Lewis-esque telethons between takes, asking for funds for “Spike” the baby’s bandages. He used to have entire conversations with the coat rack (nicknamed “Uncle Edgar”) in the corner of “Henry’s” room. Laurel Near said Jack Nance was “the most interesting person I’ve ever met.” Charlotte Stewart recommended that the audience see the film about Jack Nance titled “I Don’t Know Jack” (2002).

“Eraserhead” became a cult hit when a man from Libra Films in New York City came to a film festival in LA and saw the film. According to Coulson, he decided to put it on the midnight film circuit in New York and Los Angeles alongside other films such as “Pink Flaming” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” He wanted to release it “slowly” and “let word of mouth build.” It did. “Back then, audiences had never seen grotesque things like the alien baby before on the screen,” said Stewart.

Mel Brooks saw “Eraserhead,” loved it and offered Lynch the chance to direct “The Elephant Man” – Brooks had just gotten the rights to the film. Lynch wanted to create the Elephant Man’s makeup, but they wouldn’t allow him to do it.

When asked whether or not David Lynch is thinking about making another film, Catherine Coulson said, “Right now, he is into lithography.” She said he believes there is nothing better than the smell of print. Charlotte Stewart told the audience about Lynch’s art show, which opens this Saturday at the Kayne Griffin Corcoran in Los Angeles.

Seeing “Eraserhead” on the big screen in 35mm was impressive. Even though it was made in the 1970s, the imagery and special effects have the sophistication of a twenty-first century surrealist work. The film seems so deeply personal. Henry’s suit, wild hairdo and mannerisms remind of David Lynch, but a less charismatic persona – one who is struck by the stultification of nature as he is being maneuvered by the machinery of the industrial complex of modernity. It is a man rendered unable to act in the reality of his situation even though he is able to act within the dreamscapes of his nightmare. There is a strange satisfaction when “Henry” pierces the alien “Spike” – the source of all of his frustrated obligations. The “Lady in the Radiator” reassures him that squashing his frustrations are not only OK, but also one can take delight in them.

Scholar Angela McRobbie wrote that Lynch “postmodernizes psychoanalysis by drawing dream-type materials and fantasies from underneath, right onto the surface and interspersing these segments with the twists and turns of the fragments of narrative. Instead, then, of there being consciousness and the unconscious, reality and dreams, Lynch does away with the divide, and lets them flow freely into and across each other.” (“The Uses of Cultural Studies,” 173) She was speaking of “Mulholland Drive,” but the same can be said of “Eraserhead.” “Henry’s” world is so strange and foreign that his fantasy world cannot be distinguished nor extirpated from his reality.

Thank you to Alex Ago, USC and the panel members for a fine screening and discussion. USC’s Outside the Box [Office] is presenting “On the Air” (1992), the short-lived television series created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, on Dec. 8. Until next time, my friends, remember, “in heaven, everything is fine.”

Buy or Rent A Voyage To Twin Peaks at Amazon. It is the documentary Scott directed about the 25th Twin Peaks Festival. See the actors, the set locations and interviews with the fans.

Check out this review of David Lynch's Guest Starring role on Louie.

Here is our Podcast interview with Alex and Courtenay about the Twin Peaks Screenings at USC