The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
The Heart of The Cavern

The Heart of The Cavern

Sean French

Sean French on the films of David Lynch
Sight and Sound, Spring 1987

'To me a mystery is like a magnet. Whenever there is something that's unknown, it has a pull to it. For instance, if you were in a room and there was a doorway open and stairs going down and the light just fell away, you didn't even see the bottom, where the stairs ended; you'd be very much tempted to go down there.' That was David Lynch, on a recent visit to London, talking about his new film Blue Velvet. It's a conception that could be applied to all his films. If the abiding image of a Spielberg movie is of a small group of people staring upwards--open-mouthed, reverent-at some extra-terrestrial visitation, then the equivalent in Lynch's work is of a single character staring into a sepulchral recess in search of unimaginable horrors-Henry in Eraserhead, peering into the recesses of the radiator or into the corner of his room where his reptilian offspring whimpers and squawks; Treves in The Elephant Man, led through squalid back streets for a first sight of John Merrick by the light of a flickering torch; and now, in Blue Velvet, Jeffrey spying through louver doors at hints of crime and perversion previously undreamt of in the wholesome small-town community of Lumberton.

Lynch's imaginative achievement deserves the compliment Denis Diderot paid to the great 18th century novelist Samuel Richardson when he hailed his genius for penetrating the civilised surface of everyday life to discover the strange, perverse passions beneath: 'He carries the torch right into the heart of the cavern; he teaches us to recognise the subtle, twisted motives which disguise themselves with motives that are more respectable. He blows away the gentle spirit who appears at the cavern entrance and reveals the dreadful monster behind.' Since making Eraserhead, Lynch has attempted three of the more hallowed movie genres: the historical (of the Victorian variety), science fantasy and American small town. In each case, the force and challenge of the film. has come from Lynch's ability to probe beneath the surface, to expose the dark irrational passions above which the mundane world is just a facade. In Eraserhead, though, there is no facade, In his first film Lynch created a world from which everything has been stripped away except for the anxiety at its heart. Henry Spencer tramps numbly across a ruined industrial landscape. He goes for dinner with his girlfriend Mary at the house of her parents, Mr and Mrs X. They eat small chickens which move and exude a mysterious slime when eat. Henry is compelled to marry Mary because she has given birth-but so prematurely that the hospital wasn't even sure if the result was a baby.

The despair and frustration in the film's subject accords somewhat with the circumstances of its production. The entry on Eraserhead in the second volume of Cult Movies says that it took a year to film and a year to edit. This sounds daunting enough but is nevertheless an understatement. According to Lynch's own account, the film took five years to complete, from 1971 to 1976: 'I've shot straight for a year and then we were down for a whole year. Then we shot and did the editing and sound piecemeal for the remainder.' The film looks as if it were set in a depressed industrial part of Detroit or Philadelphia but was in fact shot in the stables of an old mansion in Beverly Hills where Lynch was renting some rooms. During the day he delivered the Wall Street Journal ) 'I had my route down to one hour') and at night he shot Eraserhead. Even ten years later, after the trauma of shooting Dune and in the throes of promoting a new picture, Lynch still speaks vividly of his first film-making-experience: 'It was extremely frustrating to hold on to everything for so long. I couldn't do anything new because that wasn't finished, I didn't have anything to show anybody. So I just saw the world going by and tried to raise money and little by little I did it.' Clearly, only a very unusual actor could have made himself available for such a period to play the leading role, but Lynch had the good fortune to find such a person in John Nance: 'Jack is a strange actor anyway. Some people are what you call highly motivated and he is the exact reverse- zero motivation. He's very content to stay at home, not even watching television, just sitting thinking in a chair, wearing his little slippers. So he was pretty happy. He just had to keep his hair cut, he wore a little hat. But he did fine for the five years.'

If nothing else, however, the extreme length of shooting allowed Lynch to make sure everything in the film was right. There is a whole range of flaws that are traditionally associated with and excused in student or 'underground' films: poor lighting, echoing sound, clumsy acting, rickety sets, shaky camerawork. Eraserhead is not just without these faults; it is one of the major technical achievements of its decade. One is tempted to hail the film as a one-man, shoestring, nightmare version of Citizen Kane because of the vitality with which it uses every element available. For example, the careful use of sound, in particular the sound of some mysterious industrial process, is an integral part of the film. (Alan Splet, who collaborated with Lynch on sound for Eraserhead, has remained with him for all his subsequent films.) Making Eraserhead, David Lynch had a level of control over every aspect of the film-making process that most directors, however successful, will never achieve. This is of far more than anecdotal interest in a consideration of Lynch's career. The script is only one part of the finished movie-22 pages for an 89-minute film (scripts usually work out at about a page per minute). Lynch speaks of the exhilaration he felt standing in the set of Mr and Mrs X's apartment and realising that what he had pictured in his mind had been exactly recreated. And this control had immense implications for the film itself. The narrative is as much concerned with the industrial hum of the soundtrack, the metamorphic worms, the terrifying machines, as it is with what is said. This move beyond the mere words and plot forms a fruitful and fascinating struggle right through Lynch's work. Such an approach can prove difficult for critics, and when Eraserhead appeared in Britain in 1979 there was a general unwillingness to provide exegesis. As Paul Taylor prudently concluded in his review in the Monthly Film Bulletin, it was 'a movie to be experienced rather than explained'. However what is needed for Eraserhead is not a glossary of symbols but a clear account of its imaginative power. The two sources of horror in the film are the diseased organic world of the body itself and the cruel machines (and indeed the ruined industrial setting) that surround it. With a cold, clear eye, David Lynch shows us both kinds of disgust-the slimy, unguent products of the human body and its activities and then the vividly imagined device into which Henry's head is inserted to be processed into erasers for pencils. What is remarkable with Lynch's subsequent film, The Elephant Man, is the degree to which he was able to assimilate these concerns into a vividly conceived historical setting. Almost the first words that we hear spoken by Frederick Treves, the rescuer of the elephant man, are when he is operating on a man who has been fearfully injured in an industrial accident: 'Abominable things these machines-you can't reason with them.' From the start, John Merrick, trapped in his grotesque and unwieldy body, was an apt Lynch hero. But to the physical afflictions, Lynch has added those of the machine.

What strikes one, seeing The Elephant Man after Eraserhead, is not just the consistency of Lynch's vision, but its authenticity. Lynch almost makes the film's subject the noise and activity of Victorian London, a place invaded by machines and hordes of people. Treves wanders through a city which is plausibly delivers it to the police, but takes up the investigation himself when he is told by a local detective's daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), that a mysterious woman called Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a local nightclub singer, is somehow caught up in the case. Jeffrey's inquiries uncover a criminal conspiracy involving the psychopath Frank (Dennis Hopper). But he also becomes involved both with Dorothy and, on a much more innocent level, with Sandy. As in many thrillers, Jeffrey's motives become confused: 'I don't know whether you're a detective or a pervert,' Sandy says to him. Jeffrey uncovers a violent, seamy side of his wholesome home town but he also makes uncomfortable discoveries about himself. As Lynch himself puts it: 'It's like in my life. Say at a party, I cant imagine certain people in the same room with other people and yet I know them both. And that's the way Jeffrey is. He can connect different worlds. He can look into Sandy's world, he can look into Dorothy's world, he can go into Frank's world.' Blue Velvet is Lynch's first film set either in the present day or in a recognisable version of America. The setting, Lumberton, is a familiar kind of town, familiar from Capra and Sturges, with high-school parties and friendly local stores. It's also oddly appropriate for Lynch himself, who, quite contrary to the impression left by his films, is like an amiable character that has wandered out of an Andy Hardy movie. Yet, paradoxically, the film's familiarity and intimacy serve to show just how strange his version of reality is. Normal life proceeds along a thin thread while all around is darkness and violence. In the first scene of the film, Jeffrey's father keels over while watering his front lawn, and as he lies comatose, hose in hand, Lynch's camera moves down beneath the top of the grass. In one camera movement, a scene from Norman Rockwell becomes a jungle out of Douanier Rousseau.

Interestingly, this subversion of the complacency of small-town life has been the central theme of a recent cinematic genre, the meretricious teenage slasher cycle of movies that was begun by John Carpenter's Halloween. But Lynch's version is far richer and wittier. Sandy pulls up in front of the local church and while the soundtrack swells with religious music, she tells Jeffrey a sugary - parable about robins arriving on Earth to bring perfect happiness. And, sure enough, when the equivocal happy ending arrives and Jeffrey is reunited with her in the family dwelling, a robin flutters down and perches on the kitchen windowsill and Sandy cries tears of joy. But the robin is pulling at a beetle that is wriggling in its beak. It's a grim twist to the tale of another feathered emblem, the bluebird of happiness, that another Dorothy returned to find in her own backyard. The point seems to be that you don't need to catch a murderer to uncover violence and perversion. Just look around you. Blue Velvet is the film that David Lynch's career so far had been preparing him to make. His- previous work had shown cruelty and perversion in the safely surreal confines of a man's mind, in a society from the last century and in an imaginary universe. But when Jeffrey responds to Dorothy's masochistic invitation and beats her and is then beaten up in turn as a form of poetic justice, the observation is too close to provide any comfort to its civilised audience. The final brilliant twist of this extraordinary film is to show us, not just the strangeness of what surrounds normal life, but the strangeness of normal life itself David Lynch has adapted Shelley's injunction to make the familiar unfamiliar into a vision that makes the familiar weird. The cameraman, Frederick Elmes (who also photographed Eraserhead), shoots these respectable small-town citizens with a wicked slant. Lynch has wittily heeded the advice of his sternest critics, to deal with 'real life', and shown that it is as surreal as the menage of Mr and Mrs X in Eraserhead. You don't have to go down the stairs into the dark in search of horror when there is plenty up here in the light.

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