The Criterion Collection

GUEST MOVIE REVIEW: Eraserhead (1977) – Holen’s Halloween Extravaganza

Review #3 in Holen’s Halloween Extravaganza 2019!

ERASERHEAD (1977 Libra Films)

Directed by David Lynch

“That was even more unsettling than I remember,” said Holen after viewing Eraserhead for the first time in many moons. You see, I hadn’t planned to review this surrealist masterpiece for my Halloween reviews, but then a funny thing happened. Criterion Collection had a 50% off sale, so I decided to order the Blu-ray of Eraserhead, finally adding one of the few missing pieces to my David Lynch collection, and securing one of my favorite films of all time in the process. I’m in pretty good company calling it a favorite, as it’s beloved by talents as diverse as Mel Brooks, Crispin Glover, and Stanley Kubrick. As a matter of fact, Kubrick screened this film on the set of The Shining in an attempt to express the mood he was trying to capture with his own film.

If you’ve never seen it and you believe that the following tidbit is giving you a solid idea of what to expect, you’d be pretty wrong. Eraserhead and The Shining may share similar abilities to cause tension, but that’s about it. Eraserhead honestly has more in common with 2001. It’s an overwhelming barrage of images and ideas, rather than concrete dialogue or relatable characters. Filmed in hazy black and white, the movie can best be summed up as a dream. Not dreamlike, but a dream. There’s very little in this film that we can connect back to our own world, and even the things that we recognize act in ways that we’ve never seen before. That process of making the common seem alien births fear. Like the chickens that come alive on their plates as you try to cut them.

But this fear is anchored in a sense of wide-eyed wonder. We’re unable to turn away, and much like a dream, we’re helpless to resist the unsettling events we’re seeing on the screen. The plot is simple. A man on vacation from his printing job in an industrial town learns he’s impregnated his girlfriend. She gives birth to a premature baby that doesn’t look humanoid at all. She doesn’t have the endurance to take care of the child, so he’s left to deal with it on his own. We see our “hero” Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) struggle with the realities of being a new father, and all the fear and repressed emotions that accompany this time. The film takes an unflinching look at the ID surrounding fatherhood. Henry fears being usurped by his own son, and worries that his status as a father will make women turn away from him in fear. He struggles with whether he should kill his “child”, being egged on by a woman that lives in his radiator with swollen cheeks

None of this is dealt with in a traditional way, and none of it is expressed through dialogue. It’s a visual film that manages to deal with the harsh realities of these subliminal primal feelings by masking their brutal nature in the ambiguous whimsical wrap of dream logic. It would be impossible to feel any empathy towards Henry in a traditional film, but this movie gives us a disturbing look into the inner psyche of a man pushed far outside of his comfort zone, outside of his sanity. None of Henry’s actions until the end of the film could be considered sinister at all, as his worries are almost entirely projected out through the world around him.

At first, Henry seems to be quite caring to his child in every way. He’s there when the mother is not, is concerned when the baby is sick, and generally seems to be a polite mild-mannered man. Like many David Lynch films, Eraserhead searches past the shiny surface into the dark underbelly of reality, however unpleasant it may be. He did the same thing with small town American suburbs in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, and Hollywood in Mulholland Dr.

For my money though, he never created another picture as personal and as inimitable as Eraserhead. It achieves what it sets out to do with no fat, no moment wasted in its brief 89 minute run-time. I don’t understand everything in Eraserhead, but to me that’s part of the charm. It’s a riveting picture more disturbing than most horror, it forces you to be an active viewer by constantly engaging your brain, and it explores aspects of fatherhood most of us would rather deny existed. The 4K restoration done by Criterion looks and sounds wonderful, as the soundtrack is as much a part of this movie as the visuals are. I didn’t know that industrial noise could be so involving and manipulative, but the oppressive sounds reinforce the images on screen with masterful synchronization. The minutes on end of heavy bass make your entire body clench up until it suddenly ceases and you sit wondering what the hell just happened to you. It’s truly a masterpiece of cinema, and an extraordinary debut film. If you can stomach the supreme tension, seek one out today!

5/5 Pencils

DVD REVIEW: Rushmore (The Criterion Collection) #WesAndersonBlogathon

Join Sean Munger & friends for…

wes-anderson-blogathon-2

#WesAndersonBlogathon


Scan_20160807 (2)RUSHMORE (1998/1999 Criterion DVD)

Directed by Wes Anderson

Whether they know it or not, everybody has their first Wes Anderson movie.  Mine was Rushmore, an easy entry point, and I had never seen anything like it before.  It has a genuine quality, an old-fashioned look, and a killer soundtrack — all Wes Anderson trademarks.

The Criterion Collection (“a continuing series of important classics and contemporary films”) deliver some of the best colour transfers, and that is necessary for any Wes Anderson film.  Soaked in dark but rich colours, Anderson fills his work with vibrancy.  His visual trademarks are apparent right from the first scene, a hilarious fantasy sequence introducing our main protagonist Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman).  Max is more than a dreamer though.  He is a doer.  He dreams things and makes things happen.  As such he is the founding (and sometimes sole) member of multiple clubs at Rushmore Academy.  He writes, produces and directs lavish school plays with no thought given to compromise, or safety.  Unfortunately, Max doesn’t dream much of his own schoolwork, and never seems to get it done.  He is on notice.  Fail one more class, and he’s expelled from the school he loves so much.  Brian Cox (Super Troopers) is excellent as Dr. Guggenheim, the school principal.

Max soon meets steel magnate Herman Blume (Bill Murray), to the tune of “Making Time” by The Creation (1967).  The retro music and formal dress at Rushmore Academy gives the movie a timeless feel.  Could it be the 90’s?  The 80’s?  The 70’s?  Sure, why not.  Instead of working at getting his grades up, Max continues to dream.  He dreams of saving the Latin program in school (for no real reason other than just to do it), and of new teacher Miss Cross (Olivia Williams).  He’s a charmer, but often with ulterior motives.  He and Blume manage to find a bond together.  That is, before Blume himself falls for Miss Cross.

This leads to a strange rivalry between Max and Blume, with each jockeying for position in the Miss Cross stakes, with little thought given to how she feels about the whole thing.  It also sets up some pretty amusing situations, such as Max trying to build a school aquarium for Miss Cross.  He almost succeeds, too.  Max is a hard character to read, as he often wants to make certain impressions.  Blume, on the other hand, is clearly depressed, living in a sham of a marriage with two barbarian sons he doesn’t even seem to like. As their rivalry grows in intensity, so does the music, culminating in The Who’s epic live version of a “A Quick One While He’s Away” from the deluxe version of Live at Leeds.  Wes Anderson has a knack for a musical montage too, and Cat Stevens’ “Here Comes My Baby” is host to one such montage.  (Stevens also appears later on with “The Wind” in another song-appropriate scene.)   The Stones’ “I Am Waiting” is more great music for marking the passage of time.

Max might not have been the best student, but genius does not always get good grades.  His plays have an epic scope, and his aquarium does too:  $35,000 cost, just for the initial plans.  (Some of the aquatic movie footage that Max views may foreshadow a future Anderson film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, starring Bill Murray).  He’s also a perfectionist.  When it comes to his plays, every line matters.  “Don’t fuck with my play!” he screams to the star of his version of Serpico, right before getting punched right in the nose.  Finally young Max possesses a razor sharp wit, which he uses at will especially when it comes to those he considers love rivals, like Peter Flynn (Luke Wilson).

Rushmore is an ode to the creative mind.  After some humbling experiences, Max learns to use his inventiveness to bring people together.  His final triumph, to the strains of “Ooh La La” (The Small Faces), is to bring all the film’s characters (even the bully student Magnus) together in solidarity.  It’s all done with plenty of laughs, smiles and a few tears.

Wes Anderson utilizes a cast of talents he would work with repeatedly, with Bill Murray being the most obvious.  Kumar Pallana as Mr. Litteljeans, the groundskeeper, was an Anderson regular.  Brian Cox, who also participated in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, brings a sour delight to Dr. Guggenheim.   Secret weapon in this movie however is Mason Gamble as Max’s ally Dirk Calloway.  Another Anderson trademark is that each frame possesses astonishing detail and visual information.  Like beautifully painted and impossibly detailed storyboards, his scenes have a life and tell a million stories in the background.  Much like one of Max’s plays, actually.

Without a doubt, one of the best special DVD features is a selection of play adaptations by the Max Fischer Players, from the 1999 MTV Movie Awards.  The players do their own on-stage takes of:  Armageddon, The Truman Show, and Out of Sight.  MTV were producing some very funny bits for their movie award shows at the time, and these are some of the best. Utilizing the original cast and familiar music from the film, these feel like a fairly natural extension of Rushmore.

Other valuable trinkets include an on-screen program for Max’s Vietnam drama Heaven & Hell, and his adaptation of Serpico.  Of course there must be an audio commentary and that is by Wes Anderson, co-writer Owen Wilson, and star Jason Schwartzman.  There are also the requisite making-of featurettes and supplements.  The biggest selling feature of this Criterion edition for those who value physical products is the giant fold-out map.  From here you can follow the events of the movie on a delightful full colour sketch by movie artist (and director’s brother) E.C. Anderson.  In fact all the packaging for this DVD was designed by Anderson.

5/5 stars

RUSHMORE MAP