But where are the clowns? Send in the clowns. Okay, don’t bother, two of them are in this short by the great French director Jean-Pierre Melville. 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown [Vingt-quatre heures de la vie d’un clown] is just that: a day in the life of Beby, a clown who lives in Montmarte. A multitude of fedoras costar.
In between performances at Circus Medrano, Beby walks the streets of Paris, sleeps with his little dog (but not his wife), reads fan mail, drinks at a café, and puts on makeup with his friend and fellow clown Maïss. Interestingly enough, this is not the only short to feature Maïss, who later appeared in Rodolphe Marcilly’s Centaures et pastiche in 1953.
Who knew clowns pray?
24 Hours in the Life of a Clown holds historical and artistic significance as Melville’s first film. It highlights his style, albeit in its infancy, playing with light and dark. His approach is tongue in cheek, and his “narration” (this is not a “talkie”) strongly suggests Melville knew well that his hoary little film is silly.
Still, it’s interesting if only for the scenery, all 1940s drab and threadbare, and the documentary feel of it. Beby’s apartment reminds me of the one in Eraserhead.
I learned of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, his first feature length film, during my freshman year in college (thank you, U.D.). Somehow, seeing it escaped me until it screened at a recent Lynch retrospective.
The basic premise is easy to follow: Henry Spencer (John Nance, later Jack) is a schlubby factory worker who learns he fathered a mutant baby out of wedlock. At the insistence of her mother (Jeanne Bates), his freaked out girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart), moves into Henry’s tiny one-room apartment with the baby, who looks like a diseased E.T. wrapped in gauze. The baby cries constantly, driving Mary out of the apartment and leaving Henry to care for it. His neighbor, Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts), serves as an ever-increasing temptation and torment.
Really, it’s not the plot but Lynch’s presentation that makes Eraserhead unique. To be clear, it’s not his best film—not even close. It isn’t exactly representative of his work, either. Still, it’s interesting to see his trademarks in their infancy: a horrific and surreal atmosphere, bizarre imagery that here includes lots of spermatozoan objects and seemingly random scenes, spooky characters like the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), and of course Lynch’s dry and twisted wit. The sets and costumes are assembled with early 20th Century industrial junk. The soundtrack is essentially white noise in the background. Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell’s cinematography is rich and textured, using black and white to create a look and mood that resembles a silent film. Their camerawork sets up a sense of claustrophobia that lingers for the duration of the film.
Like most of Lynch’s work, Eraserhead is open to interpretation. In simplest terms, it’s a horror story about the demands of the family on the individual, from small talk and dinners with in-laws to appeasing a partner to child rearing to straying from the family unit. In the tradition of great American playwrights like Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and August Wilson, Lynch focuses on the pains and dysfunction that often make familial burdens difficult to bear.
I didn’t quite grasp everything here—how pencilmaking fits into the big picture, for example. Regardless, Eraserhead is infinitely interesting. I didn’t find it particularly scary, but it definitely leaves an impression—I guess in that sense it’s a haunting tale. It’s a weird and original film. Here’s the weirdest thing about it: I actually felt something emotional for that mutant baby. Go figure.
With Allen Joseph, Jack Fisk, Jean Lange, Hal Landon Jr., Gill Dennis, Darwin Joston, Jennifer Lynch, Peggy Lynch
Production: American Film Institute (AFI), Libra Films
Distribution: Libra Films International (USA), Creative Exposure (Canada), Mainline Pictures (UK), Toei Yoga and Comstock (Japan), Chapel Distribution and Umbrella Entertainment (Australia), Eye Film Instituut (Netherlands), Potemkine Films (France)
Who hasn’t seen Blue Velvet? Even though David Lynch was already established by the time it came out, it’s the film that introduced me to him. I saw it once or twice in late high school or early college, definitely on VHS. The River’s Edge was the only comparison I had, and that was a weird film but…not on the same level. I found Blue Velvet totally watchable because it’s very dark, very sexual, very fucking weird, and very voyeuristic.
That was then, this is now: Blue Velvet is still all of those things, but I don’t remember it having the sense of humor it does. It’s curiously funny. It marks the start of Lynch’s style as we know it: not just surreal (he had already done Eraserhead), but macabre and perverted underneath the innocuous and mundane premise. Lynch sets up his narrative in pieces that refer back and forth, like a moving puzzle. It’s brilliant, and it’s a formula that’s served him well.
Blue Velvet starts with a severed ear on the ground, bugs crawling all over it. A local college kid turned stalker (Kyle MacLachlan) proves a bit too curious when his minor obsession with a night club singer (Isabella Rossellini) leads him into a sadomasochistic nightmare that neither he nor we viewers can turn away from. The whole bizarre and sordid story goes full circle back to where it started: that ear.
Dennis Hopper as Frank, the gas-huffing sociopath who ends every sentence with the F-word, colors the mood here. None of it would work, though, without Rossellini’s vulnerability, which is crucial.
Lynch considered Molly Ringwald instead of Laura Dern and Val Kilmer instead of MacLachlan. Thank goodness it happened how it did; what a different film Blue Velvet would have been. For a movie that relies so heavily on nuance, that could’ve ruined Lynch’s career. It didn’t.
With Hope Lange, Dean Stockwell, George Dickerson, Priscilla Pointer, Frances Bay, Jack Harvey, Ken Stovitz, Brad Dourif, Jack Nance, J. Michael Hunter, Dick Green, Fred Pickler, Philip Markert, Leonard Watkins, Moses Gibson, Selden Smith, Peter Carew, Jon Jon Snipes, Angelo Badalamenti, Jean Pierre Viale, Donald Moore, A. Michelle Depland, Michelle Sasse, Katie Reid, Sparky
Production: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group
Distribution: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 20th Century Fox (UK), Transmundo Films (Argentina), AMLF (France), Concorde Film (Netherlands), Concorde Filmverleih (West Germany), Finnkino (Finland), Hoyts Distribution (Australia), Shochiku-Fuji Company (Japan)