Who Framed Roger Rabbit

(USA 1988)

Let’s get this out up front: the appeal of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not its outstanding narrative. Based on Gary K. Wolf’s novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman’s screenplay is competently written but it’s conventional if not downright pedestrian, a standard whodunnit complete with hiding, seeking, and a clock ticking. The situations are goofy, the characters are even goofier, and the jokes…well, they’re silly. The whole thing relies too heavily on farce and slapstick for my taste.

Los Angeles, 1947: alcoholic private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is summoned to the studios of movie mogul R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern). Studio star Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) is unraveling over romantic rumors involving his amply curvaceous toon wife Jessica (Kathleen Turner) and human Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the inventor and maker of the sundry gadgets used in cartoons. It’s affecting the studio’s bottom line, so Maroon hires Valiant to check it out.

After catching Jessica’s act at an underground club, Valiant spies on her and Acme in her dressing room. He takes pictures of them playing “patty-cake.” He turns them over to Maroon, who shows them to Roger. Assuming the worst, he promptly freaks.

The next morning, Acme is found dead — a cartoon safe crushing his head. Naturally, all signs point to Roger. Dastardly Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), cloaked in a black cape and an evil hidden agenda, is following Roger’s tail. Valiant is unwillingly yanked into a crazy adventure to exonerate Roger, find a will, and stop Doom from selling Toontown, the appropriately named neighborhood where toons live, to a freeway developer.

Despite its shortcomings, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a technical marvel unlike much before it. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it took awhile to make. It was a box office blockbuster, and it’s easy to see why. From the outset, it’s a dazzling mix of animated characters, or “toons,” interacting with real people. The look and technique are impeccable, with natural movement and even toons and humans touching that melds seamlessly without any jumps or visual hiccups. An ongoing gag with Roger handcuffed to Valiant, for example, is flawless. Clearly, this film was assembled with painstaking attention to timing. It is, in a word, neat.

Plus, the incorporation of classic cartoons — from Betty Boop to Woody Woodpecker to Droopy, to a scene with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse to a piano duel between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck — is really, really fun. I’m sure this is the only place you’ll ever see Warner Brothers and Disney characters together, and it’s a hoot.

In 2016, the United States Library of Congress deemed Who Framed Roger Rabbit “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Joanna Cassidy, Lou Hirsch, Mike Edmonds, Eugene Guirterrez, Mae Questel, Mel Blanc, Tony Anselmo, Mary T. Radford, Joe Alaskey, David Lander, Richard Williams, Wayne Allwine, Tony Pope, Peter Westy, Cherry Davis, Nancy Cartwright

Production: Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

104 minutes
Rated PG

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

Michael Jackson’s Thriller

(USA 1983)

“Now, I have something to tell you…I’m not like other guys.”

— Michael Jackson

A very young Michael Jackson on a date with…his girlfriend (Ola Ray)? Jackson playing a werewolf, a zombie, and a lizard-eyed creature? Vincent Price reading an outro? Bad ’80s hair? You know it’s thriller, thriller night!

It’s not his best song, but Michael Jackson’s Thriller is a fucking cool video. It features all the showmanship he’s known for — the dancing, the weirdness, the bigness of the whole thing, that red jacket and those white socks, oh and a setting in the midst of seedy urban decay, this time a cemetery apparently somewhere downtown. Directed by John Landis, Thriller is clever: what starts as a cheesy horror movie turns out to be…a cheesy horror movie. Loaded with references to Night of the Living Dead and An American Werewolf in London, Thriller demonstrates that Jackson actually had a sense of humor.

I don’t put a music video on my blog every day. In fact, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is (so far) the only one. Why? In my quest to see as much as possible on the Library of Congress National Film Registry, I am obligated to include the final single and title track from the legendary pop star’s massive blockbuster album Thriller (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thriller_(Michael_Jackson_album) ). The song was not written by Jackson — Rod Temperton came up with it.

This video truly was a “seismic shift” — longer, more dramatic, and reaching beyond the song, it proved that music videos could be more than promotional clips; they literally could be little movies — or as here, bona fide events — that attract a huge audience, and thus worthy of a big budget. I can cite a number of artists who followed the template that Jackson set with Thriller.

In 2009, the United States Library of Congress deemed Michael Jackson’s Thriller “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Marcea Lane, Kim Blank, Lorraine Fields, Tony Fields, Michele Simmons, Vincent Peters, Michael Peters, Vincent Paterson, Michael De Lorenzo, Ben Lokey, John Command, Richard Gaines, Mark Sellers, Suzan Stadner, Diane Geroni, Suga Pop

Production: MJJ Productions, Optimum Productions

Distribution: Epic Records, Vestron Video

14 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes) A

https://michaeljackson.com

Killer of Sheep

(USA 1977)

“Man, I ain’t poor. Look, I give away things to the Salvation Army. You can’t give away nothing to Salvation Army if you poor.”

— Stan

Killer of Sheep has an unusually twisted history that kept it out of daylight — and the spotlight — until recently. His Master’s thesis when he was a film student at UCLA, director Charles Burnett shot it part time over a year’s worth of weekends on 16mm scraps salvaged from production houses. He used equipment borrowed from the university film department. He never intended it to be shown publicly, which is why he didn’t bother to secure licenses for all the music in it (https://mobile.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/movies/25kehr.html?referer=https://www.google.com/).

Relegated to obscurity because of copyright issues surrounding the music, Killer of Sheep was impossible to see for decades — not that that stopped the Library of Congress from adding it to the National Film Registry in just its second year of existence. A grant and a donation led to a restoration that finally placed it into the stream of commerce about ten years ago.

Burnett paints a fluid portrait of the American urban ghetto through the daily life of Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a poor black working class grunt at a slaughterhouse in Watts. His days, monotonous and uneventful, are loaded with small events like fixing the pipes under the kitchen sink, eating dinner at the table with his family, cashing a check at a liquor store, buying a used motor for a car, and getting a flat tire on a “trip to the country” only to find no spare in the truck.

While this is happening, different temptations like a job offer and a part in a crime are presented to Stan. His wife (Kaycee Moore), a weary beauty who waits for him with fresh makeup and a record on the turntable each evening, seems to be the reason he resists. Maybe it’s not her — maybe it’s because Stan simply doesn’t see himself as capable of doing any better.

Not a whole lot happens in Killer of Sheep, but that’s not the point. Like the Italian neorealist films it calls to mind, Burnett’s execution is beautifully simple: he uses non-professional actors (and children who aren’t acting at all), mundane settings and situations, and black and white film to depict the rhythm of poverty. His execution is also really haunting, as if we’re eavesdropping. It’s incredibly effective. For such a quiet and contained film, Burnett’s ultimate statement is pretty jarring.

As stated, the United States Library of Congress deemed Killer of Sheep “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1990 (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Jack Drummond, Angela Burnett, Charles Bracy,  Eugene Cherry, Delores Farley, Dorothy Stengel , Tobar Mayo, Chris Terrill, Lawrence Pierott, Russell Miles, Homer Jai, Johnny Smoke

Production: Charles Burnett

Distribution: Milestone Films

80 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A-

http://www.killerofsheep.com

Pass the Gravy

(USA 1928)

Every now and then, I come across a literary or artistic work from the past that makes me reevaluate its day as maybe a little cooler than I gave it credit for. The silent gem Pass the Gravy is one such work. It’s longer than it needs to be, but it exhibits a twisted sense of humor that I love.

Schultz (Bert Sprotte) and Davidson (Max Davidson) are next door neighbors who don’t get along. Schultz, a well-dressed pompous ass, raises chickens that constantly eat the seeds Davidson, a far less dapper man, plants in his backyard. Schultz’s prize-winning pet rooster, Brigham, makes him, shall we say, cockproud.

When Schultz’s son (Gene Morgan) and Davidson’s daughter (Martha Sleeper) announce their engagement, the two older gentlemen reluctantly agree to set aside their differences and celebrate the occasion with a fine feast. Davidson gives his conniving son, Ignatz (Spec O’Donnell), two bucks to go buy a chicken. Instead, Ignatz pockets the money and steals a bird from Schultz’s yard — it’s Brigham.

The two families sit down at the table. Ignatz realizes what he’s done when he notices a tag that says “1st Prize” hanging off one of the roasted bird’s drumsticks. Hilarity ensues as one by one, each guest at the table realizes what Ignatz did and tries to hide it from Schultz.

Produced by Hal Roach (Our Gang, Laurel and Hardy) and directed by Fred Guiol with Leo McCarey, Pass the Gravy sounds like something Family Guy made up. It’s not: it’s real, and it’s actually pretty funny — if only for Davidson’s well played reaction that has to be seen to be appreciated and Schultz’s morbidly ironic quips (“They act like it’s a funeral” and “It’s my chicken and I’m going to eat it!”).

A football pantomime toward the end is shaky, and the joke here wears thin before the whole thing is over. Still, even with its antiquated slapstick silliness, Pass the Gravy is solid humor.

In 1998, the United States Library of Congress deemed Pass the Gravy “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

27 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) B-

The Great Train Robbery

(USA 1903)

The Great Train Robbery is another early narrative film produced by Thomas Edison and directed by Edwin S. Porter. Unlike Life of an American Fireman earlier the same year, this one looks like a movie: it has a title card, a cast that acts (even if it’s humorously overdramatic), and a more complicated plot — though it’s still pretty simple.

The focus is clearly on telling a story, and on that level it works: a bunch of bandits (Gilbert M. ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson, Justus D. Barnes, John Manus Dougherty Sr., Frank Hanaway, Adam Charles Hayman) rob a passenger train and are pursued over it. The action is parsed out more thoughtfully, no doubt for dramatic effect. The settings change, and a lot more characters are involved. Plus, the very last scene is clever — it’s a bit Hitchcockian.

In 1990, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Great Train Robbery “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With A.C. Abadie, George Barnes, Walter Cameron, Donald Gallaher, Shadrack E. Graham, Morgan Jones, Tom London, Robert Milasch, Marie Murray, Mary Snow

Production: Edison Manufacturing Company

Distribution: Edison Manufacturing Company, Kleine Optical Company

11 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) C

Life of an American Fireman 

(USA 1903)

The National Film Registry has some weird shit on it. Life of an American Fireman is a good example. An early “narrative” film produced by Thomas Edison and directed by George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter, who worked on other Edison film projects, this one depicts the dangerous work of firemen.

Life of an American Fireman doesn’t waste time or expense on things life title cards or credits. It begins with a fireman (Arthur White) dreaming about his wife and kids, shown in an onscreen thought bubble. He is awakened by the sound of the bell — not that we hear it — because oh, Lord Jesus, it’s a fire! It’s not entirely clear, but it looks like the fire is at his house.

This film is interesting from a historical perspective, and it shows some nice exterior shots of suburban New York or New Jersey. It’s also neat how the aforementioned thought bubble is composed as well as how the action is depicted from various viewpoints — in and outside the house. The fake smoke is a nice detail. Other than that, Life of an American Fireman is a snooze — about as thrilling as watching a fax go through. Thankfully, programming has come a long way.

In 2016, the United States Library of Congress deemed Life of an American Fireman “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Vivian Vaughan, James H. White

Production: Edison Manufacturing Company

Distribution: Edison Manufacturing Company, Kleine Optical Company

7 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) D

The Immigrant

(USA 1917)

The Immigrant is quintessential Charlie Chaplin: funny, cute, and touching, it entertains while criticizing the social conditions of the day — here, the treatment of immigrants in “the Land of Liberty.” You decide whether all that much has changed in a hundred years.

Written and directed by Chaplin, The Immigrant follows his Tramp character on a boat bound for the States. He meets a fellow passenger, a beautiful young woman (Edna Purviance) traveling with her mother (Kitty Bradbury), and he has the perfect “in” when money is stolen from her purse. Sparks fly, but unfortunately the two potential love birds are separated by U.S. Customs agents as soon as they reach New York Harbor.

Once in the New World, the Immigrant has some trouble making ends meet. He finds a quarter on the ground one dreary afternoon and heads to a restaurant where a hostile head waiter (Eric Campbell) gives him a hard time. By chance, he sees the young woman from the boat and invites her to his table for beans and coffee (yuck!). Soon realizing that the quarter slipped through a hole in his pocket, he tries to impress her while stalling on the check to avoid ejectment.

The Immigrant starts off rocky — literally: the boat rocks back and forth, lending itself to some nice physical comedy with passengers sliding across the floor, juggling moves, and dishes sliding across a table. Thankfully, the rocking stops just before it becomes annoying. The scene in the restaurant is fascinating both for the character development and the physical choreography. This is a sweet story, an early romcom with a happy ending — and it’s downright charming a century later.

In 1998, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Immigrant “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Loyal Underwood, William Gillespie, James T. Kelly, John Rand, Frank J. Coleman, Tom Harrington, Janet Miller Sully, Tom Wilson, Tiny Sandford

Production: The Lone Star Film Corporation

Distribution: Mutual Film Corporation

24 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) B+

Fatty’s Tintype Tangle

(USA 1915)

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was a huge (no pun intended) but beleaguered star in the early 20th Century. He had a tough life and he died young (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roscoe_Arbuckle). After a start in vaudeville, he became one of Hollywood’s first movie stars, quickly negotiating a deal worth a million dollars a year plus a quarter of the profits from his films (https://www.thehairpin.com/2012/02/scandals-of-classic-hollywood-the-destruction-of-fatty-arbuckle/). On top of it, he got total artistic control.

It all came to a screeching halt when a young alcoholic actress died after a hotel party he threw, and he was accused of rape. It was Hollywood’s first big scandal, and it ended his career (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-skinny-on-the-fatty-arbuckle-trial-131228859/).

Incidentally, that hotel party occurred in San Francisco exactly 96 years ago on the day after this post.

Today, I saw my first Fatty Arbuckle film — and it only took me 108 years (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roscoe_Arbuckle_filmography). I had a loose idea of what to expect but I wasn’t quite sure. Fatty’s Tintype Tangle is familiar and not too crazy, the cinematic equivalent of something that tastes like chicken.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

A slapstick farce, Fatty’s Tintype Tangle tells of a husband (Arbuckle) whose mother-in-law (Mai Wells) nags the shit out of him. He and his wife (Norma Nichols) laugh at her behind her back. After getting liquored up in the kitchen while cooking breakfast, Fatty tells off his mother-in-law and either throws her ass out of his house or upsets her to the point that she gets up and goes — it’s hard to say.

Fatty goes to the park, where he sits on a bench next to a woman (Louise Fazenda) whose husband (Edgar Kennedy) momentarily leaves her to go do something — the scene card tells us they’re Alaskan “homeseekers,” whatever that is. They seem down and out, staying at an obviously low rent room and board. A photographer (Glen Cavender) snaps their picture — hence the “tintype” in the title — which isn’t cool because, well, they’re both married. The husband returns, mistakes Fatty for a creep, and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t leave town.

Fatty runs home and packs his bags — including his booze. He tells his wife he’s going on a business trip. Despondent, she answers an ad in the paper from someone seeking an apartment. She rents out the house and apparently moves in with her mother. Turns out, her tenants are the Alaskan couple. Doh!

Fatty misses his train and goes home. Unbeknownst to him, the Alaskan woman is in his bathroom. Hilarity ensues.

Fatty’s Tintype Tangle has all the elements of early comedy, a lot of it cliché now: misunderstandings, the hapless henpecked male, a slip and fall on a banana peel, gunshots to the ass, even Keystone cops. The only thing missing is a pie in the face. A rather cool extended scene features Arbuckle climbing up a pole and running across power lines. I was impressed to see him doing his own stunts; he was surprisingly limber for such a big guy.

Slapstick isn’t my favorite form of entertainment, but this is solid physical comedy even if it’s hard to follow at points. The version I saw had no sound at all, which was a bummer — hearing myself breathe adds nothing to the experience.

In 1995, the United States Library of Congress deemed Fatty’s Tintype Tangle “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Frank Hayes, Joe Bordeaux, Bobby Dunn, Ted Edwards, Charles Lakin

Production: Keystone Film Company

Distribution: Mutual Film Corporation

27 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) C+

The Wizard of Oz

(USA 1939)

“For twenty-three years, I’ve been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now… well, being a Christian woman, I can’t say it!”

—Auntie Em

 

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”

—Dorothy

 

“I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too!”

—The Wicked With of the West

 

“Only bad witches are ugly.”

—Glenda

 

“Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain.”

“Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.”

“You are under the unfortunate impression that just because you run away you have no courage; you’re confusing courage with wisdom.”

—The Wizard of Oz

Growing up when I did, The Wizard of Oz aired on TV every year, and only once a year. It was a special event. I distinctly remember it being on Thanksgiving, but digging around online contradicts me—while some sources back me up, others say Easter, February, and even Christmas. Whatever. I’ve seen it so many times, I know it by heart. So do many people. Like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (https://moviebloke.com/2016/03/26/willy-wonka-and-the-chocolate-factory/ ), The Wizard of Oz is a celluloid relic from my childhood that still stirs something in me.

This annual tradition stopped sometime in the ’90s, probably because home video and cable allowed one to see it anytime. So, I was downright thrilled to see a screening near me over a different holiday weekend this year: Memorial Day. I’ve only seen this film on the big screen once or maybe twice before, so I couldn’t resist.

This is where I usually launch into the story, where I might get into some of the details of Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her weird Technicolor odyssey to the Emerald City after a tornado lifts her, Toto (Terry), and her farmhouse out of Kansas and drops her somewhere over the rainbow in Munchkinland—right on top of the unseen Wicked Witch of the East, whose crazy striped socks and shriveled feet are permanently etched in my memory—provoking the ire of the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) thanks to a pair of ruby slippers.

Let’s be honest, though: we all know the story. Does anything more need to be said about The Wizard of Oz, which is probably the best known and most seen film, ever? Classic and iconic, it set a cinematic benchmark that hasn’t been surpassed nearly a century on, and probably never will be. Loaded with character, song, color, and cool props, it’s a one of a kind spectacle. Its magic continues to inspire.

Harold Rosson’s cinematography is top notch. Seeing it today, I was wowed by the sepiatone Kansas scenes, which were plain old black and white on TV. I always feel a rush when Dorothy opens the door after she crashes, but seeing Munchkinland on the big screen is so much more awesome. So is that scene in the poppy field, and so is the Emerald City with its otherworldy green glow—like paranormal depression glass. Marvelous!

Based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the film’s history behind the camera is every bit as colorful as…well, Munchkinland. Victor Fleming is credited as director, but The Wizard of Oz actually had five: Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, Fleming, and King Vidor (https://www.shmoop.com/wizard-of-oz/director.html ). Over a dozen writers contributed to the screenplay (http://oz.wikia.com/wiki/Wizard_of_Oz_Screenwriters ). Although the munchkin suicide is by all accounts nothing more than a rumor, Hamilton was burned badly (https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/09/06/priority-margaret-hamilton-wicked-witch-west-wizard-oz-suffered-3rd-degree-burns-face-hands-scene-munchkinland-exits-ball-flame/ ). Buddy Ebsen was initially cast as the Tin Man, but he dropped out of the film when he suffered a severe allergic reaction to the aluminum makeup used on his face (http://oz.wikia.com/wiki/Buddy_Ebsen ). However, his voice remains in the scene where Garland, Ray Bolger as the scarecrow, and Jack Haley, Ebsen’s replacement, sing “We’re Off to See the Wizard” after the Tin Man is reanimated with oil.

Legend has it (though it’s probably exaggerated) that the actors who played the munchkins were worse than drunk sailors, holding sex parties and trashing the hotel where they stayed in Culver City (http://www.seeing-stars.com/Hotels/CulverHotel.shtml ) (http://www.mirror.co.uk/tv/tv-news/wizard-oz-mucnhkins-didnt-just-9782402 ) (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/dogged-by-rumour-the-riddles-of-oz-1766264.html ). Garland allegedly claimed that she was repeatedly accosted by a number of them (http://people.com/celebrity/teenage-judy-garland-was-repeatedly-molested-by-munchkins-on-set-of-wizard-of-oz-says-her-ex-husband/ ). What a world, what a world!

In 1989, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Wizard of Oz “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Frank Morgan, Bert Lahr, Billie Burke, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick, Pat Walshe, Charles Becker, Buster Brodie

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/MGM

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/MGM, Warner Brothers

102 minutes
Not rated

(ArcLight) A+

http://www.thewizardofoz.warnerbros.com

Eraserhead

(USA 1977)

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.

In 2004, the United States Library of Congress deemed Eraserhead “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

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)

89 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B-

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.davidlynch.de/head.html