Back in the mid-1980s, my friend Pete Dargue and I sat down to watch what we thought was going to be a horror film. We got some beers in, turned on the telly and shoved the video into the machine. But, unbeknownst to us at that time, we were about to embark on a strange vehicle that would transport us through the weirdest ninety minutes of our entire lives. Nothing in it made any sense to us and I have seen nothing quite like it before or since. It was filmed in black-and-white and was about – well, we weren’t sure what it was about – but when it finished we were both left speechless, staring at the screen in quiet disbelief and wondering whether we had just witnessed the work of a madman or a genius.
Eventually, after I had regained my power of speech and returned to the real world, I said to Pete, “That was incredible, I have absolutely no idea what it was about or what it was trying to say, but it was incredible.” I wasn’t sure whether Pete nodded his head in agreement or the result of an involuntary reaction to my statement, but I did notice a small droplet of saliva dribble from his open mouth as he continued to stare incredulously at the screen while the credits rolled, having been subjected, as I had been, to the most cryptic, surrealist, sensational mind-fuck he had ever experienced. I received a Facebook message from Pete a few months ago that read: I have never quite recovered from your recommendation to watch Eraserhead. WTF was that all about!
More recently my son, William, expressed a burning desire to watch Eraserhead after reading the IMDB synopsis that read: ‘Henry Spencer tries to survive his industrial environment, his angry girlfriend, and the unbearable screams of his newly born mutant child.’ I thought it prudent to warn him of what he was about to let himself in for and so, just before I slid in the DVD and pressed PLAY I said to him, “OK, now be prepared for the weirdest film you will ever see. And I mean ever.” We have watched many a weird film together over the last couple of years, but at the end of this one William turned to me and said, “Dad, you have just mentally scarred me for the rest of my life.”
|Original poster for Eraserhead|
Eraserhead was the 1977 debut film from The Sultan of Strange himself – David Lynch, an independent writer, director, producer, cinematographer, editor, cartoonist, animator and actor who never treats his audiences like idiots and has final cut on all of his films (with the exception of Dune (1984), which he described as being ‘a painful experience’ and a subject that he refuses to talk about in any detail when interviewed). There are no chapter stops in any of the DVD releases of his films because he thinks they are meant to be viewed from beginning to end and you’ll not find any director’s commentary on them either because he believes the films speak for themselves. He also refuses to say anything about Eraserhead because he wants viewers to decide for themselves what they think it means, but apparently the mutant baby represents his fear of becoming a father for the first time and the insistent industrial background sounds reflect his hatred for Philadelphia (not the soft cheese). “I’ve said many, many, many unkind things about Philadelphia,” he is quoted as saying once, “and I meant every one.” This is the man who, after winning the Palme d’Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival for Wild at Heart, discovered that his shoelace was undone. He decided that it was his lucky shoelace and left it untied at every Film Festival he attended where one of his films was in competition. Dennis Hopper, who played Frank in Blue Velvet used the F-word in just about every line he uttered, but Lynch hated to swear himself. “He would point to the script and say, ‘Say that word, Dennis,’” claimed Hopper in an interview, “He could write the word ‘fuck’, but he couldn’t say it.”
Whatever I or my friend Pete or my son William thought Eraserhead was about, its style and imagery was so powerful that Mel Brooks, after watching it on the insistence of his wife, Anne Bancroft, immediately hired Lynch to direct The Elephant Man (1980).
OK, so here I have a confession to make – I love David Lynch’s films – I even sort of like Dune. They are challenging, funny, violent and infuriating in equal measure. He is also responsible for one of the most original TV series ever broadcast, Twin Peaks (1990-1991), a programme described by Jonathan Ross as “a masterpiece. The scariest, weirdest, funniest, sexiest TV series of all time,” that was so strange that the only other series I can equate it to for sheer unadulterated weirdness is Patrick MacGoohan’s The Prisoner (1967-1968). Both of these series’ have massive cult followings and both have spawned annual conventions organised by dedicated fans that continue to this day.
Here’s just a few of the strange things that happen in David Lynch’s films:
· In Blue Velvet (1986), Kyle MacLachlan discovers a severed human ear in a field in a quiet suburban neighbourhood and Dennis Hopper breathes amyl nitrate through a mask to get himself sexually aroused.
· In Lost Highway, (1997), a jazz saxophonist is sent to jail, where he inexplicably changes overnight into a young mechanic and begins to lead a new life.
· In Wild at Heart (1990), Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, go on the run after Dern’s mother, played by Dianne Ladd, sends an assortment of weirdo hit-men after them and the film morphs into a twisted version of The Wizard of Oz.
· In the TV series Twin Peaks, FBI agent Dale Cooper describes the minutiae of his daily life to the unseen ‘Diane’, via his Dictaphone and his boss, Cooper's hard of hearing supervisor Gordon Cole, played by Lynch himself, mishears everything and shouts all the time. Entertainment Weekly described Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) as ‘like watching A Nightmare on Elm Street directed by Michelangelo Antonioni’.
· The events depicted in Mulholland Drive (2001) may (or may not) be a dream.
· In Inland Empire (2006), a film actress begins to adopt the persona of her character and her world becomes more and more surreal.
· In The Straight Story (1999) an old man travels over three hundred miles on his ride-on lawn mower to visit his sick brother.
Actually The Straight Story is not as weird as it sounds. It’s based on the true story of Alvin Straight, a 73 year old with bad eyes who can barely walk, who has no driver’s licence and refuses to let other people drive him and who makes the long journey to fix his relationship with his estranged brother after he finds out that he has suffered from a stroke.
It’s a beautiful, emotional and thoughtful drama about forgiveness and the value of basic human decency that is both moving and funny and the weirdest thing about it is right at the start when you see the words A Walt Disney Production, followed by the words A David Lynch film. It also tells a simple linear story and is his only U Certificate. “Some people still wait for something bad to happen in the movie,” Lynch said in an interview. “Also somebody was standing in line for a preview screening and a lady behind them said, ‘Isn’t it odd that there are two directors named David Lynch.’”
I think it’s true to say that The Straight Story is his most straightforward film (Lynch described it as his most experimental film), but that’s not to say that it doesn’t contain flashes of his trademark strangeness – the woman driver standing next to her wrecked car who rants on about driving up and down the same stretch of road every day to get to and from work and who ploughs into a deer three times every week and wonders aloud as to where they all come from is just one of the pure David Lynch moments you’ll witness throughout this wonderful little film.
Sissy Spacek, as Alvin’s mentally retarded daughter with a tragic past that’s not revealed until later in the film, is excellent, but the main reason for watching it is the commanding performance of the great character actor Richard Farnsworth as Alvin. With his wonderful voice, he brings a wise innocence and sadness that bears no trace of sentimentality to the role. The deeply etched lines on his face tell you everything about the man when he is not speaking and you can see from his expressions that he is someone who has lived too long and seen too much. He is a man who knows his own time is running out and wants to make peace with not just his brother, but himself. Farnsworth himself was dying of terminal cancer when he made this film and he was in excruciating pain throughout the production. It was to be his final film as he committed suicide shortly after he was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. Lynch later said of Richard Farnsworth: “a lot of people say someone was born to play a certain role. If there ever was a case for that, this is it. The film hangs on his performance. There’s nobody who could have done it like he did. He has a quality, which is in all the films he’s been in, that makes you want to instantly love the guy. He fits the definition of an actor – a person who makes something real.”
The cinematography in the film is exquisite, and it was also to be the final film from the great Director of Photography Freddie Francis. He was 81 when he photographed The Straight Story and his list of credits as both Director and Director of Photography is impressive: Room at the Top (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Innocents (1961), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) The Elephant Man (1980), Glory (1989) and Cape Fear (1991) are to name but a few.
The Straight Story was described by critics at the time as David Lynch’s best film to date and it’s certainly different from the rest of his canon in its loving story about family, friendship, the dignity of old age and the kindness of strangers. It's a film that will appeal to die-hard fans of Lynch, as well as those who are unfamiliar with his work and people who find his usual stuff just too weird. It will not appeal people who only like high octane, shoot 'em up action movies or films in which Jason Statham is playing himself (which is all of them).
In other words, if you’re looking for a great film with a great story, great photography and great performances, then you should watch The Straight Story immediately.