Where Art House and Grindhouse Meet: Eraserhead, Possession, and Begotten

Originally posted June 1, 2012

Greetings, fellow miscreants.

The summer heat saps me of my manly vigor.

The summer heat saps me of my manly vigor.

Summer has arrived early in my part of the world, and needless to say, I am not amused.  I detest heat and humidity, which sap me of my manly vigor.  The past several days have found me irritable, chafing, listless, damp in inconvenient places, and otherwise incapacitated by heat prostration.  My dear raven, Barnaby, is also feeling the effects; his feathers are limp and bedraggled, and his manner lacks its customary vim.

For this reason, I now turn to the cooling balm of Art, and examine three films which, though not horror per se, borrow elements of the genre to further the filmmakers’ uniquely warped visions.  (All three also happen to have one-word titles, which I think you’ll agree gives a pleasing sense of unity to the grouping.)  Think of it as the intersection where the art house and the grindhouse meet.

Eraserhead (1977)

This multi-petaled blossom of strange botany is among the most personal and synopsis-resistant films in existence, though its central situation is fairly prosaic:  Henry (Jack Nance), a seemingly depressed schlub who lives in a depopulated industrial wasteland, discovers that his sulky, hysterical girlfriend has given birth to their child.

Now, I am the farthest thing from an expert on babies.  I did see a baby, once — and it seems to me that Henry’s progeny is even less attractive than the run-of-the-mill variety, being a slimy, gasping mutant whose body must be wrapped in bandages to keep its innards from flying hither and yon.  (Seeing the film again after many years, it struck me as a mistake to show Junior in such lengthy, explicit close-ups; although convincingly done, we become too aware of it as a special effect.  A few furtive glimpses of the critter lying in the shadows would have been more in keeping with the deep sense of mystery which permeates the rest of the picture.)

Henry’s glum domestic situation is, of course, only the springboard for a torrent of dreadful yet ineffably beautiful scenes that finds Lynch unconsciously re-inventing the techniques of the original Surrealists. Actually, “torrent” is the wrong word; the rhythm is much more deliberate than that.  More like a slow, viscous ooze.  Few filmmakers have attempted to put the unfiltered stuff of the subconscious onscreen, but Lynch was just visually imaginative, adroit, and obsessive enough to pull it off.  With this film, he came as close as anyone has to expressing the inexpressible.

Lynch once described Eraserhead as his “most spiritual movie,” and despite the gloppy and unsettling imagery that has caused some delicate souls to turn pale and flee the theatre, the description is apt. Henry, I believe, is suffering from the burden of fatherhood, responsibility, and corporeal existence itself, and dreams of entering some pure and transcendent realm–hence his visions of a tiny woman who lives behind his radiator and sings about finding happiness in Heaven.  The film’s hallucinatory sequences might best be understood as the inchoate metaphysical yearnings of a man who is neither articulate nor self-aware enough to express them verbally.

My responses to Lynch’s subsequent films have ranged from halfhearted semi-approval to bottomless irritation, but in this courageous debut he created one of the most convincing alternative universes ever committed to film.  And for anyone who has unsettling dreams, and is honest about the unseemly symbolic beasts therein, the universe of Eraserhead is not nearly as alien as it might first appear.

Possession (1981)

Director Andrzej Zulawski wrote this film in the throes of a messy divorce, and judging by what’s on screen, it must have hit the poor fellow pretty hard.  An unlikely mix of formally accomplished artistry and splattery creature-horror, Possession anticipates Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) in its portrayal of a toxic relationship that spins into ever-widening circles of obsession and madness.  The pictorial beauty and outlandish histrionics that established Zulawski’s cult reputation are lavishly on display here; self-administered electric-knife wounds to the jugular vein are the least of its excesses.

The ever-delectable Isabelle Adjani plays Anna, a Berlin woman caught between a husband she desperately wants to divorce (played by a rabidly intense Sam Neill) and her smarmy, open-shirted lover Heinrich (Heinz Bennent).  Imagine their pique when the fickle Adjani throws both of them over for a slimy, tentacled beast with whom she copulates squishily in her barren apartment.  That the creature (designed by Carlo Rambaldi of Alien fame) eventually becomes Mark’s doppelganger does little to quell his marital angst.

Any resemblance to recognizable human behavior is purely coincidental, though it’s hard not to be sucked into the vortex created by Mark and Anna’s escalating hysteria.  Adjani displays total commitment in what must have been a physically and emotionally exhausting turn, notably in the famous scene in which she dashes herself repeatedly against the walls of a deserted subway tunnel.

Whether all this amour fou adds up to anything substantial is difficult to say.  A whiff of allegory hangs in the air, and I assume the creature is some kind of metaphor—but for what?  I pondered, threw my hands in the air, and rejoiced that I am a bachelor.

Begotten (1990)

Battle-hardened veteran of weird cinema I may be—but I’ll admit that even I quailed at the prospect of watching E. Elias Merhige’s avant-garde phenomenon, mostly because of how it was presented to me.  It happened like this.

My old friend Lars, expatriate cinephile extraordinaire, first alerted me to the existence of Begotten via a transcontinental phone call in which he called it “the single most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen on film.”  He didn’t say I should see it, and he didn’t say I shouldn’t.  But he did recommend that if I were to rise to the challenge, I should do so in the daytime, with people nearby, and have a stack of Warner Bros. cartoons on hand to serve as a chaser.

I proceeded to my neighborhood video emporium and asked the clerk if the store carried Begotten.  An oppressive silence descended, and the clerk addressed me with bulging eyes and lowered voice.  “That is the single most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen on film,” he intoned.

In addition to these testimonials, I encountered an enthusiastic endorsement from well-known barrel of laughs Susan Sontag, plus Time critic Richard Corliss’s assurance that “Nobody will get through Begotten without being marked.”  Well now.

As it turns out, it is just a film—albeit one that looks like it was transferred to celluloid directly from the darkest, most obscure corners of the sleeping brain.  Heretofore, I regarded Eraserhead as the most genuinely dreamlike picture ever made, but Begotten easily usurped the crown.  Eraserhead may flow with the free-associative logic of a dream, but its sound and imagery are crisp, even hyper-real. Begotten is shot on black and white reversal film, then painstakingly re-photographed to create grains the size of golf balls, and contrast so high it approaches abstraction.  (The picture is disturbing partly because we’re not always quite sure what we’re looking at, and our fevered imaginations fill in the blanks.)  The unique look of Begotten recalls both the atmosphere of a queasily recollected nightmare and the harsh, scratchy visual texture of the earliest films ever made.

Mr. Corliss succinctly summed up Merhige’s approach as “No names, no dialogue, no compromises, no exit.”  I suspect Carl Jung would have approved, as the film occupies a nameless terrain in which archetypal figures (“God Killing Himself,” “Mother Earth,” “Son of Earth”) enact scenes dimly suggestive of creation myths and ritual sacrifice.  We might almost be watching the damaged remnants of a documentary made by time travelers, chronicling some forgotten pagan ceremony from a thousand years ago, whose ultimate meaning we shudder to contemplate.

Give a copy to your Aunt Martha.