Copyright © 2010 by James Clark
Lynch had spent quite a few years as a student of visual arts and would continue to produce tableaux and other structures. As such, he was adept at visual and aural design, and, perhaps even more importantly for Eraserhead, completely fluent in the litany of insulting grotesquerie constituting the lingua franca of aspirants to visual heroism.
In the full edition of David Lynch’s Rabbits (2002), quite a different matter from the tenuous clips comprising his Inland Empire, there is indeed a depiction, however cryptic, of Mulholland Drive’s Rita’s productive torment, productive, that is, of leaving the cage that was her—and Betty’s and Adam’s—protection against legions of those hostile toward their (variously assimilated) contrariness. The premise of the little drama in eight scenes (each of about five minutes in duration) in which the two actresses from Mulholland Drive and an actor replacing the male lead, are concealed under rabbit (or donkey) costumes, is that Betty (now “Suzie”) and Adam (now “Jack”) having more in common with each other than with the hyper-physical Rita (now “Jane”), are becoming a couple (on Jack’s first entrance, Suzie puts her right hand over her heart), and Jane has now become the most solitary of the solitary. When they embrace on the sofa, it is Suzie who occupies the middle. Jane sporadically remarks, “It did not happen that way;” “There is something I want to say to you, Suzie;” “I was wondering when Suzie was going to do that;” “I only wish that they would go somewhere.” And by the beginning of scene three, they have disappeared from the living room staging area. That is the moment when Jane (performed, in this scene only, by Rebekah Del Rio, who, in Mulholland Drive, with her performance of the song, “Crying,” had revealed a formative kinship with Rita) could attempt to rekindle the magic of Club Silencio. And that, as it happens, is the moment when there emerges a dimension of loss not specifically entailed in the blast-off pad (to both despair and joy) that was “Crying.” Fixing upon a vocal timbre very close to Laura Elena Herring’s dark resonance, she sings and recites,
Dark smiling teeth
Moving wings, fingers.
Mirror smear of blood
Bug in bed
Torn. Bug in bed crawling.
Oooo. Where. Oooo.”
As befits a product of an animal in captivity, this near parody of Beat poetry was not a performance reaching the level of “Crying.” But, in the scheme of things, it does direct our attention to a hidden wellspring of rare sensibility, and, as such, the coup de grâce for dismissals of Lynch as a flashy weirdo. Rita’s getting down to brass tacks in the guise of Jane, the bunny (each of the eight serial splash pages includes a shadow-logo that recalls the Playboy Bunny) or Demy’s Donkey Skin’s Princess, going incognito under a donkey head and pelt, (and with a new name) involves, rather surprisingly, not a spicy sensual romp, but a lament. “Something’s wrong!” And, on scrutiny, the zone of “Bug in bed crawling” turns out to be the sphere of Eraserhead (1977), Lynch’s first feature.
Lynch had spent quite a few years as a student of visual arts and would continue to produce tableaux and other structures. As such, he was adept at visual and aural design, and, perhaps even more importantly for Eraserhead, completely fluent in the litany of insulting grotesquerie constituting the lingua franca of aspirants to visual heroism. His splash page there comprises a dead, gutted, small animal on a barbed wire leash, body fluids all over the sidewalk, and someone’s foot attached to the wire, tugging on it to produce some semblance of animation. The pudgy guy (who could have been Lynch as a student) calmly doing this fiddling seems very curious about where such defilement could go. Then we have in close-up his recumbent head, with dreamy, anxious eyes, a time-consuming pompadour and put-upon facial expression, upstaging a planet-like object. The planet is ours, in the guise of an entirely dried-out dropping. We next see the protagonist making his way through rubble and effluents in a steel-era industrial concern, moving with the kind of jagged, gyroscopic unease, reminiscent of Cocteau’s silent film, Blood of a Poet (1930). Protectively clutching a paper bag (Lynch would savor the rancid bio of Fatty Arbuckle), he’d resemble a fullback were he not dressed in a white shirt and tie and dark suit, with white socks, one of which he briefly agonizes about due to stepping into some guck. Prominently displayed in his suit pocket is a tractor-dealer’s plastic pen casing, with several pens peeking out. His digs occupy a Victorian-era factory and feature an elevator that could have been designed by Dr. Caligari. (The overall silent movie register of tactility maximizes tracing being uncomfortable in one’s own skin.) As he approaches his flat, the girl across the hall, a sultry siren (looking almost like misplaced footage in that funereal momentum) with a facial and vocal composure making the head man seem even sicker than before, tells him his friend Mary left a message for him to come to dinner with her and her parents. He backs away with a look of terror on his face making you suppose that the appointment would include an audit, and just manages, eyes shifting wildly, to mumble, “Thank you very much.”
This would be a fairly standard Art School jape—thinking to win over audiences with a misfit allied to them in ascetic discrimination—were there not some context pulling us away from his psych-ward travails. The girl from planet Earth is one such factor. Others jump out at us as soon as he enters his place. Calliope circus music comes from a vinyl disc on an ancient turntable. By the radiator, there is mound of dark straw. By his bed, on a little table, not quite at the headboard where crucifixes are generally installed is a mound of mud with a twig stuck in it. The incantation by Jane, the donkey, works within a talent pool including not only Catherine Deneuve as a “can’t lose” power-broker temporarily becalmed under her donkey skin, but a real live donkey named Balthazar, undergoing (in Bresson’s Balthazar at Risk) with remarkable resilience (conjured briefly in the first episode of Rabbits by Suzie’s laughing/braying at the remark, “It was a coincidence”), harsh treatment by his human associates, none more harsh than a choir-boy thug at the head of a moped-driven gang in thrall to Rockabilly, as you might expect from someone with cute hair like the nervous guy.
After drying out his damaged sock on the radiator, he does his shore-bird ramble over to Mary’s, through a steel mill that extends right to her front door. In keeping with the invisibly-checked adolescent spleen allowed to run its course here, the boy, whom Mary identifies as “Henry,” lays down his haltingly polite Sunday dinner manners in the face of a working class alliance—Mary, her parents and her grandmother—clearly needing to spend a lot of time in clinics. “Bill,” the always smiling (to dispiriting effect) dad, does a little bragging about confounding the medical world by getting back on the job (plumbing) by dint of self-therapy applied to a wrecked arm. (In the same vein of sound but fumbled ideas, he raves about having seen the neighbourhood go from verdancy to travesty, though the industrial park predates him by at least a century.) He asks Henry—his wife and Mary being temporarily sidelined with fits—to carve the miniature (“man-made”) chicken, and, predictably, the thing twitches and spurts gore like a scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Amidst this deadpan monstrosity, a mother dog suckles her pups. She looks over at the maelstrom of malfunction and we particularly notice the beauty of her eyes. In a stint with a circus—where he was touted as “The Mathematical Donkey” by his smart-guy owners—Balthazar was able to make eye-contact with the wild animals of the show. The sanity therein did not provide a flattering view of the resident humans. (Suzie’s portable Beast’s palace would have been a rather long-standing and indecisive kick-start. The deep-throated and calm-eyed wild beast taking to the airwaves would also pay homage to Balthazar and his circus chums.) Mom pulls herself together to the point of informing, while fondling, the young dandy (who, it seems, is a first-rate printer [copyist]) that there’s a “premature” baby belonging to him and Mary, stockpiled at the hospital, waiting for them to pick up on getting married. “You’re in bad trouble if you don’t cooperate.” (That would be a scene eliciting much kicking of the seat in front from the cannon-fodder Lynch has so shrewdly recruited.) Mary blurts out, “They’re not sure it is a baby.”
Back at Henry’s, the object of this malaise is seen propped on a table. There are many ways to describe its little face and tightly wrapped up body—a burn victim, a skinned rabbit, or a skinned baby donkey, a fetus…—but the sense of an abortive prematurity is paramount, a prematurity the carnal concentration of which evinces compelling depths. At the beginning, Henry the Eclipse emitted from his mouth a worm-like object with a face similar to their offspring. Henry, the circumspect copyist, would be locked into a lifetime of jejune posturing on the basis of a prissy, self-sparing, seductively diverting point of departure as a precious, static and exclusive self, deserving regal treatment. With the folks, in response to Bill’s, “Waddayaknow, Henry?” he offers, “I don’t know much of anything.” That bit of diplomacy would mask an easy-does-it (premature) self-evidence of stasis as the real deal, and its copycat, clan verifications. Henry, being inconvenienced by the bundle of joy, would settle before the manger motif of the straw installation and peer into the nearby radiator, eliciting from it a circus stage on which his dream girl, a blonde with a bilious smile, survival-savvy pouches on each side of her face and a prematurely octogenarian side-step delivery (which encompasses squashing underfoot those same worm-like emanations, plaguing the stage) sings,
“In heaven, everything is fine
In heaven, everything is fine
In heaven, everything is fine
You’ve got your good things
And I’ve got mine.”
Mary (like the “Marie” who first cared for and named Balthazar) has a flickering moment of affection for the little blob, in seeing how it enjoyed the meal she spooned out to it. But the baby cries a lot, an insistent pained, and not so pained, braying, and Mary leaves for her parents’ ostensible sanctuary (needing to sleep), leaving Henry under strong threat if he doesn’t take good care of it. Henry, too, does some tenuous work in this regard, allowing himself to be interrupted—twice—in going out on the town, by the baby’s shrieking as he opens the door to leave. But his general approach is heavy neglect and resentment, along lines of—Mary’s having returned for one night before disappearing for good—tearing the “bugs,” having emanated from her in bed, and firing them against the wall. During a visit from the neighbor, claiming to have lost her key, he blocks her view of it and gags it with his hand. They make love, the bed becoming an acid pit consuming them; the baby cries and gets her attention, only to the point of her being affronted; but one upshot of his brief role as an object of desire is establishment of his status as a Belle (Beauty) in proximity with a Bête (Beast).
Cocteau`s La Belle et la Bête (1946) gives us two incomplete entities who rise to the occasion for becoming viably complete, that is to say, loving. Eraserhead shows two incomplete entities, so incomplete that death would seem to be their only accomplishment. But that is not to take into account the lavish and subtle physicality of Lynch`s invention. On murdering the baby (he`s fed up, having seen his new girlfriend with another trick), Henry is decapitated (his head being eventually turned into pencil erasers of an excellency reflecting its material`s way with negation; the quality control guy at the factory says of Henry`s stuff, “It’s OK.” Betty had used that phrase to try to get Rita back to normal, prior to their visit to Club Silencio) and takes on a head replacement in the form of the baby’s foreshortened beastliness. (The baby’s death launches a crescendo of such creatures, maintaining that the empire of truncation has quite a future.) The girl across the hall can see this repellancy, but Henry, still sporting his pretty hair, has an apotheosis with the jowly angel and embarks for heaven, like Cocteau’s Belle. (Also shimmering briefly into view is fashionable, troubled Henry’s remote link to Kiss Me Deadly’s Hammer. His move on an angel as questionable as Lily ever was, brings on an explosion and blinding light, echoed in Rabbits by a focus overload preceding each of the takeoffs into the saga of Balthazar.) The latter could see through the farce; Henry can’t. That leaves Lynch’s Bête, to be revisited in close-up. (Recall that the Beauty, Marie, in Balthazar at Risk, also slides into pointlessness, while the Beast, Balthazar, lifts our heart. And also recall the divergent routes of Betty and Rita in Mulholland Drive, and Suzie and Jane in Rabbits [more on which later].) The first thing that surprises us about that creepy prop is the eyes. They’re as fetching and animated as any baby’s eyes. They emit, from that heap of mash and its slimy surface, a gusto for eating, being alive, being loved and loving. Some of its cries are in fear and pain, some of them are braying in delight. Even after falling ill, its face a mass of sores, its mouth and swollen tongue awash in thick vomit, it fights for air, and even Henry plops near it a source of steam. While the latter attends to shut-eye and fantasies, the baby, eyes open—as always—looks into the darkness with its noises redolent of heavy industry, and occasionally brays with an uncanny happiness. (Much of this tiny incident is obscured by Mary’s and Henry’s knack for thrashing about.) Outmatched by the primordial responses emanating from a massively compromised sensibility, and easily exhausted by definition (he becomes more blue than ever, more impatient [resentful] about impediments in the way of his crude fantasies, on finding that the girl across the hall has “betrayed” him), he tears open the body in its mesh and there pours from it startling amounts of organic fluids, and then a sea of white foam, recalling Balthazar’s place of death amidst a flock of sheep. All the while, there are the baby’s painful protests, its cries and its eyes clouding over. There radiates from its butchered little body a wild beauty putting us in touch with ourselves. It is a “bald cord,” lighting up the night.
In Rabbits, this scenario constitutes the text for three solo invocations to proceed with gusto, one, as we have seen, by Rita (to all intents and purposes), the others by Adam (his being a Vegas-like showcasing of his loveliness) and Betty (hers being a gospel and revival show, impressively rendered, as you’d expect). Rita/Rebekah’s song cuts to the chase, immersing itself in “Eyes open…darkness.” The proceedings of the other two, while headed into the comfort zone of Henry, tend to cover the golden moment more extensively. Here is a pastiche of their lyrics.
An old warm rug
A dog crawls
The dog crawls.
Lights blow out.
The dog crawls.
The [eye] socket drips.
Barbed wire (sharp!)
Tearing open red and wiggly wet dog.
Running swollen blue feet.
Black oil blood.
Band-aid. Old grease cotton.
Bugs wiggle on their back
Magpies feeling drip
Cold, distant ice
The last moment of the last scene of Rabbits, after the door opens and there is an explosion and screaming, are as follows.
Jane: “Well then it must be very dark.”
Suzie: “It was the man in the green suit.” (Mulholland Drive’s Cowboy’s jacket had a greenish tone.)
Jane: “I wonder who I will be.”
The two cryptic offerings we’ve just looked at make clear (in their own way) that there are many roles, all of them dark, all of them dangerous, and not without joy. The girls in Rabbits often repeat, “It is still raining” (those worms). “And getting darker” (like Inland Empire). Jane asks Jack, “You could not do anything?” (about the “old warm rug” [security blanket]). Suzie/Betty amplifies Jane’s/Rita’s impasse, in asking, “Where is it that you think I was?” Jane/Rita at least could cling to, “It happened to me only once.” And Jack’s glib compliment closes things with a sting, “I will bet you are both wonderful.”