Hey, I Finally Saw…ERASERHEAD!

When it comes to being a film buff/geek admitting that you’ve never seen a particular classic film used to be a shameful act, one to be avoided for fear of scorn and derision but thanks to the wave of blog confessionals that washes all over the internets it’s a welcome entertaining way of coming clean. The Onion AV Club has a ongoing column entitled Better Late Than Never” in which a different staff member finally watches what has been long considered an essential important movie – they’ve covered HAROLD AND MAUDE, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, RAGING BULL and a handful of other movies that most people assume everybody (or at least every film fan with a blog) has seen.

Fellow blogger Graham Culbertson on his fine site Movies Et Al. has a series called Film Ignorance which also deals with catching up with highly touted cinema that he or a guest blogger is only now getting around to. So when I saw that the Colony Theater in Raleigh * had obtained a 30th anniversary print of what could be the definitive cult classic, a notorious film that I’d heard about for decades but for one reason or another I never saw, I thought it would be a good time to start my own “Hey, I finally saw…” forum. I went with a friend, who had also never seen the movie, to the Saturday night late show and now I can declare:

Hey, I finally saw…ERASERHEAD!

Despite having not seen it before last Saturday night, this iconic image, which is used on the poster, is as familiar an image to me as paintings by the great masters or the pyramids. It’s an intriguing and fitting portrait because to view David Lynch’s debut film ERASERHEAD is to get very acquainted with the face of the late Jack Nance. Nance plays Henry Spencer who says he’s on vacation from his occupation as a printer and lives in a sparely furnished one room apartment. The squalor of the slum he toils in is reflected in his eyes as is incredible sadness, desperation and above all – confusion. I entered his grainy gritty black and white world cautiously but curiously absorbing every intense corner not caring if a plot would actually rear its ugly head. What does rear its ugly head is a limbless mutant baby his timid girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) presents him with. The grotesque reptilian offspring constantly shrieks, so much so that Mary leaves Henry to take care of the whatever it is himself – “You’re on vacation now; you can take care of him for a little while!”

From there on out Henry’s life dissolves into a series of dream sequences and surreal set-pieces. There is a low industrial hum under the surface of the soundtrack as he drifts through real or imaginary experiences involving his neighbor (Judith Anna Roberts credited as “Beautiful Girl Across The Hall”), a cabaret singer (Laurel Near) with hamster-like puffed-out cheeks who appears on a stage from deep within Henry’s radiator – “Lady in the Radiator” who sings “In Heaven”, and the ginormously overwhelming “Man in the Planet” (Jack Fisk) who haunts the film from beginning to end. As bizarre as this all appears, the film’s title is surprisingly from one of the more linear tangents – Henry dreams of his severed head being sold to a factory and being processed into pencil erasers.

Though it was shot over 6 years in the 70’s not one frame looks tied to that period. Actually not one frame looks tied to any period – it exists in a time and world completely of its own creepy creation. The powerful draw of such bewildering and unpleasant aestetics is hard to explain; I thought often that I couldn’t believe anyone would pick this as their favorite movie but I’ve heard a number folks do just that. I have to take into account that having seen it for the first time just the other day may not be enough time to process the experience. For a first time director it is a incredible piece of work – Lynch has the most fascinating yet frustratingly obtuse filmography of any noted director over the last 30 years and seeing ERASERHEAD for the first time gives me a perspective on his work I was sadly lacking. The last half hour of the film I had to use the restroom but could not remove myself from my seat. I could not stand to have a broken viewing of the ERASERHEAD experience. It was an experience that I loved and hated; that was disgusting yet beautiful and one that I could do without ever seeing again but still am looking forward to revisiting.

* The Colony Theater in North Raleigh showed ERASERHEAD as part of their Cool Classics @ The Colony series and I was amused to see that they dug up a couple of old trailers of a few obscure 70’s flicks to screen beforehand. The first was for THE CHICKEN CHRONICLES which was Steve Guttenberg’s first film and the second was a Robbie Benson (a forgotten teen heart-throb) vehicle called DIE LAUGHING which also featured Bud Cort and Charles Durning. They were both hilarious additions to the marvelous mid-night movie-show.

More later…

It Took A Whole Day But I Finally Did It – I Watched HEAVEN’S GATE!

I know, I know – it’s not that great a declaration but damnit, I’ve been avoiding this movie for 28 years and I actually made it through the whole thing today. I literally mean a whole day because although the length is 3 hours and 39 minutes, I kept pausing it. I took breaks to sleep, check email, and read reviews of said movie online which made me admit to myself that I preferred reading about the movie than actually watching it. I mean you understand that HEAVEN’S GATE was the movie that bankrupted United Artists in the 80’s and director Michael Cimino’s career never recovered as the story goes.

Roger Ebert called it “the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen” and Vincent Canby wrote that is was “an unqualified disaster”. Worse though it became synonymous with the word “flop”. As in Flop (n) – An utter failure – see HEAVEN’S GATE, ISHTAR, and HOWARD THE DUCK. Nathan Rabin’s hilarious My Year Of Flops column at the Onion A.V. Club (which has extended way past a year) covered the movie for Case File #81 and made the argument that it was actually a “secret success”. I’m not so sure about that but there are many defenders of the film and time has definitely been good to Cimino’s vision but critical consensus is still pretty damning – it stands with a 45% approval rating on the Rotten Tomatometer.

Enough about the film’s reputation though. When a friend who loves it lent me his DVD copy I felt it was time to see it for myself. I didn’t realize that it would be the biggest challenge so far of my film geek blogger career. At first I loved the imagery – the sepia tint, the long sweeping shots of the endless landscape, and the overhead tracking shots were all gorgeous. The film immediately identifies itself as an epic and introduces 2 of the main characters played by Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt as they graduate from Harvard in 1870 on the brink of a new country yet to be fully conquered. After a massive celebratory dance we skip 20 years to Johnson county, Wyoming. Kristofferson is now a sherriff who learns from Hurt that The Stock Growers Association is planning to murder the immigrant settlers in the region for stealing their cattle. Sam Waterson, in probably the most evil role he’s ever played, offers $50 a head for each of who he calls the “thieves and anarchists” while Kristofferson and Hurt protest to deaf ears. Mix in Christopher Walken as a cold killing enforcer, Issabelle Hubbert as a brothel madam, Jeff Bridges as a roller skating fiddle-playing (no kidding) friend, Joseph Cotten in his next to last film role as a preacher, and Mickey Rourke in a part of no consequence and you’ve got yourself a modern Western classic, right? On the surface yes, but the movie is so slow and meandering that all these elements drown into a murky mess. So it’s a modern Western classic flop but a beautiful one that I fully understand a film lover falling for. Along with Vilmos Zsigmond’s incredible cinematography, Cimino’s indulgent ambition to portray the historic 1892 Johnson County War as the ultimate example of class warfare is impossible to dismiss so there is much to admire if not enjoy here.

There were many times that I caught my mind wandering so I’d rewind the scene (or skip back – whatever you call it with DVDs) and rewatch the scene only to find that I didn’t really miss anything. For all the magnificent splendor of the open terrain and the visual artistry on display the dialogue is weak (Kristofferson even says “I told you so” to Hubbert at one should’ve been emotionally affecting moment) and the characters are all one note. Kristofferson is so stoic and short-lipped that he never lets us in to care about him. I wasn’t sure whether or not to hate or have empathy for Walken as he faces off against Kristofferson for the love of Huppert while John Hurt tries to find poetry in his part but more often just finds his flask to take another drink. Hard to blame him. The editing feels off especially during the battle scene of the last third of the film and there are many uninvolving sequences that just go nowhere. Still it is an amazing looking film with many stunning shots that are worthy of study for aspiring film makers. What more likely will be studied though is how it not just destroyed careers, it ended an era – the director-driven 70’s died here so this is less a review than an autopsy. It’s neither as bad as Ebert or Canby or its sweep of the Golden Raspberry awards scream nor is it the misunderstood masterpiece that it’s defenders yell back; it’s at best gloriously sprawling and at its worse a blustery bore. I loved hating it as much as I hated loving it.

So, I finally saw the notorious HEAVEN’S GATE. I’m exhausted but proud that I finally conquered this beast of a box office dud. One day I may actually take on another infamous flop – Dennis Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE. That’s a film that I think of as the “Metal Machine Music” of movies i.e. I don’t know a single soul who has ever sat through the whole thing. Whew! That’ll be the day.

More later…


THE FOOT FIST WAY (Dir. Jody Hill, 2006)

I really wanted to like this low budget comedy. It was filmed in my home state (in Concord, NC), made by former North Carolina School of the Arts students and The Varsity where I work is the only theater in the whole state showing the movie. So for obvious reasons I was pulling for it despite the first wave of so-so reviews. Comedian Patton Oswalt (best known as the voice of the rat in RATATOUILLE), who has no connection to the film except that he’s a fan, wrote this response to Keith Phipps’ lukewarm review of the film at the Onion A.V. Club (Phipps rated the film a “C”) which was another factor that got my hopes up. I mean Oswalt, whose stand-up comedy I love, used words like “genius”, “unique comic vision” and called it “a brilliant little movie” so you can see why I was on board there too. The film being the first production of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay was less encouraging because Ferrell’s last few sports comedies have, well, sorta sucked so that doesn’t really have the pull it used to. Unfortunately this film about a strip-mall Martial Arts instructor (Danny McBride) has only about 3 or 4 laughs in it.

McBride plays Fred Simmons whose deluded ego, cheating wife, and connection to his students is supposed to engage and amuse us but he’s not a likable nor even unlikable enough of character to do anything but annoy. As his slutty wife, Mary Jane Bostic gives a pretty wooden performance (even during a sex scene!) but with such flimsy material I don’t think it really refects on her as an actress. Director Jody Hill fares a little better as a pretentious Tae Kwon Do master and writer Ben Best does a decent turn as coked-up asshole Chuck “The Truck” Wallace – a movie star who McBride worships. NAPOLEON DYNAMITE-style buzz is highly unlikely to be generated by this lackluster effort – any few random hours of Comedy Central will bring bigger laughs. Like I said I was wanting to root for this scrappy underdog film from my Southern state but I find it very hard to see the “brilliant little movie” in THE FOOT FIST WAY that Patton Oswalt promised so I can only offer this 2 paragraph “Meh” as my response. Maybe if I had some of what he was smoking when he watched it I’d feel differently.

More later…

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION: The Film Babble Blog Review

“It’s obviously inherently funnier to have in a comedy someone who isn’t doing something very well. That is the basis of most comedy. If you’re showing people where it’s smooth sailing, where is the joke? If you go back to any movie, even a conventional movie, with any comedians, they’re either not terribly intelligent or they’re not doing something well.” – Christopher Guest (Interviewed by Scott Dikkers, Onion AV Club 2/26/97)

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (Dir. Christopher Guest)

While I agreed with many folk that the ensemble Christopher Guest comedy revue film peaked with BEST IN SHOW, I have to say that I really adored A MIGHTY WIND. The formula in that folk music re-union show premise was transparent but the songs were catchy as Hell, the back stories convincing, and there were many genuine laugh out loud moments throughout. I hate to report that Guest’s newest FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION is plainly one too many trips to the well. Though the mocumentary angle is discarded the same large cast is here with Ricky Gervais (The Office, Extras) thankfully being among the few new additions to the cast.

This time out these folks are the actors, makers, and producers of a small indie movie “Home For Purim” who are given delusions of grandeur when the word of a few internet pundits speak of Oscar buzz. This really goes to the heads of the lead actors – Catherine Ohara particularly (unfortunately and way too obviously she’s named Marilyn Hack). Her co-stars Harry Shearer and Parker Posey also freak out at the prospect of the lure of the award while the hilarity that was promised to ensue hides like a murder suspect.

It’s not just that the plot revolves around such predictably desperate for fame fools – it actually hurts that the jokes (and I know the cast improvised most of them) are all over 5 years out of date – “the internet, that’s the one with email -right?” All the talk of hype online and never does the word ‘blogger’ come up. The publicity junket stuff that makes up the last third of the movie – which includes parodies of Access Hollywood, The Charlie Rose Show and D-list informercial appearances (infomercials? Make that over 10 years out of date) is in this age of reality shows, round the clock docs, and endless coverage of every miniscule media moment is tediously tired turf here already done to death nightly on any number of Comedy Central, VH1, E! or Adult Swim projects.

The characters in THIS IS SPINAL TAP, WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, BEST IN SHOW, and A MIGHTY WIND had an undeniable sadness about them but as satirical statements they were as funny as movie personas can get. In FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION these people are just sad. It’s just sad that Guest and his reperatory company are such terribly intelligent funny people who this time out are not doing something well.

Please let this be the swan song of these movies!
Or at the very least spare us another wacky Fred Willard hair-do!

More later…