Thoughts On: Eraserhead - Cinema As Association


Eraserhead - Cinema As Association

Thoughts On: Eraserhead (1977)

This is the first post that will explore some of the films that inspired and informed Book 8 of The DSU.

Eraserhead for me was - as I imagine it was, is and will continue to be for countless others - a game-changer in regards to how I saw film. My personal journey deeper into film started when I began to fully realise that film, like plays and books, could utilise metaphors and symbols. This struck me as I watched Disney's 1950 Cinderella when I was maybe 14 or 15. Seeing the film for the umpteenth time, I all of a sudden saw the function of not just the fantasy and the fairy tale, but the selection of characters as symbolic and reflective of Cinderella and her lost parents. And so what I was trying to bring out of my unconscious was the seemingly natural relationship between a poor girl, a cat, dog, horse and a selection of mice and birds. Grappling with these entities in a conscious frame of mind, I stumbled upon a subjective reading and retelling of the film. It is due to this that I began to fall in love with film as a kind of poetry.

The next key film I saw as a 15/16 year old was Donnie Darko. This appeared to me as a film that didn't just have a poetic overtone, a metaphorical super-narrative to be teased out of my own subconscious, but appeared as having knowingly constructed this for discovery. Meaning in cinema suddenly wasn't always hidden; it could be woven into the fabric of a narrative and the world of a story. I'd have to then credit Donnie Darko as being one of the major reasons why I like to base all of my stories in sci-fi.

Cinderella and Donnie Darko are beautiful films in their own regard, and whilst Donnie Darko breaks certain rules and expectations, it is probably not the kind of film that will prepare you for the avant-garde and a class of narrative cinema that exists in a difficult place between the experimental and the classical. It was then my first contact with Polanski, Buñuel, Fellini and Lynch - later, Tarkosvky, Bresson, Dreyer, Bergman, Jodorowsky, Lanthimos and more - that absolutely blew my socks off. The kind of cinema that these filmmakers so often represent is not hiding meaning, nor is it asking you to uncover meaning. Instead, these filmmakers develop a relationship with their audience around meaning. As a consequence, you have to read the likes of Repulsion, Un Chien Andalou, 8 1/2 and Eraserhead as potentially profound pieces of cinematic art, but you also have to sustain humility, have to recognise that you are in a give-and-take relationship with meaning and that you, nor the meaning itself, can figure it out completely. This kind of meaning-making, as we have discussed previously, is bound to our own humanity and our position as individuals with potential who are ultimately looking out into the world with eyes that only want to know more. This kind of filmmaking is exploratory; it explores and it is simultaneously explored, but there is never a given notion of exploration being done. This kind of cinema, we may then suggest, is experiential: you just have to watch the films, again and again and again, that is their purpose and that is the joy of being a film nerd.

Whilst Eraserhead is a film that you can only ever seemingly watch, it is possible to say something about it. In fact, it is maybe impossible to not want to gather and say something. Eraserhead was then such an important film to me as I was beginning to investigate film seriously because it was simultaneously opaque and entirely transparent; I felt the film made complete sense, but I simply didn't (and still don't to some degree) know how to communicate that sense. This is, on one hand, an off-shoot of the fact that these are films designed to be experienced, but, Eraserhead also has much to do with classical films such as Cinderella. Like great Disney movies, to properly interact and engage Eraserhead, you have to attempt to take all the sense and logic embedded in your subconscious and grapple with it consciously. This is the ultimate and most crucial aspect of reading film in my opinion; film spectatorship and criticism is not about relating content to the real world, but perceiving films as potentially transcendent documents.

Humans are connected, however dubiously, loosely and precariously, to the transcendent insofar as we can actually conceive of such a notion of things being out of our grasp. We are also connected to the transcendent through our unconscious outputs and efforts--by our actions that we do not completely understand. Art and story are just two products of acts that we don't entirely understand the purpose of. Art and story allow us to propel the transcendent element within ourselves out into the domain of the transcendent beyond us. And this is what great movies such as Eraserhead do; they start somewhere lost within a storyteller, an artist, and they somehow struggle to find their way out into the ether, leaving trances of themselves behind on celluloid and in digital code: viewing glasses into the realm of the transcendent where the essence of the film resides.

There is, however, something very specific that Eraserhead does to achieve this, something that Disney films do not necessarily do, that Bergman and Bresson films do not necessarily do either. This something is tied to association.

Association or attribution lie at the base of many theories of perception; we cannot know of something unless we think of it in regards to something else. Such seems to be the reason why humans are so incapable of conceiving of nothing - of death, the end and before the start of all being - but are simultaneously drawn to the concept to a degree that is almost chronic. It is because we are something that so many of our significant actions - science, art, philosophy - are engaged with the nothing, the unknown, we assume must be somewhere or sometime around us. And a primary product of this engagement is the interaction with, and creation of, the transcendent - art, for example, that serves as a vessel that ventures into the nothing and unknown.

Eraserhead is a kind of film that is designed as a construct of complex association; it has content that must be engaged via complex association and a form that mimics the processes of complex association. Most classical films that we engage as primarily entertainment are only designed to be constructs of basic association. By this, I mean that it is overwhelmingly apparent that classical films, let us take Cinderella for example, closely follow pre-established rules and conventions of storytelling and filmmaking (content and form) so that they always feel somewhat familiar. (This does not mean that they can't be transcendent documents). When we watch classical films we associate their cinematic language - their construction - to the majority of films that we have already seen, and thus we watch in regards to how we watch most films. The association is basic and systematised so that the only associational work we have to do is emotional; though there are other opportunities for association (as I discovered with Cinderella) we are expected to only figure out if we like the characters, why and engage how their feelings change over the course of a narrative.

Eraserhead is so different from classical films because it does not want to be seen in regards to any other film. Eraserhead is, in fact, quite a rare film in this regard because other movies that set themselves apart from mainstream filmmaking via complex association are, themselves, associated with movements and waves. Collectively Surrealist or New Wave films become more accessible. Eraserhead is alone - you can't even compare it to other Lynch films, or, at the least, you'd have a hard time about this. Knowing of Surrealist film certainly makes Eraserhead more accessible, but this film shows no real care for psychoanalysis and so cannot be engaged as just Surrealist. In addition to this, Eraserhead is not like many other challenging films, those by Bresson or Bergman for example, because these filmmakers so often work in or near the realm of nuanced, though simple association. Taking The Seventh Seal and Pickpocket as examples, we see films that look and feel like other classical films even though you have to engage the content of the Seventh Seal, and the form of Pickpocket, via complex association. Eraserhead is distinct from these films on the grounds that its form and content are simultaneously in need of complex association. And what this means is that we have to use abstract thought and tune into flares of our subconscious to engage and grasp rare examples of material we have engaged before that can be associated with the film.

To further specify, in a Bresson film, a hand is a hand. However, because of the way the hand is shot, because of formal techniques, we have to assign it more meaning and associate greater, more abstract meaning to it. In a Bergman film, a man in a cloak is not just a man in a cloak. Because of his position in the narrative, because of the story's content, he is also not just Death, but an entity tied to a more complex network of characters and symbols. In Lynch's Eraserhead, a baby is not a baby and because of the way it is shot and structurally placed into the narrative, we have to do more than just figure out what the baby could be. Whilst form and content interact in the mentioned films of Bresson and Bergman in subtle ways, I do not believe that they interact in a way that is as complex and radical as they do in Eraserhead. The form and the content, individually, in the Bresson and Bergman films is often more complex than the form and content of Eraserhead, but it is their meeting in Lynch's film that is so spectacularly alien and in need of complex association.

It is because of the complex cinema of association that Lynch constructs with Eraserhead that the film has continued to inspire me so profoundly; challenged me to think of cinema as association and see form and content as tools that have a relationship to all other cinematic form and content that can be tweaked and manipulated.

If you're interested in seeing why Eraserhead is apart of the Kaleidoscope series, please check out Book 8 of The DSU.

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