Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Eraserhead & Paris Belongs to Us (Lynch/Rivette Retrospective #4)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Eraserhead & Paris Belongs to Us (Lynch/Rivette Retrospective #4)


This is the third entry - but, technically, the fourth double feature - in a series covering the Lynch/Rivette retrospective at Lincoln Center, running from December 10 - 22. I attended the double feature of Paris Belongs to Us (1961) and Eraserhead (1977) on the evening of Tuesday, December 15.

This is arguably the most paradoxical double feature of the series. Eraserhead and Paris Belongs to Us are weirdly complementary: both debut films that took years to shoot, both set in an uneasy urban location, and both unusually black-and-white (the only other monochrome title in the retrospective is L'Amour Fou). But these two films are also radically, jarringly different. Paris Belongs to Us is concerned with a very specific time and place - the opening card tells us when ("Summer 1957") and the title tells us where - and Rivette was operating within the context of a larger film movement: the French New Wave. Eraserhead, influenced by Lynch's stint as an art student and young father in Philadelphia but shot in sunny Los Angeles' lesser-known industrial quarters, takes place in a nightmare metropolis of the mind, deeper into the subconscious than even German Expressionism dared to go. Thirty-eight years later, there's still nothing else quite like it.

Despite some striking shots, especially in its second half, early Rivette can't come close to Lynch's bravura mastery of the medium: Paris is characterized by an awkward, self-conscious push-and-pull between form and content whereas Eraserhead's conception and execution are inseparable, joined by intuition rather than intellect. The most obvious, visceral clash between these two works concerns speech, or lack thereof. Paris Belongs to Us is very verbal, with dialogue driving and often substituting for action, whereas Eraserhead is nearly silent (or rather, non-verbal; the film features one of Lynch's - and sound designer Alan Splet's - richest soundscapes). While Rivette's later films (and even spots in Paris) would evince a Lynchian fondness for non sequiturs and speech-as-pure-sound, it's fair to say Rivette is more comfortable with and/or reliant on dialogue than Lynch. But as he developed as a director, he would find ways to balance or at least create an interesting tension between what was being spoken and how it looked. In his debut, it feels like a problem he is conscious of but hasn't quite worked out.

Nonetheless, last night's double feature revealed some truly fascinating links between Paris and Eraserhead. For me, they occurred less in the superficially similar but fundamentally different "look" of the movies than in their outlook - their thematic concerns and narrative expression. Like many other films by both directors, Eraserhead and Paris Belongs to Us are concerned with the risks and rewards of imagination. The main characters - Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) and Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) are overwhelmed by a sense of claustrophobia in their daily lives, yearning and fearing something beyond the limits they perceive. Timid compared to the flashy characters that surround them, Henry and Anne are natural observers, intimidated by the possibilities of action even as they are drawn towards them. Perhaps that fear is warranted since their investigative impulses lead directly to the death of a family member (Henry's baby and Anne's brother). Then again, these very deaths trigger visual liberation, taking Henry from darkness into light and Anne from the city into the open (if moodily dingy) countryside. For Henry, embraced by the Lady in the Ratiator, there is a sense of accomplishment and freedom. For Anne, gazing across a sullen lake (where swans take wing only to glide aimlessly just above the surface), a deeper understanding only brings a sense of greater loss.

If Eraserhead begins a long pattern (with Lost Highway and probably Mulholland Drive the only exceptions) of ending Lynch's dark, disturbing works with a sense of spiritual release, then Paris Belongs to Us already suggests Rivette's essential pessimism, coupling his desire to cross boundaries with a hyperawareness of the consequences for such transgressions. The paranoia of Paris Belongs to Us is depicted as a deadly false alarm - there are real fascists, one character tells us, but they come in many forms rather than the faceless wordwide conspiracy feared or perhaps hoped for by American political refugee Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem) and moody femme fatale Terry Yordan (perfectly cast Francoise Prevost). Part of Paris's fascination lies in watching Rivette's proto-sixties sensibility deal with political and cultural content very much of the fifties. The film's struggle is linked to this dynamic; there simply weren't many examples of similar films, dealing with the unusual counterculture of that period in semi-narrative but non-touristy fashion, for Rivette to follow. Unlike Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, and other early New Wavers who fit their renegade visions within established forms (coming-of-age tales, genre explorations, or slice-of-life anecdotes), Rivette was working without a net.

So, seemingly, was Lynch whose work couldn't be further from the flavor of his own "Movie Brat" contemporaries. Like Rivette's New Wave peers, the New Hollywood generation tended to subvert, toy with, or develop existing narrative modes rather than attempt to create something entirely their own. If Lynch's first attempt is more successful than Rivette's, it's probably because he had a stronger foundation. His net in Eraserhead is a painter's discipline, focused on the parameters of his own canvas and the ability of each image to stand on its own, as well as a willingness to rely on his own subjective sensations. These two tendencies make Eraserhead a very intimate, enclosed work, avoiding the sprawl that sinks Paris Belongs to Us (even as that same sprawl makes Paris so fascinating to reflect upon). Rivette's ambition leaves concept and sensibility in (futile) search of an appropriate plot, whereas Eraserhead wisely positions itself to avoid that need. In its best moments, Paris - like Eraserhead - allows images to do the heavy lifting: the gallery of grotesques on Phillip's wall, the economist's intensely creepy companion who keeps staring right into the camera, those iconic shots of Betty sitting in a window or Gerard strolling a rooftop where Paris itself becomes a character, or that intoxicatingly melancholy conclusion, lingering over ruins in the woods. Such settings evoke a depressed demimonde better than a dozen monologues.

Despite their varying degrees of mastery, both Paris Belongs to Us and Eraserhead are charged with the personal anxiety of their creators, bringing us back to that theme of circumscribed imagination. When Anne the level-headed student is accused of seeking the sublime, the accuser might as well be speaking to Henry, whose surreal dreamlife distracts him from familial responsibilities. Both Lynch and Rivette are motivated by a similar desire to reach for the intangible, accompanied - at least initially - by the nervous suspicion they are grasping at air. Perhaps in addition to the aforementioned factors, the confidence of Lynch's endeavor stems from his discovery, early in Eraserhead's production, of Transcendental Meditation. That practice and system of beliefs would charge all of his work with the certainty that there is a hidden order beneath the perplexing surface, whereas Rivette's agnostic mixture of curiosity and doubt has nothing so firm to fall back upon. Rivette would have to develop tools and approaches from within the work itself to lend form to his freefloating ideas. To a large extent, his third feature L'Amour Fou serves as that "eureka" moment, incorporating often wordless improvisations. Experimental theater would eventually serve the same purpose for Rivette that painting served for Lynch: an extracinematic tool used to impregnate his filmic influences, giving birth to something entirely new and exciting.

I had to split the third double feature (Wild at Heart/L'Amour Fou) over two separate screenings, so look for that tomorrow.

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