I am an identical twin. I weighed about three pounds at birth, my brother weighing five. Together, we constituted the birth weight of an average child. I was sickly, hemorrhaging in the brain and suffering with a heart murmur, so despite coming first in the birth order, I would not be home for another two weeks. The doctors found that some of my complications in birth came from malnutrition as a result of twin-to-twin transfusion: my brother was draining me of my nutrients. From that moment on, I was always a bit stunted, always weight class below him when we wrestled, always a few inches shorter, always a bit more sickly. We had times of resonance, freakishly speaking at the same time saying the same thing in debate tournaments, where we were partners, or accidentally dressing the same without meaning to. Despite those brief moments of overlap, though, we were always just off, similar, but not congruent.
Dead Ringers hyperbolizes these moments of symmetry and difference. Beverly and Elliot (both played to perfection by the lovely Jeremy Irons) embody this leading and lagging fraternity in a perverse thriller that you have to see to believe. It has all of Cronenberg’s most notable traits: body horror, fetishism, and an unparalleled mise-en-scène that draws you into the mutant worlds and pathological minds of the characters in the film. A bit uneven at times, slogging in its back half, the film is somewhat lower on the totem pole of David Cronenberg’s work, but it’s an alluring and upsetting watch to add to your October horror rotation.
The film opens with one of the best expository scenes I’ve ever seen. Over black, we see the time and location of the twins as young children, opening with them very scientifically discussing sex. Fish have it differently because they live underwater, one explains to the other, the other preferring it that way as you don’t have to touch another person to do it. The conversation is quite clinical, unsettling out of the mouths of babes, but plainly a mark of their precocity more than anything else. Not a moment later do the twins collude: “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” It’s something I’ve said to my own twin many times, our adolescence spent playing tricks on our teachers by pretending to be the other in class. Of course, what follows is decidedly less innocuous, the twins approaching a girl their age and asking her to have sex with them both in their bathtub as “an experiment.” She understandably responds in shock and threatens to tell her father, but not before responding with a street-smart that contrasts their veneer of scholarly interest: “Fuck off you freaks… Besides, I know for a fact you don’t even know what fuck is!” The whole sequence is less than three minutes but clearly establishes our characters’ relationship with each other, aptitude for all things biological, the perverse way in which they use it.
The film quickly hits its stride with the two precocious scientists subbing in for each other to maximize the use of their time, this questionable act becoming especially upsetting when used for its sexual component as Elliot passes women off to the meek Beverly. An archetypal virgin and Chad meme if there ever was one, the contours of their difference begin here, the film presenting Beverly in bookish glasses and non-threatening sweater/button-down combinations that starkly contrast Elliot’s proto-Patrick Bateman suits (Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter’s respective wardrobes in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal certainly find touchstones here). The film’s unsettling atmosphere continues pretty constantly for a while until Beverly’s depressive state sees him go the way of Sheriff Truman in season two of Twin Peaks, killing the film’s momentum for a few beats, but setting up the fascinating disequilibrium between the twins that ushers in the third act. Stay for Irons’ unsettling performance(s), some nightmarish surgical garb that resembles some kind of occult ritual more than actual medical procedures, and one of Cronenberg’s purest images of fetishism in the form of Beverly’s made-to-measure, unsettling gynecological tools, a simple use of a phallic image to respond in kind for Beverly’s sense of emasculation and castration fears.
The film’s minor pacing problems aside, it’s really a treat. It’s perversion manifested in a cinematic space, the grotesque unconscious made visible through a dream screen that uses the horror/thriller genre’s conventions to discuss taboo topics, from quasi-incestuous pairings to medical fetishism. Put simply, the vibes are off, and the film offers a hole in the wall that puts on display all kinds of nasty thoughts. The film is at once erotic and contemptible, using visual spectacle in the mise-en-scène and striking imagery to seduce while the narrative’s sexual neuroses and unhealthy twin dynamic repulse. Forget about The Shining or Sisters for your twinsploitation horror this October; Dead Ringers doubles down on the subject with a clarity of perspective that milks the image of identical twins for all its strangeness while still giving it the gravity it deserves.
New York, New York is Martin Scorsese’s most interesting picture. Maybe not his best, and certainly an outlier in his filmography. You’ll probably have a hard time finding it, seeing as it’s been almost scrubbed clean off of streaming services, even for rental. The film was a box-office bomb at the time of its release (Scorsese’s cocaine addiction during production led to some of the film’s more peculiar moments and its negative reception pushed Scorsese deeper into drugs and a depressive slump), but I truly believe it’s one of the most special things Scorsese has ever put to celluloid.
The film follows saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) and singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) as they grow as a couple and musical act, both relationships complicated by Doyle’s possessiveness and volatility. Doyle courts Evans at a V-J Day celebration, insistent against her protesting, pestering her for her number after his rejection by the other women at the party. He’s unbelievably sleazy, reflecting archetypal masculine pathology of the time, more Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place than the anodyne Gene Kelly. Francine is staunch in her disapproval, roped into his affairs by a string of coincidences until the two happen to be hired as a musical duo, with Doyle on the sax and Francine singing standards. Their respective musical talents are complementary enough to have them work together, but varied enough to provide them with entirely different career paths and benchmarks for success, branching paths catalyzed by Francine’s pregnancy.
Fully a love letter to The Red Shoes, but quintessentially a Scorsese film, the movie is animated by the twin polarities of glossy artifice and gritty realism. This leads to some discomfort in the beginning of the film, with the musical signifiers starkly discordant against Robert De Niro’s portrait of archetypal and possessive masculinity. Liza Minnelli’s character is more indicative of the melodramatic and classical musical picture; De Niro’s masculinity has a pull over the narrative while Minnelli’s idealism overwhelms the mise-en-scène and set design. The film is in constant tonal conflict between these two registers, pulled in either direction in a tense stasis that finally gives way, oscillating to both extremes in the film’s final act.
Watching this film is an extremely strange experience. It is a Scorsese picture in its honest portrayal of toxic masculinity, but that message is ensconced by the MGM musical artificiality: polar opposites that make for strange moments. Its biggest draw is its spectacular mise-en-scène and cinematography, with inarguably Scorsese’s greatest production design. The overt constructedness of the sets gives the film a Sirkian quality that critiques the spectacle of the Hollywood movie-musical, but like all the best critiques of popular genres in that vein, it delivers on the promises of spectacle.
De Niro’s improvisations lead to moments of awkwardness, leaden lines and passes at humor that go over poorly despite Minelli’s best efforts at recovering the moment. Most of these are mercifully relegated to the beginning, but the rocky start can make identification and interest more difficult in the middle. If you trudge through this, however, the film opens itself up in a series of extremely compelling vignettes as the film barrels toward its climax. One scene of De Niro and Minnelli in their apartment together, shortly after De Niro’s character returns from touring, is almost unbearably tender, a brief respite from the instability of their relationship that passes almost as quickly as it comes about. The film makes a jarring tonal shift when the couple gives birth to their child, as De Niro’s masculine insecurities and neuroses reach a breaking point and he rejects the family he’s created. He was displeased with the idea of children from the start, irritated by the stalling of his work, and his refusal to be a father in the traditional sense is motivated by those career ambitions during Francine’s pregnancy, but more animated by a nebulous masculine interiority when his son is born, his abnegation of fatherhood feeling like a desire to avoid recreating conditions he himself experienced. The film then careens into its musical within a musical within a musical, diegetically justifying an obscene display of spectacle and reaching the height of the film’s outward face, just before collapsing into a distilled realism that doesn’t feel cynical or negating of the spectacle that preceded it, but instead shows its subjects with a maturity and growth that they desperately needed for a long time. The melodrama works to heighten the emotional stakes of the previous portion of the film, while its comedown serves as a deeply moving reality check. It is neither cruel nor rose-colored, presaging The Irishman’s thesis: it is what it is.
The ending isn’t without its antecedents in the film musical genre, though. The Red Shoes famously ends without the happy ending for which Francine’s musical is named. Similarly, An American in Paris’ ending gives a similar denial of narrative closure after the film’s most stunning musical number. Nor is New York, New York without films it has influenced, most notably La La Land, which draws significant influence from the structure of New York, New York and the films from which it draws inspiration, reskinned for the West Coast. I’m going to prefer Scorsese’s somewhat flawed picture over Chazelle’s film for the simple fact that New York, New York is stylistically and thematically ambitious, constantly in conflict with itself, and significantly experimenting with Scorsese’s specific fixations while paying homage to a series of films he loves. It’s a significant work within his filmography partially because of its poor reception and variation from Scorsese’s gangster auteur project, yet that uniqueness makes it feel like a breath of fresh air within the director’s oeuvre. Like a less stiffly mannered version of The Age of Innocence, it’s Scorsese’s ideological project circumscribed by genre signifiers from a mode of filmmaking almost diametrically opposed to his at the time. Ultimately, it’s a bold film that’s tragically unavailable for viewers reliant upon streaming; Scorsese’s play with genre has never been more moving and more creatively inspiring, warts and all.
Olivier Assays directs the way a uniquely gifted speaker delivers a speech: while his contemporaries project, almost screaming, he lowers his voice, and the audience leans in to listen. The French writer-director has made waves for years, finding special critical success in the 2010s, and while his latest film Wasp Network was picked up by Netflix for distribution, the director isn’t quite on the same level of popular notoriety amongst Film Twitter’s darlings like Ari Aster or Greta Gerwig. I want to change that, partially because I want to see us rotate our film crops a little as young and extremely-online movie fans, and mostly because I think that his style of directing—quiet, deliberate, unassuming at first—is a personally resonant mode of being for which I want to see more celebration.
Assayas’ most popular thematic concern is this juxtaposition of the analog and the digital. Especially in Demonlover, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Personal Shopper, the way in which characters interface with technology and with each other uniquely complicates and alienates. Phones and screens are heavily in use in the diegesis, starkly contrasting the use of analog film stock with which he shoots. With the exception of Demonlover, these don’t serve as hyperbolic and pedantic of a purpose as technology does in something like Black Mirror, but what it does instead is treat social media and cell phones as ubiquitous constructs. Characters use and navigate those elements with humanity and clarity, with social media working as an intrusive breach of Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart’s seclusion in Clouds of Sils Maria and a personification of metaphysical forces in Personal Shopper. With each of these, Assaysas addresses an essential component of contemporary life without condescending about technology the way a parent or grandparent might. It isn’t going away any time soon, so we might as well talk about how we use it.
Other Assayas films, like the exceptional Carlos and the more meat-and-potatoes Wasp Network, are period piece espionage dramas. Their setting embodies Assayas oscillating more toward his analog impulses, as films like Cold Water and Irma Vep also emphasize a tactile diegesis, with the costuming and mise-en-scène of both underscoring a love for all things material. Summer Hours, possibly the pinnacle of this fixation, places extreme importance on the objects left behind to a family after their mother’s passing, reifying the material and adopting a more object-oriented ontology.
Most importantly about all Assayas films, however, is his unique, deceptively simple style. Every Assayas film is a kind of magic trick, beginning as one thing and unfolding into another, and his style is an essential component of that. An emphasis on shot-reverse shots and over-the-shoulder conversations can make his films look like more competent, but are more in line with the restrained character blocking present in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, a film so influential on Assayas that his interview about it is included in the Criterion Collection’s edition of the film. Narratively, he favors Antonioni as well, with several of his films having holes in their centers, mysteries of plot and character to which we as the audience may never get a real answer. However, on a slightly warmer note than Antonioni, and more so in favor of his other influence, Ingmar Bergman, Assayas’ characters are typically more explicitly realized and less speculative in their characterization. The result is deeply human characters, at once fleshed-out and withheld. This kind of dynamism animates his films’ narratives, mimicking his stylistic juxtaposition of tactile mise-en-scène and icily stylish cinematography, as well as his thematic obsession with analog and digital or physical and metaphysical.
Now, for your homework:
An Essential: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Assayas’ first collaboration with Kristen Stewart and second time directing Juliette Binoche, this drama is, in Kristen Stewart’s words, “an infinitely-sided mirror.” The film follows Binoche as an aging actress called upon to play the opposite role in new production of the play that gave her her start, but swapping the young ingenue for the older woman she manipulates takes a toll on Binoche’s character. Drawing inspiration from several canonical works of European art cinema (a tripartite narrative influence from L’Avventura, Persona, and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), as well as Kristen Stewart’s own tabloid history and Assayas and Binoche’s age and working history, this film is an entry-point into Assayas’ filmography that displays his thematic fixations and artistic influences all with an initially classical story structure, only later giving way for modernist narrative tricks. Standout performances (with a sapphic undercurrent and distinctly feminine milieu) from the two leads, as well as a biting supporting role from Chloë Grace Moretz make this an exceptional picture for Assayas newcomers and an excellent film to revisit with the context of its influences under your belt.
Next Step: Personal Shopper (2016)
Assayas’ follow-up to Clouds of Sils Maria, and in many ways its spiritual sequel, Personal Shopper was my own introduction to Assayas’ work. Stewart stars as a medium living in Paris, working as a personal shopper for a wealthy client, waiting to receive contact from her deceased twin brother. As a twin myself, and as a fan of Kristen Stewart alternating warm sweaters and slick leather jackets, I had a lot to love. The film is more of a Hitchcockian thriller than Assayas’ previous film, but its profound meditation on grief and loss in a time of social media’s purgatory makes it deeply relevant and profoundly moving. Lush costuming and Kristen Stewart’s most powerful role to date make this an essential, tied with the previous film for my favorite Assayas.
A Deep Cut: Summer Hours (2008)
Not so much a deep cut as it is undermentioned in discussions of Assayas’ filmography, this film is Assayas’ warmest film to date. Deeply personal and quite moving, it follows a family spread across the planet by the nature of their work in a globalized economy, joined together for a family reunion. When their mother dies, the family must deal with her estate, including precious works of art, furniture, and personal mementos. Fecund greenery and a beautiful provincial home are at the core of this film, while its characters wrestle with just how tightly they should hold onto the physical possessions their mother left behind. Its narrative is certainly less high-concept and high-stakes than the two previously mentioned films, but it takes fewer cues from Antonioni in its audience engagement and sincerity, making it a standout in his filmography.
Elevator Pitch for Other Recs:
Carlos (2010): Did you ever want to watch a leftist terrorist womanizer decay to a post-punk soundtrack?
Irma Vep (1996): Assayas’ Day for Night, Maggie Cheung in a black catsuit, Sonic Youth playing, awesome Stan Brakhage reference at the end.
Cold Water (1994): Oh to be an edgy French teen in autumn.
Demonlover (2002): Chloë Sevigny and corporate espionage all for the sake of what? Anime tiddies. I’m not kidding.
Olivier Assayas rocks and I’m tired of my peers not taking that pill yet. Go watch his movies. Please.
Ingmar Bergman is one of European art cinema’s most celebrated auteurs. His harsh, austere dramas and stiffly mannered comedies saw huge success in the arthouse heyday of the 1960s, especially outside of his native Sweden, and his filmmaking influenced the works of other arthouse directors in the years that followed—Woody Allen, Michael Haneke, and Lars von Trier, to name a few. This level of influence and renown has given Bergman’s filmography a unique place in film history, but the first impressions many people have of his work is of their pretension, unknowability, and inaccessible headiness: as Diane Keaton sums it up in a useful quote from a bad movie, “It’s bleak, my God. I mean, all that Kierkegaard, right? Real adolescent, fashionable pessimism. I mean, the silence. God’s silence.” The parodic Scandinavian sensibility described by Keaton in Manhattan works as the upper bound of his criticism, but a more lukewarm sense of the same exists for many people unfamiliar. My job here is to hopefully clarify that, give you some overarching reading strategies for Bergman’s works, and give you a road map of how to start.
I typically like to bifurcate Bergman’s largest thematic concerns into his theological musings and his interpersonal ones. The silence (or manifestation/absence/intention) of God is a significant part of many of Bergman’s early to middle-period works, most notable in works like Winter Light, The Silence, and The Seventh Seal. I think that the lion’s share of ire drawn toward Bergman as a heady, inaccessible filmmaker comes from this element of his work. Those without backgrounds or interests in religion or theology may find these ideas to go way over their heads or fall a little flat. However, what’s most crucial to get from this thematic concern is an overall inability to connect; it is this that joins Bergman’s theology with how he sees the people around him.
Bergman’s other concern, the one with which I have the most fascination, is a consistent interrogation of how people can be close to one another and what pain that can cause. Neon Genesis Evangelion succinctly crystallizes this in the Hedgehog’s Dilemma: hedgehogs huddle for warmth, but poke each other with their quills, and must learn just how close they can be before they hurt each other. Wild Strawberries, Scenes from a Marriage, Cries and Whispers, Autumn Sonata, and Fanny and Alexander are the most succinct distillations of this theme, but it works as a narrative through-line in practically all of Bergman’s works. It is this theme that, I think, keeps Bergman from being pretentious (most of the time), and makes his works extremely relevant and watchable today: no matter your experience, identity, or ideology, how deeply or fully you connect with other people will always be a decision that you must make. Bergman’s work is essentially a large variation on this theme, with connection leading to happiness, fulfillment, and even capital-G Grace in some works, and humiliation, rejection, and crushing loneliness in others. In all of these works, however, that thematic idea is personified in the motif of a hand touching a face, one person reaching out to the image of another.
How should you get into Bergman if you’re new to the undertaking? Start with these three:
An Essential: Persona
Bergman’s 1966 film was a rupture within the arthouse when it landed and has remained relevant since, echoing his own quote: “You are always aware of a wound.” This is maybe a controversial introductory pick, but I trust you enough to throw you in the deep end first, partially because I think that it puts Bergman’s themes and motifs into sharp focus and will benefit your viewing of the films that come before and after it. A story of identity slippage bookended by an abstract reflexive meditation on film, its quick pacing and commitment to Hollywood-style enigmas make it a reminder of Bergman’s beginning as a script reader. A lot of thematic cans of worms are opened in its brief runtime, but you’ll stay afloat if you watch the film with an understanding of interpersonal connection and intimacy at the forefront of your mind.
Next Step: Wild Strawberries
The more conventional introductory pick, this film contains remnants of Persona’s play with form but is more true to the straightforward narration of most of his films. This film uses Bergman’s sparkling dialogue to clarify some of the thematic content in Bergman’s catalogue while also echoing the levity of his earlier films and their fixations with summer. With the exception of the opening dream sequence, the clarity of this narrative makes it arguably his most accessible work and clearest statement of theme.
A Deep Cut:
The Passion of Anna
This flawed, less celebrated work in Bergman’s filmography was the first one that made me truly grasp what he was trying to communicate. I think it’s a masterpiece despite those flaws partially because of how it opened up the director’s thematic concerns for me. The themes are Bergman-pudding: marital infidelity, shame and humiliation, and the ever-present desire to get close to others and inability to comfortably do so. This film also features a subplot about a killer of dogs on the island (Bergman’s home of Fårö), and has one scene of a live dog struggling while hanging in from a noose, and while the dog lives and is cared for by Max von Sydow’s character afterwards, please use your discretion as to how that content may affect you.
One of Bergman’s two forays into the English language, The Touch sees Bergman’s frequent collaborator Bibi Andersson alongside American actor Elliott Gould in a story of marital infidelity and clashing American and Scandinavian sensibilities, all shot in a gorgeous autumnal palette that foreshadows his stunning color photography with Sven Nykvist in films like Autumn Sonata. While the narrative misfires in places, the film is memorable for its striking performances and beautiful aesthetic.
Ultimately, Bergman’s greatest concern was in connecting with other people, and he saw his films as a way to do that. They are clear, clean, and sharp. Even in his minor works, and even in his comedies, there is always a feeling that what you are watching is the result of complete seriousness, of a discernible human behind the film who wants very badly to communicate an inner truth and using fiction to do so. Bergman often considered himself an accomplished liar, and that makes the clarity and confrontations of his films all the more compelling. They are aspirations to live in truth, stabs in the dark at a moving target. His is a cinema of perseverance through despair, and there is nothing less pretentious and more human than that.
When Nicolas Winding Refn released Drive in 2011, Film Bros had a moment. Scorpion jackets. Irreversible-inspired face-smashing. A reaaall humaaan being.
The same film fans who foamed at the mouth over Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction, and The Dark Knight had a similar fervor for Drive’s blasé protagonist and stylized violence. The film displayed Refn’s talent for using a sleek neon style as a solvent for a violent masculine id, a rebloggable tableaux of shining violence. This violence isn’t of the jarring or shocking variety practiced by his contemporaries, as it’s aided along by an undeniable and inviting stylistic cool that accentuates rather than contrasts the violence it portrays. He doubled down on this in Only God Forgives, an arguably better film with much more stylistic ambition and moral ambiguity inflected by (but also critical of) noir’s Orientalist fantasies. Refn had created an almost self-parodically masculine work, tied up with mommy issues and kinks and phallic weapons.
Something changed, however, with The Neon Demon, a film which Refn made with a distinctly feminine perspective in mind, going so far as to say that he attempted to reimagine himself as a 16-year old girl for the project. He collaborated with two women (Mary Laws and Polly Stenham) to write the screenplay, as well as Argentinian cinematographer Natasha Braier to lens the picture, and the end result is a polarizing fairytale (I think it’s stellar—a reappraisal for another time, however). What makes it so special is that it takes Refn’s signature stylistic and thematic hinge and makes that unique experience accessible for perspectives beyond just his theretofore characteristic portrait of masculine id. Women in the film are allowed to be both the perpetrators and victims of the shining violence previously and exclusively carried out by Ryan Gosling at his most anemic.
I think that part of people’s qualms with The Neon Demon were in characterizing it alongside his corpus up to that point; auteurist perspectives of his work would consider it a detour, a misfire in a zeitgeist of representationally-conscious filmmaking (n.b. Moonlight came out the same year) that was perceived as the kind of patronizing insincerity I levy against the women Woody Allen writes into films. But even Allen had Interiors; misogynistic directors are like broken clocks and can churn out a one-off picture with dynamic and realized female characters. Mostly, these are flukes.
Refn’s next project proved that this wasn’t a fluke. Too Old to Die Young, Refn’s television miniseries on Amazon Prime, doubled down again: beyond just a feminine perspective, Refn’s sex and violence becomes open to queer, Latinx, and Black perspectives that become central to the show’s overall narrative. Much of the credit (Refn even said as much) goes to producers Lene Børglum and Rachel Dik, as well as writer Halley Wegryn Gross, who joined the project after Refn got a tarot reading in Paris that told him he needed women’s perspectives for creating the show. The violence and weird sex (one episode sees Augusto Aguilera make extremely creative use of a whip) depicted in the show are carried out by characters of diverse identities, opening that type of filmmaking up for audiences who were largely barred from that kind of cinematic catharsis. This isn’t to say that those audiences could not understand or appreciate those types of films, but rather that neither Hollywood nor European art cinema have been keen on making hypnagogic violence and sex in film something for marginalized groups, and especially those at their intersections, to enjoy.
But this is a reappraisal. Too Old to Die Young’s diversity was noted in its release, but I think that this series has a lot to offer presently because of its portrayal of police alongside this increasingly accessible violence. Even from the first episode, the film takes typical copaganda procedurals and complicates them. Miles Teller’s character, the show’s protagonist (that word is meaningless here but works prima facie for our purposes) is a police officer whose partner dies in the line of duty and moonlights as an assassin of pedophiles and abusers. However, all of this happens after he enables his partner’s attempts to coerce a woman they pulled over into sex and it’s revealed that he is dating a 17-year old.
The white male cop, the archetype with whom we have grown to empathize through years of procedurals (even my beloved Twin Peaks) is presented for his narrative utility as a protagonist and then immediately complicated by the realities of how police officers act. Where less daring shows have toyed with this idea of presenting their audience with one bad apple, Refn implicates the whole bunch, especially in this particularly memorable scene of the detective unit into which Teller’s character is promoted. And while I’ll avoid particulars as to the resolution of Teller’s character’s narrative, it’s nothing too revealing to say that the moral is clear: all cops are bastards. Too Old to Die Young routinely disavows police as a structure and the white male murder fantasies that have historically animated that profession and his own films. It does this by eclipsing that perspective with representation that avoids tokenism and window-dressing: female, queer, Latinx, and Black perspectives fill the protagonistic vacuum left by Teller’s character, a synecdoche of both white heteropatriarchy and the police state’s most moral facade.
Watching Only God Forgives was a special moment for me. I had tolerated and even enjoyed some films that made specific use of stylized violence for all kinds of reasons: cathartic release in The Piano Teacher, the pathological violence embedded in David Lynch’s suburban nightmares, Gaspar Noé’s utter provocations. That film was the first for me that created a true fairytale: mimesis is metaphorical, all is permissible, it is just a movie, and it’s okay for cinema to be a playground for the id. I’m also a white guy, so that film’s narrative and structure does privilege me as an audience. Too Old to Die Young is this effect at its most expansive and inclusive; representation in cinema isn’t just for positive portrayals or humanistic portraits, it’s also for weird ultraviolence and perversities. This show is deeply relevant given the current calls for the abolition of police and prison, and it deserves your time and attention. Obviously, prioritize content by Black filmmakers and focusing on uniquely Black stories at this time, like Criterion’s paywall-free programming centering Black narratives, but give Too Old to Die Young a watch if you’ve got the time. No text is more crucial to the death of the copagandistic protagonists who have infested our televisions for decades.
Dreams have long been the focus of art. Whether in the word’s meaning as an aspiration, or in the sorting of psychic detritus that occurs in the deepest of R.E.M. sleep, creators of art have been fascinated by dreaming as a concept, and the cinema is arguably the closest that our art approximates dreaming. Sound, image, and a relative sense of spectatorship in the viewer all work in concert in dreaming as in film, but with the production of both of these phenomena, real-world catalysts can be the driving force behind the images and narratives that unfold in these realms. Few directors have been as devoted to this parallel between somnambulism and cinema as David Lynch. His most influential films feature surrealistic imagery, narratives bound by dream logic, and a formal sensibility that has garnered him his own adjective: “Lynchian.” While a psychoanalyst would sit down with Lynch and consult with him about his dreams and events of his life that are being resolved through them, a film historian can look to one of his films and interrogate the different formal and social conventions that gave rise to it. Eraserhead, Lynch’s first feature film from 1977, is a perfect candidate for this kind of analysis. The specific environment that surrounds the film and Lynch’s experience making it points to a few specific catalysts that give rise to the film’s overall construction. David Lynch’s Eraserhead is catalyzed by the formal conventions of film noir and the social phenomena of deindustrialization and suburbanization, with surrealism acting as the solvent that allows those elements to interact with each other.
Eraserhead follows Henry Spencer, a factory worker on vacation, who, after eating dinner with his girlfriend, Mary X, and her family, discovers that he is now the father of a grotesque infant with a bulbous, alien-like head. He and Mary house the baby at Henry’s tiny apartment, surrounded by crime and industry, until Mary gets fed up with the child and returns to her parents. The baby then gets sick, and Henry begins seeing the Lady in the Radiator, a woman who does song and dance numbers on a stage inside his radiator while squashing spermatozoa that fall from above her. He then sleeps with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, envisions his head popping off of his body on the stage inside the radiator, falling through a pool of blood on the ground, then falling through the sky and landing on the street for a young child to take to a factory, which turns his head into pencil erasers. After finding the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall in the arms of an unsavory man, the baby begins to laugh mockingly at Henry, and he kills it with scissors before seeing its head grow large and fill up the entire room until the Lady in the Radiator comes to him in a blinding white light.
While the eye-catching practical effects and ambient droning of the film’s soundtrack might overpower them on an initial viewing, the film’s aesthetic qualities are indebted to film noir. The use of black-and-white film stock, especially at a time of more readily available color stock, recalls older filmmaking, and the use of location shooting and low-key lighting clarifies this recollection as one of film noir. The nighttime shots that populate the latter portion of the film, as well as the ambient rain on the richly textured soundtrack recall the respective mise-en-scène and sound design of archetypical noir: “A common setting for a film noir would be a big city, especially at night; shiny, rain-slicked pavements, dark alleyways, and sleazy bars are the typical milieux” (Bordwell 209). Additionally, the rundown industrial wasteland that makes up the exterior shots of the film, as well as the dingy apartment complex where Henry lives is a more domestic interpretation of the more specific settings of film noir, specifically “locales such as seedy bars, cheap hotels, roadside diners, and ritzy nightclubs” (Brookes 35). More than these specific individual qualities, Eraserhead blends the textured sets of the mise-en-scène and layered sound design’s ominous and sourceless clanging, droning and whistles with deep space, deep focus compositions and a general sense of spatial continuity in order to flesh out a dark and atmospheric diegesis, falling in line with the more qualitative and nebulous attitudes of defining film noir: “the specific ambience of film noir, a world of darkness and violence, with a central figure . . . whose world is filled with fear . . . here is a world where it is always night, always foggy or wet, filled with gunshots or sobs . . . and above all, shadow upon shadow upon shadow” (Higham and Greenberg 19-21). It is in this self-contained diegetic world, made real by the mise-en-scène and sound design, that sees Eraserhead embody the gestalt of film noir’s worldbuilding in its use of film style.
A cold reading of the story beats of Eraserhead do not recall any of the specific setups of archetypical noir. No dangerous dames ask Henry to kill their husbands, no double crossings and scheming see the undoing of those two characters. Rather, the film takes the, for lack of a better word, genre convention of film noir and sees them mutate like Henry’s child, becoming something more complex. Eraserhead’ s narrative takes the archetypical understanding of film noir characters, those being an alienated male protagonist caught between a good or domestic woman and a femme-fatale; he always chooses the femme-fatale and meets his downfall from such an interaction. Henry Spencer is the film’s main character, and his alienation is not one of ideology or demeanor, like the hardboiled heroes of the original noir cycle, “characterized by a cynical, wisecracking wit . . . beholden to nobody” (Brookes 63), but like the hardboiled hero, he is similarly “‘tarnished’ by his environment but also of it” (Brookes 63). This kind of environmental conditioning of the hero, reinforced stylistically in film noir by its roots in German Expressionism (Schrader 10), is evident in Eraserhead, as Henry’s first moment on screen sees him look fearfully at the camera, then walk toward a Brutalist building and navigate the desolate environment around him, stepping in a puddle along the way. What further strengthens the idea that Henry’s environment bleeds into him is his ever-present sense of fear, embodied in the hunched shoulders and unsteady speech that characterize Jack Nance’s portrayal, as early as his first glance at the camera. More stylistically, the constant droning of industry on the soundtrack, mixed at a volume that is typically used to convey diegetic sound yet with no distinguishable diegetic source, serves as an intermediary between character and setting. Henry embodies the present fear in noir settings; it radiates into him with the same intensity as the atom bomb explosion photographed beside his bed, and his passivity works as a modified response to every noir protagonist’s fatalism (Damico 103).
The main women in the film, Mary X, The Lady in the Radiator, and the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall all find themselves either complicating or embodying the archetypal roles for women in film noir. These archetypes are the good or domestic woman, a sweet and relatively boring (in the mind of the noir protagonist) female character, and the femme-fatale, her foil, “the predatory, treacherous, and duplicitous figure of the sexual temptress” (Brookes 67). The Woman in the Radiator most closely embodies the good woman, with her more conventionally domestic attire, performance for Henry’s benefit, lyrics of reassurance and fulfillment, and the violent sexlessness of her stomping of spermatozoa, she represents an idealized femininity that is social prescribed, leads to a nuclear family, and is ultimately bogged in domesticity to the point of Freudian castration. The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, on the other hand, is clearly the film’s femme-fatale, in her sexual allure, temptation of Henry, and ultimate precipitation of his downfall. This archetypal binary is enforced by the mise-en-scène, as The Lady in the Radiator is clothed in light colors, blonde, lit in high key with spotlights from her stage, and cloaked in the all-encompassing light that ends the film. The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall is lit in extremely low-key lighting, clad in dark clothes and with dark hair, and descends into a pool of dark liquid with Henry. These characters are even so archetypal that their names are simple descriptors of their roles and their spatial location, nearly Brechtian in their flatness.
With the far ends of the spectrum outlined, this leaves Mary X situated somewhere in the middle. While her motherhood and family life squarely mark her as a good woman, her sexuality, which sets into motion the plot and is the more overarching source of Henry’s unhappiness, sees her embody certain aspects of the femme-fatale. Mary’s more realistic complication of the archetypes formally prescribed by film noir sets up a new dichotomy between realized and idealized femininity, the former abdicated by Henry in favor of the choices offered at the end of the film. The difficulties of realized femininity, of domesticity and childrearing and in-laws and a nuclear family are too much for Henry to bear, and so he escapes into a more simple binary world of outright lust or the divine feminine. Henry, impotent and ineffectual throughout much of the film, gets to experience both of these idealized forms by the end of the film, descending into the pool of liquid with the femme-fatale and then ascending into a heavenly light with the good woman. Where the original film noir stokes anxieties about a movement away from domesticity, Eraserhead shows a noir hero who chooses the good woman for once, follows the prescribed social order, and gets much more than he bargained for, reverting back to the idealized archetypes perpetuated in film noir.
It is with this understanding of domesticity that the geographic concerns present in Eraserhead come into play. Eraserhead is a film entirely preoccupied with geography, a concept that is almost synonymous with setting for this film. There are general trends with geography in the middle 20th Century that inform Eraserhead, and there are more specific experiences that Lynch has mentioned directly that clarify the geographic phenomena likely to have shaped the film. Following World War II, the time that Schrader categorizes as the second and third phases of film noir (Schrader 12), saw the concurrent development of suburban sprawl out of the inner city and the Interstate Highway System under Eisenhower. Sprawl occurred in the postwar period after the groundwork was laid by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression. His office created the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which gave sought to provide loans to those who already owned homes and faced an economic burden from the Depression. Later, the Federal Housing Administration incentivized private lending with government-backed guarantees, and with veterans returning home, the large market for home ownership shook up cities: “the spatial form of cities changed dramatically because built-in biases of the system favored newly built housing in suburban areas” (Kaplan et al. 216). These newly built suburban developments were epitomized by Levittown, a kind of housing development style that created the modern suburbs by using prefabricated units, inspired by the Ford assembly process, that varied in color and style only slightly (Kaplan et al. 222). These were bolstered by the Interstate, which was authorized in 1956 and was used to link the urban centers with employees living within the sprawl (Kaplan et al. 82). This process canonized American domesticity, solidifying the bonds of the nuclear family that characterized the 1950s and had previously been destabilized by film noir’s questioning of gender politics.
Subsequently, cities saw an increasing amount of deindustrialization, where previously high-paying and economically essential forms of labor that changed the built environment of the urban landscape were suddenly lost and relocated. Kaplan et al. temporalize this shift, saying that “[d]uring the 1950s and 1960s . . . industrial activities began to move away from the historic inner city, at first to suburban and nonmetropolitan locations, and later to sites in other countries” (Kaplan et al. 251). The flow of capital that moved so rapidly into industrialized cities, and brought with it impoverished people looking for jobs, just as rapidly left the urban environment, yet the built environment that was shaped by it remained despite this inactivity.
David Lynch has been on record as being deeply affected by both suburban sprawl and deindustrialized cities. In his autobiography Room to Dream, he recalls his early suburban life in Boise, Idaho: “That fifties small-town thing, it’s different, and to catch that mood is important. It’s dreamy, that’s what it is” (Lynch and McKenna 25). His later years painting in Philadelphia saw a movement from the suburban to the urban, and the increasingly destitute conditions there: “‘We lived in a really bad area of Philadelphia. All of Philadelphia is a bad area, really . . . There was violence and hate and filth . . . It wasn’t those things that did it, though. It was what they did when they sank inside of me. Eraserhead came out of that’” (Hoberman and Rosenbaum 223-224). The spatial binaries of the suburban and urban changes in society mirror film noir’s narrative binaries of the domestic and the libidinous, and noir’s seedy urban settings, gross but surrounded by prosperity, are modified to show a cityscape that is not soaked in a shiny coat of rain but a matte film of grime. As Sherry Lee Linkon writes, “[d]eindustrialization literature locates and explores [the tension between labor as a source of value and a source of meaning for workers] through the duality of past and present” (Linkon 45), and while this film does not say much about labor itself, its urban horror expresses the fear present when both value and meaning are sapped from an environment. Keeping in line with other texts on deindustrialization, Eraserhead modifies past and present by updating film noir’s spatial concerns to match the conditions at that time.
Lynch’s trademark surrealism works to further the connection of these catalysts by providing associative links and, like dreams, bring to light issues plaguing the American psyche. Cinema has the power to do this, as Surrealist theorist André Breton says, “‘I think what we valued most in [cinema], to the point of taking no interest in anything else, was its power to disorient’ ” (qtd. in Matthews 1-2). Few things are more disorienting than the parade of body horror imagery and incongruity that dances across the screen during Eraserhead. Its midnight movie and cult status are a testament to that sense of surrealist spectacle. However, beyond just a disorienting and incongruous experience, surrealism in film becomes “reality raised to a new level of significance, more in accord with the inner needs of man” (Matthews 4). When examining pressing issues in society, surrealism works on a more fundamental and psychological level than political modernism or other more literal advocacies in cinema. Associations are so subdued that they become subliminal, subtext behind subtext, hidden in character interactions and the environment itself. Eraserhead works exactly like a dream because it dramatizes the social problems that arise from geographic phenomena of the time using a surreal mutation of the formal DNA of film noir. Social problems are interwoven with strangeness to show that both are a puzzle needing to be solved, and unlocking the puzzle of the latter brings to light the significance of the former.
Film noir provided a mimesis of domestic concerns, fleshing out masculine resignations to domestic fates, and Eraserhead uses those familiar stylistic components, archetypes, and tropes in order to deconstruct them and provide an epilogue to the ending of every man who did not succumb to the femme-fatale. The social concerns of geography in Eraserhead, beg the question: what happens when you transplant the nuclear family into an industrial urban environment? The corrosion of the soul that occurs in these deindustrialized wastelands is a corruption of the family unit and a rebuke of the social conditions that tried to normatively impose such standards. Eraserhead’ s variations on film noir tell a geographic story in the strangest way possible because doing so elevates the story to a place of pure sensory experience, rather than political ideology. A monstrous infant and a woman in a radiator with deforming acne and a severed head being turned into pencil erasers are all just ways of making the ideas present less didactic and more psychologically impactful. To most viewers, however, they’re just a lot of fun, and that is what has made Eraserhead such an enduring cult classic for more than forty years.
Brookes, Ian. Film Noir: A Critical Introduction. New York City, New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
Damico, James. “Film Noir: A Modest Proposal.” Film Noir Reader, edited by Alain Silver, Ursini, Limelight, 1996, pp. 95-105.
Higham, Charles, and Joel Greenberg. Hollywood in the Forties. A. Zwemmer, 1968. Hoberman, J., and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Midnight Movies. New York, Harper & Row, 1983. Kaplan, David H., et al. Urban Geography. Third ed., John Wiley, 2014. Linkon, Sherry Lee. The Half-Life of Deindustrialization: Working-Class Writing about
Economic Restructuring. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2018. Lynch, David, and Kristine McKenna. Room to Dream. New York, Random House, 2018. Matthews, J. H. Surrealism and Film. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1971. Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Comment, vol. 8, no. 1, 1972, pp. 8–13. JSTOR,