An adage frequently referenced in film schools posits that all films are political, because any given film reflects its circumstance and its context, whether it be that of the filmmaker, the subject, or the generation that surrounds it and that it blooms from. I generally agree with this. The ideological exhaustion that comes from not being able to loosen ones shoulders and enjoy something just for what it is is something that I am very familiar with, and so I do believe that, for what it’s worth, a movie is inherently valid as entertainment. But, the message and/or perspective of a movie is far louder than its entertainment value, especially when viewing critically and ideologically. Thus, with an accommodating asterisk, yes. All films are political.
The contextual relevance of Trolls: World Tour is undeniable. That’s been screamed from every mountaintop that you can see and I don’t really care to fully and comprehensively do it again. Yeah, this film probably changed the moviegoing experience and the structure of film production, distribution, and exhibition to the same extent that Jaws did, that’s not what I’m here to say.
Instead, I want to focus on the ways that this movie plays into the general clash between the constitutional moneymaking nature of movies and their enjoyability. Godard, in one of his many rebukes of Hollywood and the American industry, said that cinema is capitalism in its purest form, and he’s right. It is a well-oiled machine that is perceived as soulless, because it is. Hollywood is fueled by profit, plain and simple. This isn’t news. But, in the case of many, many recent movies, the self-aware masses that attempt to engage with the media that they consume and the environment that said media sprouts from write off pictures like these as blatant product pictures, skeletal representations of capitalism and the movie-watching majority’s pliability and susceptibility to distraction. Such is the case with this sequel to one of the worst instances of product moviemaking, Trolls. It functions as a cash grab, fodder for toys, a 2-hour reprieve for parents. Apparently, with the risk that the film represents regarding format and distribution, as a cash grab this grabbed quite a lot, and is continuing to grab. It didn’t grab mine, I ripped it, although spoiler alert, I did purchase it again to watch it with a family a few weeks after my first viewing.
I started this up really for the sake of completionism–I wanted to see what this was all about, and to be able to say I’ve seen it in case the conversation ever comes up. What I wasn’t expecting was to laugh the entire time. I wasn’t expecting a foundational racial theme that bests pretty much any attempt that nu-Disney has made both in authenticity and fullness. I wasn’t expecting the music to be so fun, for this to be paced so well, and just to enjoy it so damn much!
It is so easy to passively write off movies like this with a laugh, claiming it as another Hollywood death trap, another cheesy factory picture lab-tested to assuage and distract and coddle. Maybe I’m too optimistic, maybe I’m too glass half full to let myself buy into the bleakness that loudly surrounds movies like this, even moreso the context around this film in particular. But there’s such a warm core in this movie, there’s something to it. There’s something really genuine here. The message about diversity feels different, it feels a bit more open and welcoming. The “differences do matter!” theme transcends the vast majority of colorblind fake woke liberalism that is so present in family films of the last decade. Technically, the animation is great, All recent animation is technically impressive, but the animation style here is just so fun and filled with personality. Overall, the style of this movie just totally rocks. The worldbuilding surrounding all the different musical kingdoms, the way they all compliment each other and make every plot “checkpoint” so to speak feel like it has a reason to be there, the way the different trolls and worlds and songs all confirm and bolster the general message about diversity…it’s just so great. It’s so impressive to me.
Again, Godard would be spitting on his screen if he read this. Things look bleak. The industry is damned and corrupted. But there’s something here. I had a great time watching this movie, and its message is good. It is surreal and hilarious and reflexive, and just a wonderful, easy watch. Maybe it’s naive of me, maybe I’m ignoring things, but I really don’t think I am. I think if you see the good in things, you’re gonna find it, and there is lots to find here. I’m not unaware of it’s potential thinness. I don’t have on context blinders, I just had a great time watching this and I think this movie is really fucking good. And that’s fine.
A conversation between two people who actually saw it.
Recorded with Joseph Shin & Nathan Alligood. Transcribed by Nathan Alligood
Two of our editors who recently undertook the monumental task of watching not only the entire The Trip franchise, but also the precursor of the series, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, for a total of five films over two nights, decided to record themselves in conversation on the latest entry in the series, The Trip to Greece. It started well, but as with all of their mutual endeavours, quickly devolved into nonsensical ranting. Transcribed below are some of the more coherent parts of the conversation:
Nathan: I guess we should start recording now?
Nathan: Oh, I can’t record. The host has to, and I am but a lowly participant.
Joseph: That’s right, I’m the protagonist of this story.
Several moments later the record button was finally pressed.
oseph: Hey, Nathan.
Joseph: We haven’t been talking for 30 minutes already.
Nathan: I mean, we have, I don’t know what this is.
Joseph: It’s metatextual, you know, it’s like The Trip. I mean, it’s artifice, but you know, you’re trying to make something out of real life.
Nathan: Something as simple as dinner can be a comedic setting.
Joseph: Yeah. That’s like my Letterboxd review for The Trip To Greece, making something out of the mundanities of life. [Pause] This feels like a podcast.
Nathan: It does. I don’t know why we’re doing this. There’s a fakeness to this.
Joseph: Well . . . we watched all The Trip films two weeks ago.
Nathan: We did, we binged all of them in two days. It’s been a while. I was truly, before we got on here, trying to remember all the parts of The Trip to Greece and everything just kind of runs together in my mind now.
Joseph: 75 Michael Caine impressions and 42 Al Pacino impressions later, and then you get The Trip to Greece.
Nathan: I mean it’s kind of a testament to how good they are overall. Like the fact that they do kind of blend together, aside from a few strange moments in a few of them, mostly The Trip to Italy.
Joseph: What was the weird moment in The Trip to Italy? Oh . . . the indiscretion of Rob.
Nathan: I mean that, and just the fact that it’s not as strong as the others, but still has some good bits. So, what was different about The Trip to Greece from the other Trip movies, since we are the authorities on the subject, having seen the series from Tristram Shandy onwards?
Joseph: It’s definitely like all the initial critics have said, it’s the most serious of the bunch. It takes a sharp turn, I would say.
Nathan: There are moments that are quite funny out of, you know, the entire series, mostly Steve Coogan’s Godzilla impression that just popped back into my head.
Joseph: I think about it every day. I mean, there’s intimations of seriousness, even near the beginning. You have the whole refugee crisis focal point.
Nathan: I think that’s Michael Winterbottom’s new issue that he’s interested in, because that does also occur in Greed, his 2019 film. Steve runs into an actor who plays a refugee in Greed, who is also a refugee in real life. In The Trip to Greece, it’s a very strange kind of offshoot from the regular Trip movies. Just in the fact that I don’t think any of them have been overtly political before, unless I’m missing some scene that I’ve forgotten out of the 10 hours that we watched.
Joseph: Classic apolitical Nathan. Well, they’re always trying to follow some literary obsession that they’re on. The first one was, uh, what was it?
Nathan: Lord Byron.
Joseph: Lord Byron. Yeah. Italy was Shelley, and then the whole Don Quixote bit in Trip To Spain. And then this one was the Odyssey. And I wasn’t thinking about Odysseus when we were watching it, but thinking about it after, the plot actually has some interesting parallels to it. There’s a journey that happens and it does take him home.
Nathan: Not in the same way that the Odyssey did, not as swashbuckling. Reflecting on it, I don’t feel as strongly about the ending as I used to.
Joseph: What was your initial reaction?
Nathan: I was a little disappointed about how it just kind of went down. That’s the end of The Trip for you. I think it’s interesting, but still not sitting all the way right with me, but I can accept that as the end.
Joseph: Part of me wonders, cause they’re cutting from television, if what’s in the film is the same as the last scene in the television show.
Nathan: I feel like they probably just took the last episode and they just slapped that on the end instead of chopping anything or doing whatever they have done before. Of course, I don’t know for certain.
Joseph: Why do I feel like people are watching us right now? Once you hit the record, it’s just like the Warhol thing, the black hole of the camera eye . . . You know what this reminds me of in The Trip? There’s never pauses.
Nathan: There’s never empty air.
Joseph: The empty air is actually just the parts where they’re in their hotel or eating. One of them says something and then the other has to eat during those pauses. There’s less eating as The Trip goes on. It’s just like food porn shots and then smash cut to whatever impression they’re doing.
Nathan: Who has time to eat when you’re doing a Godzilla impression?
Joseph: How long do you think they’re at those restaurants? It’s probably like a whole day thing.
Nathan: Maybe like half a day. Well, the lighting’s kind of consistent probably like mid day.
Joseph: We should have done a Trip short film at Grady.
Nathan: Yeah. If only we had thought of it. Imagine trying to get a crew for that: “All right. You’re going to film us while we eat and do impressions.”
Joseph: No food for you.
Nathan: You don’t get to eat it. We only have so much money in the budget.
Joseph: The National’s not cheap, y’all.
Nathan: People would just be lining up. “Please let us work for you.”
Joseph:This needs some structure.
Nathan: I feel like we’ve hit 500 words by now. Surely.
Joseph: Yeah, but it’s not a good 500 words. It’s going to be all over the place. It would be indecipherable. Half of the things we said are only things that me and you would have knowledge about.
Nathan: Also the good parts are very artificial. See, this is why people don’t have podcasts.
Joseph: Why don’t we just fake write one. Like we did have this conversation, but we’re writing it. I’m sure that’s what these people do.
Nathan: You think people go to interviews, and the interviewer says “Oh, come sit next to me. Type this out with me”
Joseph: OK, this is what we can do. We can write it. And then we record it and say it. So we DID really have that conversation.
Nathan: No one’s ever going to hear it though.
Joseph: No, but we can just say with a hundred percent certainty, we HAD that conversation.
Nathan: We had this conversation that we then performed for each other so that we could say that we did.
Joseph: Yeah, that’s it.
Nathan: At this point, we might as well just throw this out here. It’s like a metatextual article.
Joseph: I mean, yeah, this is essentially The Trip now. I mean dissecting our own thing while dissecting The Trip.
Nathan: This is Tristram Shandy, honestly.
Joseph: Yeah, so many people will get that. I didn’t even know what the fuck Tristram Shandy was until I read the Wikipedia article.
The two editors went on to discuss in no particular order: international currencies, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Collision Course, removing wisdom teeth, ineffective novocaine, everything expiring on the Criterion Channel, and objectively which of the two had a higher pain tolerance.
Nathan: So at what point do we end this recording? Cause one of us is going to have to transcribe all this.
Joseph: One of us. Let’s just pull out all the best bits that we have.
Filmic fits is a weekly column in which a film is just not on the content of its character, but what truly matters: the content of its clothing.
California Split is many things. The tale of a relatively straight-laced magazine editor (portrayed as a passable cypher by George Segal) joining forces with a veteran gambler (Elliott Gould at the peak of his powers, running on the fumes of his stoned Phillip Marlowe in the previous year’s The Long Goodbye), finding both friendship and fuel for the fire of degenerate gambling within the other. In terms of merit, despite some questionable trans representation and being a pretty low-key affair, there’s a fair amount to be found. Split pushes the boundaries of Altman’s overlapping dialogue present in Nashville and 3 Women, makes a compelling case for Elliott Gould as the hottest of the New Hollywood rogues, is maybe the greatest film ever made about gambling (Uncut Gems may have it beat at this point), and an all-time entry within the subgenre of hangout films. But above all else, California Split is fitted. A study in the prep/sleaze dialectic, the eventual synthesis is a sight to behold.
From the first moment, you’re in for a treat. Segal’s Bill Denny puts on a masterclass in the subtleties of metropolitan prep, a prescient vision of Frank Muytjens’s better days at J. Crew would come to be. A heavy chamois overshirt that in less experienced hands might end up as a statement piece instead plays support, complimenting a chunky cream cable knit turtleneck, and finished off with voluminous brown cords. Here texture is all the game, letting neutral tones do the work and the contrast of fabrics making it all pop. (side note: However, you wouldn’t fucking know much texture, with Columbia letting this film languish in licensing hell, leaving VHS quality rips to be the best available option), but trust in this: cord and a chunky knit can transcend even the lowest of fidelities.
Gould’s Charlie Waters showcases the garment to end all garments: the fitted white t-shirt. Here, fit reigns king, giving a blossoming dadbod the appearance of virility and strength, understanding the role of clothing as emphasis of your most flattering assets, and camouflage for insecurity. While this isn’t any sort of revelation or advanced maneuver, it reminds you of the first rule of dressing yourself: fit is everything.
A sleazecore masterclass, from the lapels to the highly visible undershirt, everything about this fit oozes disrespect to mores of formality and an embrace of casual comfort. A relic of its tine, Gould’s blazer is all 70s with oversized notch lapels and boxy cut. Pairing that with a patterned camp collar (long sleeve at that!) is one thing, but going for an advanced maneuver with his collar spilling over and covering the lapel is what takes this over the top. Emulate with both caution and confidence, as belief in yourself can be the deciding factor between coming off as a charming lowlife or Cosmo Kramer. A testimony to the idea one must wear the garment before you let the garment wear you, sleaze is all about a perverse embrace of personal style over stuffy convention.
Much the same from Gould here, now just confirming an aptitude for choosing the right print and another showcase for the visible undershirt as conscious decision rather than faux pas. Segal puts on a prep showcase once again, playing with brown tones and an immaculate university stripe OCBD, throwing a playful twist on what could’ve been an otherwise self-serious ensemble.
Similar to the bug bite on my ankle, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin has been nagging at me ever since it ended. Coming out of the film, I was relatively bored and unsatisfied with what I had just witnessed. Glazer feels incredibly indulgent in his directorial choices, letting scenes or shots that hold little to no value linger far past the necessary length for the purpose of the shot to be understood. It is a film that attempts to be as much show and as little tell as possible. This approach leads to some stunning visuals at points, but most of these visually appealing shots hold the depth of a neat computer background. The film is built around its obtuse story-telling style, making it so that any further explanation of the characters or plot would make the sluggish scenes feel even less rewarding. The Female, played by Scarlett Johansen, is barely a character and her arc feels impossible to attribute an artistic vision to. The Female displays a complete lack of empathy at the sight of a domestic tragedy on the beach. This scene almost comes off as comical despite the horrific nature of the actions on screen. Later in the film, when luring a disfigured man, The Female takes an overly long look in the mirror and has a change of heart, deciding to not have the man killed and instead lets him go free. The Female’s arc feels incredibly unearned and adds to the overall directionless feeling the entire movie exudes. Having a film be abstract and obtuse doesn’t inherently attribute meaning to a film, and Glazer’s deliberate choices to neglect to tell the audience anything rarely works and makes for an unsatisfying watch. The only point where the slow pace feels effective is in the seduction scenes. These scenes have striking imagery, a score which aides the tension, and the slow tone feels seductive. The mise-en-scène of these scenes beg the viewer to put an interpretive eye to the art they are watching, but similarly to the film as a whole, these scenes feel utterly empty in their attempts to communicate a deeper meaning. During my viewing of the film, I thought Under The Skin may be about the empowering nature of women’s sexuality, however the sexuality of The Female feels sinister and not something which she uses for her own benefit. Additionally, the film following The Female’s change of heart explores a strange romantic encounter between The Female and a nice guy who she comes across after abandoning her van (this van abandonment scene feeling like one of the few that successfully captures Glazer’s vision for the film). This romantic encounter along with the sexual assault The Female experiences feel much more allegorical and work better because a semblance of a plot has started to emerge within the film. The Female’s physical inability for intimacy along with the attack she faces following the unmasking of her true self hold much more weight than the repetitive and boring first portion of the film. Overall, Jonathan Glazer certainly had a defined vision with this project, and I am still incredibly excited to see Sexy Beast (because it appears as though dudes may be rocking in that picture), I feel as though this film is the cinematic equivalent of getting a bug bite. Its uncomfortable, overstays its welcome, but undeniably provides a sensation that will stick with you for days to come.
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,
A sterling exemplar of the American New Wave, Robert Altman’s 1975 masterwork Nashville serves as both a stylistic tour-de-force and a profound reflection upon American society as it stood in the mid-70s. Altman utilizes a unique combination of European stylistic influences and intensely American subject matter to create a fascinating contradiction at the heart of his attempt to catalog the country’s strengths and weaknesses. By crafting a film that tackles an inherently American narrative via the lens of European arthouse cinema, Altman establishes a form of distanciation between his audience and his material, forcing the viewer to ogle at his extensive cast of characters in a detached, observational manner. These stylistic choices allow Altman to carefully examine the best and worst of America while still maintaining a relatively impartial distance.
Nashville’s observational viewpoint refuses to denote any specific characters or events as especially important, leaving it to the viewer to decide on what is noteworthy. Take, for example, the introductory airport sequence in which all of the film’s 24 main characters are deftly introduced. After a whirlwind glimpse of each character’s arrival, Barbara Jean, the purported protagonist of the scene, suddenly faints. Her collapse, the scene’s most crucial and obvious plot development, is almost immediately cut away from. This narrative decision immediately demonstrates the massive scope and peculiar narrative style of the film, informing us that no one in Nashville is more worthy of attention than anyone else. Altman has little desire to dwell too long on the details of a specific individual; instead he moves on along with his characters, leaving Barbara Jean behind and documenting their collective journey to the airport’s parking lot and then on into the city. In “Nashville and the American Dream,” Michael Klein directly addresses the European influences on this narrative ambiguity, noting that the post-crash pileup sequence on I-40 bears a marked resemblance to a similar scene in Godard’s Week-End and defining the film’s narrative structure as one “of ironic Brechtian distance” (Klein 2).
This alienating viewpoint lends the film a curious sort of objectivity. Because Altman’s insistence on distanciation keeps Nashville from offering any real sense of subjective identification with its many characters, the film becomes a Rorschach test of sorts. According to Roger B. Rollin in “Robert Altman’s Nashville: Popular Film and the American Character,” the film’s central ambiguity is what makes it something far richer than a simple satire or morality play: “in its complexity, ambiguity, and aesthetic richness it is capable of being experienced by different viewers in different, and even seemingly contradictory, ways. Thus it resists being classified only as satire” (Rollin 42). By giving every character a relatively comparable amount of focus and screen time, Altman avoids creating any obvious protagonists or sententious themes — everything in the film is essentially equally covered, and it’s up to the viewer to decide what they deem important. This is only made possible via the European influences that Altman chooses to exhibit.
In addition to bringing Godard and Brecht to mind, the film’s observational style and emphasis on capturing seemingly random conversations is also reminiscent of the Direct Cinema movement of the 1960s. The Grand Ole Opry sequence, for example, bears a strong resemblance to the stylistic choices used to capture live pop performances in films like the Maysles’ Gimme Shelter. Altman shows performers waiting in the wings backstage, records near-inaudible murmurs between audience members, and lets his camera linger at length on random extras as they gawk at the performers. In his book Direct Cinema, Dave Saunders describes the genre as “symptomatic in essence,” claiming that the reactive observationalism of Direct Cinema filmmakers “engages in a substantial and compelling dialogue with America, about America, in an epoch beset and defined by upheaval” (Saunders 1). Saunders claims that “what [Direct Cinema filmmakers] bespoke was a desire for the realisation of multi-dimension thinking: a revolution in the head” (Saunders 191). This open-minded approach to observation is utilized by Altman in the faux-realism of Nashville, encouraging the viewer to think actively throughout the film about the relationships between its characters and their place in American society.
The distancing effect accomplished via these formal techniques has often led critics and audiences to accuse Altman of cruelty and condescension in his portrait of the American South. Upon the film’s release, Rex Reed called it a “vicious, malicious” film and declared that “What emerges is a ‘let’s get the dumb slobs out there in the silent majority and blame them for everything that’s wrong with the country’ kind of movie” (Klein 1-2). But I’d argue that the film’s treatment of its characters and their milieu is far more nuanced than what such critiques might claim.In “‘We Must Be Doing Something Right to Last Two Hundred Years’,” Chris Louis Durham writes, “Altman’s desire to create commentaries on contemporary American life led him away from representations of heroes and towards more ostensibly realistic…representations of human beings” (Durham 5).Altman’s firm, distanced approach to characterization serves not as a method of judgement but as a means to approximate a sort of objectivity.Michael Klein writes, “Although we tend to be dislocated by Altman’s paratactic cutting from character to character and story to story, the method functions to convey the film’s perspective…figures of integrity are counterpointed to figures who reflect the decadence of Nashville” (Klein 3). While some of Nashville’s characters are certainly grotesque, the film also houses plenty of humanity; it is the striking contrast between these two extremes that makes for Altman’s ultimate illustration of American society’s duality. The undying love and familial responsibility that Mr. Green exhibits for his dying wife would be far less impactful without the blistering contrast of his niece’s self-absorbed indifference. A large portion of the film’s power rests primarily in its ability to deftly, insightfully move between these extremes of American behavior.
Altman even manages to address the potential perils of his method of probing into American culture with the character of Opal, crafting a sort of caricature of himself in the process. The brash, obnoxious BBC documentarian manages to offer condescension and ignorance in equal measure, and her constant, tone-deaf pontificating and European point-of-view are satirized endlessly. She is among the most lampooned characters of the entire film, showing that Altman was indeed self-aware that his attempts to insightfully document the South could well come off as the elitist ramblings of a patronizing sophisticate. The continual contrast between Opal and her American counterparts is particularly striking in the film’s fascinatingly reverent Sunday morning sequence. While a selection of excerpts from Nashville church services could easily be presented in a condescending manner, Altman’s presentation of the various congregations seems unbiased and respectful. The unvarnished, observational presentation of the services again brings to mind the works of Wiseman and the Maysles. Rollin writes that “far from ‘exposing’ the hypocrisy of American Christianity, this sequence suggests that, however flawed our national character, its religious impulses can be deep-seated and sincere” (Rollin 43). While the majority of the film’s cast participate in their respective worship services, Opal spends her morning wandering around a junkyard and dictating racist, pretentious babble into a tape recorder. Her actions seem inane and absurd when compared to the warm, communal Sunday morning experiences of the other characters. Rather than presenting her press credentials and informed European outlook as something to revere, the film gives Opal some of its only true satirical vitriol; with most of his other characters, Altman remains impressively unbiased.
Nashville’s relative objectivity is especially impressive given that the film is based almost entirely around politics. Altman accomplishes this by making his central political candidate little more than a non-sequitir; Hal Phillip Walker’s incoherent policies, fictional party, and curious absence all serve to keep the viewer from getting bogged down in their own personal take on the specifics of his politicking. In American Films of the 70s, Peter Lev claims that Walker’s “points could be agreed on by the New Left, the Far Right, and all political activists in between. However, in the film we see no interest in political ideas or positions” (Lev 63). But in the context of the mid-1970s political landscape, Hal Phillip Walker’s indefinable leanings seem attractive in much the same way that Jimmy Carter’s brand of outsider populism would soon prove to be. In “Nashville contra Jaws,” J. Hoberman writes that, in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, “Americans were looking for some way to feel good about themselves” (Hoberman 203) and notes that shortly before filming commenced, Richard Nixon visited the Grand Old Opry and remarked that “country music is America” (Hoberman 207). Hoberman goes on to detail the progression of political campaigns in the 1970s, particularly “a new campaign finance law that acted to further increase spending on television and consequently raise media consultants to the status of policy advisers” (Hoberman 209). This cultural backdrop provides a perfect springboard for Altman’s striking depiction of the ever-growing union between politics and entertainment.
This thesis is presented clearly in the film’s very first scene, as Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign van blares a prerecorded speech. The audience is instantly informed that “All of us are deeply involved with politics, whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not.” Altman then sets out to spend the next three hours proving exactly that, demonstrating the remarkable interconnection between his many disparate characters and the increasingly undefinable line between politics and pop culture. The film’s political personnel and entertainers are presented as one and the same — they are all inherently disingenuous performers, feigning ignorance while trying to seek out their own ends. Haven Hamilton, in particular, bears remarkable resemblance to a politician in his inspirational rhetoric, down-home demeanor, and unflagging ambition, becoming especially apparent in the jingoistic lyrics of “200 Years” and culminating blatantly in the scene where John Triplette convinces him to perform at Walker’s rally by offering him a shot at the governorship. Nevertheless, Altman manages to weave in these powerful, timely political themes without making any definite value judgements. Rollin writes:
Altman's view is more realistic than ideological. Neither Barbara Jean nor Haven Hamilton nor Connie White is shown to be thoroughly corrupted by success nor does the highly aggressive Albuquerque lose her humanity in her drive for success. Characters like the G.I., Kelly, and Norman, the chauffeur, who stay out of the competition, are not portrayed as especially virtuous (or as especially contemptible) for having done so. (Rollin 45)
All of these themes and techniques — narrative distanciation, idealogical ambiguity, and the growing union of entertainment and politics — come to a strikingly unified head in the film’s immaculate closing sequence. The assassination of Barbara Jean and its aftermath perfectly demonstrate Altman’s approach. The scene begins with swarming droves of political handlers, stars, and fans gradually locking into their respective places, with equal attention being paid to each. The murder itself broadens the scope of the scene even further. Kenny looks up at the massive American flag above the stage just before shooting Barbara Jean, giving his actions something of a larger motivation; if, as Nixon said, “Country music is America,” then perhaps the assassin’s target is something larger than merely country music. Parallels to the Kennedy assassination are immediately drawn as Haven yells, “This isn’t Dallas, it’s Nashville!” The implication is clear — in this new era of conflating entertainment and politics, shooting a beloved celebrity bears a comparable magnitude to killing the president.
The ensuing crowd reaction to the murder yet again amplifies Altman’s insistence on distanciation and ambiguity. The mass singalong of “It Don’t Worry Me” brings the film’s central paradox to the forefront yet again, as the crowd boldly faces this tragic event by repeatedly, even proudly, singing the lyrical equivalent of an uncaring shrug. Rollin writes:
Altman shows us the faces in the crowd…all singing over and over again, ‘You might say that I ain’t free / But it don’t worry me.’ Then his camera pans to the American flag…it would be easy to interpret this last series of images as the director’s ultimate condemnation of the American national character, but to do so would be to reduce again to simplistic satire the complex vision that almost three hours of this film have afforded us. For this moment, and Nashville as a whole, are ambivalent. (Rollin 48-49)
Thanks to the film’s observational style, the ending can be either a condescending portrait of American indifference or an inspiring symbol of the undying spirit of the American people. Altman manages to brilliantly display the country’s apathy as well as its tenacity in a single event, suggesting that these two facets are perhaps not inherently disconnected. This theory has even deeper implications when considering the film’s observational style and central theme of contradiction; perhaps America’s greatest strengths and most damning weaknesses are inherently tied together.
Chris Louis Durham. “‘We Must Be Doing Something Right To Last Two Hundred Years’: Nashville, or America’s Bicentennial As Viewed By Robert Altman,” Wide Screen. June 2010. Vol. 1, Issue 2, 1-16.
J. Hoberman. “Nashville contra Jaws: Or ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ Revisited,” The Last Great American Picture Show. Amsterdam University Press, 2004. 195-219.
Michael Klein. “Nashville and the American Dream,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. 1975. No. 9, 6-7.
Peter Lev. American Films of the 70s: Conflicting Visions. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. 62-65.
Roger B. Rollin. “Robert Altman’s Nashville: Popular Film and the American Character,” South Atlantic Bulletin. Nov. 1977. Vol. 42, No. 4, 41-50.
Dave Saunders. Direct Cinema: Observational Documentary and the Politics of the Sixties. London: Wallflower Press, 2007. 1-2, 189-192.
Whenever discussing the more progressive American film movements of the 20th century, the movie brats are not exactly the first to spring to mind. From George Lucas’ puerile refusal to move beyond recycling adventure serials predating the New Deal or Paul Schrader’s polemics of white male alienation, much of their output revolved around a sort of cultural solipsism. The one true outlier among them (at least in their prime, as Schrader did eventually blossom until a more complete artist) was Brian De Palma, whose progressive (although not particularly progressive in his aesthetic fixations and perversions) ideology became nakedly apparent as early as Greetings! or Hi, Mom!, the former a sharp critique of anti-war sentiment brewing among disaffected American youth and the latter a more self-effacing look at Woody Allen’s beta male masculinity and coming to terms with its toxicity. His first substantive success, both critically and commercially, came in 1972 with Sisters. While De Palma always included intimations toward women’s sexuality and its condition post-sexual revolution (Carrie’s preeminent rebuke to evangelical chastity, Body Double’s examination of the male bystander under rape culture), Sisters is really the only one to present a substantive critique of the white feminist body politic. Using the duality present in the split psyche of Dominique/Danielle reflected upon Jennifer Salt’s Grace Collier, De Palma is able to deconstruct the failures of the American New Left (in the arena of women’s liberation) to bear fruit in praxis and shine a light on the collateral damage.
The driving animus of Sisters is Danielle’s murder of Phillip Woode while overtaken by Dominique’s persona, the one thread of the film lets remain unresolved by the time the credits roll. The fulcrum upon which this lack of resolution turns is Woode’s identity as a black male under the faux progressive veneer of his metropolitan lifestyle. He is forced into a situation with Peeping Tom that makes him participate in the objectification of Danielle, and for his refusal to participate in the gross collective ogling that wins him the attention of Danielle to begin with. However, once he commits the transgression of sex with Danielle, he is now persona non grata to the greater systems of power. When he enters the completely white mid-century modern decor (Figure 1), his Blackness penetrates the insulated, sanitized space, something echoed later in the film with the mental patient’s unhinged monologue on maintaining “cleanliness” and order to maintain sanity. In her murder of Phillip, the darker side of white feminist movements emerges. On the surface level the action is exclusively concerned about his possession over women, but only occurs because of Dominique’s faulty heuristic of sexual aggressors being of systemically non-dominant identity, calling to mind Angela Davis’ work on “The Myth of the Black Rapist”. In her castration and eventual death strike to the jugular (the first of Woode’s sexual virility and the second to silence his ability to vocalize), she is silencing the ability of the marginalized to make their oppression known. Despite her emancipatory intentions, it betrays the insularity of her motivations, that the liberation of the white, middle class woman is of paramount importance and all other identities are qualified to be her collateral damage. So when at the end of the film Grace, surrounded by dolls and other symbols of infantilization in her childhood bedroom, beseeches “there is no body” and the claim of murder “was a terrible misunderstanding,” the film’s thesis comes into a cruel focus. The marginalized are not accounted for under white feminist movements, either reduced to the same object status the privileged fought to be freed, or pushed to the margin of invisibility.
The main tension of Sisters draws from the dialectical tension between Danielle and Dominique, the two embodying the conflict of shifting sexual morays. Under a progressive, modern society, it is the demure, dulcet-toned Danielle whom wholly submits to the authoritarian patriarch of Emil, while it is Dominique’s rejection of traditional femininity that fuels her eventual demise at the hands of Emil. When Dominique strikes out, it is at institutions she deems unjust: the rejection of domesticity and compulsory motherhood (her attempted garden shear abortion of Danielle’s baby) as well as the tyranny of patriarchal oppression and male sexual entitlement (her murder of Emil via attempted castration, striking at the central node of his lechery). It is not Dominique’s antisocial behavior or neurodivergence that is contemptuous to her overlords, but rather her use of revolutionary methods and violence in order to achieve them. Tackled in De Palma’s earlier, more experimental work (specifically Hi, Mom!), his contempt of purely aesthetic “progress” under the toothless, comfortable, New Left has always been a prominent motif in his work. In order to allow the status quo to continue, Dominique (repeatedly referred to as a “freak” to her own visible terror in Grace’s dream, blatantly outlining her outgroup status) she must be suppressed, allowing the aesthetically free but substantively constrained Danielle to exist peacefully. The fetishization of Danielle as the object petit throughout the film is visible through Emil’s sedating of Dominique during the climactic flashback sequence, it is only when Dominique (the revolutionary force in the dialectic) is suppressed that Emil can achieve a sexual union with Danielle. In his castrated death, he and Danielle lie together in a post-coital position (Figure 2), now achieving true intimacy in unison with the death of his ability to exert his patriarchal urges upon her. Without the presence of a threat of sexual coercion, the tension within Danielle/Dominique ceases to exist, resolving the dialectic not through synthesis, but rather through subtraction.
Sisters is a movie preoccupied with the limits of the petit bourgeois’ political passions, that the status of economic and political inferiority is only unacceptable for certain identities. Once the state of Danielle’s struggle is resolved (that is, the struggle of white women), then the narrative itself is resolved. Even when the central conflict of the film is catalyzed by violence forced upon black bodies, that violence is forgotten just as easily as it is perpetrated. Despite the success in their own emancipation, the collateral damage of those silenced or forgotten is too high a price to pay. By deconstructing the failings of white, middle-class liberation movements, De Palma makes a case for intersectionality in emancipatory movements decades prior to the term’s inception. For all the (well-earned) criticism over the course of his career, Sisters remains both a technically marvelous as well as marvelously radical piece of filmmaking worthy of a closer look.