Doodad Kind of Town

Time for Two Movies: "East Side Story" and "Eraserhead"
December 19, 2007, 11:39 pm
Filed under: 70s Films Revisited, David Lynch, Musicals

Every year, I say I won’t let it happen, but every year it does.

Once again, I have succumbed to the hectic pace of the season, managing to postpone most of my shopping/mailing/cooking duties to the final week before Christmas. As such, my available time to see and write about movies has been severely reduced.

But, never fear; amidst all the seasonal stress and flurry, I have managed to squeeze in not just one, but TWO more Netflix rental viewings. Neither of the films I watched were particularly appropriate to the season, but both were eminently worthwhile.

If you’re a lover of musicals with a taste for the offbeat, you might enjoy “East Side Story,” a 1997 documentary about the musical films of the Soviet Communist era. Yes, you read that right. Turns out Joseph Stalin was a fan of the movie musical genre (who knew?)and happily supported an industry which cranked out songfests about the joys of working on the farms or in the factories of the glorious Socialist state.

So we get clips from “Tractor Drivers,” in which men on tractors and women with pitchforks sing happily about “harvesting wheat to make the bread/to feed our heroes and athletes.” Presumably there were a whole lot of perfectly ordinary people partaking of that same bread, but why sing about them? In another film, a fresh-faced platinum blonde in peasant garb sings to her pigs as she leads them to the trough: “All I ask is that you eat and get fat!” Hog sloppin’ never looked like this much fun before, and the young songstress is actually quite charming. I wanted to see more of that number.

In fact, that is my biggest criticism of “East Side Story;” you always want to see more than it shows you. It teases you with clips that are outrageous, astonishing or just plain silly, but usually too abbreviated to really give you a sense of what’s going on. All too often, it cuts away to one of many “talking heads,” former actors and directors from Socialist film studios of the era. Virtually all their commentary is straightforward and serious in nature; there is no one on hand to be snarky or sarcastic. And after awhile, you just want someone to cut loose with a smart-assed remark. Either that or shut up altogether, so you can just enjoy these strangely entertaining films for yourself.

Much like their Hollywood counterparts, the musicals of the Stalin era presented fantasy worlds into which its characters (and audiences) could escape. That’s what the solemn, scholarly narrator tells us anyway. Unfortunately, her comments play over a dream sequence in which a sort of Comrade Angel wakens a young woman and whisks her off to a gleaming, golden city. Here she is taken to a huge factory (the machines so loud she has to cover her ears) where she is given… a broom! Yes, that’s right; this character’s Utopian vision is to sweep a factory floor! It’s hard to believe that even the staunchest party apparatchik thought they could pass this off as heaven on earth. Those of us in the West whose personal musical-comedy Utopias contain Fred Astaire in white tie and tails and a swanky Manhattan penthouse or two can be forgiven for dreaming a little bigger, I think.

When Stalin died, so did the Soviet Union’s musical film industry, but other Communist countries started producing their own takes on the Western musical form, usually subverted to glorify party ideals. As in the Stalinist films, there is frequently a fresh-faced young woman dancing joyously in factory-worker coveralls. The two most intriguing films, shown at the greatest length here, are “My Wife Wants to Sing” and “Midnight Revue.” The first is a comedy about a housewife who dreams of a singing career, to the dismay of her ultra-traditional husband, She spends a lot of time singing love songs while wearing elegant gowns, and one delicious scene features a whole kick line of East German “Rockettes” in fishnets. The latter is a comedy in which a group of writers is kidnapped by the party and forced to write a musical. Both films are shot in full color, and both look and feel very much like Hollywood musicals of the same era (the 1950s). These are two movies I really would like to see in their entirety.

“East Side Story” winds down with a look at the Soviet Union’s attempt to cash in on the “youth musical” market of the 1960s with a swingin’ Socialist tunefest called “The Hot Summer.” It opens with groups of young men and young women singing about how hot – how really, really hot! – it is today. (“If I see some cool water, I’ll jump right in,” the boys tell us.) It’s at this moment, that you most long for a good shot of snark from the narrator; these “hot” youngsters might be considerably cooler if they peeled off their long-sleeved jackets and turtleneck sweaters and headed for some shade trees instead of dancing around on sun-baked city pavement. I guess it comes down to this: whether a musical is borne of Socialist ideals or Western decadence, logic is the last thing on its mind.

My other Netflix night took me back into the oeuvre of David Lynch. After my baffling experience with “Inland Empire,” I decided to go back to the beginning, and so I saw “Eraserhead” for the very first time.

I hesitate to say I liked “Eraserhead;” it’s too weird to like, exactly. But I admired it. It is creepy, disturbing and nightmarish. Surreal, too, of course, but I thought it was far more accessible than “Inland Empire,” and, at a mere 108-minute running length, its weirdness was far more tolerable.

I’ve never read much of anything about “Eraserhead,” so what follows is my own take; I may be re-stating the obvious, or I may be off on a whole, strange tangent. I thought the lead character, Henry Spencer (the brilliantly deadpan John Nance, at times looking and acting like a silent film clown),was a sort of baby-man. In that opening scene, he looks like he is floating in a womb, and when he moves out of the frame, he’s being born. From then on, the film is a pure, surreal meditation on the worst of his anxieties about sex, women, parenthood and growing up in general. And Lynch makes it pretty over-the-top icky. Thus we have Henry carving up a game hen at his girlfriend’s house and having it ‘bleed’ from between its legs. We have his girlfriend’s mother alternately interrogating him and coming on to him. Then there’s that mutant child he fathers, which embodies everyone’s absolute worst nightmares: a sort of fetal version of “ET” who whimpers pathetically day and night. I found the scenes with the mutant baby grotesque and painful to watch.

But I did understand the appeal for Henry of the Lady in the Radiator, that angelic blonde with the weird, jowly cheeks and the soothing assurance that “in heaven, everything is fine.”

There is also a character I can’t begin to explain called the Man from Another Planet; he’s played by Jack Fisk, who is the offscreen husband of Sissy Spacek. At the end of the film , there is a “Special Thanks to” list which includes Fisk and Spacek, plus various members of Lynch’s family and Nance’s wife, Catherine Coulson (who was also a camera operator). I like the whole raggedy, made-by-family-and-friends feeling of this early, low-budget effort – it felt a whole lot less pretentious than Lynch’s most recent film. I wouldn’t watch “Erasehead” again, but I would like to see more of the David Lynch films that I’ve missed.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I last saw Eraserhead close to thirty years ago. All I really remember is the oozing chickens, the ET baby, and a lot of loud clanking. I think I watched it twice. Some movies just stay with you that way.

Comment by Nat

Nat – Thanks for writing. “Eraserhead” does indeed have some pretty powerful images – I can undestand why they would stay with you for years. I don’t think I’m ever going to get that mutant baby completely out of my memory, as much as I would like to.

Comment by Pat

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