Sometimes just a scant few minutes of a movie can build a permanent home in your memory. Scenic Routes is a feature devoted to exploring cinema’s most remarkable individual sequences: the sublime, the exasperating, the iconic, the ineffable.
People often insist cinema is a visual medium. I understand what they mean—they’re trying to distinguish movies from literature or theater, which mediocre directors too often pointlessly strive to emulate. But that isn’t true. Even in the silent era, films didn’t unspool in complete silence, excepting perhaps the very earliest exhibitions of Lumière and Edison shorts. And since the advent of sound—what’s it been now, 85 years?—just as much artistry and technical know-how has been expended on the audio as the visuals. Indeed, the most immediate and unmistakable sign of rank amateurism isn’t that the movie looks shoddy, but that it sounds atrocious, even for those who aren’t consciously aware that the variable room tone and absent background noise are bugging them. Yet while many buffs have favorite cinematographers, precious few can name more than a couple of sound designers. I’m no exception, alas—off the top of my head, I can think of Walter Murch, Leslie Shatz, and Alan Splet. And even those three, I only know due to their associations with specific directors: Francis Ford Coppola, Gus Van Sant, and David Lynch, respectively.
Lynch’s films, in particular, are nearly every bit as powerful and disturbing if you close your eyes and just listen to them. Sure, the bizarrely deformed baby in Eraserhead (“Mother, they’re still not sure it is a baby!”) looks repulsive and vulnerable, but its incessant mewling is what truly shreds Henry Spencer’s nerves, and the audience’s. Even when Henry is just walking the streets of Philadelphia at the outset of the film, he’s doing so within an evocative aural landscape that mirrors the visual one. And then there’s the scene that most thoroughly creeps me out, in which Henry has dinner at his girlfriend’s house. In its broad strokes, this is essentially the same idea as Meet The Parents—awkward young dude does his best to make small talk, encounters darkly comic weirdness at every turn—but Lynch’s conception of “darkly comic weirdness” has its own flavor. And a uniquely discomfiting soundscape to match.
The first thing audible as Henry and Mary walk through the door is an omnipresent hissing. In the context of Eraserhead, this actually qualifies as sweet relief—the previous scene, for example, takes place on the front porch, where the couple’s dialogue nearly gets drowned out by some sort of unidentified industrial whooshing, heard everywhere outdoors. The hissing in the house is maybe 10 percent as loud, but it’s still constantly pressing on the audience’s awareness. To me, it gives the vague impression of having my head pressed right up against a furnace, a gas oven, or some other device involving a pilot light. Less overtly threatening than the noise outside, perhaps, but unnerving all the same. As I noted in an earlier Scenic Routes piece, the Coen brothers used the same basic effect throughout Barton Fink, giving the Hotel Earle’s corridors a subterranean thrumming that clicks on and off as characters open and close the doors of their rooms. Here, however, there’s no respite to be found. The ominous background noise changes character from space to space, but it never disappears altogether.
But that only registers in this scene for a few seconds, because at that point, a hideous squelching suddenly infests the listeners’ eardrums. Its source isn’t immediately apparent, which is bad; nobody in the room seems to acknowledge that it’s happening, which is worse. I feel confident that if you stopped the movie prior to the reveal and asked people what it is, almost every answer would involve rodents. That’s what it sounds like: rats or mice doing the (nearly) supersonic shimmy-bop. When it turns out to be half a dozen newborn puppies going to town on their mom’s teats, that somehow doesn’t transform it from nightmarish to cute. For one thing, I’m convinced that Splet actually did mix some rodent noises in there. More importantly, though, is the aftereffect of those initial 45 seconds, during which pleasantries are being exchanged (creepy enough in themselves) and all I could can think is holy fucking hell, what is that squeaking, exterminate exterminate—well, it lingers. Every subsequent interaction among these four people is informed by that sense of anxiety, accompanied by the knowledge that reassurance ain’t in the cards.
There’s plenty of equally Lynchian stuff happening visually in this scene as well. My favorite detail is Henry running his left hand along the seam between the couch’s arm and its body (or whatever the terminology may be), which is the sort of unconscious nervous tic that actors train themselves not to do, but then rarely think to deliberately introduce when it’s appropriate for the character. (When was the last time you saw a movie character bite his or her nails, unless it’s a trait made explicit in the dialogue?) Mary’s bizarre quasi-epileptic fit seems maybe a bit much at first, but I love the way she just snaps out of it by rejoining the conversation, ignoring the fact that she can’t easily speak at first because her mother is holding her jaw. And Lynch directs everyone to take gigantic uncomfortable pauses between lines, so that much of the time, we’re watching a moving still-life of three people who seem as if they’d each rather be just about anywhere else on earth.
Finally, Mary’s dad shows up, overcompensating for his wife’s sullen sarcasm (“Yes, he sounds very clever”) by being way the hell too jovial, like a used-car salesman. In fact, he’s a plumber, as he’s quick to tell Henry, and as an enormous Brazil-style duct at the left of the frame seems to confirm. The details of his profession, however, he’s forced to shout, as he’s now competing with a sudden, unexplained rumbling noise that overwhelms the soundtrack. Again, nobody seems to acknowledge this (apart from the shouting)—it’s apparently a recurring irritation, like the subway cars that intermittently rattle Brad Pitt’s house in Seven. But this rumbling isn’t just some minor instance of urban noise pollution. It sounds like a volcano erupting next door, or the collapse of a really tall building. We’re all of three minutes into a scene that’s ostensibly just “Hi, so nice to meet you,” and my mental associations have been 1) head in an oven, 2) rat infestation, 3) erupting volcano. The golden age of radio was long before my time, but it’s hard for me to imagine that Inner Sanctum or The Shadow could have skeeved out an audience more effectively.