Eraserhead vs. Inception

A few weeks ago over at Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito ruminated on the idea of filmic surplus as presented in my essay on Inception in The Quarterly Conversation.

Here’s a bit of my argument from the essay, which juxtaposes the storytelling of Christopher Nolan with the storytelling of David Lynch:

…Nolan is not a student of the David Lynch School of Ambiguous Filmmaking, however. Nolan says that ambiguity in a film “has to come from the inability of the character to know—and the alignment of the audience with that character” and that an ambiguous film “needs to be based on a true interpretation.”

In the piece, I posit that Lynch makes films that he does not completely understand, films which spill over with narrative surplus. I also posit that even though Nolan’s films seem to have no narrative surplus – no unexplained elements – his kind of moviemaking leads to audiences who obsess over films to find out the “truth” they contain. In other words, the films are so over-explained that parts that don’t make sense to the viewer practically vibrate with possibility.

Exhibits #1, #2, and #3:

Riffing on this idea, Scott believes that

We might say that films can be broadly divided into two types: films like David Lynch’s, where the source of the surplus comes from the fact that the rules the film operates on are opaque; and films like Nolan’s, where the surplus comes from the fact of the film being cleverly made to leave you with a conundrum.

While I would agree with this assessment on the whole, I would argue that the “rules” of a David Lynch film are less opaque than oneiric. That is, they are based in dream logic. It’s not so much that David Lynch is hiding the rules but that there are no rules.

And so it would never occur to a viewer to make a diagram of Eraserhead; why would you diagram a dream? And while a diagram of the plot of Twin Peaks might be in order, just to keep track of characters and developments, it would be a labor of love rather than a search for the ultimate meaning of the series.

In the end, Scott prefers Lynchian films over Nolanesque ones:

I suppose, on the whole, I’m more keen on films like Lynch’s than Nolan’s, mainly because the latter tend to reduce themselves to an either/or equation: either Leonardo DiCaprio is dreaming at the end of the film or he’s not. It’s an interesting question, but to my eyes it’s not nearly so interesting as a question like, What the f–k kind of reality do the characters in Eraserhead live in?

On one level, I agree with Scott’s sentiment. Eraserhead is the more engaging film because of how enigmatic it is. I remember watching it in the dark with my friend Jon on his 50-inch plasma. The images on the screen filled us with horror, loathing, pity, fear, and more than little curiosity. But when it comes writing creative criticism from within the world of a film, I have a hunch that the ones with a lot of rules provide a better footing.

I wonder what a creative criticism piece on Eraserhead would look like?

What do you think?

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