Sketchbook notes from the drifting spaces

Isolation challenging reality: from Eraserhead to Solar Lottery

A body blasting into interplanetary transport and switching between remote minds, a man’s identity lost and transformed into that of the previous Parisian apartment tenant, a crying baby more sheep than human. These are some of the unsettling and inventive scenes from the novel ‘Solar Lottery’ (Philip Kindred Dick, 1955) and the films ‘The Tenant’ (Roman Polanski, 1976) and Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977) respectively.

Perhaps because of my work in the last couple of years taking in visual fragments of the technology and decaying infrastructure of urbanscape, the connections between the above artists are more apparent and inspiring, particularly in terms of atmosphere and energy. Though ostensibly from the disparate genres of science fiction, psychological thriller and surrealism, all three have themes that take an isolated central character on the fringes of society and become outcast, embroiled in increasingly bizarre situations and overtaken by paranoia and fear rendering reality a series of splintered and madcap theatrical events.

The first darkened black and white shots from Eraserhead set the overall atmosphere for the film, an obscured revolving stellar/bodily planet cut off from any sense of humanity and heavily containing some surrealist dread, compounded by the underlying low noise. It spins uncomfortably in its orbit. After this start the comical figure of Henry (actor Jack Nance) wondering through a story of new fatherhood in an unfriendly industrial neighbourhood is almost easy going and fun, especially with the unhinged moments of the stone cold dinner dish of roast chickens that are still very much alive, or the tiny abashed singer, whose stage is teasingly behind the radiator and who cheers us and Henry up with her strangely puffed cheeks and a little sing song to boot. The lyrics are catchy and intriguing too – ‘In heaven, everything is fine…you’ve got a your good thing, and I’ve got mine…’

Like Lynch’s short film ‘Industrial Soundscape’, the sound is fascinating. It really holds Eraserhead together with its deep bass and hissing within so many layers adding eerie poignancy and depth, changing subtly between shots of characters and scene. Dialogue is minimal as Henry’s mind slowly, almost mechanically works to the grinding sounds and flickers between charcoal grey tones and black with blacks in the muted electric lit corridors and rooms.

Whilst Henry is marooned in a twentieth century dystopian confusion within some suppressed and dangerous society (directly taken from Lynch’s experience living in part of Philadelphia), in Dick’s debut SF thriller novel ‘Solar Lottery’ the protagonist Ted Benteley is caught in a more futuristic breakdown of reality, and like most of his lead characters in other novels such as ‘Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said’, is on the run. Ted reels against this world where the unclassified serfs and the contracted workers, who give a life and death oath to their employers. There is an abounding lack of humanity where people’s understanding of cause and effect have vanished long ago, and even psychological states are not personal but easily shared. Unlike Lynch’s more postmodern take on society, Philip K. Dick’s prodding visions are more political perhaps, but there are similar sociological themes and especially this feeling of characters in turmoil as their safety net is ripped apart by dark forces, seen in ‘Mulholland Drive’ or ‘Lost Highway’ for instance, and in some Polanski films where his personal experience of being on the move, a foreigner in unsympathetic country, no doubt surfaces.

In ‘The Tenant’ (Le Locitaire) Polanski directs and himself stars as Trelkovsky (uncredited), another character who becomes trapped helplessly in a spiralling situation, this time in the flat of an apartment block in Paris where a suicide had taken place. The director masterfully crafts the film with exciting techniques and clever editing now standard for psychological thrillers, but also in a compelling yet unsettling and sometimes funny way (like Eraserhead in this regard), which also traps the viewer with a lack of self belief, as the inhuman faces and actions of the surrounding community take their toll. This is the final part of his ‘Apartment Trilogy’ after ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, equally stylish but this time more distorted, abstracted and inconclusive.

The three tales of Eraserhead, The Tenant and Solar Lottery point towards alternate realities for individuals and inanimate objects that are constantly shifting in a strange flux… in contained corridors and claustrophobic apartments where our sense of identity is no longer really relevant – the world takes over and opens up new stellar possibilities.

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