Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 28, 2009: The Lost World: “Gardenback”

Developing a movie project is such a convoluted process that it’s amazing any films ever get made at all. There are the budgetary problems, and the casting difficulties, and the conflicts between directors and producers that have caused more than a few projects to be aborted before reaching term. In this on-going series I’ve dubbed “The Lost World”, I’ll be looking at some of these sweet abortions.


In 1977, David Lynch released what was arguably the last great Midnight Movie when his long-gestating surrealist masterpiece Eraserhead finally found its way into movie theaters. Like everything related to Eraserhead, the film was slow to find its audience, but once it did, it became a cult sensation and enabled Lynch to continue creating brilliantly dreamlike works such as The Elephant Man (1980), Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006). However, the story of Henry Spencer and his girlfriend Mary X was not born as the feature-length Eraserhead. These characters initially appeared in a short script for a film titled “Gardenback”.

Jack Nance as Henry Spencer and David Lynch at work on Eraserhead.

David Lynch was attending the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies (AFI) in 1970, and according to the program, he was expected to develop a new project. He had already made a few privately financed short films—“Six Figures” (1967), “The Alphabet” (1968), and “The Grandmother” (1970)—which each displayed his genius for fashioning fully-realized, deeply atmospheric dream worlds by combining live action sequences with various forms of animation. As his first project for the AFI, Lynch started working on a script for a 45-minute short called “Gardenback”, which was apparently inspired by a painting he made depicting a figure with little green growths springing from its back and his long-time love of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (a book he has often spoken about adapting!). In a piece about Eraserhead published in the September 1984 issue of Cinefantastique magazine, Lynch explained that “Gardenback” was to be about the happy couple Henry and Mary, whose lives are disrupted when Henry “looks at a girl, and something crosses from her to him. That something is an insect which grows in Henry’s attic, which is like his mind. The house is like his head. And the thing grows and metamorphoses into this monster that overtakes him. He doesn’t become it, but he has to deal with it, and it drives him to completely ruin his home.”

In his brief synopsis, we see Lynch dealing with several themes and images that would infuse much of his future work: insects as symbols of impending trouble, the use of a house as a metaphor for the mind, a character being manipulated by a creature born in his own psyche, the magnetic draw of a potential new love, and the destructive effects of infidelity. Still, according to Lynch’s former wife Peggy Reavey (star of “The Alphabet” and former sufferer of Lynch’s own extramarital dalliances) in Greg Olson’s book Beautiful Dark, Lynch could not bring himself to admit that Henry’s monster (i.e.: his adulterousness) was evil and couldn’t kill it off, robbing the script of the necessary dramatic finale.

Lynch’s “Gardenback” script faced other problems. His advisers at AFI criticized its lack of realism and linearity and tried to get him to expand it from a short to a feature. Sickened by the thought of metamorphosing his intriguing abstraction into a monster movie, Lynch lost interest in the project. Fortunately for us, he was able to salvage bits and pieces of the abandoned film and reconstitute them into his most consistent and beautifully realized work (and my personal favorite film): Eraserhead. Still, “Gardenback” would have likely been a fine work in itself, especially considering how powerful his early films remain, so there is some reason to mourn its loss. Because of its similarity to Eraserhead, it’s also highly unlikely Lynch would ever revisit this abandoned project— and he has many of them: One Saliva Bubble, a goofy comedy he wrote with “Twin Peaks” co-creator Mark Frost that would have starred Steve Martin and Martin Short; Goddess, another Lynch/Frost collaboration that was to be about the final days of Marilyn Monroe; Metamorphosis; Dream of the Bovine, a script about people swapping personalities with cows, which he penned with Fire Walk With Me co-writer Robert Engels; and his most famous unproduced work, Ronnie Rocket, which Lynch has often described as the story of “a three-foot tall guy with red hair and physical problems, and about 60-cycle alternating current electricity.” “Gardenback” may be permanently relegated to the lost-classic heap, but rumors are still flying that Ronnie Rocket may surface soon, and there’s nothing more thrilling to me than the prospect of David Lynch rescuing one of his unproduced projects from the Lost World.
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