Tractor: “Bonding Scene from The Grandmother” (The Grandmother OST, 1970)

Today, Mark Richardson reviewed the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Eraserhead for Pitchfork. He makes a lot of good points about the musicality of Lynch and Alan Splet’s sound design for that very strange, unsettling film. The Lynch/Splet partnership began seven years before Eraserhead was first shown to the public, though, when Lynch was still finding his way into film-making with shorts.

Lynch has said that he first got into filmmaking out of a desire to see his paintings move, and his first shorts, “Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times)” and “The Alphabet,” quite literally follow this impulse. His longest film prior to Eraserhead was 1970’s The Grandmother, which is 33 minutes long, and is his first narrative film, though the surreal, heavily metaphorical content by no means lends itself to conventional storytelling.

The basic story is that a boy whose parents are alternately neglectful and brutal grows himself a grandmother to serve as a protector figure and a comforter in a world where he has neither. There are very few live-action shots; even the scenes where the actors perform are shot in fragments or frame by frame and then cut together into choppy animations. These scenes are intercut with nightmarish animations similar to the moving paintings of Lynch’s earliest films.

Lynch and Splet spent months developing the sound effects for The Grandmother, which has no dialogue. When the parents speak to their son, their voices come out as primitive, guttural grunts. All they can say is a back-masked “mon!” The grandmother whistles musically for the boy, and the foley is full of scrapes, thumps and strange, textural noises, many of them played at off speeds or backward.

And there is music, too. Lynch brought in a local band called Tractor to play on the soundtrack, and their contributions are woven into the sound effects to the point where they merge to become a single soundscape. The piece of music I’ve highlighted above begins about 22 minutes into the film, and it’s delicate and mostly unmolested by sound effects, a sharp contrast to the rest of the film’s soundworld befitting the only scene of true tenderness in the whole thing.

Eraserhead graduates to another level of film making, but a lot of the elements that make it so haunting were refinements of ideas first explored here, and that includes the sound design.