Eraserhead

Eraserhead
Director: David Lynch
Screenplay: David Lynch
Stars: Jack Nance (Henry Spencer), Charlotte Stewart (Mary X), Allen Joseph (Mr. X), Jeanne Bates (Mrs. X), Judith Roberts (Beautiful Girl Across the Hall), Laurel Near (Lady in the Radiator), V. Phipps-Wilson (Landlady), Jack Fisk (Man in the Planet), Jean Lange (Grandmother), Thomas Coulson (The Boy), John Monez (Bum), Darwin Joston (Paul), T. Max Graham (The Boss), Hal Landon Jr. (Pencil Machine Operator)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1977
Country: U.S.
Eraserhead Criterion Collection Blu-ray
EraserheadDavid Lynch’s infamous feature debut Eraserhead is nothing if not a singular achievement—a nightmarish spin down an industrial-wasteland rabbit hole that is equal parts surreal head-scratcher and emotionally driven horrorshow. When he began work on the film in 1972, Lynch was a student at the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies, and it would end up consuming the next five years of his and his cast and crew’s life, as he shot the film in bits and pieces mostly on sets he had constructed (and reconstructed) in the stables behind the AFI mansion in Los Angeles. Initially a painter by trade, Lynch early on discovered a gift for finding the beautiful in the weird, the macabre, the decaying, and the grotesque, all of which combine to form the texture of Eraserhead, a film that otherwise resists virtually all description and classification.

And therein lies its power and its uniqueness. Although part of a larger movement in 1970s American film culture that embraced the concept of “the midnight movie,” turning riotous amateur works like John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972), bizarre foreign art films like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1971), and off-beat studio experiments like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) into must-see-multiple-times late-night phenomena, Eraserhead still stands apart, a fitting tribute to its indelible, yet fascinating and unforgettable weirdness. Not surprisingly, the film was not an immediate success, and mainstream critics attacked it when it premiered at the Film Expo in Los Angeles (the critic for Variety wrote it off as “a sickening bad-taste exercise” with “little substance or subtlety”). It was initially distributed by Ben Barenholz, an exhibitor-turned-distributor who had effectively invented the concept of the midnight movie with his distribution strategy for El Topo six years earlier. Barenholz released Eraserhead slowly on the midnight circuit, where it gained traction with audiences seeking something different and eventually became a fixture of late-night screenings for the next half-decade.

Shot in beautifully expressive black and white by cinematographers Herbert Cardwell (who died two years into the production) and Frederick Elmes (who would go on to shoot films for Jim Jarmusch, Ang Lee, and Todd Solondz), Eraserhead takes place almost entirely inside dark, cramped interiors, including the tortured headspace of its nebbish protagonist, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), whose appearance is both nerdish (his white socks showing beneath his high-water pants, his pocket protector stuffed with pens) and bizarre (his towering shock of frizzy hair, reminiscent of the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein). Henry lives a solitary life in a small, one-room apartment in a post-industrial world of decaying factories and empty streets. Early in the film he is summoned to dinner with the family of his ex-girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart), whose creepy parents (Allen Joseph and Jeanne Bates) inform him that he has fathered a premature baby and that he and Mary must be wed and raise it.

The baby, which was purposefully withheld from all advertising material for years at Lynch’s insistence, is the film’s unsettling centerpiece of both gross-out discomfort and oddly moving pathos. There is never any explanation, but the child is a physically deformed monstrosity whose waxy, elongated face resembles an embryonic horse and whose body lacks arms and legs. It is constantly lying on its back, usually wailing in a skin-crawling whine; its fundamental humanity is denied by its alien appearance, which is why both Henry and Mary react to it with a mixture of disgust, frustration, and outright bafflement.

When Mary finally loses it and goes back to her parents’ house in a fit of sleep-deprived exasperation, Henry is left alone with the child, which sends him into a tailspin dreamscape that may or may not be fully separable from his ostensible life. The fact that Henry’s inner and outer worlds are not clearly defined marks Eraserhead as an obvious experiment in subjective storytelling, although any attempt to make absolute sense of its various plot turns and surrealist detours are dead ends. There is certainly meaning to be found, both social and psychological, and for all its weirdness, the film is actually quite engaging on an emotional level. We feel for poor Henry, whose inarticulateness and social awkwardness have ensured his marginalization. At the same time, though, the film is replete with moments of pitch black humor and bizarro sight gags, particularly in the dinner sequence, which plays as a grotesque parody of family values at their most twisted (Lynch also touches on the destruction of nature, which is nowhere to be found aside from a dead plant on Henry’s bedside table).

However, as much as it can be viewed as social satire, the film is best understood as a series of images and ideas, mostly driven by fear, paranoia, and revulsion, all of which is heightened by the film’s discordant soundtrack, which literally assaults the viewer with a rattling sonic mixture of industrial noise and ambient hiss. This is perhaps why initial critics were so turned off to it—they were disgusted by the effectiveness with which Lynch elicited their disgust.

Yet, there is a clear sense of humanity cutting through the film’s off-putting surface, especially (ironically) in the deformed child. To this day Lynch has refused to divulge how he and his crew created the illusion of the creature, whose visual realism is such that it is hard to imagine that organic matter was not somehow involved (many have speculated that it is essentially a puppet inside an embalmed cafe fetus). The creature’s rolling eyes and lolling tongue make it repulsive, yet its constant crying and vulnerability make it impossible to reject outright. As much as we may want to distance ourselves from it, its pathetic attempts to get attention and care are nothing if not heart-rending, adding a depth of feeling to a film that is too often written off as an effective, but ultimately shallow display of visual weirdness. As he would prove in his first studio feature, The Elephant Man (1980), Lynch was not so much interested in the surface of the freak show, but rather in what lies beneath.

Eraserhead Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English Linear PCM 2.0 stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • “Eraserhead” Stories, a 2001 documentary
  • Six short films by Lynch: Six Men Getting Sick (1967), The Alphabet (1968), The Grandmother (1970), The Amputee, Version 1 and Version 2 (1974), and Premonitions Following an Evil Deed (1995), all with video introductions by Lynch
  • New documentary featuring interviews with actors Charlotte Stewart and Judith Roberts, assistant to the director Catherine Coulson, and cinematographer Frederick Elmes
  • Archival interviews with Lynch and members of the cast and crew
  • Trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an interview with Lynch from filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley’s 1997 book Lynch on Lynch
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateSeptember 16, 2014

    VIDEO
    This is Eraserhead’s first appearance on the home video market since David Lynch’s self-released 2001 DVD, which was available only via his website. There had been news and rumors about Criterion releasing this film dating back to the laserdisc days, so the fact that it is finally here is a bit surreal in and of itself. The new 4K digital restoration, which was supervised by Lynch himself, is a beautifully impressive rendition of the film. It is notably darker than previous home video versions, which is clearly Lynch’s intention (the disc is equipped with a series of tests to calibrate the brightness and contrast on your screen for maximum effectiveness). In one of the video interviews included on the disc, cinematographer Frederick Elmes talks about Lynch’s fascination with barely being able to discern images in the darkness, which we get all throughout the film. The image, which was transferred from the original camera negative and digitally restored, boasts great texture and detail, even in the dimmest scenes. Of course, the film’s soundtrack is just as important as its images (in some ways, it was even more revolutionary and unique), and Criterion’s disc boasts an uncompressed stereo track that was created in 1994 by Lynch and sound editor Alan R. Splet from the original monaural mix stems. The soundtrack is eerily effective, with its nerve-rattling mix of industrial sounds and ambient hiss, which effectively fills the room.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Criterion’s Blu-ray of Eraserhead contains all of the supplements available on previous editions, plus quite a bit more. From Lynch’s self-distributed 2001 disc, we get “Eraserhead” Stories (85 min.), in which Lynch discusses the making of the film in-depth. Also released at that time were a series of Lynch’s short films, all of which are included here with the bonus of their having been remastered in 2K high-definition: Six Men Getting Sick (1967), The Alphabet (1968), The Grandmother (1970), The Amputee, Part 1 and Part 2 (1974), and Premonitions Following an Evil Deed (1995), each of which comes with an optional introduction by Lynch shot in 2001. New to this release are two trailers, one from 1977 and one from 1982; a 17-minute interview with Lynch and Elmes by filmmaker Tom Christie for his television production class at UCLA, which was shot at one of the film’s locations; a 7-minute excerpt from a 1993 episode of the French television program Cinema de notre temps in which Lynch and actor Jack Nance talk while driving to and visiting the tunnel seen at the beginning of the film; 16 minutes of footage shot for Toby Keeler’s1997 documentary Pretty as a Picture: The Art of David Lynch of Lynch, in which Lynch, Nance, actress Charlotte Stewart, and director’s assistant Catherine Coulson share stories while visiting the AFI location where Eraserhead was made; and, finally, half an hour of new video interviews with Coulson, Elmes, Stewart and actress Judith Roberts.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Absurda and The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)



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