Skip to main content

This dinner's getting mighty cold.

Eraserhead
(1977)

(SPOILERS) Long, long ago, when I was but a student, having an Eraserhead poster on the wall represented an attempt to garner instant cachet. It was that or Betty Blue. Which was not to say those displaying it secretly nursed the opinion that perhaps it wasn’t really all that, but it was in such proliferation, like Pulp Fiction a few years later, that it ceased to hold much evidence of anything personality-wise on the part of the bedroom decorator. Lynch’s film is a cult classic of the mainstream, in that it has long since ceased being a hidden picture awaiting discovery; it’s fully out there, nudging the top slots of 100 Cult Movies You Must See Before You Die lists and so inherently weakening their value. It also means it’s weird enough and widely seen enough that it garners polar reactions, with some savages coming away wondering what all the fuss is about. I’m afraid that, generally highly appreciative of David Lynch’s work as I am, Eraserhead has always left me cold. Revisiting it a couple of decades since I last gave it a chance, I can safely say it still fails to persuade me otherwise.


It does, of course, have a long list of famous fans. Kubrick loved it, screened it to his cast before making The Shining. John Waters, Charles Bukowski, HR Giger (who claimed Lynch didn’t want to work with him on Dune because he felt the Alien designer had stolen his ideas) and Terrence Malick were all advocates. While there are plenty of debuts I consider justly deserve their hallowed status, and I can completely see why Eraserhead is revered (it’s nothing if not unique in sensibility), I find myself stubbornly resistant to whatever it is that ignites fascination or compulsion in others.


Perhaps key to this is that, while I love Lynch’s brand of peculiarity in the vast majority of what he’s done, here it leaves me listless. I’m not transfixed by the images on screen, nor am I intrigued by the one-note strangeness he conjures. Not dissimilarly to the way Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, revered by the majority yet without the abundant sense of humour that proliferates later escapades, is an incredibly long 80 minutes (his more recent Oz The Great and Powerful suffers from similar tendencies to tedium).


I will say, however, that given the last time I watched Eraserhead was on ropey old VHS, the Blu-ray transfer looks amazing, entirely selling the quite stunning cinematography from Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell (the latter died in his sleep a year into what became four of production). And the aural design, a double album worth of industrial sound effects, is pervasively mood-setting, uneasy and oppressive and alarming.


As is the case with the majority of the director’s movies, certainly the ones that arise unfettered from the depths of his involved psyche, he is reticent in divulging what anything means, even in the vaguest sense. It’s up to the viewer to interpret. But the general thrust of Eraserhead seems to be fairly transparent, and most first-time viewers will likely pick up that it’s uneasy meditation on the perils of parenthood amid a toxic and foreboding environment. Add in Lynch’s background details at the time, and most of what isn’t covered consists of what have since become signature ticks and quirks. He was a young father at the time, and daughter Jennifer’s birth and early years had been fraught (she was born with club feet that required surgery). He had also been living in Philadelphia, which (something he is quite open about) had a profound effect on his outlook, having previously enjoyed the surface idyll of Montana as reproduced in Blue Velvet’s white picket fences (Philly was an environment of “violence, hate and filth” and “The biggest influence in my whole life was that city”).


So in that context, Henry (Jack Nance, looking impossibly baby-faced) is a stand-in for Lynch, malignantly passive in his disposition, faced with an unhappy marriage and burdensome child, towards whom he nurses both a desire to care and discard. Sex is revealed as a constant source of unease and dread, even as it weaves in with desire (Judith Anna Roberts’ Beautiful Woman Across the Hall); Henry is the recipient of advances from Mary (Charlotte Stewart) and her mother (Jeanne Bates); the man-made chicken leaks blood from its cloaca; the baby is an enlarged embodiment of the sperm-like creatures of Henry’s dreams, and the one opaquely sent to earth by Jack Fisk’s Man in the Planet.


If the Man in the Planet is a source of Henry’s affliction, the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) provides relief, destroying his fear-inducing sperm and eventually taking him to the light, free from mortal bondage; such polarities are common to Lynch’s work, be it white and black lodges or wicked and good witches. One might make a case that Eraserhead offers an inverse of the 2001’s Star Child, the baby a horrific vision of all that mankind can devolve into (and which Henry becomes at one point), as a corrupted, diseased mind and body. It’s certainly, aside from the unsettling radiator woman, devoid of the filtering of later work.


Eraserhead, despite its patches of humour, is unrelentingly oppressive and bleak; there is no grading or shading here. Where other pictures distinguish between realities, or pull back veils, Eraserhead is all undercurrents, and what is fascinating, bizarre or intangible in the likes of Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive becomes undifferentiated and so less potent. It’s telling that the picture was originally planned as 42 minutes, because it’s really 88 minutes of mood that, as Pauline Kael said, “Pulls you inside grubby, wormy states of anxiety”. The only bit she left out was that it also induces wormy states of lethargy.


As such, I’m only really inclined to investigate the picture’s meaning as far as it reflects on the director’s oeuvre generally. It does possess something of the desperately “other” co-existing with our realm, something dread and inescapable, of which we humans are blithely unaware since it sits just on the edge of our perception; often we cannot even perceive it even when it stares us in the face. There are also what have become Lynch trademarks, from flickering lights (the intimation of evil), to the everyday made uncanny (Henry’s elbows) and antic admissions (“Look at my knees, look at my knees”). Occasionally it’s very funny (Mary attempting to pull her suitcase from under the bed, the on-the-nose explanation for the title), but the film is too abject to be regarded as a comedy, its absurdity more than counter-weighted by the prevailing despair.


I suspect I’d be more impressed by Eraserhead if it lasted the initially planned 40 minutes. Or better still 20. As it is, it’s an endurance test that drones on self-absorbedly, very much in the mode of the wilfully oblique and tangential student film (for all that Lynch cut it a merciful 20 minutes, it’s just not merciful enough). When I first saw it, my reaction was one of stronger rejection, in proportion to veneration that far exceeded its value. I can certainly see its merit as a piece of filmmaking, but for me it’s easily the least of Lynch’s pictures, as pronouncedly as it is the favourite for others.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.