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

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…

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I have discovered the great ray that first brought life into the world.

Frankenstein (1931)
(SPOILERS) To what extent do Universal’s horror classics deserved to be labelled classics? They’re from the classical Hollywood period, certainly, but they aren’t unassailable titans that can’t be bettered – well unless you were Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan trying to fashion a Dark Universe with zero ingenuity. And except maybe for the sequel to the second feature in their lexicon. Frankenstein is revered for several classic scenes, boasts two mesmerising performances, and looks terrific thanks to Arthur Edeson’s cinematography, but there’s also sizeable streak of stodginess within its seventy minutes.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Stupid adult hands!

Shazam! (2019)
(SPOILERS) Shazam! is exactly the kind of movie I hoped it would be, funny, scary (for kids, at least), smart and delightfully dumb… until the final act. What takes place there isn’t a complete bummer, but right now, it does pretty much kill any interest I have in a sequel.

Only an idiot sees the simple beauty of life.

Forrest Gump (1994)
(SPOILERS) There was a time when I’d have made a case for, if not greatness, then Forrest Gump’s unjust dismissal from conversations regarding its merits. To an extent, I still would. Just not nearly so fervently. There’s simply too much going on in the picture to conclude that the manner in which it has generally been received is the end of the story. Tarantino, magnanimous in the face of Oscar defeat, wasn’t entirely wrong when he suggested to Robert Zemeckis that his was a, effectively, subversive movie. Its problem, however, is that it wants to have its cake and eat it.

Do not mention the Tiptoe Man ever again.

Glass (2019)
(SPOILERS) If nothing else, one has to admire M Night Shyamalan’s willingness to plough ahead regardless with his straight-faced storytelling, taking him into areas that encourage outright rejection or merciless ridicule, with all the concomitant charges of hubris. Reactions to Glass have been mixed at best, but mostly more characteristic of the period he plummeted from his must-see, twist-master pedestal (during the period of The Village and The Happening), which is to say quite scornful. And yet, this is very clearly the story he wanted to tell, so if he undercuts audience expectations and leaves them dissatisfied, it’s most definitely not a result of miscalculation on his part. For my part, while I’d been prepared for a disappointment on the basis of the critical response, I came away very much enjoying the movie, by and large.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.