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.

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Do you know that the leading cause of death for beavers is falling trees?

The Interpreter (2005) Sydney Pollack’s final film returns to the conspiracy genre that served him well in both the 1970s ( Three Days of the Condor ) and the 1990s ( The Firm ). It also marks a return to Africa, but in a decidedly less romantic fashion than his 1985 Oscar winner. Unfortunately the result is a tepid, clichéd affair in which only the technical flourishes of its director have any merit. The film’s main claim to fame is that Universal received permission to film inside the United Nations headquarters. Accordingly, Pollack is predictably unquestioning in its admiration and respect for the organisation. It is no doubt also the reason that liberal crusader Sean Penn attached himself to what is otherwise a highly generic and non-Penn type of role. When it comes down to it, the argument rehearsed here of diplomacy over violent resolution is as banal as they come. That the UN is infallible moral arbiter of this process is never in any doubt. The cynicism