ERASERHEAD, DAVID LYNCH, 1977
Some might call David Lynch a weird dude; others would call him a visionary artist. To me, he’s a little of both, and I can take him or leave him. Some of his work leaves me cold, like Lost Highway[, while I consider others to be masterpieces, most notably Mulholland Drive, and also the under appreciated Inland Empire. Eraserhead is somewhere in between. It is something I respect far more than I like, and it represents a starting point for one of the most inventive and creative cinematic minds of the modern era.
One thing that is remarkable is that this film was made at all. That’s one reason why I love these Criterion releases. Every film has a story behind the story, and Criterion teaches as much about the process of getting it to screen as it does the images as art. Eraserhead took a long time to get made, and the project came about as a happy accident when Lynch nearly had a falling out with AFI. They were giving filmmakers a lot of rope, and they pretty much left him alone and did his thing. The final product, to me, is not perfect, but it is of unquestionably high quality, and not something you’d expect from someone who had previously directed a handful of experimental shorts.
The movie itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Lynch acknowledges as much and refuses to share his interpretation. I actually really admire that. As anyone who has been in a good English, Film or Art History course can attest, the creator’s original intent has very little to do with how people interpret and understand the film. In some of the marathon discussions in which I’ve participated, we have deconstructed the piece of art far far beyond the creator’s vision or intent, and that’s what makes it beautiful. Something that can be a lot of things for a lot of different people has power, and that’s why a films like Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive can take hold.
It doesn’t take a lot of searching to find popular theories on the Internet. Here’s one. Here’s another. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. You could scour blogs and discussion boards for hours just reading different interpretations. Lynch likened the film to a Rorschach test, implying that the way people interpret the film says more about them.
Aside from enjoying it as a piece of entertainment a few times, I cannot say that I’ve gained much more understanding of it, but I have picked up on several themes and motifs, just like everyone else. The sexual symbolism is overt, with the spermatozoa-like objects (for lack of a better word) popping up on occasion. In one scene Henry finds them all over the bed he is sharing with his girlfriend/wife. Could that be sexual guilty? We don’t know. Fatherhood is another key theme, as embodied by the freaky, mutated baby, that I’d still rather not know what it really was. On this recent viewing, I picked up on some commentary on modernity and technology. This is expressed all throughout the movie, most notably through the constant humming of the machinery. There are other moments where it comes into play, such as when Henry’s girlfriend’s father marvels at the smaller-sized chickens, which he proudly exclaims are new! And of course those chickens foreshadow the eventual baby, so if the message is of modernity, it is interwoven with the pressures of the nuclear family.
For such an independent and low budget film, it is technically brilliant. One element that stands out to me is the sound design — which is often a constant hum. The black-and-white cinematography looks terrific, especially on this Blu-Ray (I had previously seen this on VHS or streaming).
There are a lot of different avenues to take when interpreting the film, and there really is no wrong answer. David Lynch isn’t going to take out his red pen to anyone’s conclusion. He’s just proud that we’re still thinking about it.
Film Rating: 7/10
David Lynch Shorts: The majority of these are from early in Lynch’s career, prior to the release of Eraserhead. Some of them were created concurrently with that project since it took so long. The only exception is his one-minute contribution to Lumière and Company, using the same century-old equipment that the early pioneers of film used.
If Lynch hadn’t become the filmmaker that he is today, these most likely would not have seen the light of day. They are clearly amateur filmmaking, yet they are experimental and show glimpses of what would become his style. That’s not to say they are not good on their own right. For what are essentially student films, these are high quality. These were part of the reason AFI favored him and gave him freedom to make a feature.
And yes, as you might expect from Lynch, the shorts are weird. The Amputee has a double amputee transcribing a letter while her wounds are being tended to by a nurse. The Grandmother is about a bed-wetting child who grows some sort of object on his bed that births his an old lady. This was the longest and best of the shorts. Most of them mix crude animation with live action, which gives them an added surrealism. All of the shorts are worth watching, especially for Lynch fans.
Documentaries and Interviews: The remainder of the supplements are arranged by the year in which they were released, with no explanation. You just click the year and see what happens, which is a very Lynchian format. These were all interesting in their own right. I enjoyed the interview from the set that was conducted after the release about the time the film was achieving cult status off as a midnight movie. Lynch was frank about his methods, but silent about his meanings. That’s a silence he would keep throughout his entire career. There was another documentary that was basically Lynch talking into a microphone about the process. This one was the least interesting, even if he gave the most information. I particularly enjoyed the most recent documentary, which features some of the actors and crew members, which most likely was recorded just for this release.
Criterion Rating: 8/10