Our review of Eraserhead (1977) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published September 26th, 2014, is also available.
A dream of dark and disturbing things
"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things."—Holy Bible
"Welcome my son. Welcome to the Machine."—Pink Floyd
There is probably nothing more mentally terrifying to your average male member of the tired human race than the prospect of growing up, taking responsibility, and raising a family. Like a social mandate from the Moral Code Book, young boys are raised to never fear the reaper, sow the wild oat seeds of love, and then, when the dust and damage has settled, find the right woman, one you'd almost want to bring home to mother, bring the cow home anyway, and then procreate like it's your patriotic duty. We live within a communal ideal that married men and women without children are "missing" something. They are only part of a potential whole. They only feel or sense love half way. To most people, when God or karma hands out the packages of peace and tranquility, those without biological offspring are left holding a rain check, or worse, are sent to the back of the line like some manner of segregated psychopaths until they figure out just why they don't want a bundle of joy to bounce on their knee. The modern world is a celebration of, and dominated by, youth and its juvenile culture. So it's intriguing to see how quickly pressure is placed on the young adult, once they no longer offer a significant "snuggle" factor, to cast off the shackles of sno-cones and training pants, to quickly find their pale pole position in the forthcoming rat race of life and grow up.
Eraserhead, the masterful first full-length feature film by director/artist David Lynch, is a direct challenge to the notions of bliss through birth, of merriment through maturity. It asks us to stare our biological destiny square in its potentially imperfect, diseased eyes and rejoice for the blessings that have befallen us.
Facts of the Case
Henry Spencer lives in a horribly grimy, industrialized city, His is a simple life filled with small pleasures. He returns home to his tiny apartment. His neighbor, an exotic woman of the night, is hanging out her door. She tells Henry that Mary has called, and wants him to come over for dinner. Henry seems unnerved by the news. While deciding what to do regarding the invitation, Henry indulges his hobbies and pastimes. He sorts his change in his dresser drawer and drops a coin in his tiny water-filled wishing bowl. He cares for his organic art pieces that decorate his mantle and nightstand. And he dries his socks on the radiator, where he spends most of his free time, daydreaming, losing himself in a world of fantasy.
Henry decides to go to Mary's. When he arrives, there is obvious tension in the air. The meal is served, and Henry is asked to carve the dinner. The resulting horror causes the family scene to implode as our beleaguered bachelor learns the truth of why he is at the X household. Mary and Henry had been intimate weeks before, and there is now a malformed, premature quasi-fetus that needs caring for. Henry is expected to marry the mother and take them both in. He agrees. But domestic life is not bliss. Mary cannot tolerate the baby's cries and soon she leaves Henry. Then the baby takes sick and Henry tries to nurse it back to health. One night, Henry's neighbor arrives at his door. She has locked herself out and would like to spend the night with Henry. They have sex. The next day, Henry sees the woman with one of her tricks. This sends him into a jealous rage of confusion and remorse. Blaming the child for all his misery, he kills it. Now, racked with guilt, he kills himself.
For most people, children are a joy. They find their laughter as sweet as nature's own elixir and their round, cherubic faces like heaping helpings of Olympian ambrosia. True, there are those misguided demons that want to harm wee ones, to abuse and confuse them with adult yearnings and sticky feelings. And there are those kinder forged from an anvil too hot or mixed from a pool too sugary so that their brain and body chemistry malfunctions, leading to all manner of anti-social, but still vehemently excused, behavior difficulties. For the most part, the general consensus is that kids are spectacular. So much so, in fact, that all of society revolves around them. Rights are undermined, justice usurped, and adult privileges yielded for the sake of a small fry's fragile psyche and ability to grow up worry free. So what does it say about Eraserhead that the most hideous, heinous entity in the film—far more foul than cooked mini-chickens that spew blood and bile from their roasted orifices or sicker than drilling into the soft, springy gray matter of a decapitated skull for pencil toppers—is a newborn child: or more accurately, a premature blob of almost human like flesh that screeches like an undead cat. The "baby" in Eraserhead is one of its most enduring and disturbing images, not only for what it physically represents on camera, but for what it stands for thematically in the piece. The baby represents sex at its most evil, biology at its most perverted, and responsibility at its most trying. It is Eraserhead's central visual cue because, in 1972 as it is now, the child is the universal expression of higher order.
It should come as no surprise to fans of his work that Lynch obsesses on the grotesque and the vile. From his early short films, to his later cinematic experiments, he has always tried to balance the real with the surreal. Lynch, the artist, likes to work in the uneasy medium of human bodily fluids. He seems both disturbed and frightened by sex, yet his most recent films have explored its very liberating nature in unapologetic terms. But years before, when he was a young mannered obsessive compulsive, eating the same foods at the same time everyday and spending untold hours on the minute detailing in a single shot's elements, Lynch, the disconnected outsider, found the entire idea of physically expressing love disgusting—or he must have, based on Eraserhead. He saw procreation as stifling the spirit of imagination. He saw aging as a veil of vagueness draping over the power to create. The philosophy in Eraserhead is both his and Henry's: the notion of a mean, industrialized world filled with cheap whores and uncaring families, a society asking for young, naïve males to tow the line and foot the bill for all the misery and strife that surrounds them. Henry, to Lynch, is the world's scapegoat. He is its patsy. All things in the movie are Henry's fault: the pregnancy, the baby's resulting disfigurement, Mary's unhappiness, his neighbor's lot in life, the baby's death. More so than any other film of its type, Eraserhead is about blame. It's about human weakness; it is mental anguish made physical, the body and duty contorted, the human genome and ethos polluted by industry. In Lynch's eyes, the present world guarantees that any resulting offspring would be more menacing and melancholy than any monster or machine.
If one steps back from its sickening surrealism, grotesque horror, and space case qualities and simply looks at what is going on, subliminally, in Eraserhead, the message of the film is surprisingly loud and clear: growing up is a terrifying prospect. Children are a terrifying prospect. Marriage is a terrifying prospect. And the loss of male virility is a terrifying prospect. In David Lynch's nightmare of the nursery, biology confronts sexuality and is distorted by society to form a qualified vision of inner hell. Henry lives and loves the silent world of his own creation. Sitting deep inside the planet in his head is an ugly distorted figure, like the psychological portrait of Dorian Gray, absorbing all the pain and anguish beaming from the petrified man-child and waiting for Henry to interact with the world. This jaundiced Jiminy Cricket pulls the levers that provide the effect to the cause, the reaction to the actions in Henry's staid life. The sex act with Mary is unfulfilling (Henry's look of horror as he passes his "seed" supports this), but it sets the gears in motion. And once Henry steps into the world of the living and reacts, violently or absentmindedly, to a child's place in his once serene existence, the machine locks up and the gross brakeman can't stop it. This is one final act from which our hollow hero cannot escape. The message is clear: accept your actions. Accept your fate.
…and all the while, the voice from behind the radiator tells him that "in Heaven, everything is fine…".
For Henry, reproduction is a death wish. A child not only shares your genetic make-up, it sucks out your life force like a doppelgänger DNA vampire. Typically, not all of Lynch's images are so obvious in their meaning. Why does the girl whose siren song lulls Henry into a waking sleep within the real world have such outrageously large and disgusting cheeks? And why does she live behind the constantly hissing radiator? What does the entire sequence with Henry's decapitated head, from its travel to the pencil factory to the discovery of his brain's ability to function as eraser material, stand for? What of the little worm that Henry receives in the mail? And why does it crawl around his organic art singing like a mitochondrial Theremin? An obvious answer is that these are all manifestations of Henry's dream world. It's what he thinks about and ponders. The lady, for example, is his ideal of eternal beauty, tainted by an obvious flaw (like the existence around him). The radiator is a constant source of comfort, so where else would an ethereal vision of peace and tranquility live but within a warming locale? Henry's eraser-head is his image of himself and his intelligence, a complete mental void so lacking in original or complex thought that his blank mind renders other ideas invisible. Just a small portion of this resilient rubber gray matter is all one needs to erase away the problems. And what of the worm? Well, aside from its obvious sexual connotation, it also represents physical liberation. Free to keen and explore any and all natural orifices, this small, potent phallus is free to do everything that Henry, in his current state of matrimony and mind, cannot. For you see, Eraserhead is about thinking with your dick (that other brainless head associated with rubber) and the ramifications of said. It is about giving in to the instinctual urge to fornicate, and the disquieting results when one is not ready for such a huge biological burden.
For all its thematic complications and hidden/overt symbolism, however, Eraserhead is basically just a tone poem, an exercise in style over structure and images over exposition. Lynch has always been, first and foremost, an abstractionist. He understands the obvious and subliminal power in pictures, and more than any other film of his, Eraserhead is filled with said timeless images—the mutant child, Henry's high rise hairdo, Mary's torn photo, the X's dollhouse, the afterlife theater with its mumps victim singer. Even if Lynch had nothing of real intellectual value to expound upon here, the imagery itself would be enough to sell the film's esoteric invention. But Lynch does have a doctrine; he simply uses hints and suggestions to explain it. Lynch admits to only having a twenty-page outline of a script when he began, and it makes sense when watching the finished film. The dialogue could not have taken up more than 10 of those pages, and the long elaborate silent sequences play out like they were described in simple sentences. Lynch is a master of the dialogue-less film form. He fills the screen with meaning and makes his compositions say something without resorting to obvious situations. True, there are indulgent moments where he allows his id to explode and wallow in the excess like a naughty schoolboy in a juicy mud puddle. But more times than not, Lynch works the monochromatic color scheme to minimal perfection, offering a straight ahead vision of adult life as living hell, of fatherhood as horror, and of progeny as perplexing and pathetic. Henry does love his distorted infant. He just doesn't like what it's done to his world.
Still, for those who are interested in finding all the hidden meanings within this Lynch morality play about mortality, there are several ways to interpret the film. It must be said that the film is so dense, so arcane, that one wonders if there really is a definitive answer. Now, there must be, since in the bonus material offered here, Lynch claims there is one definitive interpretation. He also says no one has come close to it in 25 years of discussing the film (sounds like a challenge). Whatever the private mystery Lynch has devised to explain his disturbed hallucination to himself, three tend to stand out as rational interpretations of the material and metaphors presented.
Interpretation 1: Fatherhood destroys Henry: As stated before, Henry is a disturbed child lost in his own fantasy world. It has its own logic and parameters. He's buried his traumas deep into the core of his own inner galaxy, to be worn by a silent, suffering inner self. Mary and her hellspawn child shake this universe to its very foundation. Mary's desertion and the baby's misshapen visage work their warping magic on this meek little printer to the point where he kills the child and then himself. His world has been irrevocably broken by paternity. His little "worm" can no longer randomly explore the cracks and crevices of available love. His only choice is to accept the "fine" nature of heaven and take his own life. After watching the baby's orgy of organs swell and ooze, Henry has no choice but to die. Now, an alternative take is to argue that it is not Henry's life that is gone by the end of the film, but it's his childhood and adolescence. The rain of eraser shaving that circulates around his head like confetti announces his arrival into manhood. The hug from the lady behind the radiator, bathed in a blinding white light, is not about death, but about final acceptance. Henry finally understands. Henry needs to become a man, to place the life of the child before his own needs.
Interpretation 2: Henry is sexually impotent. Another wild way to look at the movie is to imply that it is one unsatisfying sexual fantasy in the dull, meager existence of Henry Spencer. Since he is a man who seems destined to be stepped on by life, career, and love, it would make sense that his sick carnal desires would manifest themselves into a failed tale of finally scoring and facing the ferocious results. Henry often dreams of a quasi-attractive woman who taunts him with baby sing songs as she maniacally mashes the "fruit of his loins" in churlish glee. He wants to sleep with Mary, but believes that the result will be some freak show finale, complete with an unloving nag wife and a creature-child. Only in his dreams does his "worm" work, crawling in and out of life's holes. Even when the sexually available girl across the hall offers herself to Henry, the potential act of love devolves into feelings of drowning and inadequacy. Even an old joke is retold, literally, showing that while there may be plenty of eraser in Henry's head, there's very little lead in his own personal "pencil." The lady behind the radiator continues the mockery until Henry can no longer take it. He pleasures himself. The orgasm is shown in a shower of eraser shavings. The woman in the radiator accepts his sexual defeat with a grateful hug.
Interpretation 3: Henry is the Baby. One final way to look at Eraserhead is as Henry reliving his traumatic youth. Mary reminds Henry of his own mother, a woman who abandoned him to a lazy, whoring father. Henry sees himself in these scenarios as an ugly wart of an infant, a sickly child whose beastly image drove his mother away and his father to abuse. The lady behind the radiator is the loving family he always hoped for, be it in the afterlife or in his own home. As Henry moves around his world, living his daily life, the wounded memories of his childhood continue to live with him. Often he feels like a broken cog in a huge machine, lorded over by a diseased man with a sense of menace on his mind. He is the man made chicken at his future in-laws engagement dinner. He is the little worm, crying and screaming for acceptance. In the end, Henry opens up his childhood to see exactly what it is made of. The vision is too frightening, the reality too painful. As the baby is about to swallow him up, the world of his youth careens wildly out of control and explodes. The resulting shower of shards is a revelation to Henry. He can forgive and move on. He can accept his tormented youth. The lady and her radiant love welcomes him into her open arms.
Granted, Eraserhead is too open ended to have just one concrete explanation. Some can argue that it's a pro-abortion film, since heaven is a better alternative for Henry's heinous child than a life as a bundle of cobbled together vital organs. Others can say it champions the beauty in the grotesque, arguing that God and the afterlife accept everyone, no matter how badly deformed. Some may even draw a more direct link to scripture. Maybe it's a twisted take on The Bible; after all, we have Mary and a baby wrapped in swaddling. All deep thoughts aside, Eraserhead is a triumph of art. It is a mature and disturbing work, positioned through sight and sound and setting about to completely unnerve the viewer. Lynch has always been about "feeling" in his cinema, of making the audience respond on a primal level. The unsettling images and dark tone of Eraserhead will guarantee a sense of foreboding and dread. From its look and lighting to its silent, sickening set pieces, it is a story of man's descent into manhood and the unusually gloomy results. Freedom is about light. Servitude is all about oppressive darkness. But there is enlightenment and joy in Eraserhead. The last two minutes of the film, when we shift from a mostly black to a sharply white palette, are breathtaking. It contains images of such stark, somber beauty that it acts simultaneously like the mandated final cathartic moment to this horrific tragedy and as a coda of sweet compassion for our poor Henry Spencer. Anyone who loves film will be moved by the final images in the movie. Long before he'd won the world over to his warped ways with box office and critical favorites like The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, and Twin Peaks, Lynch was exploring the motion picture as performance art in the truest sense of the words. Eraserhead is a testament to the terror of birth, the torment of toddlers and the persistence of time. It is a truly original and remarkably disturbed vision.
The best way to describe the new DVD and picture offered by this personally supervised presentation of his first film is to argue that David Lynch, through his website, has made the long, convoluted process of getting a proper Eraserhead on the digital medium well worth the wait. This DVD has been expected for the last 18 months, but multiple delays (always chalked up to Lynch's perfectionism over the final mastering of the movie's transfer) and false hopes have corrupted even the most earnest fan into feeling that the result could not possibly be worth the effort. But they are wrong. Eraserhead offers, quite frankly, the best, most beautiful black and white image this reviewer has ever seen, period (and this comes from someone who constantly champions the monochrome efforts of Something Weird Video, the usual standard bearer in B&W). We are not talking about some fuzzy, faded pale presentation that skirts the notion of monochrome in favor of a world wrapped in gray. We are talking India ink and snow blinding glaciers. Proffered in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio (which must be the proper one, since the man who shot the film put it together), it's stunning in its clarity. And that is the true revelation here. The amount of detail available compared to old VHS or laserdisc copies of the film is unbelievable. If the devil, as they say, is in the particulars, then Satan himself blesses Eraserhead with his evil presence. The image is so good it's wicked. The months of manipulation were worth it. This is a fantastic looking DVD.
But the sound is another story altogether. When one watches the enclosed "stories" extra, they learn that Eraserhead's sound track was built up from junk stock salvaged from Warner Brothers' trash bins. Lynch added his atmospheric ambience and the dialogue was then synced. So it's no surprise that this DVD is not an aural workout; the sound here is bare bones and basic. But some Internet experts argue that it's far worse than that. Aside from being 25 years old and recorded under the most primitive of circumstances, they complain that the bit rate is all wrong, the compression grossly miscalculated, resulting in a craputacular audio fiasco. Frankly, any non-scientific argument is purely subjective. If it sounds good, then the wavelengths and amplitude issues are meaningless. Unlike the Back to the Future debacle at Universal a while back (and more like the arguments over the updated mix on the Special Edition of Dario Argento's Suspiria), this is merely a question of aesthetics. Most film fans will find the presentation here perfectly acceptable. All the dialogue is crisp and clean. There is very little hiss, and the trademark industrial hum that acts as a brooding backdrop for all the scenes in the film is nicely realized. So what if Lynch didn't offer some manner of faux 5.1 immersion experience? This is a work of art, not of high tech motion picture presentation. So much of the movie functions through image, not sound, that all the fuss over the exact number of kilobits per second seems anal retentive. Once again, this is the sound the way the creator wanted it. And it sounds just fine.
There are no chapters here and only three and one half extras offered here, each with their own endearing qualities. First, as the disc starts, we are treated to a David Lynch specialty, the television picture calibration test. With some manner of irony at the notion of seeing the movie "in the best possible presentation" (odd that in a theater is not an option), the adjustment walks the audience through a step-by-step process to maximize/minimize the amount of brightness produced by the set. Once we get past the techo-speak and move on to the menu screen, we are greeted by the half extra. The menu is a continuous loop of a deleted scene from the film (one of the few remaining). Lynch, always fascinated by animal carcasses, preserved the skeletal remains of a cat in tar he found in a storage tank near a set used for the film. In the movie, Henry was to stumble across this blackened animal. Well, as with most footage cut from the film, Lynch only had a tiny snippet of the scene, so he uses it to simultaneously enthrall and disturb the remote user. Of the extras proper, we first get a 45 second trailer for the film, which emphasizes single shots over trying to explain anything. In the bonus featurette there is another infamous trailer hinted at, one that would have been hilarious to see. It consisted of Lynch, sitting on a couch, explaining the movie to several stuffed Woody Woodpecker dolls. The still image from this piece is priceless, but as with many of the "stories" that Lynch has to tell about the film, time has undermined the living history capsule material available for the DVD.
It is this 87 minute long discussion of the film—entitled "stories" on the DVD menu—that many fans will rejoice over. Composed of lost videotape footage of the film being made, many stills and photographs (some of which are incorporated into the accompanying 20 page booklet for the movie), and a first person narrative by Lynch himself (with a little help), this is an exhaustive history of Lynch's life as a filmmaker and of just how Eraserhead came to be. Some of the mesmerizing facts include that the film took over 4 1/2 years of shooting to realize! There are scenes that Jack Nance played one moment of, and then 15 months and an infusion of money later, he'd come back to film the next bit. Also unbelievable is Lynch's reaction to the first screening. He felt it went so badly that he took the master print of the film home and hacked it up, by hand, to deliver a second version that was twenty minutes shorter. All the interiors and many of the exteriors were shot in the abandoned stables at the American Film Institute, where Lynch also lived. Unfortunately, some of the issues that lovers of the film want to hear about are not even mentioned. We never learn how the baby was created. We never see any missing footage (like Lynch says, most of Eraserhead's past is lost). We never learn what it means and we never see much more than a word of two from the original working script. Still, about halfway through, Catherine Colson (the log lady herself and a long time friend/associate of Lynch's) calls on the phone, and via speaker, adds her insight and wisdom about the project. Overall, it's a fascinating window into a disturbing and aggravating film. Just like Eraserhead, "stories" leave you wanting to know and understand more.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It is easy to see why so many people do not like this movie. It sacrifices linear narrative for a certain concrete look and feel. Characters are not explained, but instead are given Halloween style costumes meant to represent something to the audience by way of the director's warped mind's eye. And the chief image of the film, a child as fetal pig, seemingly created from pus and headcheese, is not going to become the next Happy Meal prize insert. Indeed, all aspects of the film are here merely to make an audience feel uneasy and disquieted. They are not meant to entertain so much as to erode one's own tolerance level. So the biggest compliment anyone can pay Eraserhead or its director, David Lynch, is that it sickens them. As an exercise in depression, the film has no equals. And as a work of warped imagination, it sure is weird. But this is not good filmmaking. Providing emotion is one thing. Cramming it into your eye sockets is another. Instead of entertaining, it's unrelenting. Those who argue that its secrets cannot be appreciated in one viewing are cinematic masochists. Once is more than enough for Eraserhead. And at the less than fan friendly price Lynch himself charges for the disc, maybe he understands this. Like a sickening work of art, maybe Eraserhead is only for the truly devoted. So if you want to visit the artist home page "gallery" and pick up your print, you are welcome to. But if you want to have some pleasure with your artistry, uncover some of this mad auteur's later works and leave Eraserhead to the highbrow sadists.
Eraserhead is the ultimate coming of age story, substituting buxom babes and illegal drugs for shrieking fetuses and a strange intraplantary man covered in sores. It functions better than any middle school sex education class about the perils of unwanted pregnancy and the potential terrors in pre-marital relations. It advocates the male of the species as a spineless buffoon, envisions the world of lust and sin as a dark industrialized wasteland, and argues that the standard recipe of sugar, spice, snips, snails, and puppy dog tails are far from what the average baby is made up of. Children are a suffocating, life swallowing plague, completely helpless and dependent on the mandated kindness of the parents. This is the world that society wants the man to enter into, to forego his dreams and needs and give in to the great God called responsibility. Then, if you're lucky, you will live a quasi-miserable life and die, frustrated and alone. Since his five-year odyssey spent bringing his personal night trauma on childbirth to the screen, David Lynch has extended his career, moving as far away from the little theater of the grotesque, this Grand pappy Guignol to play sort of nice within the world of adults. But some shadows are hard to shake. And the gloomy, oppressive dank of Eraserhead influences him to this day. While not as controlled or contrived as some of his later visions, David Lynch's work on Eraserhead remains virginal, springing forth from inside his subconscious all pink and fleshy. It is untainted by the traumas of adulthood. It is the foundation for all of his future films. It's also the film he needs to take responsibility for, like a good grownup should.
Eraserhead is found not guilty and is free to go. David Lynch is also acquitted on all charges. The DVD presentation of Eraserhead is given special commendation by the court. For anyone wanting to own this troubling artistic statement, it is well worth the price.
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