Release: 19th October 2020
Format: BR / DGTL
Henry (John Nance) resides alone in a bleak apartment surrounded by industrial gloom. When he discovers that an earlier fling with Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) left her pregnant, he marries the expectant mother and has her move in with him. Things take a decidedly strange turn when the couple’s baby turns out to be a bizarre lizard-like creature that won’t stop wailing. Other characters, including a disfigured lady who lives inside a radiator, inhabit the building and add to Henry’s troubles.
Few films seem so wilfully obscure, yet resolutely introspective as David Lynch’s feature debut Eraserhead. To this day, no one has a single solid idea what the hell the film is about, yet we all have our theories…and every one of them holds up. Is it a commentary on abortion? A fever-dream of fancy for a man on the brink of parenthood? A skewed critique of America’s blue-collar nightmare? The wistful visions of a flaky nomad tied into domestic responsibilities? Or a deliberate synthesis of abstract moods and images that function as a monochromic steampunk Rorschach test. Whatever it is, one is not likely to watch it lightly.
Lifted from its American release in 2014, this Criterion edition of Eraserhead comes courtesy of a 4K scan from the original negative and is packaged with explicit calibration settings from the director himself. Short of an HDR mix, this is likely to be the most perfect example of the film one could ever own. Considering that Lynch shot this in the backrooms of the AFI over a series of years with little-to-no budget, it is truly amazing to see just how smooth the image looks. Grain serves to generate mood rather than betray age, while the film stock defies any signs of carbon dating. Herbert Cardwell and Frederick Elems’ expressionist cinematography flexes every muscle it has in this iteration, and the battle between highlights and shadows serves to generate a glorious kaleidoscope of depth. In short, the film looks bitchin’. It sounds pretty darn good as well; an important caveat for a film so reliant on its symphony of wet industrial ambience.
Eraserhead will never be the sort of film you could freely recommend, but it is certainly one that will help you decide which side of the fence you stand when it comes to artistic expression as entertainment. In reality, Eraserhead is far from a perfect film, but it remains a film perfectly far from reality. Lynch would go on to improve his craft; ever honing his ability to bemuse with a soulful poetry of hallucinogenic truths. But in terms of his more conventional storytelling (see The Elephant Man) or his most outlandish (“got a light”), Lynch continues to carry the DNA of Henry Spencer and the X family in everything he does.
To this day, it is still hard to shake the film off; more so than it is to decide what the film is about. But then again, when it comes to David Lynch, the meaning isn’t always the point. Sometimes a film is just a film. As is the case with Eraserhead, no one cares what the film is about, but rather how the film makes them feel. Maybe that’s the secret to unravelling the great myth of Lynch’s triumphant debut. Just erase your ego (erase your head?) and become one with the form. Letting it carry you with it to a plane beyond the conscious mind. Cinema as mediation…here, at least, a thought much more disturbing than any floating reptile heads or pie-faced women behind radiators.
Film Grade: A-
Criterion has served up a decent mix of documentaries from over the years of the film’s life so far. They are a mixed bag, with some proving more engaging than others, but don’t watch any of them expecting to learn more about the film’s themes. This is purely about the creation of a mini-masterpiece. As for the accompanying essay booklet, there are some wonderful little nuggets to be found.
Special Features Grade: B+
Utter nightmare-fuel to some. A twisted comedic farce to others. Whatever Eraserhead means to you, it’ll mean something that Criterion has given it such a beautiful presentation.