Eraserhead Movie Review

It's understandable if at first you feel as though you're not getting enough information about Eraserhead's setting. And the timing is likely to puzzle you, too - not just the pace of conversations (of which there are few), but the sensuous, heavy-lidded rhythms of the entire movie. Then there's the plot... Or is there? At least there's a main character, a pasty, suited man who vibrates with something like extreme anxiety and hurries through the oily puddles of his weirdly industrial neighborhood as though someone were chasing him. The audience would read this character as a freak for a wealth of reasons, but his most conspicuous feature is his hairdo: a shock of frizz that shoots straight up off his head like the Bride of Frankenstein's, but blunt-cut across the top, like the eraser on the end of a pencil. The film gleans its title from this distinctive look: Eraserhead. It's one of the most thrillingly irrational films you'll ever see.

The talent behind Eraserhead is that one truly surrealist presence in mainstream American film, David Lynch. Later Lynch would expose the subterranean evil of Capra-esque America in 1986's Blue Velvet, recast The Wizard of Oz among the riotously criminal milieu of 1990's Wild at Heart, and offer us a circuitous journey down Los Angeles's famed Mulholland Drive in 2001 (although you won't be there to admire the view). And critics and audiences will marvel at the perversity of it all.

But it was in 1977's cult touchstone Eraserhead that Lynch took his tense and fantastic approach to filmmaking to its furthest extreme. The theme of Eraserhead, as Pauline Kael concisely stated it, is "a man's worst fears of courtship and marriage and fatherhood," and in giving voice to these fears the film succeeds unlike any other: When our hero Henry (Jack Nance) visits the home of his fiancée, for instance, he encounters a father so cowed that he's literally gone numb, an aphasic and apparently immobile grandmother to whom lit cigarettes are given, and a harping shrew of a mother who completes the horror of hearth and home by coming on to Henry. The bed Henry subsequently shares with his wife is the site of stifling, fever-dream episodes that never end, or that end in quarrels. And the baby is a sick, sleepless monster that whimpers and coughs up its food. "They're still not sure it is a baby!" Henry's wife cries at one point, and with its horse-shaped face and gauze-wrapped, oval body, it certainly doesn't look like one.

But Lynch tells Henry's story in warped, image-driven episodes rather than a traditional narrative, and it's these images and their inevitable, dream-like rhythms that make Eraserhead so extraordinary. It's driven by a kind of aesthetic intuition that all but disappeared from the screen with the experimental films of the '20s and '30s; Lynch doesn't explain scenes or let his characters talk them through, but instead culls images from the subconscious that seem arbitrary but that connect with the viewer in a weirdly indefinable (and often creepily sexual) way. We watch as a baked, "man-made" chicken begins spasmodically working its truncated legs when cut into, and although we can't pin any objective meaning to this image, its message of genetic misconception comes through loud and clear. Ditto the gristly, sperm-shaped organic things that Henry discovers in his bed, the angelic, disfigured woman who sings on a tiny stage within Henry's radiator, his mewing baby, and a lot more. It comes almost as an afterthought to mention that much of this is very, very funny as well. Eraserhead is a work of rare genius and real bravery; it's a comic nightmare we all have at once and whose meanings lay just out of reach.

Lynch made Eraserhead over the course of five years. The picture previewed in 1976, and although its release the following year met with mostly hostile reviews, a cult grew up around it. The early '80s saw a video release by Warner Brothers, but as these videos gradually fell off the shelves Eraserhead became harder and harder to see; viewers in recent years have had to settle for bootlegs with a distorted aspect and Japanese subtitles. It's all the more a cause for celebration then that this unnatural little classic is finally available on DVD, through, with a few nice extras and a wonderful transfer. It's a unique, resonant fantasy of the day-to-day, and it's been unavailable for far too long.

And a postscript to fans: Stoners love Eraserhead for its trippiness, which is a valid premise, but the picture can be taken a lot more seriously than that. If it's the dream logic and surreal content that appeal to you here, you're directed to Eraserhead's forebears: Luis Buñuel's Un Chien andalou and L'Âge d'or.


Eraserhead Rating

" Essential "

Rating: NR, 1977


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