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A Dream of Dark and Troubling Things: A Look at David Lynch's Eraserhead

by paul jaissle

In the world of independent cinema, few statements have been as unique and visionary as David Lynch's feature film debut Eraserhead. Unleashed upon the screen in 1976, the film immediately polarized critics and audiences with it's bizarre and often troubling imagery. Since then, Eraserhead has reached the status of a cult classic and could probably claim as many fans as it can those who hate it.

The problem with reviewing Eraserhead (or most of David Lynch's films, for that matter) is that the film is next to impossible to summarize, since Lynch's work is less plot-driven than it is a collection of impressions and images. Simply put, Eraserhead is, as Lynch himself once described it, 'a dream of dark and terrible things.' This really is the best way to describe the movie, but for those who want to know details, Eraserhead is really about the world surrounding the main character Henry Spencer. The opening shots include a planet floating in space along with images of life and birth. The camera draws closer to the planet until we are at the center and there is a man pulling levers which apparently control the world around him. From this we see Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) walking to his apartment. Located in the mysterious world between a factory and the factory town, Spencer's building is filled with loud industrial sounds and forbidding shadows. After an exchange with the beautiful woman who lives across the hall from him, Henry goes over to his girlfriend Mary's house for dinner. Mary's mother informs Henry that Mary has had a child and that he is the father. The 'baby' turns out to be a deformed creature which keeps them awake and forces Mary to leave Henry alone. Henry finds solace among this confusion by watching his radiator in which he sees a woman singing to him that 'In heaven, everything is fine.' Henry has a romantic interlude with the woman in the hall way and experiences a series of horrific dreams. Driven mad by his situation and the sick child's noise, Henry kills the baby causing what appears to be the end of the world. The man at the center of the world tries to prevent the end, but we see Henry and the Lady in the Radiator embrace in a blinding light.

As stated above, Eraserhead is not a plot-driven film. Instead, the film is a series of images that transport the viewer to a world they have never seen before. The images that Lynch creates are both beautiful and disturbing: he perfectly constructs a world in which everything makes sense. A woman standing on a tiny stage inside of a radiator would seem so strange to us, but in Henry's world, it seems so natural. Henry's world is a very different one, indeed: the loud racket of the factories is not kept out by the walls of his building, and instead becomes the soundtrack for his life. It is easy to see why Henry would want to escape that world and find comfort in the Lady in the Radiator.

But what does it all mean? That is really up to the viewer. Much like his other work, David Lynch refuses to disclose any meaning that the film might hold for him personally. Eraserhead is obviously a very personal film since it deals with issues such as fatherhood, sex, love, and the confusion of existence. Lynch's lips are sealed even on how the film was made: to this day he has yet to disclose the inner workings of Henry's 'baby.' It is refreshing to see a filmmaker who believes in his work so deeply that he will guard the secrets of the production in order to make the world of the film that much more real. Whatever interpretation of the film one takes, it will be correct and make sense to that person. That is the beauty of Eraserhead: it holds something unique for each viewer, so it can 'mean' whatever you want it to.

As his first feature, Eraserhead is a must see for fans of David Lynch's work. It is by far his most avant-garde film, but it has many themes that he would revisit in later films like Blue Velvet and on the TV series Twin Peaks (in fact, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that Henry Spencer and Dorothy Valens from Blue Velvet live in the same neighborhood, or that the Lady in the Radiator comes from the same place as Twin Peaks' Little Man From Another Place). Also, like Lynch's other films, Eraserhead is not for everyone. People looking for a movie to sit and enjoy without too much to think about should look elsewhere. It is easy to see why people would write Eraserhead off as a pretentious 'art film,' but it functions instead as sort of the bratty American cousin of European avant-garde cinema. The true beauty of the film is the way Lynch abstracts everyday emotions and situations. For example, when Henry goes to Mary's house for dinner, it holds the all to familiar awkwardness we all feel in similar situations. But when the chicken Henry is carving begins to twitch and ooze a thick black liquid all over the table, some might see it as being weird for the sake of weird when in reality, Lynch is simply making the awkwardness Henry is feeling visual. Special mention must be given to Jack Nance who will always be remembered for his performance in Eraserhead, which is wonderful because he puts across so much desperate longing and anguish through his acting that it becomes hard to watch such a powerful performance at times.

For many years, Eraserhead was only available in the form of tenth generation VHS tapes that were fuzzy and hard to watch. But, after an initial release date of 2001, David Lynch is offering a fully restored version of the film on DVD through his website: The new print is spotless and without a doubt is the best looking version of the film yet. The DVD itself details how this perfection of picture was achieved, but frankly, I didn't understand a word of it. The disc includes an entertaining and informative interview with Lynch which will delight fans of the film as it offers a peak into the production of the film (which spanned over 5 years). The packaging must also be noted for being not only the most beautifully designed DVD box I have seen, but also the most frustrating to navigate.

Very few films hold up after nearly 30 years, and Eraserhead is one of them: three decades on, the film still has the power to fascinate and disturb viewers. Fans of David Lynch's work may already understand the importance of this film and in owning it, but movie buffs interested in the history of independent cinema or in American avant-garde film owe it to themselves to see Eraserhead in such a pristine form.

As stated above, the fully restored Eraserhead DVD is on sale through (and only through)

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