January 18, 2007


Restored print showcases Lynch's masterpiece in all its shadowy glory

By Aaron Hillis

In the same year that self-proclaimed "classical avant-gardist" David Lynch released Inland Empire, a frizzy-haired kid in a lame gross-out comedy called Accepted was jokingly referred to as "Eraserhead," a punchline also used against Christopher "Kid" Reid way back in that antithesis of the avant-garde, House Party. Re-watching Lynch's 1977 first feature (beginning a week-long run of a restored print today at MoMA) just after proclaiming Inland Empire my favorite feature of 2006, I was suddenly conscious of how the cowlicked auteur has cemented his idiosyncratic trademarks into film and pop culture without varying his formalist strategies much at all. True, last year's magnum opus is a collage of aesthetic remnants gathered from his oeuvre and could therefore be read as his personal ode to filmmaking, but perhaps "Lynchian" -- casual slang for unnerving surrealism and enigmatic non-sequiturs (i.e. "Did you see that three-legged cat walking backwards, almost in slow motion? That was, like, Lynchian.") -- could also mean "working out the same creative kinks three decades running."

If this sounds more backhanded than it's meant to, it should be said that the highest possible compliment given to Eraserhead (beyond its inclusion in the National Film Registry) is that it's still a frightening pleasure to watch today. Years of VHS bootlegs couldn't do justice to its grainy detail or occasional low-contrast grayscales, and although Lynch has put much effort into his remastered DVD, the film demands big-screen immersion -- you'll be hypnotized by eraser dust swimming through light the way Lynch intended.

Eraserhead is iconic as much for its anxiety-dream sensory experience as its unforgettable black-and-white images, like the cinematic miracle birth of that jellied mutant baby or Jack Nance's infamously tall and wiry pompadour. Nance, who had roles in nearly every Lynch film until his unsolved death in 1996, leads us down the path of oblivion as the boyish and wild-eyed Henry Spencer, a lonely everyman with a silent comedian's demeanor. If Lynch is "Jimmy Stewart on Mars," as Mel Brooks once quipped, Nance is the intergalactic Stan Laurel in his befuddled expressions and speaking patterns ("Oh, you are sick."), then channeling Buster Keaton as he daintily negotiates some dirt dunes.

Coming home to his apartment, decaying within an industrial dystopia of ever-present smoke, flickering lights and inexplicable ambient noises, Henry is informed by his temptress neighbor that he has been asked over for dinner by Mary (Charlotte Stewart), his sweetheart who hasn't called for some time. With apparently nothing better to do than listen to records or stare into his radiator (in which a chipmunk-cheeked soprano squishes worms and sings "In Heaven," the greatest song the Pixies ever covered), Henry decides to meet Mary's freakish folks, learns of her unplanned pregnancy, and carves tiny chickens that flap while spurting black goo. "Strangest damn things. They're man-made. Smaller than my fist," boasts Mary's pop. Somewhere, a boil-covered elephant man pulls levers inside a haunting moon-rock satellite, and the bulbs of shadeless lamps intensify and burst, just as they do in Inland Empire.

Is Eraserhead a heightened reaction to impending fatherhood? What obstacles led to it taking five years to finish? Did he actually use a cow fetus to create that monster baby? It's doubtful we'll ever know; for 30 years, the director has been a frustrating interview because he never dissects his movies beyond pithy one-liners, such as "a dream of dark and troubling things" (for Eraserhead) or last year's "mystery about a woman in trouble" for Inland Empire. Unlike his subversions of Americana in between, which have either been more straightforward in plot (Blue Velvet, The Straight Story) or anchored to genre exercises that make the shadowy non-linearity more digestible (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr.), it's the films currently bookending his career that remain the least penetrable and most challenging. Has he come full circle on purpose? Were connections intended between the dots on his filmography? Is he commenting on Eraserhead as his purest film? Sigh.

The genius of Lynch is that he offers enough breadcrumbs and possibilities to entice us toward solutions, and as his feature proves in hindsight, he always has. Within this inscrutable realm of demon semen, ladies in radiators and fist-size chickens, the human instinct to make sense of the nonsensical kicks in -- certainly a justifiable reaction when Eraserhead was all we knew of him. But now we go in knowing every new Lynch film will be 100% Lynchian (not a bad tag for his new coffee brand), so why do we persist -- and delight -- in trying to articulate the meaning behind their provocative beauty? Perhaps we rationalize in the hopes of someday unlocking a bigger safe full of secrets: the mind of a sphinx-like filmmaker.

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Comments (1)

aaron you are a pathetic movie reviewer. If only you were actually as smart as you wish you were.

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