Disc Jockey: Five ways to look at David Lynch's 'Eraserhead,' now out on Criterion - Metro US

Disc Jockey: Five ways to look at David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead,’ now out on Criterion

Jack Nance spent five years with his hair standing straight up while making David Lynch's Jack Nance spent five years with his hair standing straight up while making David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.”
Credit: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection

David Lynch has long claimed that no published interpretation of “Eraserhead” has lined up with his. That’s no reason to fret — especially if you’re one who believes an artist’s intentions need not be integral to deciphering, or even simply enjoying, his or her work. There are many ways to read his 1977 debut feature, newly reissued on Blu-ray in a typically souped-up edition by the Criterion Collection — not cold interpretations about what each image means, but ways to read it that are far more fruitful. Here are some of those:

As being against interpretation

To get something out of “Eraserhead,” one doesn’t particularly need to figure out why Lynch made his doormat of a hero’s hair high like an eraser, or what the deal is with the acne-laden, lever-pulling guy in the opening, or what’s up with that singing, bulbous-faced lady who lives in a radiator and likes to squish spermy serpents that fall from the ceiling. In fact, it’s one of those films that challenges the fallacy that quality of art derives from drearily locating its meaning, from “getting it.”

To be honest, those answers probably aren’t hard to glean anyway, despite its maker’s protestations. Lynch has said in interviews — some of them included on the new set — that he was more about capturing specific feelings and places, working off instincts he would not question. You don’t need a psychology degree to spot a mess of parental and sexual anxieties out of the tale of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a shy loner who lives in an industrial urban landscape not unlike the section of Philadelphia the art student Lynch lived in during the 1960s.

The slither of a plot finds Henry on a particularly sad staycation. His bliss (or whatever) is interrupted when he learns his ex (Charlotte Stewart) has given birth to their unwanted child, which turns out to not be a child so much as an unformed monster: an eternally moaning, snakelike thing whose swollen body is wrapped in gauze. He’d much rather disappear into his fantasies: some straight-up nightmares, others about the easy, hotcha woman (Judith Anna Roberts) across the hall.

It’s not hard to guess what’s going on during the interlude in which Henry and his comely neighbor embrace and his bed becomes a milky pool into which they descend. (Pauline Kael cited this as one of cinema’s most erotic moments, which is even more impressive when you consider it features “Twin Peaks”’ Pete Martell.) Unless Lynch finally reveals some intended meaning completely odds with one concerning fear of being a parent, a husband and an adult with a sex drive, then it’s easy to get past the obvious things it’s about and let it wash over you. Speaking of which…

Some of the shots in Some of the shots in “Eraserhead” (including this one, with Judith Anna Roberts) are so dark they’re pitch black.
Credit: Criterion Collection

As a straight-up mood piece

“Eraserhead” took a jaw-dropping five years to make, in part because money kept running out, and in part because every frame of it was handcrafted to perfection. It shows: The lighting experiments with degrees of darkness; everything’s dark in the film, some less or more dark than others. It has more in common with films noirs, especially films like “T-Men,” which play with how much of the frame can be consumed by pure, pitch black BLACK.

It’s the soundtrack that, if you will, completes the picture. Henry can’t escape the industrial noises of his neighborhood, even when tucked away in his squalid apartment. And neither can we: There’s always some form of noise blasting from speakers, filling out long scenes of scant action by hitting on the same noise, not unlike the stretches of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” where we’re treated to astronauts breathing through loud air tanks. There’s craft to the sound design if you look for it, different bits of noise that subtly change, keeping us on edge. (Of course, the most jarring noise is the persistent wail of the baby-thing.) It’s the imagery that captivates, but it’s imagery plus sound that transports us.

As a minimalist film

No bones about it: “Eraserhead” is slow. (In fact, it might have once been slower: Lynch cut some 20 minutes after what he felt was a disastrous first public screening, though it may have been as little as 11 minutes.) It’s not often mentioned in the same breath as other glacial greats, like the works of Tarkovsky and Tarr, but it should be. The script Lynch was working off of ran only 21 pages, and that’s not hard to imagine: There are few plot points, and just a little more spoken dialogue. But every action takes forever, and between them lies an ocean of aural and visual ambiance: characters remaining still, spacing out time, pausing just to pause.

Charlotte Stewart, who played the ex-girlfriend in Charlotte Stewart, who played the ex-girlfriend in “Eraserhead,” shot the film after spending all day on “Little House on the Prairie.”
Credit: Criterion Collection

As an independent movie

Another classification “Eraserhead” rarely gets stamped with is as a film pieced together by people with few resources; you see it compared to horror or midnight movies but not to John Cassavetes’ self-financed oddities, Barbara Loden’s “Wanda” or, for that matter, Kevin Smith’s “Clerks.” And yet it may be the mother of all indie films: Painstakingly constructed over five years by a tiny crew, people who became more family than coworkers by the end. Everyone involved had jobs; some would pitch entire paychecks into the pool. They ate terribly and had to make do with film ends from other productions. They never even thought of people seeing it after; they just wanted to make it, driven by a mad compulsion.

And yet it wasn’t completely outside of the Hollywood system. Lynch and cinematographer Frederick Elmes were both fellows at AFI, and they used grants to fund production for its first few years. Jack Fisk, Lynch’s longtime best friend, helped out financially and artistically (he plays “The Man in the Planet” in the opening), even though he was off doing production design on Brian De Palma films and Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (on which he met wife Sissy Spacek, who also helped out). And among the cast was a TV actress (Charlotte Stewart, who reported to the set at midnight after spending her day shooting “Little House on the Prairie”) and the ex of a TV star (Roberts, who would later act with her former husband, Pernell Roberts, on “Trapper John, M.D.”).

Here's the most iconic shot from David Lynch's Here’s the most iconic shot from David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.”
Credit: Criterion Collection

As a midnight movie

In 1970, “El Topo” took what was already a hot trend — the underground movie, made by the likes of Andy Warhol, Jack Smith and the Kuchar Brothers — and finessed it into something else: the kind of outre cinema shown at midnight, for the types of crowds who would watch their favorite movies at that hour. “Pink Flamingoes” followed, and eventually so would “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” “Eraserhead” was next. Initially it had a traditional release, but no one paid attention to or much cared for it. Its savior proved to be Ben Barenholtz, the exhibitor who had turned “El Topo” into a midnight movie, thus birthing the craze. With “Eraserhead” he decided to turn distributor, and though its first week at the Cinema Village played to thin crowds, word of mouth turned it into a red hot moneymaker — just as Barenholtz predicted.

But no midnight movie had ever been so immaculately crafted. “El Topo” was purposefully chaotic; “Pink Flamingoes” purposefully amateurish. Where John Waters was letting film burn, letting the “mistakes” into his finished products, “Eraserhead” is a fine-chiseled gem, every shot planned out, every shadow or shade of darkness obsessively arranged. Where Lynch was letting his imagery pore out of him instinctively, he was OCD about how it wound up onscreen. If the midnight movie had an art house wing, “Eraserhead” is its king.

Special features: The most notable thing about this release — apart from its contents — is how it’s been Lynchicized. As with most home video releases of his films, there are no chapters; when you hit play, you have to watch — or fast-forward — through the whole thing, not skip to your favorite bits. Even the structure of the disc breaks from Criterion tradition: Apart from a section for his early shorts — including the hair-raising “The Grandmother,” which first put him on the map — all the extras (trailers, old interviews, new interviews, Lynch’s 2001 85-minute “documentary,” which plays like a kind of visual commentary track) are structured by year, not by name.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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