Release Date(s)1977 (September 16, 2014)
Studio(s)Absurda (Criterion - Spine #725)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
2014 has been a very good year for David Lynch fans. Twilight Time brought the underrated fantasia Wild At Heart to Blu-ray. Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me were finally brought together in one big, beautiful Blu box, complete with the deleted FWWM scenes we never thought we’d see. And now, after years of rumor, confirmation, denial, dashed hopes and raised expectations, Lynch’s debut feature, Eraserhead, has finally, officially been welcomed into The Criterion Collection.
Eraserhead is the purest film example of the David Lynch aesthetic. There was no studio or network to offer notes and suggestions, no novel to be adapted, not even really the promise of an audience at the end of the road. There was almost no differentiation between cast and crew. The team was small, handpicked and loyal, working nights over a period of more than half a decade. The end result was a film that’s odd, difficult, enigmatic, occasionally repulsive, darkly funny, and, once seen, completely impossible to forget.
A plot description of Eraserhead is pointless, reducing the movie to a series of seeming non-sequiturs that are better experienced than described. Besides, the discussion surrounding what Eraserhead is “about” has been going on for decades now. In one of the supplements on this disc, Lynch claims he’s never heard an interpretation of the film that really nails his own. It’s important that Lynch says “his own interpretation” rather than “what I meant”. As far as he’s concerned, Eraserhead means whatever you want it to mean. He may or may not agree with your particular reading but it’s as valid as any other.
On one level, Eraserhead certainly functions as a nightmare of domesticity, with Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) forced into marriage (or, at the very least, back into a relationship) with Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) thanks to the unexpected arrival of a mewling, sickly baby-creature. But Henry isn’t merely unprepared for fatherhood, he’s unprepared for living in a society. From the moment we first see him, Henry is riddled with, if not fear exactly, anxiety. Nobody but Jack Nance could have played Henry. With his vertical hair, slumped shoulders, soft features and twangy, somewhat trembling voice, he hits a trifecta of confusion, worry and dread every time the camera catches him.
There’s also a fear of destiny and of losing control of one’s life throughout the film, partly embodied by Jack Fisk as the Man in the Planet. Henry is summoned to the X’s house for dinner after he has apparently decided to not see Mary anymore (he’s torn up her photo). Henry’s tryst with the Beautiful Girl Across The Hall (Judith Roberts) seems like a choice but it triggers a nightmarish sequence that culminates with Henry literally losing his head and later seems as preordained as everything else that befalls him. The Girl Across The Hall is not the beauty Henry needs. The beauty he’s looking for is deep within…the radiator. The Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) is a glimmer of light and love in Henry’s dark, industrial world. She sings, “In heaven, everything is fine,” but I suspect Lynch might have considered having her sing “Over The Rainbow” if he could have afforded it.
David Lynch has always been extremely careful with Eraserhead, handling its initial DVD release himself via his website. That disc looked very, very good but Criterion’s new 4K restoration handily blows it away. This is a breathtakingly beautiful transfer, rich in detail and as cinematic and textured as you could possibly hope. It’s a real stunner. The audio is presented in uncompressed stereo and it too is an improvement over the DVD. The movie doesn’t have much dialogue but it also has very little true silence, with almost every minute of the film accompanied by an industrial drone or other music and effects. The audio is as important as the image in creating Eraserhead’s unique world and the track admirably succeeds in transporting you there.
Criterion has provided a wealth of supplemental features, starting off with a collection of short films, each restored and accompanied by an introduction by Lynch. This includes almost all of the films from Lynch’s self-distributed Short Films DVD. Only The Cowboy And The Frenchman has been omitted.
The rest of the supplements are presented in a somewhat unusual fashion for Criterion. Typically, the menu will explain in great detail what each feature is before you choose to play it. But for Eraserhead, in more typically Lynchian fashion, the supplements are arranged chronologically and only described by the year of their production. For instance, 1977 takes you to the film’s original, minute-long trailer. 1979 finds Lynch and cinematographer Frederick Elmes returning to one of the film’s locations (unbelievably, the current site of the Beverly Center in L.A.) with then-UCLA-student Tom Christie for an interview. In 1982, Lynch and Elmes shot a new trailer (with the help of five of Lynch’s closest woodpecker friends) for midnight screenings of the film at L.A.’s Nuart Theatre. In 1988, Lynch and Jack Nance drove around downtown Los Angeles for an episode of the French television series Cinéma de notre temps. In 1997, filmmaker Toby Keeler returned to the grounds of the American Film Institute with Lynch, Nance, Charlotte Stewart and Catherine Coulson (Lynch’s assistant on Eraserhead and later the Log Lady on Twin Peaks) for interviews used in Keeler’s documentary Pretty As A Picture: The Art Of David Lynch. In 2001, Lynch himself shot Eraserhead Stories, an 85-minute reflection on the making of the film told in Lynch’s own inimitable style, with Coulson joining in by phone. Finally, the disc includes newly filmed interviews with Coulson, Elmes, Stewart and Judith Roberts. The beautifully designed package also includes a booklet with a lengthy excerpt from Chris Rodley’s 1997 interview book Lynch On Lynch. All in all, this is a thoroughly comprehensive look back at Lynch’s early career, refreshingly free of filler.
Years later, Eraserhead remains a one-of-a-kind experience. What’s remarkable about Lynch’s later career is that the singular vision that made Eraserhead possible is still clearly on display in movies like Blue Velvet and TV shows like Twin Peaks. Eraserhead may not be an easy movie to fully embrace. If you aren’t prepared for it, it can be extremely off-putting, abrasive and even repugnant. But love it or hate it, you must admire Lynch’s uncompromising commitment to capturing his vision on film. And if you did hate it before, give it another try. I think you’ll find your opinion of the movie changes as you change. In many ways, Eraserhead is whatever you bring to it.
- Adam Jahnke