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Eraserhead (1977)

Bill Gibron

Whatever it 'means,' Eraserhead makes clear that no one since the glory days of pre-color Hollywood understands the dramatic power of monochrome moviemaking better than David Lynch.


Director: David Lynch
Cast: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates, Laurel Near
Distributor: DavidLynch.com
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: AFI
First date: 1977
US DVD Release Date: 2003-02-25

Are you ready to celebrate the virgin birth by commercializing the Holy Hell out of its commemorative holiday? When you're standing in line for jolly old Saint Nick, hoping he can calm your kids for just a moment, maybe you should push aside those spoiled brats and undeserving tweens, crawl up onto Santa's elephantine belly and demand a copy of Eraserhead for yourself. Nothing can set off a warm evening by the Yule log better than this evocative vision of childbirth gone demonic and bachelorhood unbound.

Auteur extraordinaire David Lynch's 1977 paean to parenthood is finally out on a DVD for sale only on his very own website (http://www.davidlynch.com). The package includes a little "it," wrapped in bandages to hush your Jesus jones. The black and white Bible for a boatload of Dadaist believers, Eraserhead is a gospel to grime and a psalm to sickness. Here God is a sleepy, crippled atrocity resting deep within a celestial orb, where he manipulates the social switches and pulls the life strings. And those whom he created in his image are equally incomplete.

For Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) and Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), there are only degrees of near survival. They dwell in a town filled with abandoned factories and discharged toxins, a brooding metropolis of steam and sludge. He embodies all male insecurities, expressing like toothpaste from the top of his high tower hair. Mary X, is his prefect match, the gal no guy wants to take home to mother. After she gives in to his "sick" urge, she gives birth to a deformed, ragingly ill child who monopolizes all his parents' time. Soon overwhelmed, Mary leaves Henry to care for the infant alone. He watches as the child slowly degenerates into an endlessly demanding ball of infection. Eventually, Henry is so burdened by guilt that he's lost in an unstuck universe, between the living and the dead.

Eraserhead is without doubt the most searing indictment of sex and biological reproduction ever committed to film. A haunting tone poem to the power of hormones and humping over common sense, it is every father-to-be's worst nightmare. Though Henry tries to integrate the baby into his life, he is all the while dreaming of death, or a puffy-cheeked cherub of a dream girl (Laurel Near) who moans from behind his one room radiator, "In Heaven, everything is fine."

It could be argued that Eraserhead is Lynch's most personal film. It is obviously the one on which he spent the most time (over five years) and the one that most accurately coincides with the events occurring in his life (his marriage and the birth of daughter Jennifer inspired "some" of the story). In the making-of documentary included on the DVD -- for which Lynch reminisces for 90 minutes -- the filmmaker recalls how his inexperience and ambition compelled him to draw on haunting images of life and death. He claims the visions here came "from somewhere unseen... not a surface place." Though Lynch suggests that the meaning of Eraserhead is clear, he's not telling what that might be. He does observe that, in the 26 years since the film's release, not one critic has come up with the "correct interpretation." This sounds like a challenge: any film that has momentary lust leading to a death sentence is asking for a rational refutation.

A common reading of Lynch's reproduction riot act says that if you fool around without love or commitment, the issue must be unlovable. At once prudish and prurient, Lynch's youthfully Midwestern imaginary finds punishment everywhere: in the mechanical mini-chicken that bleeds when violated by a phallic knife, in the infant yelping for the end of its miserable existence, in Henry's condemnation to a dingy apartment with only frightening fantasy-women to fulfill his needs.

Perhaps Eraserhead is pro-choice propaganda, exposing not only the disaster that results from premarital sex, but also the ethical considerations surrounding abortion (the Radiator Lady destroys unborn life even as she affirms faith in a Judeo-Christian afterlife). Or maybe all this nightmare silage reflects the fear and confusion that typify being a first-time parent. Or then again, Eraserhead could be a celebration of offspring, stripped of all the hallmark horse-hockey, an admission that raising children is hard, complex work.

Whatever it "means," the film makes clear that no one since the glory days of pre-color Hollywood understands the dramatic power of monochrome moviemaking better than David Lynch. In both Eraserhead and 1980's The Elephant Man, he handles the contrast of light against dark, shadow against sunlight, with brilliant originality. There is probably no more glorious single shot in all of cinema than Henry's head, Eraser-hair erect and backlit as a thousand glitter-like light particles shimmer around him. Indeed, throughout, it is images, not characters, that stand out: the Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk) represents the rotten core of existence from the inside out, and the worm in the burrow cabinet explores orifices in defiance of Henry's own psycho-sexual inadequacies.

What better way to celebrate the fine art of gift-giving than by giving a gift of fine art? Eraserhead comes housed in a wonderfully baroque box that is more a coffee table volume than a keep case, and the package includes a book of captivating photos. Like other seasonal symbols (tree, tinsel, colored balls), the DVD's ornaments are commemorative. And if you can't rejoice in David Lynch, what is there to be happy about?

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