July 04, 2007

Eraserhead (1977)

Considered as one of the most creative filmmakers of the modern era, American director David Lynch has developed a very peculiar and highly recognizable style through most of his work. A style where surreal images are overtly present, and linear plot lines are thrown away in order to focus mostly on the emotions created. This style has its roots in the fact that Lynch started his career as a painter, making his films an extension of that previous work, and very different to what is the classic definition of cinema. This background is probably the reason why he tends to move away from "normal" films (although movies like "The Elephant Man" and "The Straight Story" prove that he can make that kind of films too), and prefers to let his imagination run wild when making a movie. His first movie, "Eraserhead", is also probably the best example of Lynch's style of film-making.

"Eraserhead" is the story of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a timid factory worker in a nightmarish industrial work that one night, during an uncomfortable dinner with the family of his girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), receives the news that Mary had his baby. Henry agrees to marry Mary, as he truly feels that he loves her, but when Henry discovers that the baby is a mutant that cries all the time, life doesn't seem that easy anymore. Mary can not stand the screams of the child, so decides to leave Henry and return to her parent's home. Alone in his decayed apartment, Henry will have to live with the constant screaming of the deformed baby, facing his nightmares and fears about parenthood, as well as the temptations that live outside his room. And the only thing that can help him to survive is the idea that probably, in heaven everything is fine.

Written by David Lynch, "Eraserhead" is a movie built with the logic of a dream, that is, without a linear plot and moving between a series of hallucinations and dream sequences that while apparently random, allow us to enter the twisted mind of its solitary main character. While ambiguous and cryptic, "Eraserhead" is an incredibly original character study about a man's fears about concepts such as fatherhood, compromise and responsibility. As written above, it follows the logic of a dream, but given it's dark nature, it would be more appropriate to say it is the vivid representation of a nightmare. Despite the apparent lack of narrative (or maybe because of it), we follow Henry closely, almost intimately, through his twisted, yet oddly very human, descent into madness as he is tormented by his demons embodied in the shape of the screaming mutant baby.

In "Eraserhead", David Lynch brings his nightmare come to life in a wonderfully horrific fashion thanks to his great imagination and his noticeable care for details. With an outstanding use of sound and the cinematography by Herbert Cardwell and Frederick Elmes, director David Lynch creates the perfectly haunting atmosphere of dread and decay that impregnates Henry's depressive industrial world, definitely symbolizing his bleak view of life. Many have said that "Eraserhead" is more a visual experience than a narrative, and I for once agree with that statement, as it is visually where we get the most clues about the film's obscure meanings, as Henry's vivid dreams and terrible hallucinations are opened windows to his troubled psyche. The pace is certainly slow, but it flows smoothly, allowing the film to express itself via the emotions of its images, like a beautiful yet frightening moving canvas.

As the disturbed Henry Spencer, Jack Nance is simply amazing, as if he had been born with the sole purpose of playing this role. What I mean is not that Nance is an extremely talent performer (honestly, that is not the case), but that he managed to convey exactly what Lynch wanted to do with his character in the most natural and believable way possible, effectively making Henry Spencer a honest portrayal of a man facing his most terrible fear: becoming a parent. The rest of the cast ranges from average to very good, with Charlotte Stewart being one of the latter, delivering a subtle performance as Mary X, Henry's girlfriend. In supporting roles, Allen Joseph and Jeanne Bates are good, but nothing spectacular, and the same could be said about Judith Anna Roberts, who plays the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. Finally Laurel Near is great in the now iconic role of the Lady in the radiator.

While a powerful and wild exercise of imagination, "Eraserhead" is definitely not everyone's cup of tea, as due to the atypical way its constructed and the dark nature of its themes, it probably won't be easily accepted by those expecting a more linear, classic narrative style. However, a way to face "Eraserhead"'s cryptic plot is to let the images do the talking and simply experience the emotions Lynch's film attempts to convey. As written above, Lynch was a painter and performance artist before becoming a filmmaker, and "Eraserhead" carries a lot of this background in its conception; so the watching of the movie as a visceral experience, instead of intellectual, may be helpful in its enjoyment. A very personal movie for Lynch (a lot of the film's darkness comes from his own experiences in the different stages of his life), "Eraserhead" is like the pure expression of the director's troubles and fears on film.

Due to a constant lack of money, it took David Lynch 5 years to finish "Eraserhead", but one can truly say that the wait was worthy. Thanks to "Eraserhead", David Lynch would be noticed by Mel Brooks, who would help him to establish his name with "The Elephant Man". But even if Lynch's career had remained in the underground, "Eraserhead" is without a doubt, one of the most interesting and thought provoking films ever made.


Buy "Eraserhead" (1977)


M said...

I think Lynch is sometimes the closest director to abstraction in cinema.

Jarman managed it a couple of times, Jodorowsky did it too, but lynch seems to have done it and stayed popular.

An enviable feat indeed.

That said, i've only seen Dune, Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway from Mr Lynch (and his short, The Alphabet).

J Luis Rivera said...

m: I often wonder if his ability to make this kind of films popular comes from the success of his earlier works. I mean, I bet it's easier for Lynch to get the money for a film than for Jodorowsky (oddly, both are into New Age stuff, Lynch and Trascendental Meditation and Jodorowsky and his studies on Tarot).

I'll be watching "Lost Highway" soon.

PS: You have to watch "Blue Velvet"