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They're Still Not Sure It is a Baby: Eraserhead on Blu-ray

  Some directors are lucky enough to be an overnight success, but David Lynch was not one of them. He had made a small handful of short films before tackling his feature debut Eraserhead, but it took him around five years to complete it, famously devising it in grim poverty that must have informed the imagery that he portrayed throughout its eighty-nine minutes. It was shot in Philadelphia where he was living with his wife Peggy and daughter Jennifer (who would grow up to be a director herself), a crime-ridden neighbourhood where it was barely safe to walk the streets, never mind take a camera and start making a movie as Lynch and his tiny crew did.

That oppressive atmosphere of despair was palpable throughout Eraserhead, yet there were other emotions too: a strong sense of disgust, the kind of disgust you feel at putting your hand in something you did not want to, yet also a revulsion at the degradation people can be reduced to when circumstances turn against them. However, there was also a quasi-religious hope that things would get better, maybe not in this life but in the next, as the main character entertains visions of Heaven no minister, priest or rabbi would ever be able to accept, but nevertheless represented his ideas of how he would attain his redemption from a world akin to purgatory.

Or Hell, for that matter. The theme that when you're going through Hell, the only thing to do is keep going because it will not last forever lent the film a tone that was unique to Lynch, and he would return to that comforting idea again and again, from Kyle MacLachlan seeing the symbolic bug-eating robin at the end of Blue Velvet to Sheryl Lee turning into an angel, murder victim Laura Palmer's suffering finally over, in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. But in Eraserhead, the nightmare lingers, and despite the comforting embrace it concluded on, the movie had given us too much to contemplate about the revolting here and now to totally set it to one side.

For some, it's a film that is meaningless, the worst kind of arthouse guff for the pseuds to wax lyrical over; it was never going to be a work with mass appeal, and there was a curious defiance in its parade of deeply personal visuals that interpreted misery as wild, bizarre scenes as a way of coping with them. Jack Nance played Henry Spencer, an associate of Lynch's who stuck by him until his appropriately strange death, an unsolved murder in a doughnut shop - Nance would be a mainstay of his friend's films and television, like a mascot the fans would love to see show up no matter how small the role, kind of like one of Lynch's beloved Woody Woodpecker dolls as a companion.

Those naysayers will tell you Eraserhead has no plot, but of course it does. A man gets his girlfriend pregnant, the baby is born severely deformed, its crying sends them both around the bend until she deserts them, leaving the man to be driven mad by his helplessness as he takes out his frustrations on the pathetic creature. It was a horror film with a monster that was a mutant baby, with no power other than to pervert the parental impulse: Henry never seeks professional help, probably because he cannot afford it, and his shame and repression warp his faculties so much that his world becomes his nightmares, be they sexual or preying on his feelings of social victimhood in an uncaring society.

Unsurprisingly, Eraserhead became, on its release as a midnight movie, a far bigger hit than all those years of toiling on it would have ever indicated to Lynch, as his next project was when Mel Brooks saw it, loved it, and hired him for The Elephant Man, one of the canniest items of recruitment in cinema history. Now you can see it impeccably restored as part of The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray with a host of extra features, starting with his short films. His initial film loop is included (lots of vomiting), and The Alphabet, the five minute piece inspired by a child's nightmare that got him noticed by the American Film Institute, who proceeded to fund a thirty-five minute work.

That was The Grandmother, another symbolic tale that may represent Lynch in a nascent form and as such crude rather than accomplished, but you can perceive where his style was being perfected, as it would be over the course of (the part-AFI-funded) Eraserhead straight after. The plot was simple enough, but like his debut feature open to all sorts of interpretations, simply, however, it depicted a young boy bullied by his abusive parents who seeks solace in growing his own kindly grandmother in a pile of earth on a bed. There were similar piles of earth in Eraserhead's bedroom, and while it really goes on too long for its slender narrative, it's essential for aficionados.

Also on the disc was The Amputee, which was an experimental five-minute item for the AFI to test out their prospective use of video tape as opposed to film, something Lynch was not altogether keen on (this was well before the muddy digital video used in Inland Empire). It depicted Catherine Coulson, collaborator from Eraserhead and later The Log Lady in Twin Peaks, with no legs, but one stump being dressed and treated by Lynch, who makes a complete mess of it as the wound violently suppurates. Not that she notices, too wrapped up in dictating a letter. If you're interested, the video equipment applied here makes Inland Empire look as clear and glowing as The Straight Story.

The last short is his contribution to the 1995 compilation film Lumiere and Company, fifty-five seconds long as per instructions and shot with an original camera from a hundred years before. It seems to show a police investigation, but offers mere glimpses of what may or may not be happening. As far as interviews go, there are plenty in the rest of the supplements covering around three decades, and that includes the feature length Lynch interview he created for the Eraserhead DVD way back when, though perhaps the nicest featurettes are those which see him and Nance together. Apart from the thankyou clip he made with his Woodys. Really, if you were ever curious about Eraserhead, this is the finest way to watch it, and if you know it's a film you need to see again, this is the perfect release for you. It's strange, disturbing, funny and full of images you'll never see anywhere else in the history of moving pictures.

Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018