Originally published June 29th, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com
Just based upon the people I’ve interacted with in my life, it can seem like the title for “Most Unconditionally Loved Director by Millennials” is a neck-and-neck race between Wes Anderson and David Lynch. It only feels so long ago that almost everyone I talked to from various Film Studies and Literary & Cultural Studies classes were losing their collective mind when the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel dropped, and not much longer than that when Moonrise Kingdom’s Jared Gilman came to our Global Film Festival in 2013.
Since the only real movement on the Anderson front recently has been the Isle of Dogs poster, that sense of adoration has transferred to the new season of Twin Peaks. I’ve always felt like I was in catch-up mode with Lynch’s projects and not as in-the-know, having been introduced to Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire in college, Blue Velvet just last year and Wild at Heart while I was still in high school – of course, my first Lynch film was the one that featured Nicolas Cage.
And now, even after watching the infamous Eraserhead, David Lynch still feels a filmmaking enigma. Obviously, there are certain ‘Lynchian’ visual and aural aesthetics that remain constant with his films, but between all five of his movies that I’ve mentioned, you’d have a difficult time convincing me that, between any two of them, is a similar viewing experience. It’s certainly a testament to his craft that no one film of his feels completely similar to another, and perhaps that’s why many are so drawn to his work, outside of his surrealist core.
Additionally impressive about Eraserhead, in particular, is how it feels like it comes from a completely different era compared to the standard of films released in the ‘70s. Whatever equipment Lynch had at his disposal thanks to the American Film Institute, as well as the editing techniques he employed during certain sequences and low-key lighting throughout make this feel as though it came from the ‘40s, possibly the ’50s. Much of the dreamy imagery, as bizarre and absurdist as it gets, bears some noir-ish influences that match the film’s partially cynical tone, but are soon drowned out by practically unbearable tension produced in the off-kilter characterization and storytelling.
It’s appropriate that Eraserhead would feel as though it were from another time given the characters and settings, as well. From the beginning, after the film’s mind-bending opening scene, we see Jack Nance’s Henry Spencer traversing through urban and industrial decay as though it were a regular part of the local milieu, feeding into the picture’s constantly ominous atmosphere. Shortly thereafter is the scene of him visiting his girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) and her parents, her father being a long-time blue-collar plumber, and just like Lynch’s depiction of the surrounding area in close confines, these folks are just as trapped meaning to replicate the idea of a nuclear family and the American Dream.
Imprisoned in a dying locale and the denial that they can carry on with traditionalist normalcy, these characters and the world they inhabit seem left behind from the ever-changing landscape that defined the late ’60s and throughout the ‘70s. It’s as though Lynch meant to shine a non-judgmental light on these folks, or at the very least subvert the normative view of the nuclear family so hellbent on appearing perfect on the surface.
Then again, what Lynch’s intentions for this film were are anybody’s guess, because even at a brief 89 minutes, this picture is an endless black hole from which there is no escape but the end credits. Perhaps someone with a better knowledge of Lynch’s filmography can better educate me, but his use of the narrative’s nightmare logic feels more classically surrealist than any film he’s accomplished since. The movie is a Luis Buñuel flick from hell, and at any given moment, you’re kind of hoping you’ll see a razor slash someone’s eye, because you’ll then be given explicit confirmation of something horrifying. Eraserhead is the unsettling disturbance of something lurking in the shadows, all while foreboding another thing even worse.
Strangely enough, however, this movie was a much easier watch than the other four I had seen previously. Whether that’s simply because it’s much shorter than the other four, because I’m more used to Lynch’s style or a mixture of both, it wasn’t as difficult getting through Eraserhead as it was the others. That certainly doesn’t mean, though, that the film is fun, light viewing. It definitely isn’t, and if you haven’t seen the film but are aware of it, you already know that.