With recent disc releases in Europe and Asia, all of the feature films from cult director David Lynch are now available on the Blu-ray format somewhere in the world. Upon hitting that milestone, I felt that this would be a good opportunity to revisit Lynch's entire filmography, to chart the progression of an iconoclastic artist through both his highs and lows, in a series of reviews and blog posts over the next several weeks that I'll file under the heading "Auteur Theory." We begin with Lynch's legendary theatrical debut, the sublimely weird 'Eraserhead'.
"Auteur Theory" Article Index
"In heaven, everything is fine."
Unlike many filmmakers, David Lynch didn't grow up wanting to make movies. He studied to be an artist, and only stumbled onto film as a medium in which to make his artwork move. His first short subject, 'Six Men Getting Sick', was essentially an animated painting that depicted the title event in a repeat loop. He described it as, "Fifty seven seconds of growth and fire, and three seconds of vomit." Clearly, Lynch did not have conventional ideas for what movies should be. Nonetheless, he found film to be a medium of expression that suited his peculiar talents. He secured a grant to study at the American Film Institute, where he made other shorts and began his first feature-length work, 'Eraserhead'. Due to a combination of the director's inexperience, naivety, perfectionism and a lack of steady funding, production of the film turned into a lengthy affair that lasted five years, often with as little as one shot completed per night. It was a learning experience, to be sure.
'Eraserhead' could very fairly be described as a student film. It has all the hallmarks of a young, precocious (and pretentious) filmmaker who'd been granted free reign to experiment and explore whatever ideas he wanted without a committee of producers standing over his shoulder. Yet, unlike most student films, it's also a very polished, fully-formed and wholly unique expression of its creator's voice as an artist. This isn't just some young film student's derivative riff on his favorite movies. 'Eraserhead' is, more or less, the darkest contents of David Lynch's subconscious mind poured out onto the canvas of a movie screen.
The basic narrative (and the film's skeleton of narrative is quite basic indeed) concerns a dysfunctional weirdo named Henry, who has a 'Bride of Frankenstein' tower of hair, an ill-fitting suit, and not much joy in his life. Henry lives in an industrial dystopian cityscape of smoke, shadows, rusted pipes, sporadic jets of steam and an ever-present rumbling in the distance. His apartment window opens onto a splendid view of a brick wall. His most prized possession is a mysterious seed that he receives in the mail and places in a mound of dirt near his bedside.
Henry seems to have fathered a… child, I suppose you could call it… with his girlfriend Mary, though he doesn't understand how she could have given birth so quickly. "They're still not sure it is a baby," Mary exclaims. The offspring they've spawned is a monstrous creation. The creature effect is so convincing and so disturbing that Lynch still refuses to discuss how he achieved it. Its constant wailing and squealing eventually drive the mother to abandon it and Henry, upon which the story turns… well, even darker and stranger.
'Eraserhead' is a work of Surrealist art that captures the palpable textures of a nightmare better than just about any other ever put to screen. Lynch calls it "a dream of dark and troubling things." Events seem to move from one feverish hallucination to the next, while the character is bombarded by haunting imagery and sounds. It's a unique film, bizarre beyond words, yet also darkly comical. Lynch's portrait of Mary's nuclear family – comprised of its lecherous mother, daft father and catatonic grandmother sitting in the kitchen – is particularly amusing.
Some of the symbolism in the film is easily interpreted, and others less so. The overriding themes of the story have to do with emotional disenfranchisement, the breakdown of the family unit, and terrors of fatherhood. The opening sequence clearly represents Henry's fear of sexuality and conception. That Lynch was himself a first-time father with a failing marriage at the time of the film's production could hardly be coincidental. Though he's denied over the years that the picture is autobiographical, it very much seems to be a case of an artist working out his deepest anxieties through his art.
Other dream imagery, including the title sequence in a pencil factory, is less easily deciphered, even after multiple viewings. Perhaps no one other than David Lynch will ever fully understand everything that happens in the movie, if even he does, or cares to. Lynch works on an intuitive level, and isn't much concerned with details of narrative coherency. He also has a policy of never explaining what anything means in his work. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this might come across as pretentious, but Lynch is such a skilled craftsman that his best films make emotional sense even when their events don't make rational sense.
'Eraserhead' contains the building blocks for much of David Lynch's career. Imagery that appears here for the first time that would recur in his later works include: a curtained room, a zig-zag floor, barking dogs, a scary worm, a woman who steps out of the shadows into a pool of light, an ingénue performing on stage, flickering lights, electrical sparks, and the embrace of the white light of Heaven. Of course, star Jack Nance would also be an invaluable supporting player in many of Lynch's films. Behind-the-scenes, cinematography was handled by Frederick Elmes (who would later do the same for 'Blue Velvet' and 'Wild at Heart'), and Lynch's friend Catherine Coulson (the 'Twin Peaks' Log Lady) performed a variety of miscellaneous tasks, including financing the film with her waitressing tips, to keep the production afloat.
Although I have never set out to intentionally memorize the movie, upon rewatching 'Eraserhead' again, I found that I knew it practically frame-by-frame and could recite every line of dialogue. Some movies have the ability to worm their way into your consciousness like that. This is a rare power for an artist to have over his audience.
For many years, 'Eraserhead' was nearly impossible to track down on home video, and was most often viewed on crummy bootleg VHS tapes or at midnight screenings of multi-generation film prints in art house theaters. In the mid-1990s, a Laserdisc release from Japan took over as the best way to see the film, despite the presence of obtrusive Japanese subtitles in the image. David Lynch eventually secured ownership of the movie himself, and released it on DVD with a director-supervised transfer in 2003. Now it's finally available on Blu-ray in a few international territories, including Australia, Germany, Japan and the UK.
The copy under review here comes from the UK, as distributed by Universal Studios Home Entertainment and a label called IndiVision. The movie can be purchased either separately or as part of a handsomely-packaged David Lynch box set that also includes new editions of 'Dune', 'Blue Velvet', 'Wild at Heart', 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me' and 'Lost Highway'. Be warned, however, that most of the discs in the box set have significant failings. 'Eraserhead' fares the best of the lot.
The UK disc is locked to Region B playback and will require a compatible Blu-ray player to operate. The disc will not function in a standard American Blu-ray player without a region code modification. The bonus features on the disc are also encoded in PAL standard-def video.
The UK disc has a plain-Jane static menu screen that eventually times out and begins auto-playing the movie. I find this annoying, personally. Although the disc fortunately is encoded with chapter stops, it has no chapter menu. That's likely the doing of David Lynch, who has expounded in the past about how much he hates chapter stops on home video and wishes to force viewers to watch his movies in their entirety from beginning to end each time. That's probably the least nutty of all the many nutty things that Lynch has said over the years. I consider this a minor nuisance so long as the disc is authored with the chapter stops. (Many of Lynch's DVDs are not.)
According to the disc packaging, the Blu-ray is "newly remastered by David Lynch himself." I've seen 'Eraserhead' enough times over the years, on enough different formats (including 35mm) to say that this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is the best that I've seen it look. That's not to say that the movie will ever be sparkly eye candy. 'Eraserhead' is a dark movie, very dark, that was produced for basically no money and photographed on whatever inexpensive film stock Lynch could get at the time. The 35mm print I saw in the mid-'90s was impenetrably dim, enough so that I couldn't tell what was happening on screen in many scenes. To compensate for that, most video releases (including this Blu-ray) have pushed the brightness, which of course has a side effect of elevating the black levels to more or less a dark gray. That's a compromise to make the movie watchable, and I have to concede its necessity.
The 1.85:1 black-and-white image is still incredibly contrasty, owing to photographic choices and the film stock characteristics. Most scenes are lit with important objects in the frame illuminated and everything else falling off steeply to black. Highlights sometimes bloom (including the opening credit text), but that's always been an exposure issue, and is not a video transfer flaw. The contrast range on the disc is reproduced about as well as I think it can be. Other inherent issues include some strobing (very noticeable in the opening scene) and occasional washes of heavy grain.
I was able to compare this Blu-ray to the David Lynch-distributed DVD from 2003. Although the DVD holds up fairly well to upconversion, the Blu-ray decidedly has a better representation of fine detail like skin pores and hair, and is overall a more solid and less murky image. The transfer is very revealing of production flaws, such as the strings holding the sperm puppets or the squirrel-cheeked Lady in the Radiator's amateurish make-up. Those things were obvious on the DVD as well, but more so here. I consider that level of transparency to be a good thing.
Make no mistake, no one will ever mistake this Blu-ray for 'Avatar'. Considering the source material, I believe it to be a fine and faithful transfer. The film elements have been cleared of dirt, scratches and other unseemly age-related blemishes, yet no obvious digital processing artifacts such as sharpening or Digital Noise Reduction stand out. It's a very film-like image, and the best that I've personally seen 'Eraserhead' look.
The film's soundtrack is encoded in uncompressed PCM 2.0 stereo format. During its original release in the late '70s and early '80s, the movie's original sound mix was monaural. For the theatrical re-release in the early '90s, Lynch remixed the movie into stereo. The track was sweetened again for DVD in 2003 to remove analog tape hiss and extend the dynamic range. David Lynch is fanatical about the sound in his movies, and performed the remastering himself in his own studio. Given his obsessive perfectionism in this regard and his personal attachment to this particular movie, I expect that he has probably given it another run-through for the Blu-ray.
Despite the digital clean-up and adjustment, the soundtrack never feels artificially processed. The flavor of the original sound design has not been lost. This is still a weird, unnerving aural soundscape, filled with omnipresent hissing steam in the background and surreal, heightened sound effects throughout. The film's sound design is a fascinating experiment in unsettling ambient noises. Careful attention was given to the subtle distinction in aural texture between one location and the next. The track truly benefits from being turned up loud to highlight those nuances.
Dynamics may be limited, and some of the sound elements (especially the dialogue at times) may suffer strained fidelity. However, on the whole, the audio is sharp and clear, with good clarity and detail in individual sounds.
I find it a little difficult to segment the bonus features on the UK Blu-ray into our usual review template, which has separate categories for those items carried over from DVD and those new to Blu-ray. All of the content on the disc has appeared on DVD (or at least on the internet) before, though not necessarily paired up with 'Eraserhead' specifically. The short films, for example, were previously released in their own compendium collection, along with a few not found here. For the sake of clarity, I've decided to lump everything on the disc into this main "Supplements" section.
David Lynch's first feature film, 'Eraserhead', can at least arguably be called the director's first masterpiece. The movie will not be to every viewer's liking, but for those on Lynch's wavelength, the surreal nightmare has a way of burrowing into your consciousness.
The UK Blu-ray release has excellent technical qualities and a few of Lynch's early short films as supplements. The disc can be purchased either separately or as part of the David Lynch box set. Unfortunately, the other titles in the set are largely botched releases in one manner or another. 'Eraserhead' is the best of the bunch and should probably be obtained on its own.
Even to that end, however, the 'Eraserhead' disc is locked to Region B playback and its supplements are encoded in PAL format. For that reason, the Blu-ray released in Japan (which is Region A) will be a preferable option for most American viewers. Unfortunately, that one's also more expensive to import. I'll have more on that disc in a later review.
At the present time, rumors abound that The Criterion Collection may also be planning an eventual 'Eraserhead' Blu-ray release in the United States. (The film was recently added to Criterion's Hulu channel.) Some fans may wish to hold out for that.