In a series of reviews and blog posts filed under the heading "Auteur Theory," I have made it a project to revisit the career of cult director David Lynch, rewatch his entire feature filmography in sequential order, and chart the progression of this iconoclastic artist through both his highs and lows.
Portions of this article that represent comparable content are shared in common with my earlier review of the UK import Blu-ray release of '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.
In Japan, 'Eraserhead' is currently distributed by Comstock Group and Paramount Home Entertainment. Unlike the previously-reviewed import disc from the UK, the Japanese Blu-ray is region-free and will function in any standard American Blu-ray player. (Japan is a Blu-ray Region A territory like the United States in any case.) However, the DVD in the package that contains most of the bonus features is unfortunately locked to Region 2 and can only be played in a DVD or Blu-ray player with region code modification (if you're in the United States). On the plus side, the content on that DVD is at least all in NTSC format.
The 2-disc set comes packaged in a black Blu-ray keepcase within a very handsome glossy slipcover. The Blu-ray is marketed as the "David Lynch Restore Version" (sic.), and it seems clear to me that the director had some involvement or input into the presentation. All menus on both discs are in the English language, and are in fact the same menus from the Lynch-distributed American DVD edition from 2003. Further, the Blu-ray has no chapter stops or Scenes Selections menu. This is almost certainly 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 just one of the nutty things that Lynch has said over the years.) This is a nuisance, but not necessarily a deal-breaker.
The Japanese Blu-ray contains the exact same 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer as the disc from the UK that I reviewed earlier. In fact, even though the UK disc was authored on a dual-layer Blu-ray and this copy is only a single-layer disc, they appear to be the same digital compression encode. While the UK edition consolidated all of its bonus features onto the same disc as the movie, the supplements were moved to a separate DVD here. The movie feature is otherwise identical, with the same bit rate stats at the same places. Given how nice the UK disc looked, this is a good thing. Bit rate obsessives should note that 'Eraserhead' is a pretty short movie, and that the encoding manages to maintain a high average bit rate despite being limited to a single disc layer.
The new high-definition master was supervised and approved by David Lynch. I've seen 'Eraserhead' enough times over the years, on enough different formats (including 35mm) to say that this 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 Japanese Blu-ray's audio is likewise identical to the UK edition in all respects. 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.
All of the Japanese Blu-ray edition's bonus features previously appeared on DVD, included with either 'Eraserhead' or 'The Short Films of David Lynch'. Aside from the trailer, the rest of the content is contained on the (Region 2 locked) DVD in the package.
The supplements here are decidedly better than the UK Blu-ray edition.
The rest of the features on the disc consist of David Lynch's short films. You can choose to watch these individually or with video introductions. For a first time viewing, I recommend the "Play All" option. When screened in sequence, the Lynch interviews and films essentially form a 64-minute documentary that traces the genesis and evolution of his filmmaking.
Unfortunately, one of the short films from the DVD is missing. I'll discuss that later in the review.
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 Japanese import Blu-ray has the same excellent technical qualities as the (much cheaper) UK release. The advantages to spending more for this one are: 1) It's Region A friendly, 2) It has nicer packaging, and 3) It has a better assortment of bonus features. On the other hand, the Japanese Blu-ray has no chapter stops, and the DVD that holds those bonus features is locked to Region 2. Whether this disc is worth the approximately $50 import price is a judgment call that each viewer will have to make for him- or herself.
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.