Eraserhead – A Rebuttal
A few weeks ago here on the MacGuffin, Michael wrote an unfavorable review of David Lynch’s 1976 feature debut, Eraserhead. Summing up his feelings of the film, Michael wrote: “In conclusion, all I can say is that I would not suggest this movie. At all. … It looks as if I may be mostly alone in this deliberation though.”
While I am aware that Eraserhead is now generally considered by film buffs to be a classic of a certain genre, and an impressive debut film from a uniquely talented director, it is not a film I have read critical pieces about. I am not looking to represent the majority dissenting opinion that Michael alludes to in his review; I’m not entirely sure such a majority exists. What I want to do is simply explain why, for me, Eraserhead is absolutely worth your time.
Firstly, and as Michael does speak to in his review, Eraserhead is visually impressive. In general, as a film fan, I focus on story, character, and dialogue. It takes a filmmaker like David Lynch to remind me to pause and appreciate the intrinsically visual nature of the medium. Within the first ten minutes of the film, Lynch gives us an effectively disturbing Dali-esque montage of surreal images, followed by a sequence showing the mundane events of our main character’s life in a style that evokes the best of silent film (and Chaplin’s Little Tramp in particular). As someone who studies film history, these opening minutes are like being poked in the ribs and reminded of just how much I’m usually not thinking about—but should be thinking about—when I watch a movie. Influences upon influences are executed in ways their inventors probably never dreamed. Beyond that, the black and white composition creates just the right combination of beauty and menace at every turn.
Michael mentions in his review that “David Lynch has gone on record as saying that no one has ever gotten the true meaning of the film and that he likes it that way.” This may be so, but trying to figure what a David Lynch film is ‘about’ doesn’t interest me. What does interest me is what Eraserhead make me think about. These things are deep and varied: the surreal feelings that permeate events we as a society perceive to be normal, such as meeting another person’s parents, having a child, or engaging in a one-night stand; how little we know about the nature of our own bodies, and how little faith we have in them; how one can never truly know how they will react to a situation until the moment of finding themselves in it. Many scenes move slowly, feeling more like tableaux than action, yet a feeling of urgency permeates everything. Is that not somehow like real life, where our paranoia of what might happen anytime is almost always met with a situation where nothing of the sort actually takes place? Still, some truly disturbing things will happen over the course of this film—horrific, scary things. But the tone remains unlike the normal tension of a horror film, and somehow with this peculiar method, horrific scenes touch on sympathetic emotions in unexpected ways.
Michael wonders whether “Lynch was attempting to create a movie so weird and disconcerting that viewers do not understand the plot”, but in no way do I find the plot hard to follow. It is true that there are some very bizarre sequences that seem to make little practical sense. Some may disagree, but to me it is clear that these exist separately from the concrete narrative. In this film, Lynch lets his most surreal images and ideas take place in a kind of dream space (whether our main character is really ‘dreaming’ is beside the point; these scenes are nevertheless contained in a different way than those that show daily life). In later films, Lynch would work without such a net, and let the bizarre and the ‘real’ collide freely. Frankly, I’ll take it either way, but among Lynch’s films I might argue that Eraserhead is the easiest to follow in a traditional Hollywood narrative sense. We are being presented with something odd, but I don’t think we’re trying to be tricked. We are following an experience that is very vivid to our main character, and I find the film to be effective on all levels I want a film to be.
Despite my love of Eraserhead, as with all David Lynch films, I can see how someone would dislike it. His sensibilities will not speak to everyone. I do urge everyone to give it a chance, though, and to enter with an open mind.