Thursday, September 03, 2009

Pantheon movie of the month - ERASERHEAD

David Lynch - master of surreal suburban horror. Things that seemed egregious and silly to reviewers of his first feature back in 1977 (check out the dismissive, excoriating review in VARIETY) now seem like early examples of style and themes that have been consistently mined over his career. To my shame, I hadn't seen ERASERHEAD until yesterday despite being a hard-core Lynch fan. (Two weeks ago, some friends and I did a Twin Peaks Series 1 marathon - Series 2 is next weekend).

What shocked me was how much now-classic Lynchian tropes were present in ERASERHEAD and how, even in his first film, he managed to find a perfect balance between beauty and horror. Take the haunting song sung by the deformed Lady in the Radiator. It's as beautiful as the song Donna and Maddie sing with James in Twin Peaks but far more unsettling. Even the design is similar to later works - little things like the pattern on the floor, or the style of dress.

The plot sees a repressed man with iconically frizzy hair father a deformed child, perhaps the result of the machinations of the Man in the Planet. The mother leaves him, unable to cope with the child's mournful crying. The father is plagued with nightmares in which his severed head is sold to a pencil company to be used as erasers. He has an affair with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, who then cuckolds him. In a fit of pique, the father unwraps the swaddling bandages of his baby, only to find that they are part of the baby's flesh. In an electrical storm, he is transported to another place with the Lady in the Radiator.

It's pointless to try and lay down what all this means. Far better to linger on the nightmarish, Freudian images of a father threatened by his own offspring - visions of impotence - the dread of suburban family existence - the possibility of spiritual salvation.

This movie is source-gold for Lynchians, and I suspect, more annoying to non-Lynchians, than anything else in his oeuvre. It's obscure, but in a manner that provokes emotional, visceral responses, as opposed to the more opaque, and frustrating INLAND EMPIRE. It has been referenced by tens of films, its music has been covered by many a band, and it was reputedly one of Kubrick's favourite films. It prompted the offer to direct ELEPHANT MAN and also, rather bizarrely RETURN OF THE JEDI. You can see a lot in ERASERHEAD, but I'm not sure whether you can see anything to make you think of cute cuddly Ewoks.

ERASERHEAD was released in 1977, after a five-year, cash-constrained shoot.

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