Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #195 on the list, David Lynch. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.
David Lynch’s debut feature, 1977’s Ersaerhead is, at this point, a movie that comes with a certain reputation, and one that seems nearly impossible to come to cold. It’s a film that has been hailed as a surrealist masterpiece, while at the same time being called “murkily pretentious” by New York Times reviewer Tom Buckly. Variety, in it’s initial review, called the movie “a sickening bad-taste exercise”. Therefore any review of the film has to deal not only with the movie itself, but with that reputation.
It’s also a movie that, again, largely because of that reputation, I’ve avoided watching rather purposefully up until this point. For whatever reason I tend to have personal issues with depictions of bodily deformities – other movies that I have avoided include The Elephant Man, Tod Browning‘s Freaks, and most of David Cronenberg’s films. Yes, I know, I’m probably missing out on some very good movies, but they simply do not appeal to me, and that aversion would just keep me from enjoying them. And of course, that same kind of body horror is one of the major parts of what makes up this film’s reputation.
Nonetheless, Eraserhead is here on the list, meaning I’d eventually, if I were going to complete this little experiment, have to face it, and when my best friend’s daughter wrote to ask my opinion of it, I decided it was time to go ahead and give it a shot.
So, with all of the above stated up front, what was my reaction to the film? Put simply, though yes, it has its moments, and yes, I can easily see where it deserves both the positive and negative aspects of the various reviews it has received over the years, overall it mostly felt like Lynch was simply trying too hard.
I mean, I get it. I understand that the movie is “supposed” to be, thematically, about Lynch’s aversion to and concerns about becoming a father. That’s at least one interpretation that most people seem to agree on, though the director himself, as far as I know, has never come out directly to either confirm or deny it. It also obviously deals with issues of intimacy and social awkwardness, along with the forging and breakdown of relationships. Yeah, I can go with all of that.
Also, Lynch being Lynch (and let me say here that though I haven’t seen all of his movies (again, note that Elephant Man is on the list of movies I’ve purposefully avoided) , I consider myself at least a minor fan – I loved Twin Peaks, and have at least enjoyed the rest of his films that I have seen – I understand that he is never going to approach anything straightforwardly, and that he is going to include shots and scenes that either work to obscure or even mislead the viewer, or that just occur to him and really have no meaning beyond “wouldn’t that look neat?”.
Unfortunately, in this particular instance, too many of the scenes that are cited as examples of supporting the “surrealist masterpiece” verdict accorded to the film feel much more like a first-time film maker attempting to build a reputation for himself and at the same time feeling like he might never get to make another movie, so he’d better throw in everything he wants to so that he can get those things out of his system while he can, and they really don’t work to forward either the plot or the tone of the film.
For example, yes, I was initially jarred and taken aback by the insert shots of the mother dog feeding her pups during the dinner date scene. However, I am willing to accept them as supporting the “parenthood” theme, though it really seems an interpretive stretch. For that matter, I’m even willing to accept the infamous “little chicken” carving scene as a setup for the film’s climax and Henry (our protagonist)’s eventual decision of how to deal with his “child”. On the other hand, the sequence(s) with the “lady in the radiator” and the section from which the movie actually takes its name, where Henry’s head literally pops off of his body and is taken to a factory where pencil erasers are made from it, simply seem out of place and as though they belong in another movie altogether.
So where does that leave me, as a viewer, finally reacting to this film? Well, I am glad that I’ve finally seen it. Do I think I’ll ever watch it again? Possibly. I can see myself eventually wanting to revisit it to see if a second viewing changes my opinion of it, but that won’t come anytime soon. Do I feel as though it deserves the label of “surrealist masterpiece”? No, not really. There’s simply too much in it that either doesn’t work or doesn’t actually fit the film to give it that much acclaim. On the other hand, did I find it “a sickening bad-taste exercise”? Well, again, no. That seems far too much of an overstatement and again gives the movie far more power than it truly deserves.
Actually, the bottom line is that I was neither thrilled nor repulsed by the movie, and there came a point, really where I found myself simply watching it because I had started it and told myself and others that I would, which is never a reaction that I like to have to a movie, and is, I suspect, the kind of reaction that Lynch would hate the most, because what it really means is that after I’ve finished this write-up, I probably won’t have anything more to say about it, and certainly won’t be pushing anyone else to watch it either. Nor, for that matter, will I be emphatically telling anyone to avoid it.
Instead, most likely, the next time I’m asked about it my reaction will likely be a shrug of my shoulders and “Eh, sure, go ahead and watch it and see what you think for yourself.”
Which, I suppose, leads as well as anything into the usual trailer preview so that you can have a taste of it and see if you even want to give it that:
- Defying Explanation: The Brilliance of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” (rogerebert.com)
- ‘Eraserhead Stories’: David Lynch looks back on his weirdest film (dangerousminds.net)
- David Lynch Presents the History of Surrealist Film (1987) (openculture.com)
- You May Not Get It, But David Lynch Knows What He’s Doing in ‘Eraserhead’ (Review) (popmatters.com)