On October 6th, David Lynch and Mark Frost confirmed via Twitter that their enormously weird, enormously influential television series Twin Peaks will return in 2016 for a nine-episode run on Showtime. (Just in time, too; hard-core fans of the show will remember Laura Palmer assuring Agent Cooper "I'll see you...again in 25...years" during the 1991 series finale.) This is great news. But two years is a long wait for anyone itching to return to the Log Lady's land of backwards-talking dwarves and damn fine coffee.
Look on the bright side, though: you now have plenty of time to sink into the Criterion Collection's new Blu-ray/DVD release of Lynch's 1977 film Eraserhead.
Lynch's feature-length debut is a landmark of artisanal filmmaking so funny, weird, and terrifying that it renders most of his subsequent film and television work (which includes Twin Peaks, as well as masterpieces like Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire) safe and conventional in comparison. For five years, Lynch was in up to his elbows on Eraserhead; he wrote, produced, directed, and edited the film, and he also served as its production designer, special-effects creator, and sound-effects co-engineer. Lynch has described the world he put on film with pride and affection as "A little, unknown, twisted, almost silent lost spot where little details and little torments existed. And people were struggling in darkness. They're living in the fringelands, and they're the people I really love."
Eraserhead's narrative is thin and slippery, but that's okay — the story accounts for maybe 10 percent of the movie's slab-like density. It begins on (and possibly inside) a meatball-shaped meteorite floating in space. Or maybe it begins in the mind of Henry (Jack Nance), whose face is superimposed over the opening images; whether Eraserhead is a realistic depiction of an alternate universe, a collection of Henry's dreams and visions, or some combination of the two, is often suggested but never resolved.
After a series of seemingly disconnected cosmic images, including the first glimpse of a scarred man working some levers who's listed in the closing credits as the "Man in the Planet," the film returns to some semblance of earth. Henry officially enters the picture here, looking over his shoulder as if pursued by a nameless, implacable fear. His pants are too short; his hair is too tall. His walk has a jabbing, slapstick-comedy cadence that accentuates his wide-eyed, lobotomized-inmate stare. Whether moving or standing still, he is fear enfleshed.
Henry stiff-legs his way through a howling night-town where language and verbal communication are nearing complete collapse. The invisible pressures associated with coherent speech derange everyone he meets: a dinner with his girlfriend (Charlotte Stewart) and her parents (Allen Joseph and Jeanne Bates) begins with innocuous pleasantries like "I'm very pleased to meet you." But soon dad is raving about the chickens he's prepared ("Strangest damn things. They're man-made...Smaller than my fist!") and mom is cornering Henry and demanding that she tell him whether he has had "sexual intercourse" with her daughter.
After she sniffs and nuzzles Henry's neck for a while, mom gives him some life-altering news: "There's a baby at the hospital." The rest of the film unfolds as a black-comic domestic docudrama about one couple's attempt to raise an infant — if that's what you want to call the gasping, gagging, long-necked thing on the table whose baby-dinosaur head looks like a peeled sweet potato coated with liquid soap. Mary's insistence that "They're still not sure it is a baby" doesn't exactly clear matters up.
The story works best as an echo chamber for the film's finely orchestrated wallops of sound and texture. In Eraserhead, ambient domestic noise and room tones assume ominous dimensions; Lynch and sound designer Alan R. Splet expose the artificial silence of most cinematic spaces by amplifying the hiss, whine, and buzz of urban industrial living. Organ chords crash into quiet scenes like drunken party guests to heighten the dread. And how about all that barely-visible stuff in Henry's apartment — moth-eaten blankets, crackling floor lamps pilfered from Victor Frankenstein's lab, and lampshade-like plants growing out of mounds of compost, hair, and lint.
Maybe the Eraserhead package shouldn't even have a DVD inside. Like James Agee's ideal copies of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, it should be stuffed with "fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement."