AFI FEST: ‘Eraserhead’ ready for its close-up

Posted by · 11:29 am · November 8th, 2010

This year’s AFI Fest (“presented by AUDI,” as the literature keeps reminding us to call it) has felt something like a non-event so far this year.  I can’t put my finger on why, other than the usual sense of been there, done that as it pertains to films seeing their North American premieres.

I’ve skipped a number of Galas and parties already.  What can possibly be gleaned over a few hors d’oeuvres and some white wine?  I’d like to attend Friday’s premiere of “Black Swan” and give it another look, but I expect to be in a car on the way to some seclusion with my fiancee this weekend as we quietly celebrate our birthdays (hers Friday, mine Monday) away from our separate frays in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But when I picked up my credentials Saturday over at the Roosevelt Hotel, I offered a quick glance at the schedule and decided to watch something for me (which, clearly by these words, has become “for work,” but it didn’t feel that way at the time, and that’s a welcome departure this time of year).

Somehow I managed to make it through film school without ever seeing David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.” I know.  But it’s just one of those films, perhaps “the” film, that has always sat at the top of my “to see” list and never made its way to my DVD player or Netflix queue (actually, I think it’s in my instant watch batch, but again, it just never happened).  Maybe I’ve just waited to be in the right frame of mind, because I knew, peripherally, what I was in for.  Whatever the reason, I just never saw the film.

And what’s more, I’ve never sought out any information on it.  I’ve glossed over this or that in the expected readings and research when you write about movies, but I remained kind of removed from specifics.  Whenever it was going to happen, it was going to be a virginal experience.

So when I walked out of the Roosevelt and saw on the schedule that the film was set to play at the Egyptian Theater in 15 minutes, I looked at is as an opportunity to sit back, take in a film (that probably should be seen on the big screen anyway) and leave the season’s insanity at the door for 90 minutes.

It was glorious, in ways only Lynch can achieve.  I find myself at odds with most on the virtues of his work.  For instance, I prefer the audacity of “Lost Highway” and the heartfelt mundanity of “The Straight Story” to the generally accepted “great” works like “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive.” I think 2007’s under-appreciated “Inland Empire” might be his best work to date, and I’ve always had a soft spot for “Wild at Heart.”

With “Eraserhead,” we get the pure, unfiltered id of Lynch painted broad and vibrant.  It’s most intriguing to see the seeds of his later work being planted here, specifically composition.  Lynch has always had an eye for capturing still, unsettling frames that give the audience a curious point of view and way into the imagery.  I don’t fully know how to explain what I’m talking about, but it’s a trademark that stands out then and now.

Lynch is serving as the first-ever guest artistic director of the festival this year (he’s a former AFI student), having selected a sidebar of his favorite films to screen throughout.  One of them, “Sunset Boulevard,” played immediately after “Eraserhead” as part of a double feature (though one wonders whether “Mulholland Drive” wouldn’t have been a better pick, where he was clearly channeling a bit of Wilder’s film).  It was a great turn-out and Lynch gave a brief intro before answering some Twitter questions in between films.  I’ve got the audio below.

Anyway, I’m glad I made the time for this experience.  You get so few opportunities to properly lose yourself in filmmaking when you find yourself on the perch reporting on it.  I’ll freely admit this as something that gets further and further under my skin each and every year.  But I cherish these opportunities when I find them.  So maybe AFI Fest hasn’t been such a “non-event” for me this year after all.

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11 responses so far

  • 1 11-08-2010 at 11:58 am

    Keil Shults said...

    Glad you enjoyed it and saw it in the proper setting. I too saw it for the first time in a theater a few years back, but it was a crappy south Texas theater with a mediocre sound system. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film, though I wasn’t exactly sure what the hell I had just witnessed. I’ve been eager to see it again, and this article may finally convince me to rent it. I also need to see Inland Empire, which I bought used on DVD ages ago and still haven’t watched.

    And finally, I fully understand your introductory explanation for not having seen Eraserhead yet. Growing up at the very southern tip of Texas, and now living about 30 minutes north of Dallas, I’ve always considered myself the biggest cinephile of the people I knew personally. And so it is always with an embarrassed look and a sheepish grin that I admit I have yet to see Gone With the Wind. I was the first person among my friends to see and promote films like Todd Haynes’ Superstar or Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time, but I STILL, for one reason or another, have not sat through Fleming’s supposed masterpiece. And I always struggle to justify or at least explain why I haven’t seen it, but now that I’m 32, I’m running out of rationalizations. But in the interest of bringing this rambling blog comment full circle, I’ll just say that if Clark Gable had Jack Nance’s iconic hairdo and a mutant baby to boot, I’d have seen GWTW long ago.

  • 2 11-08-2010 at 12:43 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Great last paragraph, Keil. haha

    I grew up on GWTW. It was always playing during holidays or on a crappy vhs tape around the house. My nana always watched it, so I grew up with it. I love it, because it’s been engrained in me. I wonder what you’ll think.

  • 3 11-08-2010 at 12:46 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    Tapley’s thinking, “Must every Eraserhead entry I create turn into a Gone With the Wind discussion!?”

  • 4 11-08-2010 at 2:31 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    What’s your opinion on both Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and Dune (1984)?

  • 5 11-08-2010 at 2:48 pm

    Rodney Hollis said...

    I love David Lynch! …That said, I don’t appreciate some of his pieces. Like you Kris, “Wild at Heart” is one of my favorite films. The David Lynch I love’s most seminal work is for me WAH. It’s to me the most expressive he’s been as an artist without alienating “most” cinephiles. I love “Blue Velvet” and I really like “Mullholland Drive” and “The Elephant Man.” But I must admit “Eraserhead” and “Inland Empire” are among my most frustrating film experiences.

    Perhaps I should’ve seen Eraserhead in the theatre first but like Kris and Keil there was no urgency to see it, however curious I was. But when I saw AFI was showing it, I put it at the top of my Netflix queue and watched it yesterday afternoon. I felt completely disconnected from the film, which is what Lynch I believe aims for at times because his works are so personal. I discussed this with a colleague who hates David Lynch ever since being rendered intellectually impotent by his “Twin Peaks” work, and her frustration with Lynch is what she perceives to be his motive to make intellectuals feel stupid. I completely disagree but I must admit I found Eraserhead’s plot nonsensical and the gore unnecessarily unsettling. I have a suspicion that if I would just relax into a second viewing and just experience it as a great dream sequence, there’s a throughline to be discovered. But I was really let down.

    I don’t completely understand “Mullhollnad Drive” but I thoroughly enjoyed it. When I see a David Lynch picture I tell myself, “you’re not going to understand it so don’t even try,” and that typically gives me an appreciation for his work. I don’t care about understanding it, I just want to be fascinated by it, and Lynch rarely disappoints. But with Eraserhead I was not fascinated as much as I was exhausted by the repugnancy of the images.

    I will say this, like Christopher Nolan’s “The Following” it definitely announces “there’s an auteur at work here” but unlike “The Following,” a superior work, Eraserhead more to me screams “there’s an auteur at work here who needs some studio interference to pull him back from the brink.” I know I’m going to get pummeled for that. :) But honestly, there’s a thin line between an artist’s work being personal (which is essential) and the artist’s work being so personal that either a) no one relates to it or b) the only people who do relate don’t really get it they’re just inspired but such gutsy artistry. I think Lynch has proved in most cases the latter is actually the case (or else he would not be a part of any serious discussion on film). That said there is a “hit” or “miss” quality to his works and Eraserhead misses monstrously.

  • 6 11-08-2010 at 3:16 pm

    El Rocho said...

    I’d give my left nut to have been at that event.

  • 7 11-08-2010 at 6:58 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    “I felt completely disconnected from the film, which is what Lynch I believe aims for at times because his works are so personal. I discussed this with a colleague who hates David Lynch ever since being rendered intellectually impotent by his “Twin Peaks” work, and her frustration with Lynch is what she perceives to be his motive to make intellectuals feel stupid. I completely disagree”

    Lynch has said he’s not an intellect. Anyone attempting to “get” his films – are wasting their time. It’s better to appreciate them for what possible personal value they’ll carry for you as a viewer.

  • 8 11-08-2010 at 7:09 pm

    Rodney Hollis said...

    Exactly! Hence the “I completely disagree” and the “When I see a David Lynch picture I tell myself, ‘you’re not going to understand it so don’t even try,’ and that typically gives me an appreciation for his work.”

  • 9 11-08-2010 at 8:28 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Love “Mulholland Drive” and “The Straight Story,” like “Blue Velvet,” don’t like “The Elephant Man,” haven’t seen “Eraserhead” (although I did almost rent it for Halloween).

    I haven’t seen “Gone with the Wind” yet either (eek!). I WISH I had time these days to sit down with a four hour movie. Soon, soon…

  • 10 11-09-2010 at 7:46 am

    Keil Shults said...

    Offhand, I’d say Mulholland Dr. is my favorite Lynch film. I also don’t pretend to understand or have an explanation for everything that occurs in the film, but I’m guessing that’s beside the point. Some scoffed when Lynch referred to this bizarre, labyrinthine tale as a “love story in the city of dreams,” but I feel it’s the perfect way to cut to the heart of the movie. It’s more about concepts like love, the desire for stardom, Old Hollywood, the studio system, and so on, as opposed to specific people or events. Just talking about it makes me feel like watching it again, because it’s been a while.

    After Mulholland Dr. it becomes more difficult for me to rank the Lynch films I’ve seen. Several of them, I’ve only seen once: Eraserhead, Wild at Heart, and The Straight Story. I’ve seen Lost Highway a few times over the years, though there’s always a big gap between viewings, so I always forget certain parts of it. I’ve never seen Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, though I actually recall seeing the pilot episode of the show when it initially aired in (I believe) 1990. I was 11 or 12 at the time, and I remember being completely enthralled and baffled by it. I actually own the complete series on DVD, but have yet to watch more than the first 7 or 8 episodes. I need to remedy that soon, perhaps over the holidays. Once I finish it I’ll give Fire Walk With Me a whirl.

    I’ve also never seen Inland Empire, though I’ve seen the first half hour or so about three times. I always begin watching it at inopportune moments, and whenever I decide to go back to it I realize I’ll need to start it over. A friend of mine was telling me of his rather strong reactions to it recently, so that coupled with this thread should be the motivation I need to finally make that long and twisted journey.

    I’ve seen The Elephant Man twice and Blue Velvet 6 or 7 times since high school in the early 1990s. I loved The Straight Story when I saw it, and really need to see it again (it’s been about 11 years now). I had never seen Wild at Heart until about 5 months ago, but I liked it well enough. I’m sure another viewing is in order. The same can be said for Eraserhead, which I only saw that one time about 4 years ago. As I write about all these it’s becoming clear I probably couldn’t rank them if I tried. Give me a couple of months. ;-)

  • 11 11-09-2010 at 11:48 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Wild at Heart is my least favorite Lynch film. I want to say I wish he never made it but the author of the book is responsible for co-authoring the script to Lost Highway which is my absolute favorite. Twin Peaks: FWWM fits comfortably as a double feature alongside WAH as the most abrasive, abusive and torture filled of his films.

    Blue Velvet is so boring to me now. Inland Empire is easiest to watch when jumping to specific sections of the picture you’re in the mood to view – outside of that it’s unbearable as a straight through movie watching experience. I haven’t seen Easerhead or The Straight Story yet. I will defend Dune (1984) they same way people choose to defend M Night Shaman, Lars von Trier, that guy who directs the pedophile propaganda Todd S, and anything else that fills indefensible.