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American Cinematographer Magazine

Eraserhead (1977)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced) Stereo, $39.94

A cinematographer's first feature-film assignment can sometimes launch his or her career. And in the case of David Lynch's Eraserhead, the seminal 1977 midnight-movie curio that has been imitated often but never duplicated, director of photography Frederick Elmes, ASC certainly found more than just a job opportunity.

The film's oblique narrative - set in a dreary, monochrome, industrial-zone world - finds the hapless Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) shocked to learn that he is a new father. After his estranged wife abandons him and their child, a freakishly deformed monstrosity that defies the adage "all babies are cute," the harried Henry escapes his grim responsibilities in a high-key, inner daydream world where he is simply accepted and embraced.

At least, that's what this viewer sees. As Lynch notes, "This is a personal film, and no critic has ever offered an interpretation like the one I have for it." Regardless, Eraserhead offers more than mere story. Elmes' inky black-and-white cinematography and the film's wall-to-wall audio assault combine to render an oppressive mood of claustrophobic dread, tempered by uncomfortable and often inexplicable humor.

This new disc, whose image and sound were restored under Lynch's supervision, offers the film in better condition than it has ever been seen before. Many of the production artifacts resulting from the film's meager budget have been digitally removed. As the disc's 20-page companion booklet details, the film was transferred from a fine-grain internegative to high-definition tape at 23.976 fps with a resolution of 1920x1080, resulting in a "one-to-one correspondence to the original film frames, something you don't get with the standard video rate of 29.97 fps." These tapes were then digitized and stored as uncompressed files to preserve image quality throughout the frame-by-frame cleaning and correction process: "All dirt, scratches, blotches and other imperfections that weren't part of the film, but detritus inherent to film technology, were removed." The MPEG-2 authoring and compression was then done directly from the HD files, retaining as much detail as possible throughout the process.

The original mono audio track was similarly rebuilt, using ProTools running the Waves Restoration-X plug-ins. The result is presented on the DVD as uncompressed PCM audio for maximum quality.

The "Stories" portion of the DVD's sparse yet fascinating supplemental material is a lengthy documentary graced with telling production photos and behind-the-scenes video footage. Lynch notes that his difficult years spent as a struggling artist living in a polluted Philadelphia industrial zone formed the basis of the grimy Eraserhead aesthetic. Explaining that he no longer recalls how the film's story or visuals came to mind - which is not surprising, given his tendency to avoid discussing his inner creative process - Lynch says, "It all came from Philadelphia, but I don't know how it bubbled up to the surface."

Lynch does offer a meticulous account of how the film was surreptitiously made at the American Film Institute, a tale as roundabout and curious as Eraserhead itself. He pays tribute to his key creative partners on the project, including sound designer Alan Splet, art director Jack Fisk, production/camera assistant Catherine Coulson and cinematographer Herbert Caldwell. Caldwell, who served during the first nine months of the film's sporadic production, "was a great DP," says Lynch. "His lighting was painstaking and exact; it was beautiful."

Financial considerations eventually forced Caldwell to depart, but not before he spent several weeks with his replacement, Elmes, who was then an AFI student. (A New Jersey native, Elmes had studied film at the Rochester Institute of Technology and later earned a graduate degree at New York University; his move to Los Angeles was facilitated by his enrollment at the AFI.)

After he met Lynch, Elmes screened several reels of the work-in-progress. "They started with the real tame stuff," Elmes later described. "And then they got to the baby, which they saved for the end, and God, I didn't know what to make of it. It was bizarre but captivating at the same time."

Elmes, who later shot Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart for Lynch, would spend three years on the financially challenged Eraserhead before seeing it finished. "The theater at the AFI was so quiet after the unofficial premiere," he remembered. "It was a bit spooky. No one quite knew what to say. It was really a shock."

More than 25 years later, Eraserhead is still a shock.

- David E. Williams

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.