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The Big Movie: Lynch (NR) and Eraserhead (NR)

by: COURTESY OF ABSURDA PRODUCTION, The Northwest Film Center puts David Lynch’s nightmarish “Eraserhead” on the big screen this weekend, as well as a documentary about the director (above).

Long, long ago, in a far-off land called the 1970s, I was a geeky kid who loved movies.

Unlike normal, noncinema-obsessed youths, my favorite part of the year wasn't summer vacation - it was the weeks devoted to the Los Angeles Film Exposition (commonly called 'Filmex'), the annual international festival that ran from 1971 to 1983 before morphing into the organization American Cinematheque.

For a budding film geek, having a Filmex pass was like being given free rein in a candy store filled with exotic treats from around the world. I'd ditch school and take a series of city buses to Century City every day for the length of the festival, grab a program, and cram as many movies into my day as possible.

Choosing films based solely on the three or four sentences in the festival schedule, I gambled my time on movies from countries like Ireland, China and Cuba, and on interesting-sounding American films that probably never would see wide distribution.

Which is how I first saw David Lynch's freaky fever-dream 'Eraserhead.' Three decades later, we know what to expect from Lynch, but in 1977 his surreal, terrifying contemplation of urban anxiety was wholly new, and utterly baffling.

The nonlinear story uses Lynch's personal brand of dream logic to tell the tale of a man named Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) whose girlfriend abandons him and their grotesquely deformed baby.

While the baby's in his care, Henry sleepwalks through a bizarre chain of interactions with increasingly strange characters.

As a young filmgoer fed on a regular diet of standard Hollywood genre-bound fare, I was floored. And I became a fan of Lynch forever, even when he's at his most infuriating.

Now, what 'Eraserhead' actually is about is anybody's guess. Lynch himself never has fully explained it other than to say it reflects his anxieties while living on his own in an industrial part of Philadelphia.

Critics have come up with numerous interpretations from parental fear to sexual dysfunction, but really it's just the world's greatest audition film - Lynch made the movie to show off what he was capable of as a filmmaker, and it got him noticed.

After seeing 'Eraserhead,' Mel Brooks contacted Lynch and offered him 'The Elephant Man,' kicking off the director's uneven-but-always-interesting career.

Watching 'Eraserhead' for the first time is a revelation, a mind-altering experience in an utterly unique way of telling a story on film.

Despite its incomprehensible story line, Lynch's masterful use of shadow, industrial sounds and grotesque imagery creates an inescapable feeling of dread in the viewer, a palpable sensation of being trapped inside someone else's nightmare.

And it's absolutely gorgeous to look at, even when the images are so awful that you want to look away.

Sporadically shown over the years in art house and repertory theaters, the film received a broader DVD release last year (previously it was available only through Lynch's Web site), but it really ought to be seen on the big screen.

The Northwest Film Center is offering that experience this week, and you should take advantage of the opportunity, even if it leaves you jittery and scratching your head in confusion.

Playing with 'Eraserhead' is 'Lynch,' a new documentary that reveals the director to be obsessed with Transcendental Meditation, which he promotes to his cadre of worshipful protégés in between power walks.

Direction is credited to 'blackANDwhite,' who may be one of Lynch's young in-house bootlicks or could really be Lynch himself, since this seems like the sort of thing he would do.

Whoever directed it, it's awful - tedious, unenlightening and sluggishly paced. Skip it if you can.

- Dawn Taylor

'Lynch,' 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 4-6; 'Eraserhead,' 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 4-6; also,Lynch's 'Inland Empire,' 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 6, Whitsell Auditorium