(1977) Written and directed by David Lynch; Starring: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph and Jeanne Bates; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.
“Everybody has a subconscious and they put a lid on it. There’s things in there. And then along comes something, and something bobs up. I don’t know if that’s good.” – David Lynch (excerpt from 1977 interview with Stephen Saban and Sarah Longacre, David Lynch Interviews, edited by Richard A. Barney)
It would be a gross understatement to say there’s nothing else quite like David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Describing the film to the uninitiated is akin to the parable about blind men attempting to identify an elephant by touching its constituent parts. Each viewer takes away something different, based on his or her individual perceptions. It’s a polarizing experience that seems to divide people into two camps: an exclusive club of worshippers who “get it,” versus those who don’t have a clue what it’s about. Lynch has been evasive about its meaning, perhaps trusting that viewers can reach their own conclusions. With little compass to go on outside of my flawed interpretation, Eraserhead is at once the most ideal and frustrating title to start off this month-long retrospective of Lynch’s films.
Eraserhead was filmed over a period of five years, from 1971 to 1976. In addition to writing and directing, Lynch had his hand in virtually every aspect of the production, including sound effects, special effects, music, editing, art design and production design. Because he had such a high level of creative control on Eraserhead, it might just be his most stereotypical film, abundant with images, sounds and tropes he would continue to explore in later projects. The film is populated with an assortment of bizarre characters who occupy discrete universes, at once intersecting with each other but isolated.
We are immersed in a bleak, post-industrial landscape – an alien environment unlike our own, yet eerily familiar.* It’s never expressly stated where the film takes place or the time, although a framed portrait of a mushroom cloud in Henry’s apartment suggests a post-apocalyptic era (whether it’s on another planet, alternate universe, or a damaged Earth is anyone’s guess). Accompanying the film’s stark black and white images is a cacophony of noises engineered by Lynch himself. Each sound carries its own unique texture. Steam courses through pipes like blood in arteries, and factory noises drone in the background. In Lynch’s world, even innocuous sounds take on sinister undertones, such as puppies suckling or preparing a salad for a family meal.
* The Montana-born Lynch cites his time living in Philadelphia* as a major influence on his film. Lynch once remarked, “It’s my Philadelphia Story. It just doesn’t have Jimmy Stewart in it” (from interview “The Icon Profile: David Lynch,” by Chris Rodley, David Lynch Interviews, edited by Richard A. Barney).
Henry (Jack Nance) is our ideal guide to the world of Eraserhead, with his perennially baffled, childlike expression, a tourist in his own land. Through his protagonist, Lynch captures the everyday horrors of mundane activities and social interaction. We sense Henry’s discomfort as he joins his girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) and her parents for dinner. Dining with strangers and eating unfamiliar food suddenly becomes an unbearable trial. When Henry sits with Mary’s father Bill (Allen Joseph), the scene plays out a bit long, but it’s intentional. The awkward silence between the two men is palpable. Henry’s discomfort reaches a zenith when Mary’s mother (Jeanne Bates) confronts him about his relationship with Mary.
Lynch appears to comment on the fears of parenthood and the consequences of sex. Henry and Mary share their one-bedroom apartment with their infant child, a sickly inhuman creature that cries incessantly. Henry is repelled by its vaguely reptilian appearance and constant squawking. He’s torn between selfless devotion and feelings of enslavement to the helpless creature. The arrival of the child initiates his estrangement from Mary, and forges an irreversible rift between the two. As they drift apart, he takes refuge from his stifling existence by fantasizing about his neighbor (Judith Roberts), and staring into the radiator where The Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) resides. The Lady in the Radiator dances as wormlike, intestinal things drop from the ceiling (don’t ask me what that means), and sings the song “In Heaven,” where “everything is fine.”
37 years after its release, Eraserhead resembles nothing you’ve seen, or will likely see again. It defies conventional genre constraints, borrowing equal parts from science fiction, horror, drama, fantasy and comedy. It’s an unsettling blend that will continue to garner new devotees and spur revulsion among others. The only reliable reaction to the film is that you could probably ask ten different people and get ten different responses, but that’s the appeal. Your results may vary, but for my money, it’s an intentionally disturbing experience that plunges one into the darker corners of the mind and challenges us to confront what we find. If liking Eraserhead is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.