Eraserhead (1977)

Rating:

USA. 1977.

Crew

Director/Screenplay/Producer/Special Effects/Production Design – David Lynch, Photography (b&w) – Herbert Cardwell & Frederick Elmes, Radiator Lady Song – Peter Ivers. Production Company – American Film Institute

Cast

John Nance (Henry Spencer), Charlotte Stewart (Mary X), Allen Joseph (Mr X), Jeanne Bates (Mrs X), Judith Anna Roberts (Girl Across Hall), Laurel Near (Girl in Radiator)


Plot

Henry Spencer is informed that he has fathered a child to his girlfriend Mary X. However, the child is born as a mutated foetus that the doctors are not even sure is human any longer. Henry and Mary are forced to move into Henry’s single-room apartment where the baby’s constant crying keeps them awake. Eventually, Mary walks out, leaving Henry with sole charge of the baby.


Eraserhead is one of the – if not the – most famous cult film of all time. (Where I used to live, the local Film Society has had so many requests for it they have an answer automatically prepared – a poster on their guest-book that said: “No, we can’t get hold of Eraserhead“).

Eraserhead is a total enigma – it defies any type of classification or easy straight-jacketing and interpretation of meaning. It seems to have been made directly out of the subconscious. It has the ambience of a dream and its matter is that of dream symbols. It is almost akin to a filmic Rorschach blot that serves to amplify whatever the viewer interprets into it. Essayists have seen it as everything from a nightmare about industrial dehumanisation to a post-holocaust science-fiction story to a perverse Second Coming parable. Is the man pulling a lever, listed on the credits as The Man in the Planet, meant to be God? What do the pencil erasers represent – do they, as some pedantic academic suggested, symbolically represent the mind’s ability to repress or ‘erase’ matter?

Eraserhead could well be an industrial nightmare. Henry lives in the midst of an industrial wasteland. It is a peculiarly desiccated existence dominated by the overwhelming banality of Henry’s single apartment and its outlook onto a brick wall. The only greenery seen is in his room and consists of two piles of dirt, one on his dresser and one on his bedside table from which bare branches uncertainly sprout. The two or three exterior shots we see are of streets filled with factories – and with Jack Nance outlined against the industrial backgrounds, these seems to be taking place more on an alien world than anywhere on Earth.

Jack Nance slowly plods through this landscape, outfitted with a vertical Lyle Lovett coiff and dressed in a suit with shortened cuffs and a pocket filled with too many pens. His head movements are sharp and mechanical, like the way a bird twists its head. Henry seems not so much a Candide in this world as a Chauncy Gardener – the blank unworldwise innocent Peter Sellers played in Being There (1979). He says almost nothing throughout the film – indeed, the most Henry verbalizes seems to come through Jack Nance’s extraordinarily expressive eyebrows, which seem caught in a perpetual quaver of puzzlement. One of the most unsettling things about Eraserhead is its complete lack of handholds for an audience, and Jack Nance’s blank impassiveness and the cipher of the character only increases the intensive alienation.

Director David Lynch plays with a good deal of sexual imagery and the most likely thing that Eraserhead is about is sexual and procreative disgust. The film seems shot through with a horror of child raising and what is some men’s greatest nightmare – of being left with the sole responsibility for an unwanted child. In the opening moments, we see Henry floating through space dreaming and what look like sperm emerging from his mouth. When domestic life with the baby starts going wrong, Henry is seen desperately trying to pull sperm out of the sleeping Mary’s mouth as though trying to reverse something – perhaps symbolically the pregnancy that the emerging sperm started off in the first place. All sex in the film seems tinged with disgust – Henry engages in a sexual encounter with the woman across the hallway but their bed turns into a glowing swamp. This one-night stand comes back to haunt Henry – when he sees the woman with another man and she mockingly turns and laughs at him, the baby, which looks like another sperm, bursts up through Henry’s collar, although when the woman looks she can see nothing there. The only happiness Henry seems to find is in radiator dream-land where a girl with puffed cheeks nervously sings and dances as sperm drop on her and are squashed underfoot. Perhaps this latter seems to be arguing that masturbation is the only safe form of sex – certainly, this would seem to be the case at the climax of the film, which sees Henry going off to join the pure and innocent puff-cheeked girl in radiator dream-land in a blaze of white light that may be the hereafter.

Of course, Eraserhead was the first film of David Lynch. Lynch and a group of tight collaborators made the film over a five-year period on a budget of $20,000 that was mostly received as a grant from the American Film Foundation. For such a minuscule budget, the film is amazingly well made. The black-and-white photography is extremely beautiful and the baby effects far better than those in some A-budget films. Many of the themes that have preoccupied David Lynch since can be seen being laid down – the weird reactions and obsessive behaviours, the cod banal dialogue and use of almost comically trite music, his fascination with the beauty of industrial landscapes or in the perverse and disgusting, sexual weirdness and horrors, a belief in a transcendent afterlife.

Films like Eraserhead do not usually inspire imitators (although the work of the Quay Brothers does come close at times). However, one of the most important things that Eraserhead did achieve was to change the thrust of surrealism. Eraserhead marks a demarcation point beyond which stretches the blackly comic nightmares of Terry Gilliam, the bizarre psychoses of the Coen Brothers, the kitsch weirdness of Guy Maddin, the bizarre rituals of Peter Greenaway and others. Up until Eraserhead, surrealism had worked as a play of images – the iconoclastic juxtapositions of Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Zen pretensions and the intellectual game-playing of the French New Wave. After Lynch and Eraserhead, surrealism became a psychological response to the bizarre or contrarily a bizarre psychological response to the everyday. Lynch redefined the focus as a postmodern one – one that moved from juxtapositions of imagery to the emotional relationship between humans and their environment.

And it is take-no-prisoners surrealism. Eraserhead makes many people feel uncomfortable and they resultingly dismiss this film without quite knowing why they do. Part of the reason is David Lynch’s conscious decision to alienate. Everything in the film appears off-key, not quite right. Near the beginning, Jack Nance stands in an elevator waiting for the door to shut but the door takes far longer to close than it should and it seems unsettling. During the dinner at Mary’s parents’ place, the conversation is something that would appear perfectly ordinary in any other film but the characters seem oddly alienated by the banality of the room they are in or maybe by the way they are seated, and the conversation instead makes audiences laugh. The weirdness of the film is such that people often miss David Lynch’s rather funny sense of black humour – the expression on Jack Nance’s face during the scene where the chicken comes to life on his dinner plate as he tries to act normally is priceless. The scene where Nance cuts the baby’s diapers off and its intestines fall out is, once one gets past the ickiness of the moment and thinks about it, an intensely funny joke.

David Lynch would go onto a memorable body of works including the likes of The Elephant Man (non-genre, 1980), Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks (1990), tv’s Twin Peaks (1990-1), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lost Highway (1997), The Straight Story (non-genre, 1999), Mulholland Dr. (2001) and Inland Empire (2006). Lynch also created and directed many episodes of the cult tv series Twin Peaks (1990-1, 2017). Lynch has also produced other genre films such as The Cabinet of Dr Ramirez (1991), Nadja (1994), Surveillance (2008), My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009) and Black and White in Colors (2010), as well as two short-lived surrealist tv series with On the Air (1992) and Hotel Room (1993). Lynch (2007) and David Lynch: The Art Life (2016) are documentaries about Lynch.


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