Masterpiece: Eraserhead

Of all the unforgettable images and sounds pulsing in the surreal mist of Eraserhead — and there are enough to keep a psychiatrist in session for several lifetimes — one will forever haunt the nightmares of anyone who sees it. The creature is mutant, phallic, almost amphibian; coated in a film of sickly mucus and sores. Its side-set black eyes roll deliriously as it gargles and wheezes that newborn cry: a blood-curdling, squelchy wail at once helpless and hideously manipulative. Congratulations, Mr Spencer, it’s a… thing! Delivered mysteriously to dazed, shock-haired drone Henry and his catatonic girlfriend, this repellent bundle-of-joy will eventually drive daddy to madness and a gruesome, scissor-wielding infanticide. Forget birth control; doctors should prescribe a screening of Eraserhead to thwart breeding.

David Lynch notoriously refuses to talk about the “baby” — he’s said to have blindfolded the projectionist during rushes to keep it secret — fuelling endless speculation as to how the director created such an uncannily organic spawn. Was it indeed the embalmed cow foetus of urban myth? A stillborn puppet? A genuine extraterrestrial trapped in elaborate art snuff? Whatever the case, Lynch isn’t saying; it’s likely that he never will.

What Lynch would say was that Eraserhead was his “Philadelphia story”; the film’s ghostly, oppressive industrial landscape coursing with his experience of living in the city (“It was a very sick, twisted, violent, fear-ridden, decadent, decaying place,” he said at the time). Conventional theory maintains that it’s a metaphor for the anxieties of fatherhood, and it’s true there’s a sense of the personal here — Lynch became a parent for the first time before he started the film; during the shoot, he and his first wife were divorced. Yet in spite of the malignant brew — the horror of reproduction, the suffocation of family and urban decay — Lynch attributes the movie’s texture to his greatest career muse, the subconscious. “I had a very happy childhood,” he reflected in 1978, probably to the astonishment of some. “These things in Eraserhead come from somewhere unseen.” In his recent manifesto Catching The Big Fish, Lynch even calls Eraserhead his most “spiritual” movie.

It was certainly his most arduous. Begun in 1971 with the endorsement of the American Film Institute, Eraserhead would take Lynch over five years to complete. Having exhausted the AFI’s initial grant (and the patience of some perplexed backers), the production moved fitfully, according to available resources. Lynch ran out of money, and at one point considered building an eight-inch figure of Henry to animate stop-motion in a miniature cardboard set. “I thought I was dead,” he later said, wondering whether the world wasn’t passing him by. After his brother told him to find a proper job and forget filmmaking, Lynch took a paper route delivering The Wall Street Journal for $50 a week, saving up just enough money to shoot scene by scene until he had finished (on close inspection you can actually see Nance age over scenes, such was the delay).

The completed film was rejected by both Cannes and the New York Film Festival, but independent distributor Ben Barenholtz helped push it onto the American midnight movie circuit, where it took on a life of its own. Reactions ran the gamut from mixed to completely bewildered. Variety were vocally unimpressed. “Eraserhead is a sickening bad-taste exercise made by David Lynch,” grumbled their review, describing the film’s grisly climax as “unwatchable”. At the more insightful Village Voice, however, J. Hoberman wryly remarked: “Eraserhead’s not a movie I’d drop acid for, although I would consider it a revolutionary act if someone dropped a reel of it into the middle of Star Wars.” Did George Lucas have a sense of humour? After seeing the film he offered Lynch the director’s chair on Return of the Jedi. Lynch, perhaps not the best man to work with Ewoks, wisely declined.

It had other notable fans, too. Francis Ford Coppola was said to have shown Eraserhead to his cast on the set of Apocalypse Now; Mel Brooks, who famously dubbed Lynch “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”, hired him to direct The Elephant Man; and Stanley Kubrick, while shooting The Shining, would invite his crew up to the house to see what he was calling his “favourite film”. (“Right then I could’ve passed away peaceful and happy,” a thrilled Lynch later said when told about it.)

Eraserhead became a minor phenomenon unto itself. For many of us it was passed on as the cult movie rite-of-passage; maybe the messenger was a worn-out VHS, a faded poster on the AV room wall, or the Pixies screeching their version of the film’s beguiling theme, “Lady In The Radiator”. It was art film and cult film, inscrutable and immediate. You didn’t watch Eraserhead; you experienced it as you would a dream, full of fear, confusion and wonder. “The whole film is undercurrents of a sort of subconscious,” Lynch once said. “It kind of wiggles around in there, and it’s how it strikes each person. It definitely means something to me, but I don’t want to talk about that. It means other things to other people, and that’s great.”

The logic of the subconscious. That’s the genius of Lynch’s film, and a quality that extends across almost all of his subsequent work. Though Eraserhead shares elements with the surrealist cinema of Buñuel and Cocteau (not to mention the grotesquerie of horror and sci-fi), there are few films quite like it when it comes to capturing the dream-state on screen. As much installation art as movie, Eraserhead is alive — it demands the viewer surrender to its embrace, luring us into the freak theatre with the promise of paradise on the other side of the radiator. There’s a strangely soothing quality to its ambience of white noise, industrial clang and heaving pistons, which cushions the stark grey-on-grey cinematography and swirling sense of psychic menace.

In Eraserhead’s final moments, Henry, seemingly liberated from his anxieties, transcends to what we might read as a life of bliss with his platinum-haired siren. But the fabric of the film is that of a dream; we can never be sure. Who is the disembodied blonde whose face is about to explode, and why is she living inside our hero’s heater? Will everything really be fine in Heaven, as she claims? Like the best kind of dreams, Eraserhead is both horrifying and intensely beautiful.

May 2007

Originally published in Empire

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