Daily Archives: July 24, 2020

Eraserhead (1977)

*. I first saw Eraserhead at a rep cinema sometime in the 1980s and it really made an impact. I think I was dragging friends off to see it for the next couple of weeks. And even though I don’t think I’ve seen it since then, watching it again now I found I remembered almost all of it quite distinctly.
*. Much of that probably has to do with how striking the imagery is. Who can forget Henry’s towering hairdo, or that mewling baby? All rendered in exquisite black-and-white. Could you imagine this movie in colour? I can’t.
*. Filmed in L.A. but Lynch wanted it to look like Philadelphia. I’ve never been to Philadelphia but I know this doesn’t look like L.A. It really is a remarkable job of low-budget world building. Of course locations are a big part of this, but it’s also an effect of the lighting. This is a dark film even in the daytime.
*. The images also stick in the mind because of their mysterious nature. Ever since it came out it’s been a parlour game to try and uncode Eraserhead‘s meaning. This is something David Lynch obviously wanted to invite, which is why he’s remained coy about offering any interpretation of his own. Thus far he’s only said that “no critic or reviewer has given an interpretation that is my interpretation.”
*. I suspect this may be because he didn’t have anything specific in mind. In fact, I don’t see how he could have had anything specific in mind. Does it make a difference that Henry works as a printer? Does that relate to what happens to his noggin?
*. The most frequently quoted line about the movie, that it is “a dream of dark and troubling things” is all we’ve gotten from Lynch, and it only shuts the door. Despite all the books that have been written on the subject, I don’t think dreams have any objective or universal meanings.
*. Of course this hasn’t stopped critics from trying to unpack Lynch’s dream (or nightmare). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this since, as I say, it’s clearly invited. But given the weirdness of the proceedings I don’t think we should expect to get very far.

*. The one point that does seem certain is the revulsion shown toward sex, something that is almost de rigueur when dealing with body horror. There are giant sperm wriggling around and getting squished underfoot or slapped against walls. There’s a bed that sort of melts into a milky hot tub in a very unerotic way when Harry makes out with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. The products of sin are disgusting, from the bitch with her pack of nursing pups to Henry’s hideous baby. Meanwhile, it’s hard to figure out how Henry (a very human Jack Nance) and Mary managed to conceive in the first place (something that Henry is a bit mystified by himself).
*. It’s not difficult to make sex seem disgusting. In fact, making it look good is probably harder. Plus, the world of Eraserhead is an all-around ugly and depressing place. What’s interesting is that even the glimpses we’re given of escape or of something outside Harry’s immediate environment, are even worse. The Lady in the Radiator, singing of heaven, is deformed. The Man in the Planet is in even worse shape. Henry’s window only looks out onto a brick wall. This may be the most disturbing thing about Eraserhead: that within its dream of dark and troubling things the dreamer only dreams of things more dark and troubling still.
*. If the visuals are depressing and disgusting the film’s sound, designed by Alan Splet, is equal in its misery. I’d forgotten just how irritating, indeed purposefully annoying a movie this is to listen to. What a cacophony of noise: humming from machinery, static from the radio, hissing from the radiator, squeaking from the furniture, trains in the distance, the baby’s crying, the wind blowing, and all of this playing non-stop.
*. Eraserhead is a movie better experienced than talked about. I don’t think Lynch had any real statement in mind and people probably see in it what they want to see. I was mightily impressed by it thirty years ago, and while I came away from it this time with a lot of respect for what Lynch accomplished, on a shooting schedule that stretched over five years, I have to say it’s not a movie I enjoy as much today. It was student work, of the highest caliber but still student work, and it appealed to me as a student. But my imagination isn’t what it used to be.