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.

6 thoughts on “Eraserhead (1977)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    I guess when we’re younger, we like to touch the sides and experience the extreme, but as we get older, shock value has less appeal. Still, viewing this as a teenager certainly engaged me, but I’m in no rush to recapture that feeling.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      It’s always risky revisiting books and movies that were important to us when we were younger. It reveals things to us about ourselves

  2. Tom Moody

    On rewatching for the first time in decades I realized how much of a comedy it is. Even the weirdest bits have comic timing. When the monster baby breaks out in disgusting chicken pox, there’s a beat and Henry says with a concerned, fatherly tone, “oh you *are* sick.” Then another beat and he has placed a vaporizer next to the infant’s head. The dinner scene is a mad hatter’s tea party of “people behaving strangely for no reason” (as an Amazon reviewer once described an Argento film), carefully choreographed to provide tension and release. Even the feature you eloquently pointed out, “that within [the film’s] dream of dark and troubling things the dreamer only dreams of things more dark and troubling still,” has macabre humor.
    As for the meaning, you can take a lot at face value. A man is going quietly crazy in a low rent urban apartment, with a failing marriage and a deformed child who he eventually kills. It’s a “post-industrial landscape,” a milieu that was barely identified in the mid-’70s and became commonplace as a description in the ’80s. Lynch arrived at this early on, indeed nailed it, based on pure artist’s intuition.
    Also it’s hard for me to evaluate Eraserhead as a fragment of my own youth because Lynch never went away and I in effect grew up with him. The signature tropes of this movie (white noise, disgusting growths, people behaving strangely for no reason) continue in almost all of his subsequent creative endeavors. So I watch it now as the psychic blueprint for an amazing (and amazingly improbable) career.
    PS A surprise was seeing, in a small role at the end, Darwin Joston, star of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, who should have had a career if there were any justice in the world.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yeah, there’s definitely some funny stuff in here. I haven’t been as personally attached to Lynch’s career, though Blue Velvet was a movie milestone for me. I really feel like he splits into good Lynch and bad Lynch. When he’s good he’s great and when he isn’t I just don’t know what happened. I should post my notes on Inland Empire sometime soon. I did not like that one.

  3. Tom Moody

    I still haven’t seen Inland Empire; I look forward to your take on it. Of Lynch’s large scale projects (film or TV series), the only one I really disliked was Wild at Heart, although it had its moments (e.g. Willem DaFoe as “Bobby Peru.”)


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