Eraserhead (1977)

Eraserhead (1977) Directed by David Lynch Shown: Jack Nance

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What do John Waters, Stanley Kubrick, H.R. Giger, and The Pixies all have in common? For starters, they all share a very high regard for a feature film whose script was only 22 pages long and which took five years to make: David Lynch’s directorial debut, Eraserhead (1977). My own fascination with this famous midnight movie touches on my job as a film exhibitor because it serves to remind me how small and independent exhibitors can have a big impact on film culture when they champion a particular title. In the case of Eraserhead, it was the Cinema Village in New York that first ran it for a year as a midnight feature. This was followed by exceptionally long runs (the likes of which nowadays are unheard of) at the New York’s Waverly Cinema, then the San Francisco Roxie Theater. And this followed by an even longer three year stint at the Los Angeles’s Nuart Theatre.

A lot has changed since those days but David Lynch is still a busy man. Twin Peaks (1990-1991, 2017) is back on the airwaves and creating a stir, although the landscape for how we watch shows has changed dramatically since the first Twin Peaks was released. Over 30 million people wondered who killed Laura Palmer back in 1990, whereas the audience wondering what the heck happened to agent Cooper has now shrunk to less than one million. We can probably blame the death of TV and the proliferation of content-delivering platforms for that. On the other hand, FilmStruck is one such new platform, and one on which viewers can now revisit movies such as Eraserhead with the greatest of ease – albeit perhaps “unease” may be a more appropriate word when discussing Eraserhead. (Addendum: there is a treasure-trove of bonus goodies on the FilmStruck site that are new to me and which I look forward to checking out.)

Bruce McCulloch, of Kids in the Hall (1988-1995) fame, released an album in 1995 called Shame-Based Man. One of the songs is dedicated to Eraserhead which early on has this stanza: “Once a year, I get drunk in a darkened house for a week. I get drunk and watch Eraserhead, as I think we all do sometimes. It’s my vacation.” Near the end of the song you find out that “If you were there, in my house, you could follow a trail of those rose petals and they would lead to me, curled up, fetal position, quivering, crying, my teeth chattering, industrial Eraserhead-type noises coming from inside… me.” Eraserhead does have that effect on people.

For the uninitiated, it should be said that Jack Nance is the actor who portrays Spencer: a man with a thousand mile stare and tubular ‘fro and who became the iconic visage and poster child for Midnight Movies (in part because of J. Hoberman & Jonathan Rosenbaum’s book of same name). Nance met an untimely death in 1996 after he received a head injury in a brawl at a donut shop. He wasn’t the only one, composer Peter Ivers, who helped write the “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)” also met with an untimely death. Ivers was particularly adept at the harmonica and was hailed by Muddy Waters as “the greatest harp player alive” – at least until Ivers was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1983. Unsolved crimes seem to follow inhabitants of the Lynch universe, but I digress.

Eraserhead (1977) Directed by David Lynch Shown: mutant baby

Back to the obligatory notes for the uninitiated: “Henry Spencer tries to survive his industrial environment, his angry girlfriend, and the unbearable screams of his newly born mutant child.” That concise summary courtesy of IMDB is accurate and yet says nothing about the special powers evoked by the disturbing visions contained within Eraserhead. My own sense is that, yes, Eraserhead is part meditation on the anxieties Lynch may have had over his own unexpected parental duties revolving around his young daughter who was born with the birth defect of clubbed feet, but nobody should ever expect Lynch to cop to it. He’s not that kind of artist. I remember seeing Lynch field questions from an audience at Telluride. He was there with The Straight Story (1999). Let me be clear: nobody is ever going to get the straight story from Lynch. He wants you to figure it out on your own. Press on him all you want. He’ll evade the question or change his answers. His art is what you make of it, and he’s not there to make it easy on you.

Perhaps we can blame David Lynch’s psychiatrist for his evasive ways. When Lynch asked this psychiatrist if analyzing his own thoughts might negatively affect his creativity, the answer was: “Maybe.”

“That was it. I could see how, if you disturb the nest too much, you’re liable to… you don’t know what could happen. What it does is, it destroys the mystery, this kind of magical quality. I can be reduced down to certain neuroses or certain things, and since it’s now named and defined, it’s lost its mystery and the potential for a vast, infinite experience.” (p. 33, Weirdsville, USA, by Paul A. Woods).

Certainly it can be said that a bigger influence on Lynch’s Eraserhead than fatherhood and Jane’s feet was the anxiety of living in an industrial section of Philadelphia where Lynch witnessed a teenage kid trying to defend his family on the street only to be shot in the back of the head.

Eraserhead is the real Philadelphia Story. Philadelphia was a place I never wanted to go to – ever,” confessed a sensitive Lynch. “It was a frightening city. It has an atmosphere of fear, just all pervading fear.” (p. 32, Weirdsville, USA)

And what about that mutant baby? No, not the larger prop used during some of the f/x scenes, but rather the one used for close-ups where it looked uncomfortably real?

“To a certain degree, the revulsion that Eraserhead embodies has been displaced from the film and onto the extraordinary degree of secrecy surrounding the actual identity of the film’s baby – whether, in fact, it can be defined as a living creature. The taboo aspect of this question is, in fact, central to the film’s impact.” (p. 242, Midnight Movies, J. Hoberman & Jonathan Rosenbaum)

Lynch was no stranger to dissecting various dead things and for the spermazoids that invade Henry’s brain he even used “a supply of freshly-cut umbilical cords from the local hospital.” (p. 28, Weirdsville, USA). But what about the baby? Was it a well-preserved calf’s fetus? Or, horrible to contemplate, was it a skinned sea turtle that was still alive? That last unwelcome thought came my way directly from Alex Cox, whose own film, Repo Man (1984), also gained a cult audience thanks to the persistence of a small exhibitor who believed in the film long after the studio had prematurely buried it away and left it for dead. Mr. Cox has other gripes with Mr. Lynch, so I won’t weigh in with my own thoughts to tip the scale further, other than to say that perhaps the only person we can trust on this issue is Lynch’s psychiatrist – whose secrecy is bound by oath.

Pablo Kjolseth

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6 Responses Eraserhead (1977)
Posted By Arthur : September 3, 2017 12:14 am

Pablo, I tried to watch this film when it was in the theatres, but I walked out halfway through. I thought TWIN PEAKS was interesting. But BLUE VELVET did not really grab me. Maybe I’ll give Eraserhead another shot. Maybe.

Posted By Pablo Kjolseth : September 3, 2017 2:33 am

Hi, Arthur – I’ve been busy getting ready for (and now attending) the Telluride Film Festival. Only now did I notice all the bonus goodies on the FilmStruck site for ERASERHEAD. Maybe give those a shot first, in case they provide rewarding context. In Telluride news: FOXTROT is the stand-out so far, with Agnes Varda’s latest a close second. But that’s only two days in.

Posted By swac44 : September 3, 2017 8:09 am

I saw Eraserhead at the tender age of 13 at our late, lamented rep house Wormwood’s Dog & Monkey Cinema. If ever a piece of art changed my outlook on the world, this would be it.

Maybe it should become mandatory viewing as a rite of passage? “Hey kids, the world isn’t what you think it is…” I imagine any jr. high school teacher would be fired for attempting such a thing, but seeing Lynch’s first major work certainly helped make my remaining public school years a lot more interesting.

Posted By Doug : September 3, 2017 9:34 am

If Lynch’s art means whatever we want it to mean, I don’t know what it says about me that I love “Eraserhead”.
The “treasure-trove of bonus goodies on the FilmStruck site” sound enticing, though some of the them might be ported over from the “Eraserhead 2000″ DVD which has a definitive BTS history of the film.
I have shared the film with friends who were a bit freaked out-perhaps the rekindling of “Twin Peaks” will set another generation of film lovers to seek out Lynch’s films.
“Eraserhead” is the best place to start,”Inland Empire” the worst.
Thank you, Pablo, for highlighting this film, and I hope that you have a great time at Telluride.

Posted By Jonathan R Barnett : September 5, 2017 2:14 pm

ERASERHEAD is the epitome of a “hand crafted” movie.

Posted By George : September 7, 2017 6:23 pm

I missed ERASERHEAD during its midnight movie heyday. Caught up with it on VHS in the mid-’80s, after reading about it in one of Danny Peary’s “Cult Movies” books. One of the strangest viewing experiences I’ve ever had. I loved it (and still love it).

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