With Eraserhead (1977) there is only ever the first time. Re-watching director David Lynch’s debut feature, the experience is entangled with the impact of that initial viewing. Subsequent screenings lead back to deeper recesses of an experience, remembered as equal parts reality and dream.
I was about 14 when my dad first described a particularly strange film he’d watched while he was a student. The images alone were enough to pique my interest (especially as a young man with a nascent interest in horror cinema): a nightmare dinner; a bouffant-haired lady, stamping on spermatozoid creatures; a mutant baby. A couple of years later, I finally got around to watching
Eraserhead online. Despite the patchy quality of the stream, it made quite an impression.
In retrospect, the haunted monochrome, combined with the grainy pixilation of the image, made the whole experience seem like the kind of illicit transmission James Woods’ character finds himself viewing in
David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) (another film that systematically rearranged my adolescent brain around the same time). The gruesome imagery, the exaggerated (almost expressionistic) attitude towards place, together with the Eraserhead’s mounting sense of claustrophobia, ticked most boxes for what, at the time, felt like extreme viewing.
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay
Over a decade later, Lynch’s films have settled more comfortably into the cultural mainstream. His creative exploits are as manifold as his films are difficult to define. A painter by trade, Lynch has also dabbled in a career in music, forays into furniture design, and various public speaking engagements; he has released his own signature blend of organic coffee (he claims to drink
over ten cups a day). Lynch advocates a practice of Transcendental Meditation, which he maintains through the operation of the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. In 2006, Lynch would author a book on meditation and creativity, hospitably titled Catching the Big Fish.
More recently, the 2017 revival (and critical success) of Twin Peaks: The Return has brought Lynch, once more, into the foreground of the viewing public consciousness. Reigniting a series that, as early as 1990, arguably set the ball rolling on the following decade’s love-affair with ‘prestige television,’ Lynch’s (by all accounts) peculiar work commands an outsized level of popularity. Since May this year, Lynch has been issuing daily ‘weather reports’ from what appears to be a nuclear silo (embraced by some as disarmingly comforting viewing over the worst of 2020’s protracted Covid-19 crisis).
Of course, little of this registered upon first viewing Eraserhead as a susceptible teenager. Having gone on to enthusiastically consume the entirety of Lynch’s filmography, little has matched up to the raw impression of that initial experience.
And yet, despite its reputation for rampant unconventionality, the film follows a series of surprisingly linear narrative beats. Henry Spencer is an alienated young printer, ‘on vacation’ (played with deadpan effectiveness by Lynch-regular Jack Nance). He finds himself tempted by the attractive woman next door (Judith Roberts). Henry is (was?) in a relationship with Mary (Charlotte Stewart) who we find out has recently given birth to his baby. From a distance, Eraserhead unfolds as a straightforward tale of disruptive male desire—with Henry torn between the grind of the reality principle and the promise of unmitigated fulfillment.
Laurel Near as The Lady in the Radiator (IMDB)
It is into this mixture that Lynch injects his nightmarish sensibility. Beginning in mystery, the super-imposed image of Henry floats in darkness (his legendary curly haircut would become, in the words of author Danny Leigh, ‘a subcultural bat-signal’); from here, the viewer is transported from the outer limits of space, to the nooks and crannies of an alien planet. The whole sequence feels very sci-fi; it is perhaps no mistake that George Lucas would seek Lynch’s services as director for the 1983 space epic, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (a proposition that Lynch would politely decline).
After about ten-minutes of this we meet Henry proper. The audience watches as he carries his shopping through an unnamed, blasted expanse. The desolate industrial landscape works complements the anxious tenor of the performances—an expression of quiet dread accompanying Jack Nance’s shuffling journey through the exterior ruin. Famously reluctant to offer insight into the meaning of his films, Lynch has described the picture as ‘ a dream of dark and troubling things’.
In one memorable scene, Henry is sat around the dinner table with Mary’s family; asked to carve a terrifying miniature turkey (‘man-made!’ Mary’s father cheerfully announces), he is horrified to find it come alive; the camera fixes in a gory close-up of haemorrhaging blood, issuing from the turkey’s tail end. Violent outbursts interrupt the pointedly artificial civility of the gathering—culminating in the revelation that Henry is father to Mary’s baby (‘they’re still not sure it is a baby!’). Not since Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (released three years prior to Lynch’s opus) has such violence been enacted to the hallowed arena of the family dinner.
More to the point, the scene exemplifies a set of cinematic gestures that have since congealed into the catch-all descriptor of ‘the Lynchian’. In a 1996 article for Premiere magazine, David Foster Wallace provides an apt model for Lynch’s unique mode of storytelling, and its disconcerting mix of the impossibly mundane and unspeakably grotesque. Wallace writes that a run-of-the-mill domestic homicide doesn’t necessarily chime with the Lynchian; however:
“[I]f it turns out the guy killed his wife over something like a persistent failure to refill the ice-cube tray after taking the last ice cube or an obdurate refusal to buy the particular brand of peanut butter the guy was devoted to, the homicide could be described as having Lynchian elements. And if the guy sitting over the mutilated corpse of his wife (whose retrograde ’50s bouffant is, however weirdly unmussed) with the first cops on the scene […] begins defending his actions by giving an involved analysis of the comparative merits of Jif and Skippy, and if the beat cops, however repelled by the carnage on the floor have to admit that the guys got a point […] you get the idea.”
And yet, as Wallace suggests, ‘Lynchian’ moments are mostly spoken of ‘ostensively ‘—easier to point to than fit into a pithy sentence. Partly through overuse, it is easy to ignore the fact that Lynch’s innovations hardly come from nowhere. The ghosts of Buñuel and Hitchcock hover over Lynch’s avant-gardism. Elsewhere, Lynch upholds Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard as a key inspiration for the nightmare L.A of later works such as Inland Empire (2006) and Mulholland Drive (2001).
For Eraserhead, such influences are there in embryonic form. Things also take a turn for the literary. In particular, the exterior ruin evokes the non-spaces of mid-century absurdist theatre. In a review for The Telegraph, Eraserhead would be compared to the work of Samuel Beckett. Perhaps more explicitly, the legacy of Franz Kafka casts its murky shadow over the bunkered environs, and thick atmosphere of sexual paranoia on screen (early in his career, Lynch would express the keen desire to bring Kafka’s The Metamorphosis to the screen in one of those stunning what-could-have-been moments of cinema history).
Watching Eraserhead now, it is impossible to go back to the excitement of that immediate and unformed impression. Moreover, it is difficult not to run afoul of the kind of knee-jerk revisionism common to once renegade, now revered, cultural icons. If the film is the first ‘art film’ to be seen by many young cineastes, then there is also the sense in which it is the art film. The obligatory monochrome, the close-ups, the awkward dialogue… the film turns a looking glass upon an entire constellation of avant-garde signifiers. (My partner admits that her first assignment in art school was to go home and watch Eraserhead). Furthermore, Lynch’s quixotic efforts in getting the film made (Eraserhead would be filmed over five years, and beset by a plethora of casting and funding difficulties) only further burnishes our dreams of necessary personal sacrifice in the pursuit of that most ephemeral of things: art.
Undoubtedly, this contributes to the kind of raptured enthusiasm that continues to hang about the film (a distinctive flavour, tailor made for cult, midnight movie circulation). And yet, long after the initial teenage glow starts to dim, it remains useful to think of Eraserhead within the broader context of a career celebrated for its singularity—along with the gleeful expectation that expectations themselves will be wilfully flouted.
In this sense, the film offers productive insight into the stylistic tics that are obsessively returned to throughout the director’s filmography. Memorable scenes with the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), and the demiurgic Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk) provide the foundation for a long-standing fixation with the operations of Hollywood dream production and the mesmeric logic of story-telling. Elsewhere, the Eraserhead‘s expansive visual tapestry of burrows, holes, and secret passageways, evoke the kind of shadows that so often serve as a generative portal to other worlds in Lynch’s work (see Lost Highway, Twin Peaks, Inland Empire).
There are images that continue to burn themselves into the mind. The triste between Henry and the woman next door, resulting in the characters’ descent into a steaming, amniotic bath; the leering close-ups of Henry’s misbegotten baby. Lynch continues to withhold details on the remarkable technical achievement of the deformed child. Legend has it that the director insisted those present for the rushes must cover their eyes when footage of the baby were playing. While many claim the grotesque creature was created by using the embalmed fetus of a calf, the issue is still mired in speculation.
Any conversation about Eraserhead must also credit the film’s famously affecting sound design. Following the film’s production, Lynch and composer Alan Splet are alleged to have spent the best part of a year working on the soundtrack, incorporating an onslaught of industrial grinds and growls evocative of Eraserhead’s industrial setting. An ominous rumble follows Henry through outdoor and indoor scenes (if anything the soundtrack is pitched at a higher intensity in Lynch’s interiors). The soundtrack would go on to be released separately by I.R.S Records in 1982. Working closely with Lynch on the early 1970 short The Grandmother, Splet would continue to contribute to the inimitable sound design of future Lynch productions, The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984) and Blue Velvet (1986), until his untimely death in 1994.
Indeed, the sonic palette of Lynch’s work would never return to the kind of visceral intensity of Eraserhead (in part due to the influence of dreamier, jazz-infused compositions by Angelo Badalamenti). Without discounting Badalamenti’s justly celebrated work on Twin Peaks, Lynch’s debut casts its own unique sonic legacies. Arguably the strangest film to boast a breakout pop classic, “In Heaven” (composed by Peter Ivers, with lyrics by Lynch), the Lady in Radiator’s eerie siren-call would inspire numerous covers, including (but certainly not limited to) a fantastic rendition by American alternative rock band Pixies. More broadly, the industrial torpor of the film’s sound has influenced any number of contemporary industrial and doom-laden performers.
All of which points to a remarkably diffuse legacy—traversing the margins, while also tickling at the mainstream. During a conversation with Lynch, Stanley Kubrick would confide that Eraserhead was his favourite film (a subtle influence that the director would arguably integrate into the 1980 horror classic The Shining). Nowadays, Eraserhead can be seen to impact everything from the cyberpunk chaos of Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) through to the wisecracking comedy of Gilmore Girls.
Watching Eraserhead now, there are moments that no longer feel quite as startlingly inventive—or even comparably crude—it is true (as the adage goes) that it is probably better to be startlingly inventive once than not at all. It is also true that there is a personal thing trapped away somewhere in this article. By the end of my first viewing, the film inspired something close to one of those avant-garde creative shocks you sometimes read about (although no sermonising here on ‘chance encounters’ between ‘sewing machines’, ‘umbrellas’ and ‘operating tables’). Lynch’s filmography remains useful to think about and think through. Here’s hoping Ronnie Rocket one day makes it to the big screen.