Strangely, Lynch’s very first film, Eraserhead, was the last one for me to see. I saw it last night and I am gravely shocked. In fact, I slept dreadfully. This is, by far, one of the most disturbing and weird films I have ever seen. It left me with a humongous sense of aversion. And I frickin’ loved it. Lynch filmed his first long feature over a time span of five years. This implied sets torn down and rebuilt and Jack Nance, who plays the lead, having the same haircut for five years. In fact, in some scenes Nance’s character leaves a room and enters another one 18 months older.
The main reason why it took Lynch so long to produce and direct this film was due to financial circumstances. The film cost about $10,000 and Lynch even took a paper route to finance his film. Money also came from other financers, including actress Sissy Spacek. Eraserhead was THE reason John Hurt decided to do this monumental part in The Elephant Man (even though a good friend of his strongly advised against it) and was one of Stanley Kubrick’s favorite films. If you want to get acquainted with the work of David Lynch, this sure is not the film to start your journey.
The years after the 1977 release, Eraserhead has gained cult status. It is not hard to tell why. For a long time, the film was only available in a special DVD box that could be purchased on Lynch’s own website (www.davidlynch.com). This year, a new official release (albeit without the special package) became commercially available. The great thing about the films of David Lynch is, there is not just one explanation that is the right one. Lynch refuses to tell his audience what his true intensions were when making Eraserhead. He based the film on a twenty page screenplay (this being one of the main reasons why production companies didn’t want to invest in it). So all I can do is guess and give my thoughts about the film. Please give yours in the comment box below.
Eraserhead starts as a rather presumptuous yet intriguing artfilm. We see the head of what turns out to be the protagonist, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance, in the film credited as John Nance). His head is intersected by shots of rocks (and a man on a rock) and a wormlike creature. This creature will be a of later significance (if there is any). This dreamlike sequence is accompanied by intriguing sound effects. In fact, in Lynch’s films sound is almost as important as image.
After the dream sequence, we find Henry walking back and forth to his apartment, which is located in a modern yet gloomy industrial environment (Lynch has based the locations of Eraserhead on the time he spent in Philadelphia). He is greeted by his female neighbour, who lives across the hall. She tells him his girlfriend, Mary X, whom he hasn’t seen for some time, has called. Some scenes later we find Henry visiting Mary and her parents. They have dinner, eating a rather peculiar piece of poultry, that starts to erupt what seems blood and spastically moves its limbs. Mary’s mother tells Henry her daughter has delivered a baby, after a miraculously short pregnancy. The baby is seriously misshaped.
Mary decides to move in with Henry to take care of the baby. The baby is a cross between a calf’s embryo and a reptile and wrapped in bandages. Mary and Henry go to bed, but the baby doesn’t stop crying, driving Mary insane. She leaves Henry and her baby that same night. What follows, I won’t describe in detail (also because I cannot remember it in full detail). Henry is obsessed with the radiator in his room and in his dreams he visits the inside of his radiator. There he meets a singing woman in white with hamsterlike cheeks. In the final shot of the film he embraces her. In another dream Henry’s head is chopped of and drops down the window on the street. A little boy picks up his head and takes it to a machine operator, whose boss decides Henry’s brains would make perfect erasers for the tips of pencils. Henry envisions his head growing back as his baby’s. At the end of the film, Henry cuts open the bandages of his baby, that turns out to be part of his body. He pierces the baby’s heart with his scissors and the baby’s insides start to explode as a foamlike substance. Eventually the baby dies.
Strange stuff huh? I am pretty positive, my description of these scenes is inadequate, even incomplete. You really have to see this film again to really grab hold of all this visual information. I found all this imagery way too distorting to watch it again this soon. Now, what do we have here based on a first view? In order to make any sense of something that does not want to make sense in the first place, we have to establish the circumstances under which Lynch created his first feature. In interviews Lynch has said Eraserhead deals with his Philadelphia years, when he was still in film school. Secondly, the film was written at the time Lynch and his first wife were expecting their first baby. So, Eraserhead is all about his fears of his upcoming fatherhood. This may explain the rather diabolic baby. Not even the two directors of photography who worked on Eraserhead were shown how Lynch, who created the visual effects himself, had created the baby. Some people claim Lynch used a calf’s embryo. Viewers undoubtedly will be overwhelmed with a sense of aversion the very first time they see the baby.
With Eraserhead, Lynch sets the standard for most of his later films, yet in a more experimental fashion. What is prominent in most of his film is the thin line between real world and fantasy/dream world (Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr.). As was the case with Mulholland Dr., in Eraserhead it is hard to tell which is which. What is the real world and what is the dream world? What makes this even harder to distinguish is Lynch hardly ever shows clearly where these two worlds interact or exchange. This might lead to the conclusion, for Lynch both worlds are similar.
Lynch uses eerie black and white, slightly tilted cameras and a rough-grainy cinematography, making it even harder to tell what you see onscreen. This is, by far, Lynch’s closest approach to horror, yet with rather straight narratives. What is left is the symbolism of brains serving as erasers and a woman with hamster cheeks. It would be very hard to put your finger on these images. Maybe you have to refrain from doing so and focus on the gruesome nature of these images. Some people claim the final embrace with the ‘hamster woman’ symbolizes the death of Henry. Who can tell? I dare you to give your vision on this film, even though Lynch himself had said he has yet to read an explanation that fits his own.
The next title I will discuss will be Lost Highway.
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