by Frank Olson
Eraserhead, David Lynch’s astonishing feature film debut, is primarily known for being strange. Plenty of offbeat films have come and gone in the thirty-seven years since Eraserhead’s release; that Lynch’s film continues to resonate may ultimately have less to do with its outré imagery than with its disarming emotional clarity. The vision is extreme, but the anxieties expressed are familiar to anybody who’s ever felt socially awkward, sexually frustrated, or stressed out by the responsibilities of parenthood.
Director: David Lynch
Producers: David Lynch, Fred Baker
Writer: David Lynch
Cinematographers: Herbert Cardwell, Frederick Elmes
Editor: David Lynch
Music: David Lynch
Cast: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates, Judith Anna Roberts
Premiere: March 19, 1977 – Filmex Festival
US Theatrical Release: September 28, 1977
US Distributors: Libra Films, IRS Media, PolyGram, RCA/Columbia
The audience surrogate is Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), who with his Cosmo Kramer pompadour and too-tight suit looks like a comic strip embodiment of ultra-dorkiness. Henry’s surroundings seem to be an extension of his angst; indeed, in the film’s memorable opening shots, a sperm-like substance ejects from the protagonist’s mouth while an enigmatic spaceman pulls levers, as if to suggest that Henry has somehow unwillingly given birth to the industrial hellhole where he lives. Unseen machinery is constantly clanging in the background, but it’s impossible to determine what industry this city could support. Everything seems broken, dead, or deformed.
Henry’s girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) is a shrieking ball of nerves whose parents (Jeanne Bates and Allen Joseph) serve a meal of bleeding, not-quite-dead birds before dropping the news that their daughter has given birth to a slimy, mewing creature that may or may not qualify as a child. Biological failure surrounds our hero at all turns. Even a mysterious seductress (Judith Anne Roberts) who lives in Henry’s apartment building offers little release. When she and Henry inevitably wind up sleeping together, they disappear into a milky pile of goo that seems more messy than gratifying. Henry’s loneliness is such that he has to resort to the company of what might be an imaginary friend, a pimply chanteuse (Laurel Near) whose hauntingly naïve song (“in heaven/everything is fine/you’ve got your things/and I’ve got mine”) evidently inspires the protagonist to murder his “child” with a pair of scissors. This gory act of infanticide is followed by a blast of white light and white noise that blurs the line between transcendent release and apocalyptic annihilation.
A synopsis of Eraserhead’s events makes the film sound like a miserable slog, but while it’s true that it offers little in the way of relief from Henry’s solipsism, the consistency of Lynch’s vision is transfixing (and even more remarkable considering that the film was produced on and off over six years with student film resources). In some respects Eraserhead comes from the same school of thrift-store surrealism as the work of George Kuchar, Jack Smith, and John Waters, but the level of technical achievement in Lynch’s film puts it in a class of its own. All of the stylistic elements of the film are perfectly calibrated to maintain a feeling of profound unease, from the beautifully composed black-and-white cinematography of Frederick Elmes (who replaced Herbert Caldwell midway through production) to the unnerving practical effects work that Lynch executed himself. The sound design, meticulously crafted by Lynch and Alan Splet over a post-production period that reportedly lasted nearly a year, deserves special recognition; look away from the screen and the film sounds like a high-end noise composition.
Lynch went on to make bigger, more complicated films than Eraserhead, but his artistry would never again be presented in such an undiluted, pure form. Unencumbered by the conventional narrative demands, genre expectations, and simplistic light/dark dualities that mar some of Lynch’s later mainstream work, Eraserhead plunges the viewer directly into its protagonist’s psyche and strands them there for an hour and a half. It’s a trip worth taking—scary, funny, at times shocking, and ultimately grounded in the most uncomfortable of human emotions.