dir. David Lynch
scr. David Lynch
Commissioned by Shawn Hoelscher
There is no filmmaker whose work strikes me at a more primal level than David Lynch, and here’s how I know that. Almost every time I’ve seen a David Lynch film, my first reaction has been immediate, furious anger and outright loathing. I have hated many David Lynch movies upon first viewing, but in every single case, I have later embraced those films as essential works of art, part of the reason I love film as a whole. The gap between those two reactions is what makes him such an ongoing source of fascination for me, as well as a filmmaker whose work I continue to grapple with each and every time I watch it.
My first exposure to this one came before I knew who he was as a filmmaker. It was because of the cover of Midnight Movies, one of the first books to turn me on to some of craziest fare the world of movies had to offer. In the days before home video, I would haunt my local libraries looking for books about movies. There was the great Richard J. Anobile, who published these oversized hardcover books where he would blow up movie frames to recreate an entire film in book form. Those eventually morphed into the Fotonovel, but his Film Classics Library series was enormously influential for me. Danny Peary’s Cult Movies books were another early road map for me, as was the work of Pauline Kael. Collections of her reviews fascinated me, and I loved reading about movies I not only hadn’t seen but had no way of seeing any time soon. I felt like I was reading travel guides to exotic places and dreaming of the time I might get to go and visit for myself.
But when I saw that cover of Midnight Movies in 1983, it was a lightning bolt moment. Something about that image. Jack Nance in front of a strange black and white background, that hair of his almost seeming to be made of the light and the shadow. I devoured what J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, knowing that I’d never track something as rare and exotic as Eraserhead down. There was no way I’d ever end up part of a world where you could just watch something like Eraserhead or El Topo. Those were like lightning in the wild, these dangerous things that happened far away that I might glimpse at a distance, but never close-up. Of course, today, I can look across my office from where I sit as I write this, and there’s a Blu-ray of El Topo (next to a Blu-ray of The Holy Mountain), signed by Jodorowsky when we did a one-hour conversation together at SXSW a few years ago, and I realize that we have truly entered a blessed age where the obscure exists at our fingertips and in the most remarkable form we could have hoped as film fans.
It almost feels wrong to be able to summon up Eraserhead on demand. I can click three buttons on my computer any time I want and there it is, this thing that took David Lynch years and years to finish. It is only 89 minutes long and every single one of them feels like it took a war to produce. I can sum up what I feel it is about very simply: the anxiety of parenthood. But to say that and then to see the actual film, you get a sense of just how special film is in capturing the feeling of something. This is what makes it my favorite art form… it is the combination of writing and music and performance and sound and light and accidents and the brutal dictatorship of the editor. Film has to be produced collectively, but the end results can be so singular that we can attribute “authorship” to an individual. How David Lynch ever convinced any other human beings to help him make Eraserhead is a mystery, not because it’s a bad film, but because there is truly nothing else that compares to it. There’s no way any storyboards or screenplay or even pre-production art could fully convey what it was he was hoping to accomplish, but the end result is one of the most confident works of film art I’ve ever seen.
The opening moments of the film are perhaps the most audacious opening moments of any director’s first feature film. In a series of images that almost seem to evoke the title card from 2001: A Space Odyssey, we get Jack Nance giving birth through his mouth to a strange spermy thing while a man covered in lesions or boils watches a pit of primoridal goo, pulling levers to ready it for the arrival of Jack Nance’s weird spermy thing. They collide, everything turns to bubbles, and then we find ourselves with Nance, playing Henry, as he makes his way across this landscape mainly marked with rubble and decay and industrial piping.
That is, apparently, what fucking looks like in David Lynch’s world. Makes sense. Henry emerges as a sort of a put-upon silent comedy figure, a very particular silhouette as he makes his way through this world that apparently exists simply to produce noise and steam. There’s really not much story until almost a half-hour into the film. Before that, it’s just Henry, his horrible little room, his dirty socks, and a message that’s been left with the girl across the hall, a message that Henry is supposed to have dinner with someone named Mary. That dinner is one of the most disturbing “meet the parents” sequences I can imagine, complete with a tiny squab that screams and bleeds when you cut into it in what can only be described as an obscene parody of what childbirth looks like. Henry finds himself cornered by Mary’s mother, who informs him that there’s a baby. “They’re still not sure it is a baby,” Mary wails, and then almost immediately, we cut to what has now become Mary and Henry’s daily life. The Eraserhead baby is one of the great accomplishments in film puppeteering. David Lynch has always carefully protected any detailed conversation of how they brought the baby to life, but it’s not hard to imagine it is a combination of different creations, each designed to do certain things. When you shoot a film for seven full years, you’ve got a lot of time to try to capture the perfect shot of a puppet, the one that fully sells the illusion, and there is something wet and awful about the design of the creature. It looks like a young goat that’s been skinned and swaddled. It looks like it would smell like some kind of wurst. It has a disturbingly wet tongue. When it cries, it is a sound that feels almost engineered to make you uncomfortable, and we eventually see it drive Mary mad.
When I first saw Eraserhead, I watched it as a dark comedy, and I still think Lynch is brutally funny as a filmmaker, especially when he plays things very straight. It’s a major part of what makes his work so special. He’s the Robin Williams of surrealists. He loves this sort of spitball free associative storytelling, he loves the grotesque, and he loves creating these spaces and scenes where the audience has no compass telling them how to react. There is something unnerving and true at the heart of Eraserhead, and when I had my first son, the six weeks or so that he was first at home after he was born were the scariest, strangest six weeks of my life. You don’t sleep when you first have a child. You don’t sleep at all. You exist in some weird twilight world beyond sleep, and all you can do is try to take care of the needs of this baby and your own needs if you remember, and you just do whatever you can to get through. When Mary gets fed up and leaves Henry, it’s something that every parent has probably thought of at least once, simply out of exhaustion and fear that you’re going to do something wrong and screw up this poor defenseless little thing.
I started having these crazy anxiety nightmares as soon as my son came home from the hospital, but even worse, I would find myself hit by these panic flashes, these momentary glimpses of the most awful things happening to the baby, and I felt like I was going crazy, like some part of me was thinking about these things and shouldn’t be. I felt like I was going to accidentally invite something into our life simply because I was having these thoughts. I felt like a bad person, not because I did anything, but simply because I imagined all the bad things that might happen. The first time something bad did happen, even though it was just a routine childhood bump, it felt like alarms were going off, like I was suddenly under a harsh and brutal spotlight, and anything less than the exact right response would result in people stepping in and giving Toshi to actual adults, to people who would do right by him. When the baby gets sick, Henry is surprisingly calm. But it’s super-upsetting, a bizarre skin ailment that makes him even less appealing. Henry can’t leave at all without the baby melting down. It’s like there’s no right choice for him.
Reality begins to fray at the edges for Henry. Considering how disturbing his reality already was, that’s saying something. The Lady In The Radiator makes her first appearance, and that’s right around the time I remember thinking on my first viewing, “This is the weirdest movie I will ever see.” That is not true, not by a long shot, and the particular mix of ‘50s iconography, the violence of her stomping on the creepy things onstage, and the goofy nature of her dance feels like the precursor to an entire aesthetic that really took hold in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. If anything, Eraserhead makes so much sense that it’s almost disappointing. There’s something very direct about the sexual imagery. The child is a punishment. Whatever’s wrong, Mary and Henry should have never been together. Their congress is poison, and there are images that Lynch creates that have haunted me ever since. There’s the night where Henry pulls creepy giant spermy things out of his bed that he shares with Mary and throws them against a wall where they explode. There’s the strange stop-motion dance of the creepy worm.
And, yes, there’s the dream of the actual eraser head. In my own work, I have used the device of a severed head that retains some sort of life more than once, and I think there’s something about that image that speaks to us on a deep and unconscious place. Henry’s head is severed as a response to an encounter with the woman who lives across the hall. Is it a dream of infidelity, or does Henry dare to actually stray? The way things unfold afterward suggest this is just Lynch’s own fears about the way parenthood and marriage can be seen as traps, as chains that keep you from what you want, and when Henry transgresses, he literally cannot hold himself together. One of the things I can tell myself honestly about the various failures I’ve had in relationships over the course of my adult life were not about infidelity. I never saw that as an option. To me, when you’re in a relationship, you owe it to that person to be in it completely, and to be faithful. Without that, what is the point of a relationship?
Temptation is human and understandable, and pressures push us to consider things we might not, but this film seems to question whether we are even free within our heads to think of these things. The “sex scene” is so disturbing that I’m not sure it counts as one. Henry and the woman across the hall melt into a bathtub full of what looks like milk, and then Henry witnesses another song by the Lady in the Radiator. He steps out onto a stage to join her, stepping into his fantasy, and then something that looks like a tree in a wheelchair rolls in, decapitating Henry, revealing his baby’s face in the stump. Its cry fills the soundtrack, a wall of awful sound, and then Henry’s head drops into a pool of blood, through to another place, where it is swept up from the street by a boy who sells it to someone. It sounds disturbing, but again, Lynch plays things with this tone that lets us know that he is well aware how goddamn weird this is, and he thinks it is hilarious. The guy who buys the head from him, the relationship he has with Paul at the front desk, and the process by which they get pencil erasers from Henry’s head… it’s all funny.
The final stretch of the film is where it descends from this kind of heightened “Yes, we all feel like the world makes no sense when we first have babies” into “Sometimes, we are too broken to be trusted with someone else.” Henry, left alone with the baby, cannot deal with it. He has been abandoned by Mary. His fixation on the woman across the hall is a dark fantasy, one that is now closed to him. And the baby just seems to be getting worse. When he finally decides to unswaddle the baby, it is such an awful sequence of images that I find I can’t really break it down. It is the worst version of what could be under those blankets, and Henry’s reaction is, apparently, to put this thing out of its pain. If we cannot trust what we see in the film as real, I can trust that the way these last few minutes make me feel is that I have witnessed something truly wrong. There is such suffering in the performance of the baby, and such sorrow in the performance by Jack Nance, that it feels like we’re really witnessing a transgression. He murders his baby, and he is shattered by it on a molecular level, unable to ever be rebuilt.
David Lynch’s work exists beyond box office trends and easy narrative digestion, the closest thing I can name to someone simply pointing a camera into their own head, somehow printing the things beyond language directly onto the celluloid. That he has continued to work in such a personal mode for his entire career while still managing to build what has to be considered a genuinely successful commercial brand is perhaps the greatest mystery of all, and one I have happily spent over thirty years confronting.