This is the story of Henry Spenser (Jack Nance), a factory printer, so wary of yet helplessly drawn to women. His orb-like eyes seem fixed on some unseen abyss, their shape echoed by that of the lumpy unnamed planet inside of which a scaly man (legendary production designer Jack Fisk) pulls levers and apparently sends some spermatozoon-like worm-thing down to earth. The worm-thing reappears in the guise of Henry’s unexpected progeny; the excitable mother of his very nervous girlfriend Mary (Little House’s Charlotte Stewart) informs Henry of his paternity during a family dinner of man-made chickens. Henry assumes his responsibilities and has Mary and the baby move into his tiny apartment where a framed photograph of an atomic explosion serves as the sole decoration. But baby gets sick, Mary disappears, and Henry seems prone to fantasy. He dreams of a lady in his radiator, who has facial abscesses, sings Fats Waller and does a dance that seems to give Henry permission to kill the ailing creature said to be his child.
Inspired by Kafka and the Surrealists, David Lynch’s feature debut is a masterpiece of painstaking craft and unfettered imagination. Ordinary anxieties manifest as hallucinatory strangeness throughout Eraserhead (1977): fear of commitment and family, fear of death and decay, fear of sex and women—Henry is seduced by the beguiling older woman who lives across the hall, a character who will return in the form of Dorothy Valens in Blue Velvet (1986). They make love in a steaming vat.
With its sound design industrial drones and distant roller rink music, its gorgeous black and white photography by Herbert Caldwell and Frederick Elmes—who would later shoot Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart (1990)—and its desolate landscapes of dirt mounds, monolithic buildings and dank puddles, the film offers an unusually immersive experience. Lynch initially studied visual art, and Eraserhead is as much sculptural object as it is movie.
I first saw Eraserhead when I was 17. I took someone—a beguiling older woman, in fact—to a midnight screening. When the lights came up she asked me if I actually liked her. She was offended that I took her to this thing, which admittedly may not be an ideal date movie. I stuttered some apology—while secretly revelling in what I’d just beheld—but she was inconsolable. I don’t know what happened to her—I hope she recovered—but Eraserhead has remained imprinted upon my murkiest grey matter ever since. And I can now render its damage even more permanently!: Criterion has just released a gorgeous, generously supplemented DVD and BD Eraserhead package.
Lynch: the multiple tie years
On one of those generous Criterion supplements, David Lynch tells a story about how one day, as a young art student in Philadelphia, he was working on this painting. Green plants were slowly emerging from a blackened canvas. Then he heard wind and, somehow, he saw the canvas move. He realized that this was just what he wanted, to make a painting that has a sound and that moves. It’s as eloquent a description as I’ve heard of how an artist transitions from one medium to another, how discoveries made in one medium feed the other. The amazing collection of short films included in Criterion’s package, illustrate, along with Eraserhead, Lynch’s transition from canvas to celluloid, tearing the lid off one of the most fecund imaginations in modern cinema.
Nowhere is the nature of this transition more apparent than in Lynch’s first 4-minute animated film, ‘Six Men Getting Sick’ (1967), a fusion of Francis Bacon and Jean-Luc Godard. The title is a synopsis: there are indeed six sick men. Soil keeps rising up to their necks, internal organs keep haemorrhaging, a siren keeps surging and fading, mouths keep spilling blood. Life is reduced to an emergency loop. The grotesque is rendered as beautiful trauma. Stunning.
Based on a dream had by his wife’s niece, ‘The Alphabet’ (1968) features a girl in a bed with problems. Red lips are licked in an iris. Letters give off ectoplasm. There’s a profound unease with language at the base of this, or it not language per se then with signifiers or meaning, which makes sense: Lynch would have to give himself permission to elide overt meanings in order to make narrative films.
At 33 minutes, ‘The Grandmother’ (1970) is Lynch’s first sustained exercise in merging the aesthetics of painting and sculpture with those of live-action cinema—not to mention theatre, as there are potent references to kabuki and the absurd in this tale of an abused boy who grows a grandmother for consolation by literally soiling his sheets and wetting his bed. Patricidal fantasies are acted out on a proscenium stage, birthing imagery is accompanied by the sound of protracted diarrhoea. Dark wonder and secret liberation underline ‘The Grandmother,’ which is largely silent and seems most indebted to the two Jeans: Vigo and Cocteau.
A nurse, played by Lynch himself, gives a sort of pedicure to a woman’s leaky stump as she writes a letter in ‘The Amputee’ (1974), a film that came about mainly because Frederick Elmes, who would shoot most of Eraserhead, was asked to test a pair of black and white video stocks. By Lynch standards it is a work of very limited visual allure, but it is characteristically strange and intriguing.
The final short included in Criterion’s set was produced decades after Eraserhead yet feels of a piece with the other works here on account of its inky-fuzzy chiaroscuro painterliness and extreme compaction. Commissioned as part of the Lumière and Company project, which supplied 41 filmmakers with the Lumière brothers’ very first wood, metal and glass camera and acetate film stock, ‘Premonitions Following an Evil Deed’ (1995) features police, a scary room, and flames: an excellent set of basic ingredients for a Lynch film, something that bubbles up from the unconscious to beguile, trouble, arouse and amuse.