You know David Lynch by his reputation as an eccentric man who makes eccentric films, whose weirdness was piped into millions of home by way of Twin Peaks, the TV show he co-created. Apart from the relatively mainstream The Elephant Man, his movies have been love-it-or-hate-it mind-benders like Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet, and Dune. Where did David Lynch come from? How did he begin? The answer is Eraserhead. Let's peer inside the radiator and take a closer look.
The praise: Playing almost exclusively on the "midnight movie" circuit with cult favorites like Rocky Horror Picture Show and Pink Flamingoes, David Lynch's Eraserhead wasn't the sort of thing to get Academy Awards, or even Golden Globes (which are the Academy Awards' dumber, more easily amused cousins). Instead, it's been the recipient of other honors: #14 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the top 50 cult films, #5 on Premiere's list of the 25 "most dangerous" movies. In 2004, it was declared "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" enough to be preserved in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
The context: Many directors who came to prominence in the 1970s had grown up obsessed with movies, but not David Lynch. Born in Montana and raised in Idaho, Washington, and Virginia (his father worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture), Lynch wanted to be an artist. He pursued this rather aimlessly with his friend Jack Fisk (now a successful Hollywood art designer) until the two of them moved to Philadelphia, in 1966, to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Living in a miserable rented house in a crime-ridden neighborhood, Lynch started having the dark ideas that would lead to Eraserhead -- and, indeed, to his entire film career. He made a brief animated film as an art project and won first prize. This led to a 4-minute short that mixed live action and animation, which earned him the attention of the American Film Institute, which gave him a grant for another short film, this time entirely live-action.
In 1971, Lynch moved to L.A. to attend the AFI Conservatory and study filmmaking. He spent the next five years making Eraserhead, pausing regularly to raise more money, amicably divorce his wife (he later married Jack Fisk's sister), and produce a short film about an amputee.
Lynch refuses to talk about what Eraserhead "means," and won't confirm or deny anyone else's interpretations. It's clear enough that the angst of being a father is involved (Lynch and his first wife, Peggy, had a baby in 1968), and that Lynch's time in a depressing part of Philadelphia also played a part.
The movie: Henry (Jack Nance) lives in a shabby apartment in a crumbling wasteland of a city. His girlfriend has given birth to a ... baby? Kind of? It looks like a huge, pale slug. Henry has hallucinations, dreams, and visions. More weird stuff happens. The end.
What it influenced: Eraserhead was a hit as a midnight movie, but a "hit" in that realm is quite different from a blockbuster. It wasn't seen by millions of people; it was seen by thousands of people. Yet it appears to have been seen by the right people.
Stanley Kubrick loved the film, reportedly screening it for the cast and crew when he was making The Shining to set the right mood. (The admiration was mutual. Watching Eraserhead, you can tell Lynch was a fan of Kubrick's.) Kubrick also showed it to some people from Lucas Films, as related in an anecdote that Lynch shared in the Lynch on Lynch interview collection. It isn't clear whether George Lucas himself was among those for whom Kubrick screened it, but Lucas definitely saw it -- and later asked Lynch to direct Return of the Jedi. (Lynch declined because the film would obviously have been Lucas' vision, not his own. He made Dune instead.)
Another fan of Eraserhead was Mel Brooks, who hired Lynch to direct The Elephant Man for his production company immediately after seeing it. This was crucial. While Eraserhead had been a cult hit, The Elephant Man was a mainstream hit. It earned two Oscar nominations for Lynch (best director and adapted screenplay) and ensured he'd keep working in Hollywood.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of the movies influenced by Eraserhead are, like Eraserhead, underground hits that not many normal people have seen. For example, there's 1990's Begotten, in which God kills Himself, written and directed by E. Elias Merhige. But Merhige went on to make the acclaimed (and more accessible) Shadow of the Vampire. Guy Maddin, one of Canada's most delightfully eccentric filmmakers, shows a Lynchian sense of humor in The Saddest Music in the World and Brand Upon the Brain!; I haven't seen his first feature, 1988's Tales from the Gimli Hospital, but colleagues who have assure me of its Eraserhead-ish qualities. (Maddin was inspired by the godfather of cinematic Surrealists, Luis Buñuel, whose work was clearly on influence on Lynch, too.) Tetsuo: The Iron Man, a Japanese cyberpunk exercise about revenge and sexual fetishes, owes a lot to both Eraserhead and the works of David Cronenberg. The filmmaker, Shinya Tsukamoto, has earned an international cult following for his horrific, bizarre sensibilities.
But you can see bits of Eraserhead in the mainstream, too. Terry Gilliam's films (Brazil, Time Bandits, etc.) often have dark, surreal elements that recall early Lynch. Last year's Splice, with Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley creating a monster baby, is an obvious descendant. Darren Aronofsky's first film, Pi, has some superficial but not negligible similarities.
More broadly, the underground popularity of Eraserhead helped make it safe for filmmakers with commercial aspirations to be experimental, to be weird, to be gross, and to be freaked out by the human body.
What to look for: You will not understand everything. It is entirely possible that certain elements have no real explanation. It's not a "puzzle" movie, where everything can be deciphered if you give it enough thought. The best you can do is come up with theories about what the various odd pieces represent. You need to accept this going in.
There is no dialogue for the first 10 1/2 minutes of the movie, and not much after that. The script is said to have been only 21 pages long, which would normally translate to 20-25 minutes of screen time; Eraserhead is 89 minutes.
Which doesn't mean the movie is silent. On the contrary, Lynch's fixation with sound design begins here. He and his sound editor, Alan Splet, fill the movie with ambient noise and remarkably crisp sound effects, enhancing the mood immeasurably. You'll see this (hear this) in all of Lynch's subsequent work, too, this idea that the way a movie sounds is as important as the way it looks.
Jack Nance, who plays the main character, appeared in all of Lynch's films until his death in 1996. He was Pete Martell in Twin Peaks, the man who finds Laura Palmer's body. ("She's dead... Wrapped in plastic...")
At about 34:10, Henry stands in the hallway and opens his apartment door. We cut to the inside of the apartment and see him walking in. If you look closely, you might notice that Henry has aged a bit in that split-second: the hallway scene and the interior scene were shot 18 months apart, typical of the movie's erratic shooting schedule.
What's the big deal: Eraserhead was a milestone in underground cinema, a cult hit that eventually gained mainstream familiarity. It launched David Lynch's career and gave many young filmmakers the courage to let their freak flags fly. This experimentation is often laborious to watch, but it frequently helps a director discover his or her storytelling voice. Eraserhead was a bizarre but very confident experiment that paid off in the end.
Further reading: To mark the film's 30th anniversary, Manohla Dargis wrote a succinct appreciation in The New York Times, while Nathan Lee did the same for the Village Voice. Both articles will help you see what it is that people see in this movie.
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Eric D. Snider (website) would kill that baby with fire.