#331) Eraserhead (1977)

Eraserhead

#331) Eraserhead (1977)

OR “David Lynch’s Adventures in Babysitting”

Directed & Written by David Lynch

Class of 2004

The Plot: Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) learns that his girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) has given birth to their child. At the insistence of Mary’s mother (Jeanne Bates), Henry and Mary wed, and raise the child together. Mary, however, cannot take the stress of motherhood, and abandons Henry and the baby. Sure, this all sounds like a straightforward, “Kramer vs. Kramer”-esque family drama, but it’s David Lynch, so it contains visual storytelling and imagery both offbeat and creepy as hell.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “visually stunning” and praises Lynch’s “unique, surrealistic style” as well as his cult status for those “craving unorthodox filmmaking.” There’s also an essay by film critic/cult movie enthusiast David Sterritt.

But Does It Really?: Well that was the most disturbing 90 minutes of my life. Even writing about “Eraserhead” after the fact makes me a bit squeamish. Despite its occasional repellence, Lynch achieves what all the great filmmakers should; he tells a story visually and leaves a majority of it up to your interpretation. “Eraserhead” is a movie whose visuals linger in your brain long after it’s over. I’m in no rush to see this movie again, but David Lynch should definitely be on the NFR, and “Eraserhead” is a natural choice.

Everybody Gets One: David Lynch originally planned on being a painter, but his time at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts left him uninspired. At the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a plan to turn one of his paintings into an animated short fell through, but that was enough to convince Lynch to become a filmmaker. He successfully got funding for “Eraserhead” through a grant from the American Film Institute, who thought that his 20 page script would result in a 20 minute movie. This lapse in communication led to the film’s extensive production troubles.

Seriously, Oscars?: What I would not give for “Eraserhead” to have been nominated alongside the likes of “Annie Hall” and “The Turning Point”. Mainstream America still isn’t ready for that. Although some of Lynch’s later films became Oscar nominees, none of his movies have ever won, nor has the man himself**.

Other notes

  • Lynch was inspired to write “Eraserhead” following the birth of his daughter Jennifer, who needed corrective surgery for her clubfoot. “Eraserhead” is, among other things, an expression of David Lynch’s parenting fears. Nothing strengthens the bond between father and daughter like a movie that says, “Your birth terrified me!”
  • Production was delayed several times due to lack of funds, with everyone taking on side-jobs and other projects to help pay for “Eraserhead”. Filming continued on and off from 1971 to 1976. Jack Nance stayed with the film for its entire shoot, and even maintained Henry’s iconic hairstyle the entire time.
  • Oh boy, hunker down: this opening is already quite unsettling. And what the hell is that thing? Sea monkey? Uncooked sausage? Oh…never mind, I figured it out.
  • The Man in the Planet seen throughout the film is played by Lynch’s longtime friend Jack Fisk. Fisk helped with funding when he could, as did his wife, Sissy Spacek. This movie was possibly financed by “Carrie” money.
  • Did David Lynch base Henry’s hair off of his own? And is it weird that it’s giving me “Beakman’s World” flashbacks?
  • I just want to know how David Lynch pitched any movie before anyone knew what a “David Lynch movie” was.
  • I’m not a vegetarian, but this man-made chicken scene is definitely making me reconsider.
  • Shoutout to sound designer Alan Splet. Part of this film’s consistently off-putting mood is its consistently off-putting white noise soundtrack.
  • Not only does David Lynch refuse to discuss his interpretation of “Eraserhead”, he won’t even acknowledge how the baby was created, cryptically saying it was either “born nearby” or “found”. Regardless, I am equal parts fascinated and disgusted by “Spike”, as it was named by the crew.
  • And then we get to the Lady in the Radiator. Given the bizarreness of everything we’ve already seen in this film, Lynch steps it up for the dream sequences. Side note: Is she storing nuts for the winter?
  • What do you suppose David Lynch’s dreams are like? I hope he dreams about really mundane things like yard work or data entry.
  • “Eraserhead” has broken the record for most times I’ve uttered my “weirded-out noises” during a movie. I believe “It” was the previous record-holder.
  • And now a little bit of stop-motion! Very Tim Burton-esque. Though I guess Tim Burton is actually very David Lynch-esque.
  • If you want to know where the title comes from, have I got a scene for you. The Eraserhead dream sequence raises a question I often pose: when someone’s decapitated in a movie, is that actor allowed to keep their own severed head?
  • Despite how weird and unsettling viewing this movie is today, it can only pale in comparison to watching this film in 1977, without the foreknowledge of Lynch’s filmography and aesthetics.
  • I’m no parent, but I think there’s more to parenting than just ignoring your child and hoping they’ll stop crying. I think physical contact/affection is involved at some point.
  • The less said about that ending, the better. I was disturbed throughout the entire film, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Dare I say it was what Lynch was going for?

Legacy

  • “Eraserhead” premiered at the L.A. Filmex festival to low attendance, but the film’s distribution company successfully lobbied to get the film a midnight screening at L.A.’s Cinema Village. Gradually, “Eraserhead” became a cult midnight movie, leading to similar screenings in New York, San Francisco, and eventually Europe.
  • “Eraserhead” developed a cult following not only among filmgoers, but filmmakers as well. Among its early devotees was Stanley Kubrick, who used the film as inspiration for the mood and tone of  “The Shining”.
  • After watching this film, I completely understand how David Lynch’s next project ended up being “The Elephant Man”. It’s “Eraserhead” with a budget.
  • Lynch has been steadily working for the last 40 years, either in film or whatever other media he chooses to creep me out in. Highlights include “Dune”, “Blue Velvet”, “Twin Peaks”, and “Mulholland Drive”.
  • Jack Nance would continue to be a staple of David Lynch’s work up until his death in 1996.
  • It is okay to mention Lynch’s guest appearance on “Louie”? He’s really good in it.

 

** 2019 Update: FINALLY!

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