By Jordan Danner
I have always been attracted to both the surreal and morbid in the arts. Watching strange and disturbing films became almost like a “chasing the dragon”, in which I would try to seek out something even more odd, until I reached the likes of directors such as Alejandro Jodorowsky, Shinya Tsukamoto, and David Lynch. One of the granddaddies of all of these midnight cult surreal films was Lynch’s feature-length debut film Eraserhead (1977), an incredibly difficult film to watch, but not one without merit. Partially funded by a fresh out of Carrie (1976) Sissy Spacek, The Library of Congress’ National Film Registry deemed it “culturally significant” and selected the film in 2004 for preservation. The Criterion Collection just reissued a beautifully restored print on DVD, along with another release of his short films, and Mel Brooks was such a fan that he helped produce Lynch’s next film The Elephant Man (1980), which went on to receive eight Oscar nominations, including best picture.
Shot in gritty black and white, Eraserhead is more about creating an uncomfortable atmosphere than relying on dialog to create its nightmarish feeling. Noteworthy is the fact that the film does not feature much dialog at all. A large portion of the beginning of the film is just establishing the setting of this industrial wasteland that Henry (Jack Nance) inhabits. Trademarks of Lynch began in this film with his often-used ominous flickering of lights and rumbling basses, which create an incredibly uneasy environment that one almost feels the tension that the character is. Such settings would be explored in later films such as Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006).
Throughout the next hour of this film, we are introduced to Henry’s grim reality. We find that Henry and his girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) have had a child together. We discover that this child is a hideous mutation, most likely the result of the industrial wasteland that they inhabit and the genetically modified food that they eat. Henry soon finds himself alone after Mary is driven away by the constant screams and cries by their child. Henry begins to find a sort of solace in the visions he begins to experience. After staring into his radiator, he begins to witness a stage inside where a girl proceeds to dance while sperm-like beings fall to the ground. Things start get even weirder (don’t ask me how he manages this!) with more visions, including Henry losing his own head.
Loosely based on his 1970 short The Grandmother, Lynch wanted to capture what he called his own version of The Philadelphia Story (1940). While Lynch is notorious for not revealing his methods or his meanings, there are still some hints that he has dropped over the last few years. At the time, Lynch was a student at the American Film Institute, which helped with production of the film. Anyone with knowledge of rust belt cities such as Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh could inform you that the urban decay of these former manufacturing hubs were a huge influence on the grim setting of the film. Another aspect Lynch has mentioned with the film is that it does address the apprehensions he felt as a new father in a strange time to be alive in America. This period of time had seen events such as the Vietnam War and Watergate, which caused a huge loss of morale in the nation, along with many divisions between people. The “me” generation of the 1970s was seen as a stark contrast to the “peace and love” era of the late 1960s.
The many years I have spent watching this film (secluded and in the dark is the best way to experience it in my opinion), I have often found new things to discuss, whether it be in the aesthetics of the film itself, or the story behind it. Growing up in a time with similar turmoil has made me find appreciation in the environment that Henry is around in this film. The rust belt has only continued to increase and swallow more cities whole. As factories close, jobs are lost, people flee, and budgets shrink. One can only hope at least that the song in the film is correct when it says that “In Heaven, everything is fine.”