Long, long ago, when I was but a student, having an Eraserhead poster on the wall represented an attempt to garner instant cachet. It was that or Betty Blue. Which was not to say those displaying it secretly nursed the opinion that perhaps it wasn’t really all that, but it was in such proliferation, like Pulp Fiction a few years later, that it ceased to hold much evidence of anything personality-wise on the part of the bedroom decorator. Lynch’s film is a cult classic of the mainstream, in that it has long since ceased being a hidden picture awaiting discovery; it’s fully out there, nudging the top slots of 100 Cult Movies You Must See Before You Die lists and so inherently weakening their value. It also means it’s weird enough and widely seen enough that it garners polar reactions, with some savages coming away wondering what all the fuss is about. I’m afraid that, generally highly appreciative of David Lynch’s work as I am, Eraserhead has always left me cold. Revisiting it a couple of decades since I last gave it a chance, I can safely say it still fails to persuade me otherwise.
It does, of course, have a long list of famous fans. Kubrick loved it, screened it to his cast before making The Shining. John Waters, Charles Bukowski, HR Giger (who claimed Lynch didn’t want to work with him on Dune because he felt the Alien designer had stolen his ideas) and Terrence Malick were all advocates. While there are plenty of debuts I consider justly deserve their hallowed status, and I can completely see why Eraserhead is revered (it’s nothing if not unique in sensibility), I find myself stubbornly resistant to whatever it is that ignites fascination or compulsion in others.
Perhaps key to this is that, while I’m compelled by Lynch’s brand of peculiarity in the vast majority of what he’s done, here it leaves me listless. I’m not transfixed by the images on screen, nor am I intrigued by the one-note strangeness he conjures. Not dissimilarly to the way Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, revered by the majority yet without the abundant sense of humour that proliferates later escapades, is an incredibly long eighty minutes (his more recent Oz The Great and Powerful suffers from similar tendencies to tedium).
I will say, however, that given the last time I watched Eraserhead was on ropey old VHS, the Blu-ray transfer looks amazing, entirely selling the quite stunning cinematography from Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell (the latter died in his sleep a year into what became four of production). And the aural design, a double album worth of industrial sound effects, is pervasively mood-setting, uneasy and oppressive and alarming.
As is the case with the majority of the director’s movies, certainly the ones that arise unfettered from the depths of his involved psyche, he is reticent in divulging what anything means, even in the vaguest sense. It’s up to the viewer to interpret. But the general thrust of Eraserhead seems to be fairly transparent, and most first-time viewers will likely pick up that it’s uneasy meditation on the perils of parenthood amid a toxic and foreboding environment. Add in Lynch’s background details at the time, and most of what isn’t covered consists of what have since become signature ticks and quirks. He was a young father at the time, and daughter Jennifer’s birth and early years had been fraught (she was born with club feet that required surgery). He had also been living in Philadelphia, which (something he is quite open about) had a profound effect on his outlook, having previously enjoyed the surface idyll of Montana as reproduced in Blue Velvet’s white picket fences (Philly was an environment of “violence, hate and filth” and “The biggest influence in my whole life was that city”).
So in that context, Henry (Jack Nance, looking impossibly baby-faced) is a stand-in for Lynch, malignantly passive in his disposition, faced with an unhappy marriage and burdensome child, towards whom he nurses both a desire to care and discard. Sex is revealed as a constant source of unease and dread, even as it weaves in with desire (Judith Anna Roberts’ Beautiful Woman Across the Hall); Henry is the recipient of advances from Mary (Charlotte Stewart) and her mother (Jeanne Bates); the man-made chicken leaks blood from its cloaca; the baby is an enlarged embodiment of the sperm-like creatures of Henry’s dreams, and the one opaquely sent to earth by Jack Fisk’s Man in the Planet.
If the Man in the Planet is a source of Henry’s affliction, the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) provides relief, destroying his fear-inducing sperm and eventually taking him to the light, free from mortal bondage; such polarities are common to Lynch’s work, be it white and black lodges or wicked and good witches. One might make a case that Eraserhead offers an inverse of the 2001’s Star Child, the baby a horrific vision of all that mankind can devolve into (and which Henry becomes at one point), as a corrupted, diseased mind and body. It’s certainly, aside from the unsettling radiator woman, devoid of the filtering of later work.
Eraserhead, despite its patches of humour, is unrelentingly oppressive and bleak; there is no grading or shading here. Where other pictures distinguish between realities, or pull back veils, Eraserhead is all undercurrents, and what is fascinating, bizarre or intangible in the likes of Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive becomes undifferentiated and so less potent. It’s telling that the picture was originally planned as 42 minutes, because it’s really 88 minutes of mood that, as Pauline Kael said, “Pulls you inside grubby, wormy states of anxiety”. The only bit she left out was that it also induces wormy states of lethargy.
As such, I’m only really inclined to investigate the picture’s meaning as far as it reflects on the director’s oeuvre generally. It does possess something of the desperately “other” co-existing with our realm, something dread and inescapable, of which we humans are blithely unaware since it sits just on the edge of our perception; often we cannot even perceive it even when it stares us in the face. There are also what have become Lynch trademarks, from flickering lights (the intimation of evil), to the everyday made uncanny (Henry’s elbows) and antic admissions (“Look at my knees, look at my knees”). Occasionally it’s very funny (Mary attempting to pull her suitcase from under the bed, the on-the-nose explanation for the title), but the film is too abject to be regarded as a comedy, its absurdity more than counter-weighted by the prevailing despair.
I suspect I’d be more impressed by Eraserhead if it lasted the initially planned forty minutes. Or better still twenty. As it is, it’s an endurance test that drones on self-absorbedly, very much in the mode of the wilfully oblique and tangential student film (for all that Lynch cut it a merciful twentyminutes, it’s just not merciful enough). When I first saw it, my reaction was one of stronger rejection, in proportion to veneration that far exceeded its value. I can certainly see its merit as a piece of filmmaking, but for me it’s easily the least of Lynch’s pictures, as pronouncedly as it is the favourite for others.