Try as I might, I cannot dismiss David Lynch’s Eraserhead as a the sort of pretentious art film that most first time directors use in order to make themselves appear smarter. That being said, Eraserhead is still impossible to ignore. It is a landmark work that deserves a proper examination.
Don’t get me wrong – Eraserhead is not one of David Lynch’s best films. Before all of you midnight movie fans decide to spam me and burn my place down, hear me out. It was a very special film when it was released, mostly because no one was willing to confront these dreams (or nightmares) so directly. These are important themes to discuss, and Lynch became an important filmmaker for even daring to address them. The thing is, Lynch was often too obtuse in this first work. He was clearly not sure what would work so he attempted to try everything. But when he was right, the film is fantastic .
Eraserhead’s plot…well, I should stop there. This is not a linear film, which makes it VERY hard to determine what is going on. In a nutshell, a man named Henry Spencer (Jack Nance, who would be in all of Lynch’s films until a homicide claimed his life) is on “vacation” and decides to visit his girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart). He finds out that she has had a baby, and that he is likely the father. The baby, naturally, is a mutation who does not look human. The two move in together, and Henry goes on a metaphysical odyssey that reveals his fears of fatherhood and…after that, you are on your own.
I don’t know why this film resonated with me. I had seen it before and, frankly, still do not understand it. Do not pretend like you are special – any viewer of this film is going to spend most of their time wondering what in God’s name is going on here. There are numerous grotesque scenes, including scenes of Henry’s nightmares (in which the brain in his decapitated head is turned into erasers) and that freakish baby. I know many who will hate the film, based upon the elements that are simply not friendly to almost anyone who sees it.
Strangely, the film does contain traces of Lynch’s surrealistic view of humor that he perfected with Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. The scenes with Mary‘s parents (particularly her father) provide a nice balance to the darkness, and actually is quite funny. I particularly enjoyed the scenes in which the working father complains about the perception society has on his job. Here is where the true seeds of Lynch’s career were being sowed, rather than in the stop motion sequences of worms and deformed beings that control society.
But so much of the film is shrouded in mystery that what I think are flaws may be the point. I was constantly reminded of Ebert’s old rule – “if you have to ask what something symbolizes, then it doesn’t.” The various scenes have so little to do with each other that it almost resembles a montage of short films than a larger whole. I am still not sure what the film was trying to accomplish.
“Now wait” you may think “that is the exact sort of thing that Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel did. Those men were geniuses. How can you criticize Lynch for doing the same thing?” I would reply that Dali and Bunuel never forgot for a single moment that they were making a comment on society.When Lynch had the same goals, the film is brilliant. The dinner scene was funny, and the atmosphere that he created (which some have called post apocalyptic, but looks to me like any industrial town) is a haunting one. But that does not appear to be the main focus of the film. What, for example, is the woman in the radiator? Is she a critique of pop music? Seriously, I would like to know.
Still, even though I had many problems with the film, I cannot ignore it. It was a groundbreaking film in many ways that allowed certain filmmakers to be rejuvenated. Stanley Kubrick, for one, watched the film before making The Shining and it’s easy to see the connection. The film also launched the sub genre of horror that was obsessed with human anatomy (which David Cronenberg perfected). It is also a film of true passion. Lynch did not spend five years working on this film to have it mean nothing. He has also steadfastly refused to talk about the film. What he could say would be enlightening, but perhaps that is the point of the movie. If people want to be free, they must think for themselves, or else have their minds end up as material no better than the rubber in erasers. Maybe Lynch has merely beaten me at my own game. If that is the case, then well played, sir.
As much as I hate to say it, Eraserhead is something that deserves to be seen by everyone. It is far too groundbreaking to be ignored. I do not know how many people will actually enjoy it. If you do, then I think that is more of a reflection on your mind than on the film. Still, Lynch did accomplish something here, and at the very least, this film lead to some of the greatest films of all time being made later.