Criterion Project #14: ERASERHEAD (1977)


Spine# 725

Year: 1977

Director: David Lynch

Once again worlds collided. I’m in the home stretch of Halloween viewing for my spooky season project and one of the themes this past week was “Oddballs & Weirdos” which, by any definition, applies to Eraserhead. So I broke my structure, ever so briefly, to kill two birds with one stone.

Let me be clear, though – I don’t think the terms “oddball” or “weirdo” necessarily apply to any of the characters in the film. I’m sure that raises a few eyebrows but allow me to clarify. The world this film takes place in – that certainly qualifies for either term. The constant whirring, clanging, and knocking of industrial machinery imbues the surreal environment with an uncomfortable tension that feels odd. It makes it difficult to concentrate, like trying to focus with the incessant clank of a construction crew outside your window.

And if there isn’t a machine humming nearby then there’s a Super Mario Bros. labyrinth of pipes jutting through living rooms and kitchens (and the the camera lens), giving the impression that there’s little room to co-exist with the industrial advances of the 20th century. We’ve tinkered with nature one too many times and now we’re being pushed out by that which we’ve created.

One of the film’s infamous set pieces (if you can call it that) takes place in Henry’s (Jack Nance) radiator pipes where a performance stage and a cherubic woman magically appear among an Amazonian forest of mold and bacteria. Henry looks at the environmental catastrophe with concern and little else. He’s clearly distressed about the condition of his world, but he certainly isn’t going to do anything about it.

In fact, no one audibly questions any of the strangeness that occurs in this movie. This is normal life in David Lynch’s world, a place that appears devoid of happiness or light. Henry basically has two emotions – confusion and concern. Unfortunately for the viewer, David Lynch is really good at what he does and the audience is only allowed to feel those same two emotions.

I’ve somehow reached this point of my write-up and still haven’t dispensed the plot summary. From IMDB:

Henry Spencer tries to survive his industrial environment, his angry girlfriend, and the unbearable screams of his newly born mutant child.

That reads like a relatively normal 1970’s drama set-up until you get to that last part.

That. Last. Part.

Quick backtrack: this is only my second time watching this film. I saw it years ago and thought it was super weird and nonsensical. Earlier I referred to a physical unease and an emotional discomfort within this film, both of which I think certainly influenced my viewing. But watching it through this time I was more honed in on the concepts presented in the visuals and I found my appreciation for this film.

The industrial decay, the shrinking spaces, primordial ooze, cosmic entities…and a mutant baby. What do these have in common? Two fears that are closely linked – the inevitable rot of humanity, and parenthood. Henry finds out he has a “child” when his estranged girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart), invites him to her parents’ house for a most unusual dinner.

From the get-go Henry has no clue how to care for his child and actually appears afraid of it at most times. The visual of the baby is a cross between an infant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and Xtro, and all it does it cry and whimper. Do you think maybe Lynch had worries about his ability as a father, or the possibility that his child could have deformities?

A recurring question for many would-be parents is, how can I bring a child into THIS world? Eraserhead is David Lynch visualizing that fear writ large. All parents have fear. A mutated child, polluted air, radiator women, and an industrial wasteland are the constructs that get cooked up when filtering that fear through David Lynch’s camera lens. You wind up with odd symbolism, enigmatic characters, and evocative imagery.

And he plays within the milieu so expertly that it’s almost impossible to imagine this is his first feature film. Scenes such as the dinner at Mary’s parent’s house that are, essentially, non-narrative additions but are filmed in such a way that it almost drives you mad. Which sounds like a negative, but I find it’s just another layer of this film to interact with.

When it’s down to just Henry and Mary’s dad at the dining room table after a mini-chicken has gushed blood for two minutes straight and Mary’s dad asks, “Well, Henry, what do you know?” – you chuckle. Uncomfortably. Because you’re still hoping and praying for a cut-away. But it never comes. Lynch keeps the camera in the same cold, medium length shot he’s been holding and waits for Henry to answer the question. It’s brutal and numbingly uncomfortable, but it tunes your senses right where he wants them to be. You’re trapped inside the mind of David Lynch – an idea fraught with both morbid fear and giddy excitement.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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