David Lynch’s Eraserhead announced the arrival of a quintessentially American surrealist, a guy who could cheerfully and without irony attend a neighbor’s backyard barbecue and then get profoundly upsetting ideas out of it. As Lynch became better known in later years, and more people encountered his genuinely gee-whiz personality, Eraserhead became somewhat easier to read — though Lynch typically wasn’t any help when it came to unlocking the film’s thematic and imagistic mysteries. It was easy to assume that Lynch was merely a downtown hipster making fun of wholesome Americans — Roger Ebert based half his Blue Velvet pan on his offended interpretation of Lynch “prancing on with a top hat and cane, whistling that it was all in fun.” But Lynch is one of the great appreciators in movies; some of his villains may be mean-spirited, but he never is.
So in Eraserhead, when Henry (Jack Nance) goes to see his estranged girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) and wades into the most excruciatingly awkward family dinner since Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the humor derives not from goofing on Mary’s oddball parents but from Henry’s blocked, terrified reactions to them. Fairly quickly, we imagine that this is how Henry sees the parents — menacing, weird, broken in a variety of ways. (There’s another Chainsaw parallel in the wizened grandmother in the kitchen, literally manipulated by Mary’s mother to toss the salad, much like the Chainsaw clan trying to help Grandpa “kill the bitch.” I don’t know if Lynch ever saw Chainsaw before or during the making of Eraserhead, but it wouldn’t surprise me.) The entirety of Eraserhead can be seen as a man’s highly subjective, anxiety-ridden (and resentful) response to becoming an unwilling husband and father — Henry has been invited to the X household to be told that “there’s a baby — it’s at the hospital — and you’re the father.” “They’re not even sure it is a baby,” sobs the constantly sobbing Mary, who “hasn’t been around much” because she’s presumably been busy carrying and delivering the not-sure-it-is-a-baby.
From that viewpoint, Eraserhead has a clear narrative. The baby, grotesquely deformed and continually mewling in a ghastly parody of an infant crying, is brought home. Mary can’t take it any more and leaves. Henry is tempted by a Dark Lady (the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall) and a Lady of Light (the Lady in the Radiator), just like Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet and, well, at least one character in almost every David Lynch project. Madonna/whore (though in this chaotic universe, the whore seems literally to be a whore and the Madonna sports what appear to be facial tumors). Henry gets sex from the whore but finds transcendence with the Madonna — I think. In Lynch’s hands, these are archetypes, not sexist tropes.
The baby, about whose behind-the-scenes genesis Lynch has remained notoriously silent over the decades, is the monster and the hero of the piece, to my mind. The baby is repulsive and demanding, but one’s heart goes out to it anyway, even if one is childless and prefers to stay that way (after seeing Eraserhead the summer before my senior year in high school, taped off of a late-night Movie Channel showing, I resolved never to reproduce, a vow I have stuck to, no thanks necessary). The baby, after all, is innocent and never asked to be born into this stark nightmare world — nor did Henry or Mary or any of us. The film levels such a powerful disgust towards (yet fixation on) sperm, vaginas, and the slimy detritus of birth that any attempt to label it as pro-choice or anti-abortion will be hilariously doomed to failure. Lynch looks at the primordial ooze of the stuff of life and regards it with the queasy fascination we reserve for ugly squirming things we find under rocks.
As pure cinema, Eraserhead is in a universe all its own, writing and obeying its own oblique rules. Alan Splet’s needling, deep-bass, industrial-apocalyptic sound design is a major character; at times I want to call Eraserhead “a film by David Lynch and Alan Splet,” so integral is the enveloping and oppressive sound. The Lady in the Radiator, a reported eleventh-hour addition by Lynch, looks like a wholesome sweetie out of a ’20s silent comedy but stomps with obvious relish on a series of umbilical-looking creatures; she also favors us with the sort of wistful, simplistic ditty Lynch has become known for in his later collaborations with Angelo Badalamenti. “In Heaven,” she assures us, “everything is fine.” At other times, Henry enjoys sitting in his suicidally bleak apartment and listening to Fats Waller on the turntable. Other than that, the movie seems to exist outside of culture. Yet I have no trouble linking it to the punk movement; at times it’s the cinematic equivalent of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, and your ears need to be similarly attuned to both.
Eraserhead has been called everything from a horror movie to a jet-black comedy to (in Lynch’s words) “a dream of dark and troubling things.” It’s all and none of these. Really, all someone can do is to say, simply, “It’s Eraserhead,” and if you’ve seen it you know, and if you haven’t seen it there’s no way you can know. It has its ancestors, and God knows it has its imitators, but its genius is that it builds a highly specific yet maddeningly elusive dreamscape in our heads, and it looks different to everyone. It is both dreamlike, in the lulling, mesmeric sense, and nightmarish, sometimes both at once. It feels like a fever dream sweated out over the course of five years (which is how long it took to make). Visually, it’s a silent movie, with Jack Nance walking stiffly through industry-blasted landscapes like a silent comedian with no physical elegance; sonically, it’s a symphony of the damned rotting and rusting at the bottom of a frozen lake of muck.
Eraserhead used to make me literally, physically ill. The same thing used to happen to me when re-reading Stephen King’s Carrie: I would feel headachy, fluish. Both, I think, are examples of then-unknown artists straining fiercely and with great sincerity to unlock something heavy and chthonic inside them. I think I responded to that. (And both had Sissy Spacek as a guardian angel — look it up.) I got through a recent re-watching of Eraserhead without feeling bad, so maybe I’m detached enough now to disconnect from the discomfiting emotions it dredges up and focus on the art. It remains Lynch at his purest and most devoted, blissfully unconcerned with anything outside the view of his camera or the range of Alan Splet’s microphone. Orson Welles famously likened moviemaking to the best set of toy trains a boy could have, but he never said the toy trains couldn’t be oxidized and decayed and rolling over pulsating sluglike things to make them spurt.