The Straight Story – 3 – Eraserhead

It’s David Lynch’s birthday for about one more hour here in the east coast of the United States where I live and – after a long day of work – I want to put down my review of Lynch’s first feature film before the clock strikes 12 where I’m at. So, this is going to be fast-tracked and in the case of anybody having a problem with how this writing sounds like or is edited, any errors and such, I ask your forgiveness.

See, this is the moment in this Straight Story project that actually excites me. One reason is because I finally get to move beyond being a bunch of glorified wikipedia fragments (though I did take time to talk about how each of his early short films make me feel) to becoming outright observational and subjective opinion on the works that make up David Lynch’s career. So here’s hoping that comes out great.

The other reason is because the movie we are about to discuss is one of my favorite films that I’ve seen. And granted, any of my close friends will take annoyance with the fact that the amount of favorite films I have is at least somewhere between 300 and 100, so it comes off as though I think every film ever deserves a place in my personal canon, but when you’ve seen as many films as I have (and continue to), you probably will need to have your favorites around that quantity in order to prevent insanity for a medium you love.

But I digress badly. Let’s get our head in the game now.

See, like I mentioned last time, Lynch really wanted to get a shot at his first feature film. That first attempt turned out to be a work called Gardenback – a nonlinear script based on another piece of art Lynch had in his mind of a hunchback with, well, a garden growing out of his back. And so it began pre-production when most of the AFI faculty members kept giving a bit of unwanted consultation on the film and Lynch became so frustrated and infuriated that he outright cancelled the film and was getting ready to dump the AFI much like he dumped all the other institutions he tried his hand at and proved unable to fit within.

AFI was desperate to keep him with them and promised not to interfere in any way whatsoever with his next film project, should he choose to stay.

So, Lynch, inspired by a daydream, decided to create Eraserhead. It took five years, a lot of money borrowing (started with AFI’s $10,000 grant, but it proved not enough), and a lot of patience, but what resulted was a midnight movie smash hit and a cult phenomenon.

And so, Eraserhead. What the fuck is it about?

Well, we all know Lynch to be an extremely abstract, imagery, and theme oriented filmmaker, but I’d say Eraserhead is among many films that proves the narrative is a little bit more straight-forward once you pay attention to it. Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) lives in a nightmarish world of industrial noise and twisted metal living and constantly pines for his next-door neighbor at the apartment building he resides in.

A woman who he apparently had had sexual relations with, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), has apparently borne a child and X’s family urges the two of them to take care of it by living together as what could maybe be a normal family in this universe, although its hard to believe what it is that X has brought into the world is in fact human.

There are further elements on-screen that give more dimension to the cosmic basis of the film and the metaphorical skeleton and artistic sensibilities, but stripped down to its basic essentials, this is how the main narrative of Eraserhead kickstarts itself.

And so begins this domestic horror story that is not happy with being merely body horror, psychological terrors, or even atmospheric scares for the audience. No, this movie wants to have its cake and eat it too and it can damn well do that. Shot in a black-and-white to accentuate how artificial and raw all this setting to be, along with one of my favorite bit of sound mixing and sound editing – affrontive, interrupting, billowing smoke, mechanic hums surrounding our ears and entering our minds – its imagery is dedicated so much to being as memorable as possible, it is very damn easy to see where Lynch’s origins as an artist come from. Imagery: Frankenstein-like imagery, shock moments like when something that is meant to be eaten suddenly makes a squelch and bleeds, evocative imagery like a man staring out the window of a radiator, proscenium imagery like a dreamlike recount of a woman on a stage looking like a freakshow creature and singing like broken crackling stereo. And all of it essential to this place that Eraserhead lives in, not one of them seemingly to be able to be taken out without ruining the entire film.

As well, as the grotesque simplicity of the mummy-wrapped monster baby that looks like something we’d feel sorry for if we felt fine with being anywhere near it. It squeaks and squawks with a spine-shivering consistency that makes us both feel a little sorry for it as a burden of its own existence and also want it to quite frankly shut the fuck up.

Which is quite the feat for Eraserhead to pull off. I don’t want to keep it anchored to one schematic (tall order for myself to not do so, but I’ll try anyway), but just one viewing of the movie would get even the most uninterested viewer understanding the movie’s commentary on fatherhood in a forced family environment and realize that this is Henry’s story more than anything. We’re following how Henry has to deal with this thrust in his life, and it wouldn’t be hard to figure how this whole tale is based on Lynch’s own feelings to his real-life first marriage and child (which ended amicably during the five-year span of this film’s production). Hell, even the setting seems inspired by the urban and industrial crime-based area of L.A. that Lynch and his family resided in when they first moved there. But Henry grows into a protagonist with whom we can’t decide if we hate or love him, his situation sympathetic and full of misfortune, but his actions furthering the debacle he has brought amongst himself. Nance has a constantly shocked, wide-eyed pudginess to him, even in moments that should seem at least pleasurable to Henry, keeping his loss of identity – because of how he is left to the devices of homemaking – to be the main problem we see on his face, and not his child or the woman in the set next door.

And speaking of the sets, they are physically magnificent, where they will be either sparse exteriors or T.L.C. based suburban living areas such as the kitchen or the living room, totally recognizable to each rooms purpose. But always with at least some automaton element jutting out of some godforsaken corner of the room, like a wall or the ceiling, interrupting the safety of the home to suddenly remind you that all the characters belong in this hellish contraption that is the film’s domain. It’s goddamn creepy and reinforces the idea that a good portion of a scary movie is how scary it can sound.

There’s a lot of other things that can of course be read into Eraserhead – a fear of female sexuality, the virtues in passivity or fatalism, etc. – but that’s one of the great things about Lynch’s films. How you can keep coming back to read more and more into it. And how it never fails in becoming one of the most unnerving experiences kept to film. The nightmare will not go away…

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4 thoughts on “The Straight Story – 3 – Eraserhead

  1. Your story about Lynch’s retreat and return to the AFI gives me hope for the current situation with Showtime! These are remarkably similar circumstances when you think about it…

    Agreed about the ambiguity of the baby, which we are both horrified by and feel sorry for. One correction though – I don’t think it was dangerous L.A. neighborhoods that inspired the film’s world so much as Philadelphia, where they all lived before Lynch attended the AFI. In fact he has called Eraserhead “the REAL ‘Philadelphia Story'” ;).

    Will you be continuing this series of posts? I noticed that you haven’t done any “Straight Story”s in a while.

  2. I stand corrected, then. I had made that assumption based on he described his neighborhood once he moved. So it shows what it is to assume.

    I will still be. I got knocked into an unceremonious hiatus when I wanted to skim through reading Dune before reviewing the film and ended up catching myself go through the whole thing once more.

    It’ll be up hopefully this week before I leave for NY.

  3. Yeah, that’ll do it! I’ve never tackled the book myself and couldn’t make much of the film, so it will be interesting to read your take on Dune through that prism. I look forward to it…

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