In ERASERHEAD, Everything Is Fine And Parenthood Is Hell

Nearly 40 years after its release, David Lynch's first film has lost none of its nightmarish power.

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The first thing you notice about David Lynch's Eraserhead is how tactile it is: there's an opening shot wherein the camera crawls along the pockmarked surface of an asteroid, and for a second there the illusion's convincing enough that you may find yourself wondering how the hell Lynch managed to beam in footage directly from outer space (in 1977, no less).

The second thing you'll notice about Eraserhead is its incredible sound design: that footage of the asteroid is soon accompanied by...well, it's hard to describe. It's a "woosh", but it's also got some "hum" to it, and eventually there's a little bit of "clank" in there, as well. The (masterful) sound design of Eraserhead is nearly impossible to put into words. Like so many other elements of the film, it's inexplicably horrifying and sets your stomach in knots. What's making these noises? Is it a machine? Is it space itself? Are we even in space?

The third thing you notice about Eraserhead? Its aggressive - and now iconic - weirdness. The footage of the comet gets an overlay of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance)'s floating head - it's superimposed horizontally, by the way - and soon fades into the image of a heavily-riveted metal box (?) with a hole gouged in its side. The box sits in a pile of dirt (?), through which is threaded a wire (?) attached to...I don't know, what the hell is that thing, anyway? And is the box sitting on the asteroid? Is this inside Henry's head? While your brain's trying to make sense of all this, Lynch just plugs right along, confident you'll be able to keep up: now we're looking at a sore-covered man sitting amidst some clutter inside a darkened room. He's staring forlornly out a broken window, outside of which is...

That's what the first four minutes of Eraserhead is like, and it doesn't let up until the credits roll 85 minutes later. And really, that's not even true, because Eraserhead gets under your skin. Once experienced, its nightmarish sounds and deeply unsettling images will be kicking around your brain forever. Thanks, David Lynch!

Like so many others, I first saw Eraserhead via a poorly-transfered bootleg VHS tape. The sound quality was terrible, the inky blackness of Lynch's meticulously-composed shots was ruined...this was a useless way to experience Eraserhead for the first time. I got the gist, maybe, but I wasn't really seeing it (it wasn't until last year, when my wife and I caught a 35mm screening at the Drafthouse, that I felt like I'd truly experienced the film). As it turns out, this wasn't a problem: back then, I was still in the entry-level stages of film geekdom, far too young for the mental gymnastics (and patience!) Eraserhead demands. Like so many other Lynch joints, this is a film that requires you to meet it halfway, and at 14, I just didn't have it in me. The only real takeaway to be had at that age/level of film experience was: David Lynch is fucking weird, man.

These days, I subscribe to the popular theory that Eraserhead is "about" the existential horror of parenthood. It certainly seems like the most likely interpretation: so much of Eraserhead revolves around Henry's newfound fatherhood and his troubled relationship with Mary - that squirm-inducing dinner with her parents (her father, as played by Allen Joseph, is legit terrifying), the unending shrieks from their insatiable "baby", Henry left alone to deal with the fallout when Mary flees their shitty, one-room apartment in a fit of stress-induced panic - that it seems impossible that this isn't what Lynch was going for. This reading doesn't account for everything we see in the movie, of course (how does Henry's head being turned into erasers factor in, for instance?), but then I don't expect any Lynch film to tie up every loose end. There's a throughline, and then there's the weird side streets Lynch likes to wander down on the way to wrapping that throughline up. 

As someone who's finally reached the point in adulthood where parenthood is the next logical step, Eraserhead - for all its weirdness - finally resonates with me in a way that it never did before. If you were to distill all the fears and anxieties I have about fatherhood into a 90-minute film, I imagine it'd look a lot like this: a bleak, feverish hellscape centered around a repulsive/endearing monster-baby who never lets you sleep. In the parlance of the internet: I know that feel, bro.  

Of all of Lynch's films, Eraserhead's relatively low on my revisitation list (top honors go to Mulholland Drive, followed by Blue Velvet, Fire Walk With Me, and The Elephant Man). I'll revisit it once a year or so, notice something I'd never noticed before, and then let it simmer for another stretch before diving in again. It's probably the least plot-heavy of Lynch's feature film output, but it's also probably the most unfiltered look into the dude's mind that we've ever had. It's also a towering achievement, considering the time and effort that went into the thing (seriously: read up on the making of Eraserhead if you'd like to learn more about David Lynch's cast-iron balls), and probably the film Lynch will most be remembered for once he shuffles off that mortal coil. I think he'd be fine with that.

Bonus: Now that it's available via Criterion Blu-ray, Fandor, DVD, etc, the only wrong way to watch Eraserhead is via VHS bootleg. I recommend a theatrical experience, but if that option isn't available to you, I will also endorse the Eraserhead viewing method described by former Kids In The Hall star Bruce McCulloch in the video below.

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