Ahh, Eraserhead. Such a quirky little gem. A charming tale of a put-upon boy who becomes the world’s greatest superhero after it’s discovered his strange, rubbery cranium holds the key to world peace. And the songs! Every one a small slice of lyrical genius. From start to finish, I just don’t see how anyone could watch this movie without a smile on their face…
Eraserhead is actually a cult classic sci-fi/horror film, the first feature-length movie directed by David Lynch. To say that it is the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen would likely be an understatement. There seems to be a small but vocal contingent of people who think it’s great, and probably more people who wish they could unsee it. It is open to a variety of interpretations, and so I’ll give you mine, although mostly I think that it defies interpretation and should just be seen as a work of art.
Henry (Jack Nance) lives in a bleak, industrial world. At all times, the hum of machinery and the hiss of steam is in his ears. This mundane existence is upended when he receives an invitation to his estranged girlfriend Mary’s (Charlotte Stewart) house for dinner. The usual awkward “dinner with the family” scene gets ratcheted up a few notches when Henry learns that Mary has given birth (prematurely) to his child, which is deformed. Mary and the “baby” (truly an alien, worm-like creature) move into his apartment, but Mary soon leaves because she cannot stand the baby’s constant wailing. Life become more and more bizarre for Henry as he struggles to care for the creature.
Seriously, a brief synopsis does this movie no favors. Eraserhead is not a conventional story, with things like plot and character development. It is, perhaps literally, a nightmare: a disjointed sequence of loosely-related events that have bubbled up from some dark place in Mr. Lynch’s mind. In my opinion, attempts to understand this film in any sort of conventional way will merely lead to frustration. The “nightmare” explanation is the best I can offer you. It’s a dark and disturbing abstract; the characters are ciphers with very little personality or interest, and the events make little to no sense. Lynch has said that this is a deeply personal film, and that it deals with his anxieties about becoming a father. It’s a valid explanation, but it doesn’t cover enough ground for my taste. As someone who likes to root around for meaning, I can come up with some English major-y type psycho-babble about the banality of life and the search for something more to one’s existence, but someone else would likely have a completely different interpretation, and the truth of the matter is that we are all left confused, and I’ll tell you something: I think we’re supposed to be.
Leaving aside the confusion for a moment, though, let me say that the sound editing and cinematography of this movie are first-rate. It’s shot in black and white, naturally, and the use of shadow and light to heighten the sense of uneasiness is extremely effective. Likewise, the mechanical noises, and the cries of the “baby” are crystal clear and front and center, so that we find ourselves in the same sonic landscape as Henry, and are just as desperate to escape it. I was really impressed by how Eraserhead looked and sounded, despite the weirdness of everything else. I imagine a lot of that credit is due to Mr. Lynch, although I felt that a lot of the camera angles and close-ups steered the film a little more toward camp than serious film.
In the final tally, I can’t tell you that I enjoyed this movie, but I can’t tell you that I disliked it, either. It was a vision of something, and even if I don’t understand or agree with that vision, I can appreciate it as having come from someone’s imagination. It was actually not as disturbing as I feared it would be, and I think that for someone interested in the progression of David Lynch’s work, it’s probably pretty important and instructive. I will leave such a study to others with less conventional taste than I, though, and say that Eraserhead is not exactly a work I would recommend: it’s more of a curiosity. Hey, I’m watching this crazy nonsense so that you don’t have to! Pretty good deal, no?