Cinematic Panic: Diving Into The Dark Unknown With David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’

Welcome to Cinematic Panic, a new column in which I anxiously watch all of the Criterion Collection films that have either slipped under my radar or have fueled my film obsession and then share my personal rambling insights as to what makes them so damn good. Enjoy.

I’ve always had a very special relationship with David Lynch. He’s the man who sparked my cinematic interest and made realize that watching a film could be an experience—a physiological, visceral experience that takes you out of yourself and brings you into another world. The first time I saw one his films was during a particularly frigid winter, post-Christmas, post-first real heartbreak. I was a tear-stained mess of a person who hadn’t eaten or vacated her bathrobe in about two weeks. On a whim, I signed up for a class called "The Cinema of David Lynch," and having only watched Eraserhead on mute while some Radiohead album played an attic bedroom years before, I decided it might be best to watch one of his films in its entirety. I popped in Mulholland Drive and suddenly something started to change. As I sat in the dark on my couch, a strange thing took hold of me in a way I hadn’t experienced from a simple film viewing before, and I checked myself at the door and entered his nightmarish dreamscape never to return. The second the film ended, I called my mother downstairs and made her watch it with me again. Obviously, she didn’t share the same reaction, but this time I felt it even more. The next day I rented Blue Velvet, then Wild at Heart, then Lost Highway, and I spent the better part of the next month watching all of Twin Peaks.

 

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It’s been a long while since then but his films have become a part of me, his world a place I call home. Last year, I got the chance to meet David briefly and when I asked for a photo with him, his response was, "For a girl that looks like you, anything." My mind interpreted those words as Mulholland Drive‘s infamous "This is the girl." But the moment was brief and I went back to my reality not quite knowing if that was all just a dream. But for his dark and winding oeuvre, it’s his 1977 first feature Eraserhead that is pure Lynch at its core—stripped of any Hollywood glamor and star power, just a raw synthesized portal into the brain of one of cinema’s most beloved and enigmatic directors. 

The last time I saw Eraserhead I was sick to my stomach—not from the film, but from some stomach virus I acquired—but I still couldn’t refuse a midnight screening of the film (and the sickness might have made it even better). Sitting in the pitch-black tiny theatre at IFC Center, it was the first time I had seen the film on the big screen, and once again I checked myself at the door and entered David Lynch’s twisted world of wonder.

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When you think of the great directors of the 1970s, David Lynch doesn’t typically come to mind. But it was then that Lynch spent five years giving birth to the idea that became Eraserhead. At that point in his life, he was living in a dangerous neighborhood in Philadelphia—the city where he says he got his "first thrilling thought." Perhaps that thrill arose from fear, as he dealt with numerous robberies and break-ins (and lived across the street from a morgue). Violence, hate, and filth were all around him and embedded those fears into his subconscious, sparking an artistic inclanation towards the beauty in the morbid side of life. Speaking to his obsession with the morgue across the street, Lynch says, "The [body] bags had a big zipper, and they’d open the zipper and shoot water into the bags with big hoses. With the zipper open and the bags sagging on the pegs, it looked like these big smiles. I called them the smiling bags of death."

Inspired by the troubling world around him, as well as his own fear of fatherhood, Lynch began writing Eraserhead, which was to be green-lit by AFI in 1971 but suffered financial troubles throughout. Lynch delivered newspapers during the film’s principal photography to bring in more money. There were long stretches of time when shooting had to stop for lack of income. But Lynch was determined to press on, even if it meant creating scenes out of miniature dioramas and filming them if need be. Having always been inspired by numerous artists who dealt with anxiety and the macabre side of life is a surreal way, he was influenced greatly by the work of artist Francis Bacon and writer Franz Kafka.

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The script for the film was only 20 pages long, which is no surprise seeing as the majority of the film’s content lives in the textures, sounds, and images presented rather than the sparse dialogue. Starring Jack Nance, Lynch originally described the film as “a dream of dark and troubling things"—and that it is. The structure is simple and vaguely linear, with elements that dive into the subconscious and venture off into the surreal. It’s a claustrophobic film about a man named Henry Spencer (with a now infamous coiffure of hair) and set in an unknown post-apocalpytic industrial landscape—the stoic, solid, sterile machinery almost mocking of his crumbling life. Henry lives in a tiny dilapidated apartment in an old building alone but soon learns that his girlfriend Mary has given birth to what appears to be his offspring. He’s pressured into taking care of the child, which is more of a reptilian, alien creature than a baby and whose cry is akin to a piercing, strangled squawk. Mary is horrified at their child and leaves Henry to deal with the situation. His sense of anxiety grows even further into a nigthmare world full of guilt and sinful dillusion.

What Lynch does best is worming his way into the viewer’s psyche, penetrating all those things lying dormant in your subconscious: the things that frighten you or excite you or expose you the most. But rather than scare you (which is, by the way, why I don’t understand films like this being classified as "horror"), he wraps you in a sense of tranquility or a dream-like state, lying somewhere between the grotesque and the familiar. Eraserhead is film that is clearly the visual interpretation of Henry and Lynch’s shared subconscious boiling to the surface, allowing you to journey inside. Lynch will never analyze his films or explain their meaning, saying it’s how they "strike each person" that matters. He says, "it means other things to other people, and that’s great."

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Henry is an observer, just as we are observers watching the film, taking it in as he does. Through the twisted and distorted visuals of the film mixed with the twitching, doomed industrial sounds we hear, we are made to feel completely ill at ease—mimicking Henry’s anxiety as our own. The film is an abstract study that’s portrayed in verses rather than paragraphs of text, like the sketch of something yet to be unearthed. We search the film for clues to unlock its mysterious nature, but even as we study each moment with precision there will always be the feeling that what this world meant to Lynch will always be unknown. And as with most of his films, it’s so much more about the feelings evoked and psychological state it enduces than the trite satisfaction of being able to say, "Oh, I know what this is about!"

Probably the most famous scene of the film is the "Lady in the Radiator" scene, in which Henry falls asleep dreaming of a deformed woman with swollen cheeks on a stage singing "In Heaven Everything is Fine." "The Lady in the Radiator was not in the original script at all," says Lynch. "It was a very dark film until she came along." Dreams and how they compare to waking life is present in almost all of Lynch’s films, paralleling his obsession with the unconscious mind. The act of the performance also makes its way into the majority of his work, perhaps perfected in Mulholland Drive‘s Club Silencio scene when Rebecca del Rio sings (or does not sing) a frighteningly beautiful a cappella version of Roy Orbison’s "Crying" that echoes the entire sentiment of the film. And just as the Lady in the Radiator sings "In Heaven Everything Is Fine," Dean Stockwell’s performance of "In Dreams" in Blue Velvet simultaneously takes us out of the world of the characters in the film and allows us to become more entrenched in their own psychological journey. The staged performance speaks to who we are inside the deepest caverns of our mind and who we are to the world, who we present and tell ourselves we are, and what’s really looming just beneath.

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What’s interesting about Eraserhead is how inherently and distinctively Lynchian it feels without the signature traits of David Lynch that people associate with him nowadays. Those who have a Netflix account and have watched various episodes of Twin Peaks will claim their love for David Lynch with proclamations about doughnuts and coffee and cherry pie, oh my. And yes, his fascination with food—especially of the saccharine variety—has a lot to do with his ideas about indulgence and sex and are central to his work, but Eraserhead is void of all that. It’s the bare-bones Lynchian aesthetic that established him as one of the most revolutionary independent filmmakers of all time. It has been almost seven years since his last film, Inland Empire (which got back to that very stripped, essential cinematic quality that was deeply imbedded in the frightening corners of the mind), and his interests appear to lie elsewhere these days. Who knows if he’ll ever make another film. But if he doesn’t, it’s at least safe to say that you could watch his films your entire life and still become excited and have questions, always stumbling through the woods into a red room of the mind.

Follow Hillary Weston on Twitter.

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