‘Eraserhead’ a pneumatic experience that once seen is never forgotten

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Eraserhead Eraserhead
Directed by David Lynch
Written by David Lynch
1977, USA

Picture the scene – a storm-swept, wintry night, with the hail and rain lashing at the flimsy, sodden windows. One hour beyond the witching hour and in a lightless living room the VHS player whirls into stuttering activity and a grainy image materializes, a floating head emerging out of the pitiless darkness to the sounds of a throbbing industrial score, and a trauma inducing title expands across the screen – Eraserhead. Yes, I think it is fair to say that my first viewing of this midnight movie masterpiece was quite a memorable affair, I was barely into my teens  when I finally got my anxious little claws on a VHS copy of this bizarre looking film, one of those difficult to source movies in those pre-internet days, a movie which had been remorselessly haunting the various movie magazines and horror anthology books of my mis-spent youth. Ninety minutes later with the storm still raging I imagine my hair was standing on end in a manner not dissimilar to our heroes memorable coiffure, I knew I’d seen something, something which exceeded my nervously preconceived notions of this supposed ‘nightmare made tangible’ movie, which at that point in my movie-watching adolescence was probably one of the strangest and more avant-garde films I’d devoured. It’s worth noting that this was before Twin Peaks arrived in the UK, and probably just after Blue Velvet had secured its initial notoriety, as budding acidophiles across the world noticed the shockwaves that that film had caused and resolved to check out the prior work of David Lynch after the crippling legacy of Dune, the grindhouse monochrome mirage which is still quite the hair raising experience……

Poor old Henry (Jack Nance, in the first of his career long memorable collaborations with Lynch), not only is he on vacation in some unspecified, decaying, smoke belching, decrepit city he’s also got his highly strung girlfriend Nancy X (Charlotte Stewart) pregnant. Things get worse when the baby arrives, cued by Nancy’s chilling line – they’re still not sure it is a baby – as we are witness to some plucked chicken, bandage swathed, chitinous and horrendous ‘thing’ which requires constant attention, a teratoid presence whose homogeneous gurgling is enough to make one plead for a padded cell. Things aren’t all bad though as Henry daydreams about the man from another planet who likes to manoeuvre some unwieldy levers which exhale dizzying bursts of sparks to the sound of metallic distress, or the lady in the radiator who is, erm, the lady who lives in the radiator and likes to perform dainty little ditties about Heaven as she sidesteps to crush flagellate, gelatinous creatures which rain down from the sky. Henry’s head is also turned by his igneous, vampish neighbor who is known as the ‘beautiful girl across the hall’ who may be interested in a secret tryst with our vertically coiffured cynosure, if only Henry can keep his mewling progeny from spoiling the mood. It’s a disjointed, dolorous tangle of events and imagery scored to the rumbling clanks and clunks of a city in distress, a dominion where  strangely behaved inhabitants squat on the precipice between normalcy and insanity – witness this charming dinner party.

Eraserhead Lynch

Eraserhead was shot over a lengthy five years with Lynch and his juvenile crew scrabbling for film stock and equipment during its long gestation period, it’s no small achievement that such a fiscally hobbled project retains such a consistent visual aesthetic, and on a purely technical level the film firmly sequestered Lynch as a tenacious craftsman who could work visionary wonders with limited resources and assistance. It’s real success is the crepuscular atmosphere and sheer uniqueness of the film, it is quite unlike anything else released in 1977 with its formalist rejection of either a strong central narrative or plot augmented succession, preferring to delve straight into the subconscious with a parade of images and moments that leave quite an impression. It’s a film that strives much more for a feeling, an aura which it induces through the nightmare imagery and discordant soundtrack, and a hesitation to formally signal any shift in viewpoint as we plummet into Henry’s fevered and feverish imagination. The narrative is intangible and blends at the edges, in a curious way it’s this form and technique that Lynch has more recently returned to in both Mullholland Drive and Inland Empire, with more a proficient detonation of timeframes of cause and effect, more akin to a kaleidoscopic story blasted to smithereens which has to be reconstructed with the skill and imagination of a Swiss watch assemblyman. The iris isolation of details in the frame through lighting blocks or changes in temperature  is a directorial flourish that has continued throughout his career, along with his fascination with fire and industry, distortion and derangement, if as Shakespeare speculated all the worlds a stage then in Lynch’s world that amphitheatre is bathed in an electric blue sheen whilst a mysterious, sultry termagant howls beautifully for the glory of transcendent love.

One wonders what goes through Jennifer Lynch’s head when she reads about her fathers feature debut, given that Lynch is on record as explaining that it was the birth of his first child and the anxious terror of being responsible for the upkeep, safety and health of this mewling collection of cells that served as a central inspiration for his breakthrough project. That seems to be a central springboard of Lynch’s artistic process, in that one rather formless and independent idea serves as the catalyst for connected ideas and inspiration, with individual units integrating into a complex whole. It’s fascinating that the film reached an audience through the midnight movie crowd, those strange drunks and drug addicts, night birds and anomalies who flocked to nocturnal screenings across America in the period, consuming product and material that actively promoted audience participation in the likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or EL Topo or the early gross-fests of John Waters such as Pink Flamingos or Polyester, Eraserhead is a much more introspective experience, a nebulous, free-floating and formless nightmare which seems apostate to the grind-house campaign, as the film is clearly an introverted and personal experience with individual viewers having to make their own rhyme or reason from the seemingly disassociated events, and as such it’s just another strange chapter in the strange career of this strange man. A delirious, sexual collision of sound and image, filtered through the underground stylistics of Stan Brakhage and fuelled with a surrealist pedigree of early Bunuel and the otherworldly Jean Cocteau. Eraserhead is pure, unadulterated nightmare fuel, a pneumatic experience that once seen is never forgotten, as in heaven everything is indeed fine.

– John McEntee


One Response

  1. Jack Deth March 12, 2013

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