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Eraserhead (1977)

by on August 12, 2019
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I admit to having meager patience for cinematic surrealism. I think it can be compelling as a still image like a painting or photograph, but when it comes to moving pictures surrealism tends to get really old, really fast.

It may because when confronted with a surrealist image, you absorb the creator’s imagination, but then you let your own take over, melding it with theirs to create an impression that’s unique to each observer. But with surrealist cinema, you’re forced to ride along as hostage on someone else’s unhinged mind trip.

It becomes an exercise in interrogating the filmmakers’ “meaning” instead of letting the art come to you.

Somehow I’d missed David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” all my life, despite being an avid lover of horror and weird/kooky movies from an early age.

It’s experimental and moody, with little in the way of story other than a man’s hallucinatory encounter with his own mutant baby, along with a lot of squirmy sexual imagery and themes. If it seems like the sort of indulgent thing a film student would produce, that’s because it technically is a student film, financed in part by the American Film Institute, where Lynch studied as a painter-turned-filmmaker.

Beginning as a 20-minute student film project, its production eventually spiraled over a five-year period, with additional financing provided by friends and fellow filmmakers, as well as Lynch’s newspaper delivery route for the Wall Street Journal.

I was pleased to discover that leading man Jack Nance’s iconic hairdo, a wavy column of impressive verticality informing the film’s title, was the real McCoy. He apparently retained that coif the entire five years of shooting, which must have made his social life interesting.

A cult classic that became a mainstay on the midnight movie circuit, “Eraserhead” is today pretty universally regarded as a landmark piece of filmmaking.

Alas. Other than a few arresting images and a haunting, deliberately irritating soundscape, I didn’t really care for it.

It would’ve been better as the 20-minute version. The first half is stultifyngly dull, and even when we get to the gross-out stuff with the baby, the movie is shot in such extreme black-and-white darkness that I spent most of the time just trying to puzzle out what I was looking at.

It’s German Expressionism meets grindhouse schlock.

Lynch himself has called it his most spiritual film. It got him plucked from obscurity to direct “Elephant Man,” earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Director at just his second feature film at-bat. He would go on to the disaster of “Dune” and then his masterpiece, “Blue Velvet,” which is still one of the most subversive mainstream films ever made.

And then his “Twin Peaks” show and movie and show revival, none of which I have experienced but seem to be the apotheosis of his surrealist inclinations.

I can see why “wandering through a dream” is an appealing model for filmmakers. It relieves them of the burden of telling a coherent story, instead just juxtaposing random imagery in hopes of evoking a strong feeling or reaction.

The story, as such, involves Henry Spencer, a nebbish denizen of an unnamed dank metropolis who works in a printing factory. As played by Nance, Henry is purely anonymous everyman: he only reacts to circumstances and the actions of others, wandering about in a hunched little stoop with a quizzical look of innocence upon his cherubic face.

Many have supposed that the film’s “theme” is about Lynch’s fears and ambivalence about becoming a father, since his daughter was born with clubbed feet and required extensive corrective surgery. The movie’s deformed baby, which resembles a tiny, tightly swaddled E.T. from the 1982 Spielberg movie, is the result/punishment for his lust.

After a bizarre dinner date at his girlfriend’s parents’ house — in which he is asked to carve fist-sized “man-made” chickens that twitch and ooze blood — Henry is told that Mary (Charlotte Stewart) has had a baby and they must marry. Henry acquiesces, even though Mary’s pregnancy occurred unwitnessed by him in a biologically impossible time frame while they were parted.

The rest of the film takes place in Henry’s dank apartment, which is seemingly filled with piles of dirt and randomly growing vegetation. The baby, ensconced on a pillow on top of a dresser — real parents cringe at the rollover risk — fusses at night, prompting Mary to abandon them. The baby won’t eat and seems to grow sick, breaking out in pus-filled sores.

After being seduced and later rejected by the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts, and yes, that’s how she’s credited), Henry experiences a series of disturbing visions. Some harken back to The Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk), who seems to be some sort of steampunk demigod who lives inside the Earth, pulling levers to compel actions above.

The most important was extracting a long, stringy creature that looks a lot like a man’s spermatozoa out of Henry’s mouth at the beginning of the movie, apparently representing the baby’s conception.

The other key vision involves the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), who he imagines resides behind his radiator. With an extravagant blonde bouffant and monstrously swelled cheeks, the Lady performs on a little stage to tinny music, doing a side-to-side dance shuffle and later some singing.

With her hands clasped at chin level and a fixed, pleading expression on her face, the Lady in the Radiator seems desperate for Henry’s — or anyone’s — approval. She’s the Girl Next Door in a nuclear fallout apocalypse. But when more of the sperm-like creatures start raining down on the stage, she gleefully stomps on them as part of her dance, sending off sprays of icky goo.

Eventually Henry is compelled to cut open the bandage-like swaddling the baby still wears from the hospital — I guess mutant babies don’t poop —  revealing that it has no limbs or torso, and that its internal organs were only kept arranged by the cloth. After deliberately slicing its innards with scissors, Henry watches as the baby swells to massive size and, presumably, kills him while his spirit joins the Lady in the Radiator in some kind of brightly-lit heaven.

I should also note than on a couple of occasions Henry’s head is popped off, revealing a nub that looks just like the baby’s head. In the first instance his decapitated head sinks through a pool of blood, drops down into a city alley, where a boy picks it up and takes it to a factory where some men use it produce pencil erasers. These rubberized shavings surround Henry during many of his hallucinations.

I will not attempt to decipher what all this means. I will say that I had more fun just now summarizing the movie than I did actually watching it.

“Eraserhead” is incredibly slow-moving and indulgent. I’m reminded of the ridiculously overpraised “Roma,” in which we watch an everyday family doing ordinary things unworthy of cinematic memorialization. Some interesting things happen in “Eraserhead,” but they’re interrupted by dozens of minutes of tedium in between.

David Lynch started doing short films and that’s been his primary occupation in recent years, with only one feature film directorial credit since 2001’s “Mulholland Drive” (not counting a compilation of old “Twin Peaks” outtakes and deleted scenes). I think in his heart of hearts he’s more attuned to short film platforms, where a surrealist invention can take flight without overstaying its welcome.

Of course, few short films receive any kind of critical or theatrical attention. As much as I think “Eraserhead” would’ve been better as a short, the movies would’ve been a lot less interesting without Lynch’s off-kilter contributions.

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