Back in my film-school days, a fellow student who favored experimental cinema encouraged me to watch David Lynch’s directorial debut, Eraserhead, which at that point I knew only by reputation. (This was around the time Lynch was enjoying a vogue thanks to his TV series Twin Peaks.) I took the plunge and watched Lynch’s 90-minute ode to oddness, which explores the world of crazy-haired weirdo Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), who lives in an industrial wasteland with a shrewish female companion and a caterwauling mutant baby. More of an audiovisual experiment than a traditional narrative, the movie is an endurance test for viewers—not only is the film virtually incomprehensible on the level of storytelling, Lynch utilizes so much sickening imagery and thundering noise that it sometimes seems his only goal is inducing nausea.
Immediately after watching the movie, I was quizzed about my reaction by the Eraserhead fan, and I estimated that about 80% of the movie made sense to me. My friend said that meant I “got” the film, and, indeed, I vaguely recall articulating a fully formed interpretation. Collectively, however, the fact that I can’t remember a single word of what I said, the fact that I’ve never wanted to see the movie again, and the fact that failing to understand the entire movie was considered par for the course indicate how Eraserhead works: It’s like a drug. The movie is such a straight shot of Lynch—replete with his usual tropes of alienation, degradation, mutation, and stylization—that it’s either a sensation you need a fix of every so often, or a sensation you’re content to experience just once.
There’s no denying the film’s power, because once you’ve seen Lynch’s grainy, black-and-white images of the putrid baby squirming in its crib, ooze glistening all over its misshapen body, you’ll never be able to erase the sight from your memory. Accordingly, Lynch deserves credit for putting his subconscious directly onto the screen; for better or worse, this is auteur filmmaking at its most idiosyncratic and indelible. And, as years of subsequent disturbing movies from this iconoclastic director have demonstrated, it’s not as if Eraserhead represented a juvenile stunt or a weird developmental phase—the man’s first feature is pure Lynch, unencumbered by the dead weight of a plot.
As Lynch himself remarks in the so-so documentary Great Directors, “Eraserhead is my most spiritual film, but nobody has ever picked up on that.” (Whether that remark was coy or sincere is debatable, since I’ve never been sure how much of Lynch’s persona is a put-on.) Still, whatever the movie’s virtues and/or shortcomings, Eraserhead represents a cinematic artist finding success without compromise.
Lynch started making the movie while a student at the American Film Institute, acquiring end money from a school grant and from actress Sissy Spacek, the wife of Lynch’s classmate/collaborator Jack Fisk. An adventurous distributor put the movie onto the midnight-movie circuit, where it became a sizable cult hit, earning $7 million despite costing only a reported $20,000. The film’s whacked-out artistry made a deep impression on Hollywood—Mel Brooks, of all people, hired Lynch to make The Elephant Man (1980), and Lynch’s career was off and running.
So, although it’s deeply unpleasant to watch and although many viewers find it to be a pointless exercise in outré excess, Eraserhead is one of a kind—and that’s why it remains an inspirational touchstone for maverick filmmakers everywhere. Mutant babies of the world, unite!