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The Lynch Ledger-Entry One: Eraserhead (1977)

I’ve been pondering this series for a while, and I guess it’s time to get started now that all the Oscar hub-bub has finally died down. And with only 10 films total to his canon, this monthly “ledger” will wrap up by December—just in time for when the next Oscar season gets truly rolling. Choosing to focus on David Lynch, just a few months after winding down my chronicle of David Cronenberg(and, of course, look for Cronenberg Chronicle #19, when “Maps to the Stars” is released later this year), is a no-brainer. It goes without question, that I’ve argued vociferously for Lynch more than any other living film director. I love his mind-set, I appreciate his aesthetic, and his technique just blows my mind. And I don’t even feel the need to always understand just what the hell he’s thinking. It’s not necessary. Who cares? What’s the fun in having it all figured out? The important part to this writer, is that I firmly believe that Lynch is always certain of his direction. And it’s up to us devotees to work hard to follow him. He’s a genius often lost in a sea of Hollywood mediocrity, but so damn brilliant that even they couldn’t deny him on multiple occasions(six out of ten Lynch features have received Academy Award nominations, including director noms for “The Elephant Man”, “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Dr.”). Even when you can’t quite put your finger on his wanderings, the getting there is always a blast. Unless you are a Lynch denier and naysayer—and I’ve wasted plenty of hours getting my blood pressure raised with those. But if you are on board with me regarding David Lynch’s creative prowess, then let’s begin a journey. I’ll work hard to make it an interesting and elucidating ride.

Now, with the 2012-2013 “Cronenberg Chronicle” I decided to work my ways backwards through his catalog, with 2011’s “A Dangerous Method” only having been recently released when I began, and knowing that the summer 2012 debut of “Cosmopolis” would be the only one to interrupt the flow. Being that the now 8 years idle Lynch may never helm a feature film again(and as he’s celebrated his 68th birthday, it’s becoming increasingly likely that he won’t), I’m choosing to start at the beginning—which bring’s 1977’s nightmarish “Eraserhead” front and center. As with The Cronenberg Chronicle, I will give a fresh viewing to every single Lynch film before posting a new appreciation. And I revisited “Eraserhead” just a couple of days ago on DVD with a look at a gorgeous, Lynch-approved print that I have in my private collection.

Even after all these years(my guess is that I probably first experienced it around 1986, or so, on some crappy, video-store VHS copy), I have to confess that I’m as befuddled(although much less so then that initial viewing)as I am fascinated. But experience has shown me since then, that “Eraserhead” does share a similar look, sound and feel with Lynch’s 1970 short film “The Grandmother”. And that makes perfect sense when you consider that the years-long process of getting “Eraserhead” financed, produced and completed began shortly after “The Grandmother” was first seen by a select group of film enthusiasts. Especially considering that “The Grandmother” marked the first time that Lynch worked with the late sound designer Alan Splet(Splet would later win a special Oscar for his sound editing work on 1979’s “The Black Stallion”), who also supplied sound work for “Eraserhead”. Notoriously, the filming of “Eraserhead” took so long(especially when compared to the relatively short production period for the 33-minutes long, “The Grandmother”), that there is apparently a scene in the finished product where the Jack Nance(billed as John Nance onscreen)character of Henry opens a door in the finished product, but doesn’t pass through it until a year later, as “Eraserhead” struggled towards completion. Pretty wild to mull over.

A narrative “plot” for “Eraserhead” does exist, although the film itself defies any neat categorization. Henry Spencer is a print factory worker in some bleak, filthy, industrial city. He lives alone in his cheap, threadbare apartment, and seems to have limited interaction socially. In fact, a brief encounter with a beautiful apartment dweller(the alluring Judith Anna Roberts)across the hall seems both awkward and titillating for Henry. The woman informs Henry that he’s been invited to dinner by apparent girlfriend Mary(a forlorn demeanored Charlotte Stewart)at Mary’s parents’ home—garnering this information by answering the building’s shared payphone(remember those). It’s during this bread-breaking(where bizarre, blood-spurting, miniature chickens are served)that Henry is informed that Mary is carrying his child. After awkward encounters with Mary’s parents(Jeanne Bates and Allen Joseph), we shift to a scene of Henry living with Mary in his crappy, one-room apartment with their mewling, bandage-swaddled, apparently deformed child. Their offspring howls perpetually and constantly spits up its food. The baby’s crying soon sends Mary running hysterically back to her folks, leaving Henry to care for it on his own. This sparks visions of the Man in the Planet(renowned art director and production designer, Jack Fisk)and the Lady in the Radiator(a creepy, puff-faced, singing Laurel Near). There’s also a sexual encounter with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, the revelation that the baby has become quite ill, and a startling discovery involving the infant’s swaddling clothes.

Just what the heck does all of this mean? Many interpret it as Lynch demonstrating his fear of fatherhood, and it’s been revealed over time that David’s daughter Jennifer was born with severely “clubbed” feet that required multiple surgeries. So, there’s the probable basis for that eel-like, wailing creature writhing atop Henry’s chest-of-drawers. And the cold, polluted, industrial landscape of Henry’s existence is most likely drawn from Lynch’s time spent living in a crime-ridden area of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania(although “Eraserhead” was shot in various locations in California). The “Man in the Planet” pulling all those levers, and the “Lady in the Radiator” performing on a stage? Hey, this is David Lynch, so good luck with all of that. I’ve cultivated my own theories over the years(btw, some of the themes I determine to be quite obvious). Lynch is mum—he desires you to develop your own analysis, so don’t hold your breath for any detailed DVD commentary any time soon. You need to let the imagery of “Eraserhead” wash over you.

The film, of course, slowly gained great notoriety upon its running as a “midnight movie” in the late 1970’s, after premiering in Los Angeles in March of 1977. It eventually grossed millions, and had a great return on investment considering its roughly 100 thousand dollar budget. Oh sure, there were a litany of astoundingly bad reviews from critics who had no idea that a master was making his debut during Jimmy Carter’s tenure as President. And even the esteemed Mel Brooks handpicked Lynch to direct “The Elephant Man”(Mel was one of the producers)after being wowed by this surreal motion picture. Also, no less than Stanley Kubrick revealed to Lynch around 1980, that “Eraserhead” was his favorite film, and that it had a strong impact on Kubrick’s own “The Shining”.

You’ll spot some familiar faces on-screen and in the credits of “Eraserhead” too. Sissy Spacek(Jack Fisk’s wife)donated to the budget, and Lynch’s longtime friend(and wife of Jack Nance, at the time)Catherine E. Coulson(later the mysterious “log lady” of Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” series)apparently contributed the bulk of her waitress income. Also watch for prolific character actor Hal Landon Jr.(“Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey”)as the Pencil Machine Operator. And Napoleon Wilson himself(from John Carpenter’s immortal sophomore effort “Assault on Precinct 13”, covered here on the blog in October 2013’s “Flashback” entry), Darwin Joston, in a virtual cameo as Paul the desk clerk.

It would be a thrill to see this is an actual theater at midnight one of these days, as I’ve only ever experienced “Eraserhead” from the comforts of a sofa. When else could I fully appreciate floating spermatozoon creatures, furniture encrusted with bizarre vegetation and actual pencils and erasers being cultivated from Henry Spencer’s head. Unlike David Cronenberg, Lynch’s films actually manage to frighten me, and “Eraserhead”‘s look and intricate sound design does give one the “willies”. It’s a unique and exciting film that marks the emergence of a major filmmaker. You may not understand it, you may be repulsed by it, you may not even like it—but I promise you, you will never forget it. “Eraserhead” has a way of sticking with you, and the feature career of David Lynch started with this low-budget shocker.     Grade:  A-

next month’s Lynch Ledger Entry: 1980’s “The Elephant Man”

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