"Eraserhead's not a movie I'd drop acid for, although I would consider it a revolutionary act if someone dropped a reel of it into the middle of Star Wars."
- J. Hoberman, Village Voice, October 24, 1977.
The arrival of 1977 saw the release of two important films – Eraserhead and Star Wars. Both films couldn't be more different visually or thematically, and yet they share a common bond in the sense that each feature a filmmaker with a unique vision. Hoberman's quote points out the respective ends of the spectrum that Star Wars' director, George Lucas and Eraserhead's director, David Lynch occupy. Lucas made a wildly popular film that appealed to a mass audience, while Lynch created an intensely personal film that attracted a small, but devoted group of admirers. Interestingly enough, these two films were so captivating and distinctive that they would entice people to watch them repeatedly but for entirely different reasons. However, where Lucas' film is essentially a homage to the works of other filmmakers and films that he admired – albeit given a unique spin to make it his own, Lynch's film remains truly original and as fresh and innovative as it did when it first appeared at its midnight screening premiere at the Filmex in Los Angeles.
Many writers have tried to sum up the story of Eraserhead, but few have been able to accurately convey what exactly is happening. It is no secret that Eraserhead is a film that defies an easy synopsis. You don't watch the film per se, but rather experience it. However, one of the best attempts to describe it comes from the director himself who once summarized the film as "a dream of dark and troubling things.”
Eraserhead is an urban nightmare set in an industrial wasteland "reminiscent of the paintings of the Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger” whose works contain images of decaying biological matter and people trapped in machinery, becoming one with industry, much like Lynch's film with its bleak landscapes of buildings and factories with no signs of nature present. The motion picture's protagonist, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a rather odd fellow who wears a black suit with a white pocket protector and white socks to match, his hair styled like some sort of electrified pompadour a la the Bride of Frankenstein (1935). As the film opens, we gradually learn that Henry is on vacation from La Pelle's factory and after a particularly gruesome and rather humorous dinner with his girlfriend Mary X and her strange family, he learns that she has given birth to a premature baby. The rest of the film shows how Henry comes to terms with this situation and copes with all of the problems inherit in rearing a child in an area that can only be referred to as an urban hell.
Now this all sounds pretty straight forward right? Well, Eraserhead doesn't quite play out in this linear fashion. The film follows its own leisurely pace in order to let the rather nightmarish mood and creepy atmosphere slowly work its magic on the viewer. And this is where the film loses or keeps its audience. You are either captivated by its often disturbing, yet somewhat beautiful images, or repulsed by its rather negative and pessimistic worldview. Either way, Eraserhead is an unforgettable film guaranteed to provoke a strong reaction, which is what a good film should do.
David Lynch first conceived of Eraserhead as a black and white film. "Black and white takes you kind of far away. Some things are said better in it, some feelings come across better.” He wanted to capture the feeling of fear and alienation that he had felt while living in Philadelphia and using black and white film stock would convey this mood effectively. The first image that appeared to Lynch was that of a factory where the insides of someone's head would be used to make pencil erasers – an image that would later survive to the final cut and provide the title for his film.
And yet, in later years whenever an interviewer would ask Lynch what was the main influence or inspiration for Eraserhead he would almost immediately reply, Philadelphia. Lynch and his first wife, Peggy had lived in the city from 1966 to 1970, buying a 12-room house for $3,500 in an industrial district across from an old city morgue. Lynch experienced first hand the feeling of urban decay and the evil nature that man was capable of as violence, danger, and fear surrounded him on a daily basis. Their house was broken into three times, twice when he and Peggy were at home. Lynch remembers one such eye opening event that stayed with him for some time, an event that led to him writing and filming Eraserhead.
“And a large family was going to a christening of this small baby. And a gang came swooping down on the other side of the street, and attacked the family. And in the family there was a teenage son who tried to defend the whole bunch, and they beat him down, and they shot him in the back of the head.”
For all of its negative aspects, Philadelphia was a positive experience for Lynch. “I never had an original idea until I came to Philadelphia.” His stay there marked an intellectual awakening of sorts. Lynch became even more fascinated and in tune with the philosophy of light and dark, good vs. evil that would later become the focal point of his films.
Lynch moved to California soon after he had enrolled at the American Film Institute under the Center for Advanced Film Studies in 1970. He had achieved this scholarship thanks to a string of strange, unclassifiable film shorts that had won him all sorts of accolades and awards. Initially, Lynch wasn’t even planning to make Eraserhead but had originally submitted an idea for a film short called Gardenback, which he described as “a story about adultery, really, but it had a lot to do with gardens and insects.” However, the Center wasn’t exactly keen on the idea and didn’t really understand what he wanted to do, so Lynch ultimately abandoned it. This left the filmmaker frustrated, heartbroken, and on the verge of quitting the AFI. Instead, Lynch began studying the structure of film by attending conferences and a film analysis class taught by Frank Daniel, former dean of a Czech film school. This in turn provided the technical groundwork for his most ambitious project yet: Eraserhead.
By the next year, the Institute gave him $10,000 and so Lynch began the pre-production stage of Eraserhead, working with a 21-page script that he had written in a compressed style that relied heavily on images. "He showed me this little script he had written for Eraserhead. It was only a few pages with this weird imagery and not much dialogue and this baby kind of thing,” remembers Jack Nance, the man who ended up playing Henry Spencer. When truly inspired, Lynch worked fast on the screenplay. For example, the infamous family dinner scene was written mainly in a single night, while some ideas, like the Lady in the Radiator, developed gradually over time. This rather spontaneous method evolved from Lynch's practice as a painter. He was used to collecting and accumulating images and ideas that were similar or could be linked together via his imagination.
The script for Eraserhead did not take shape in terms of a plot, but rather in terms of textures. Lynch loved to study textures of all various kinds, from the organic sort to ones of an industrial or urban nature. Before and while working on Eraserhead, the filmmaker conducted all sorts of experiments with textures. He discussed one such experiment in an 1980 interview with Wet magazine: "I'm obsessed with textures. We're surrounded by so much vinyl that I find myself constantly in pursuit of other textures. One time I removed all the hair from a mouse with Nair-Hair just to see what it looked like. And it looked beautiful." Lynch was also fascinated by the textures of factories and cities, in particular, the buildings of downtown Los Angeles and the "industrial/agricultural feel" of the L.A. River. This famous metropolis, for Lynch, had a great black and white mood to it, like something out of a Raymond Chandler novel or a film noir like Double Indemnity (1944) made by his favorite director, Billy Wilder. To this end, Lynch captured the dark, forbidding mood synonymous with all film noirs, and evoked in it his own film by actually shooting some the exteriors in downtown L.A. Eraserhead has that look of the old film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s, with the only difference being that Lynch goes one step further by staging the entire film at night with some scenes taking place in an almost completely darkened landscape. In this respect, Eraserhead takes the film noir to its stylistic limits.
Actual filming began on May 29, 1972 in the abandoned AFI stables, located at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. Henry’s apartment was a deserted garage where filming took place between one am and dawn for a whole year. All of the soundstages that were used in Eraserhead Lynch and his small, but dedicated crew of five or six people had built themselves. The AFI money soon ran out and the young filmmaker was so poor that he ended up living on the set, building sheds, replacing hot water heaters, and delivering the Wall Street Journal for extra money.
“I was a paperboy. I had a route that started at 11:30 at night and the first night I got my route it took seven hours to complete it. And I worked very hard, and one day I got an overview, suddenly, mentally of my route and that was two or three weeks later and I was able to reduce my route down to one hour. So fast I went that one night I had the stomach flu and before the route I was sick and after the thing was done I had worked such a sweat up doing the route, that I was healed.”
This is a great example of Lynch’s wry, subtle sense of humor. Clearly, there is some truth to this anecdote. Lynch did deliver the Wall Street Journal, using a 1959 Volkswagen, and no doubt worked very hard at it, but he is also having a bit of fun at the interviewer’s expense by also mentioning the flu that was miraculously healed in one hour.
Despite living poverty, Lynch’s time spent working on Eraserhead was one of the best times of his life. He was obviously a man in his element that had made a personal connection with his material.
“I really liked living the way I did during Eraserhead. I had a TV, a shop with enough wood to build things, a radio, a house, a washing machine. No dryer – the sun dried my clothes, which was amazing. Now I go onto the set with 60 people, and it’s just not the same. It’s harder to feel the mood and settle into it.”
For Lynch, this was the perfect environment to develop the right mood and start capturing ideas. At the same time he was fulfilling his dream of living the life of an artist – smoking cigarettes, working late into the night on his film, and building sheds. The plans for these structures originated at Lynch’s favorite restaurant, Bob’s Big Boy Coffee Shop, where he went nearly every day at 2:30 in the afternoon to soak up the atmosphere and drink chocolate milkshakes accompanied by a hot cup of coffee. Amidst all the discouraging struggles to make ends meet, Lynch could always find respite at Bob’s Big Boy where he “would be almost in heaven with happiness.”
Every aspect of Eraserhead was constructed with painstaking care and detail by Lynch and his crew. This not only included building all of the film’s sets but the complex soundtrack as well. The film’s sounds came courtesy of Lynch and his sound editor Alan R. Splet who had cut his teeth at a small production company mixing sound on industrial films. This would provide the ideal background for Eraserhead’s urban soundscape. Splet had been recommended by a friend of Lynch’s who had done the sound on the filmmaker’s first student short film, The Alphabet. The two men subsequently collaborated on Lynch’s next short entitled The Grandmother. The experience proved to be so enjoyable that Splet joined Lynch on creating Eraserhead’s soundtrack.
Lynch and Splet worked on the soundtrack in another empty garage room in the deserted AFI stables. They designed, built, and then hung sound-deadening blankets over the walls to get the cleanest, purist sound possible. Lynch and Splet started with natural sounds and then altered them. The two men used a variety of machinery, from one that could vary the pitch of sounds, but not the speed to “a graphic equalizer, reverb, a little Dipper filter set for peaking certain frequencies and dipping out things or reversing things or cutting things together.” It was the perfect environment for Lynch and Splet to create the ideal soundtrack for Eraserhead as Lynch said in an interview, “we could make sounds the way we wanted them to be. It took several months to do it, and six months to a year to edit it.” At times, the two men had 15 separate sounds going at the same time on different reels. The effect is a truly unsettling collage of noises: grinding gears, factory whistles, and other eerie sounds of a city on the verge of decay, bombarding the viewer, threatening to overload the senses. As critic Henry Bromwell observed, “the sounds, mostly industrial noise never cease; in fact, they increase when Henry is alone, the city filling his head, literally, and turning him into a kind of mechanical zombie.”
Eraserhead not only continued a long working relationship between Splet and Lynch but also marked the beginning of many long term, creative relationships with others. The film marked the first appearance of soon-to-be Lynch regular, John Nance (known as Jack), an actor who had done some theater work in San Francisco. Nance had recently arrived in L.A. to look for film work and apart from some small parts in low-budget AIP programmers, Eraserhead was his first film. Lynch transformed Nance into Henry, who was actually based on Lynch himself. Nance had to live with his rather bizarre haircut for five years, and began to even act like the director, adopting many of his mannerisms. Lynch consoled him by saying that “one of these days, guys are going to be wearing their hair like that,” but Nance was unconvinced, remarking, “making a film with you, Lynch, is one frame at a time.” However, the experience must not have been all that bad for the actor who has gone on to appear in many of Lynch’s films. Perhaps it was Lynch’s personal approach to directing his actors that Nance enjoyed so much.
Eraserhead took a critical beating when it debuted at the Los Angeles Filmex on Saturday, March 19, 1977. Comments like, “dismal American Film Institute exercise in gore,” and “commercial prospects nil,” did not hold much promise for the film’s future. As a result, Lynch reluctantly cut approximately 20 minutes from the film. Eraserhead might well have faded into obscurity if it weren’t for the appearance of exhibitor turned distributor, Ben Barenholtz, a fascinating, often overlooked figure in the world of independent film who was responsible for giving many uncommercial films a chance. Most notably, he made Alexandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1971) a huge cult hit and backed several of the Coen brothers’ films.
After viewing Eraserhead, Barenholtz deemed it a “film of the eighties,” realizing that its bleak worldview would appeal to audiences in urban areas because it successfully captured the way people felt about living in such places.
Barenholtz’s faith in Eraserhead as some sort of watershed film, prompted him to talk Lynch into moving to New York City in the summer of 1977 where they would assemble a print of the film for an East Coast premiere. Lynch and his second wife ended up staying in a room in Barenholtz’s apartment because they couldn’t afford to stay anywhere else. Lynch worked constantly in the lab to get a good 35mm print of the film for the New York opening. What was to initially take only a couple of weeks, ended up being a couple of months before an acceptable print was ready. Barenholtz proceeded to hold two invitational screenings for two hundred people before it opened at the Cinema Village in the fall of 1977.
“The bleakness of the landscape is coming true. There’s a strong feeling of helplessness, of being controlled by forces that you don’t know. Henry is the innocent; he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I think it’s a general feeling that younger people have been coming to over the past few years. Eraserhead couldn’t have done anything in the late sixties or early seventies. It’s not an optimistic film.”
Eraserhead’s debut at the Cinema Village is hardly what one would call impressive. Twenty-five people showed up the first night and twenty-four the following night, which depressed Lynch to no end. However, the twenty-four people who showed up the second night were the same twenty-four from the previous evening. Barenholtz persuaded Cinema Village to keep the film on as a midnight attraction and it went on to run for nearly a year through to the summer of 1978. It reappeared at the Waverly where it lasted 99 weekends before enjoying lengthy stints at NuArt in L.A. for over three and half years and just over a year at the Roxy in San Francisco. By 1982, Barenholtz had thirty prints of Lynch’s film in constant use with the film being shown in England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and Spain.
Word of mouth transformed Eraserhead into a midnight cult film success that has been rivaled only by The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). But where Rocky Horror lends itself to a collective experience, Eraserhead is rather an “intensely personal” one, which makes its success that much more impressive. All of the images and themes presented in Eraserhead are of an introverted nature, aimed at the individual, and not towards a group of people like the active participation of Rocky Horror. Eraserhead contains all sorts of bizarre, often complex images whose meanings aren’t readily apparent, thus leaving it up to the viewer to decipher and makes sense of what they have seen.
So what is Eraserhead’s legacy? Well, for one thing it launched David Lynch’s career. Mel Brooks saw Eraserhead a few years after its debut and tagged Lynch with that famous moniker, “Jimmy Stewart From Mars.” Brooks was so impressed with Lynch’s film that he met the filmmaker and offered him a chance to direct The Elephant Man (1980). Lynch hasn’t looked back since, continuing to release one intriguing film after another. Yet, none of them, with the possible exception of Blue Velvet, have been able to surpass the originality and sui generis of Eraserhead. All of Lynch’s subsequent work contain echoes of this film, from the unsettling, dimly-lit hallways of Dorothy Vallens’ apartment building in Blue Velvet, to the famous dream sequence in Twin Peaks. All of these moments of surreal brilliance and creepy dread can be traced back to Lynch’s first feature film. Perhaps it is the lack of intimacy on his film sets that he once enjoyed while living on the soundstages of Eraserhead. However, with the technical innovations and cost-effective benefits of digital cameras, Lynch has been able to return to more personal, intimate works and bypass the studios altogether as evident with his last feature film Inland Empire (2006).