Wednesday, November 3, 2010


"In 2004 [Eraserhead] was deemed 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant' by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry" (Wiki Entry for Eraserhead). Since the U.S. Library of Congress only selects up to 25 films per year for preservation in the National Film Registry, the official archivists of the United States have essentially declared Eraserhead (1977) one of the most important films in American history.
Eraserhead is a National Treasure
David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977) is unlike any film made before or since, so this analysis will differ from our norm, since trying to explain the film in terms of a plot summary would not be constructive or informative. It would be tantamount to giving plot summaries to the dark paintings of Heironymous Bosch or Francisco de Goya. Likewise, David Lynch's Eraserhead is intended to be experienced as an abstract work of art on its own merits, so it does not lend itself readily for comparison to more conventional movies.
"I'm confused. So the cops knew he was internal affairs all along?"
Homer Simpson
We are uncertain how to approach a literal reading of Eraserhead (1977) since it so so bizarre and probably best left to the audience as a raw emotional experience, a cinematic nightmare with a set of conventions all its own. So we will instead focus on David Lynch's unique approach to film making, his entrance into the film industry, the development of his early career, and how his early experimentation with film finally culminated in the completion of his five-year production on Eraserhead. We will also briefly discuss some of David Lynch's immediate impact on the world of film making and end this article with a brief discussion of the film itself and what to expect from the viewing experience.

The Opening of Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) Echoes His Own Idyllic Upbringing
David Lynch was born in Missoula, Montana, but was raised primarily in Washington State and North Carolina where his future TV series Twin Peaks (1990-91) and feature film Blue Velvet (1986) would be later set, respectively. By all accounts, Lynch grew up an all-american boy. He became an Eagle Scout, and at age 15 he ushered at President John F. Kennedy's Inauguration.
David Lynch Grows from Boy to Man
David Lynch first developed his artistic sensibilities as a painter. After studying briefly at various American art schools, he planned to study painting techniques for three years abroad in Europe. But no sooner did he arrive there then he felt an immediate lack of inspiration. He would later explain that everything looked too clean and unindustrialized for his tastes in the countries he visited, so he returned back to the United States after only 15 days in Europe. After some searching in the U.S., Lynch finally settled down in an industrial section of Philadelphia where he finally felt inspired and began developing what he terms as his "first original ideas" and began painting Industrial Symphonies.
The Browning Water-Cooled Machine Gun Inspired David Lynch's Early Childhood Drawings
While painting in Philadelphia, Lynch became tangentially involved with film making through his growing fascination with the concept of paintings that move through time with a soundtrack. Lynch shot a 60 second animated film that repeated on a continuous loop that he displayed over his sculpture of six deformed faces. This innovative piece caught the attention of an art investor who commissioned Lynch to do something else along those lines. But Lynch encountered technical difficulties with his camera while attempting to create this second exhibit, losing all his footage in the process. Lynch offered to call it a wash and return the investor's remaining money, but the investor suggested Lynch use the money to make a short film instead.
Six Men Getting Sick (1966) is a Sculpture, Painting, and Film in One
Taking this suggestion to heart, David Lynch developed a short film that combined stop-motion sculptures and animation with a live-action actor in a nightmarish dreamscape in The Alphabet (1968). Partly inspired by a real life story about his wife's niece compulsively reciting the alphabet aloud one night in her sleep, Lynch developed this expressionistic film in part to capture the stress children often feel at public schools to compete and learn on an artificially standardized timetable. Among other things, this short film would dramatize that type of strain that would provoke such neurotic behavior in a young and impressionable girl.
The Alphabet (1968) is Lynch's First Short Film with a Speaking Role, a
Little Girl Played by His Then Wife, Peggy Reavey Lynch
You can hear this author's take on The Alphabet (1968) on this podcast, in which he discussed several topics, including this seminal short film at the beginning of David Lynch's career. The Alphabet would open doors for David Lynch, earning him enough recognition to attend the American Film Institute (AFI) Conservatory in Los Angeles, California, where he would find the support and means to produce more short films and where he would ultimately begin filming his first feature film in 1971 and eventually finish it in 1976, ending up with his final cut of Eraserhead (1977) the following year with its film festival circuit and premiere.
David Lynch Puts the Finishing Touches to the Prosthetic Make-Up on
"The Lady in the Radiator" on the Set of Eraserhead
David Lynch has a unique way of presenting his cinematic ideas and stories, which many mainstream audiences seem unprepared for when they initially walk into a theater to watch one of his films. And as we mentioned in our last article, people's first reaction to new artistic techniques often will be negative. But as the shock of originality wears off, people tend to grow neutral toward those works, before finally relaxing enough simply to enjoy the techniques on their own merits. The photo below is from Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), which was hailed as a great film by some but detested by many other mainstream journalists and film critics when first released. But Blue Velvet has steadily gained in popularity until it is generally recognized as a masterpiece and one of the best films of the 20th century cinema.
First Viewing: Disturbing. Second Viewing: Bizarre. Third and Subsequent Viewings: Brilliant.
Because of his cutting-edge and unorthodox style, David Lynch is often labeled as strange, confusing, or self-indulgent. Which is nothing that has not been said of other abstractionist artists throughout the years, like Monet, Seurat, or Salvador Dali. But in the final analysis, we ask if their paintings were any less brilliant than those of Rembrandt or Dupré simply because they worked in realism and the others worked in varying degrees of abstraction?
Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) Abstract Imagery
Even if you prefer realism in your paintings, certainly you would not scoff and challenge the status of those other artists as world-class painters. But frequently people in the past have been known to falsely label Lynch a sloppy director, rather than acknowledge him as a filmmaker of the highest order. This is a misconception we hope to dispel throughout our series of articles. And to deny Lynch's artistic prowess because you do not fully engage with his films at first is a little like denying Vincent Van Gogh is a world-class painter because you do not like sunflowers.
"Too weird. Too yellow. Too confusing. And we can see paint
strokes all over the place! Go back to art school, you hack!"
–Fake Van Gogh's Contemporary Art Critics Quote
Meriting comparison to earlier cinematic giants like Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, and Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch pays meticulous attention to his craft and avoids taking the artistic middle ground. Lynch shares many things in common with those three directors: First, they are all among the most influential directors of our era, nearly every modern filmmaker being inspired to some degree by their visionary work. And second, they all enjoyed unusually high degrees of artistic freedom as directors, experimenting in different genres with unorthodox directing, editing, musical scoring, sound mixing, and cinematography.
"I want to see a little more Eraserhead in your performance, Jack."
–Fake Stanley Kubrick Quote Directing The Shining (1980)
Along with Federico Fellini, these visionary artists are among the few film directors David Lynch cites as influencing his own style. So it must have been satisfying for Lynch to hear that Stanley Kubrick, in an interview with Michael Ciment in the early 80's, mentioned a love for Lynch's Eraserhead (1977) and how he wished he had directed that film himself. Kubrick went so far as to screen Eraserhead (1977) for the cast and crew of The Shining (1980), so in a beautifully cyclical way, David Lynch ended up influencing the films of one of his own cinematic influences. The circle of art lives on...

David Lynch Directing Charlotte Stewart Through a Window on the Set of Eraserhead
Eraserhead (1977) is an abstract and atypical film compared to standard Hollywood fare. Honestly, it is abstract and atypical even compared to David Lynch's other films, which corner the market on abstractions and atypicality. Eraserhead does not follow conventional narrative structures, nor does the plot unfold quickly. In fact, Lynch's original screenplay for the film was only 21 pages long. Some of Lynch's mentors at the AFI Conservatory assumed he would be making a short film, since in standard screenwriting conventions, one page of text translates roughly to one minute of movie running time. But Lynch insisted he would be transforming these 21 pages of the written word into a significantly longer piece, which eventually ended up running four and a half times longer than conventions would dictate, with a final running time of 89 minutes.
Introductory Shot of Eraserhead's Main Character Henry Spencer
Played by Future Lynch Mainstay and Friend Jack Nance
David Lynch began the project in 1971, but he only had a shoestring budget for a short film provided in part by the AFI Conservatory. Lynch had to periodically halt production to earn money for himself and his family to live on while also saving enough to help cover costs on the next sequence of filming. For a period, Lynch was virtually homeless, living illegally unconventionally at the AFI Conservatory's Stables with his small cast and crew. Lynch essentially handmade all the sets, props, and special effects for the film with some help from his friends/crew/cast. By the time David Lynch finished Eraserhead, he had spent about 5 years of his life stitching it together piece by piece until it was complete.
Stanley Kubrick is Clearly Inspired by David Lynch's Eraserhead (1976) as Evident in this Clip from The Shining (1980)
The Shining - Elevator Shot
Eraserhead (1977) provided David Lynch an arena where he learned to harness the power of pure cinema and inject it into a surreal character study. His labor of love could be completed only with the assistance of friends, family, and other fledgling artists who contributed their time, labor, and money into this project with little chance of seeing any kind of financial return. But the final result of their effort speaks for itself as one of the most uniquely evocative film experiences you will find, especially from a first-time director.

To this Day Lynch Does Not Reveal How He Created
 and Articulated the Legendary Mutant Baby Prop
David Lynch loves to work in the abstract and avoids discussing the meaning of his films, preferring viewers to engage them as raw artistic experiences open to personal interpretation. Lynch believes abstract art can jar something in the viewer's subconscious, helping them form new ideas that may not have even occurred consciously to the artist who made it. And those ideas are just as relevant to the work as the director's own intent. Therefore, Lynch avoids making authoritative declarations of how to interpret his films and encourages everyone to enjoy processing and engaging with his films for themselves.
Lynch on Film Abstraction
Maybe Henry Spencer's Hair is the Key to Understanding Everything...
Although mostly tight-lipped about the plot of Eraserhead, David Lynch has described it as "a dream of dark and troubling things" and that the main character Henry Spencer is "living under the influences of those things that existed for me in Philadelphia." Lynch would later describe that time of his life: "There was a sense of dread pretty much everywhere I went. I didn't live in any good parts of Philadelphia, so dread was my general feeling. I hated it. And, also, I loved it."
A Bizarre Family Get Together that Feels Strangely Universal
In his book Catching the Big Fish (2006), Lynch remarked, "Eraserhead is my most spiritual movie. No one understands when I say that, but it is." Many assume this is because a particular verse in the Bible was instrumental in helping Lynch interpret the events of his movie at a time when even he felt lost about the meaning of his work. But likely there is more to it than that. The way Daivd Lynch approached the production of the film was very intuitive and he took a lot of time to create and explore the world these characters inhabit. Perhaps the creative purity of this process contributed to his opinion of Eraserhead being his "most spiritual movie." Certainly the process of making a major feature film personally from scratch must have been a deeply personal experience for him, constructing every set and prop alongside his friends and family.
David Lynch on Eraserhead
No One Has Come Close
Whatever his intentions, David Lynch perfectly captures on screen the anxiety a young man feels as he begins to take on the adult responsibilities of becoming a new husband and father. Certainly, David Lynch shaped this film's world with the help of his own parallel experience of becoming a husband and father not too long beforehand. Eraserhead also captures the sense of loneliness and foreboding people feel in an evermore industrialized society, cut off from healthy human contact, wandering in a strangely beautiful wasteland. But at its core, Eraserhead reveals the nightmares plaguing men and women as they mature and deal with the responsibilities of parenthood.
All Parents Wonder at Some Point What Happened to their Lives
Is Eraserhead an overall pleasant viewing experience? Compared to conventional movies, not entirely, no. Is Eraserhead a valuable viewing experience, though? Yes. It beautifully captures on celluloid a universal theme of alienation in the modern world and the fears of growing up. Its disturbing nightmarish quality is what sets it apart from any other movie. Partly for this reason, Eraserhead first grew in popularity as a cult film at counter-culture midnight screenings, which is a little peculiar since you will not find any of the nudity or typical ultra-violence then en vogue at such screenings in the 70's and 80's.
A Character Study so Intense it Feels More Like a Horror Film
But Eraserhead likely found a home and flourished at those screenings, though, because it is simply too bizarre of a film to approach if you were expecting something from mainstream Hollywood. But if extreme weirdness is what you were already prepared for going into the film, then you are properly prepared to let Eraserhead wash over your psyche like a complex and immersive painting brought to life. And Eraserhead succeeds at that, perhaps more than any other film has been able to before or since.
Travel into Henry Spencer's Bizarre World if You Dare...
Eraserhead is not shocking or controversial because of extreme content, although there are some scenes with the mutant baby you could list among the most disturbing ever filmed. What makes Eraserhead shocking and controversial is its brilliantly abstract, yet strangely grounded portrayal of human loneliness and suffering. While it may not be an easy viewing experience, it is certainly one of the most powerful and unique experiences you will have with a film. And the films stands as a worthy introductory work by one of the cinema's most promising new voices.
In Heaven Everything is Fine

Pixies Cover (Live)
Eraserhead (1976) is available on Netflix Instant Watching and on a Limited Edition DVD sold exclusively at David Lynch's website 10 years ago, but individual copies can be a little difficult to find at reasonable prices today. The easiest way to own the film is by purchasing the David Lynch Lime Green Set, which is a deluxe box set containing every short and feature film directed by David Lynch from 1970 to 1990, with the exception of Dune (1984). Until these movies get a Blu-Ray release, the Lime Green Set contains the best visual presentations of these films currently available in the United States.
Jack Nance and David Lynch
When David Lynch later promoted Lost Highway (1997), he participated in this fascinating interview with Tom Snyder. David Lynch discusses his early career developments and shares his opinions on art, criticism, and ambiguity in film.
Interview with Tom Snyder
Next week we will discuss David Lynch's most mainstream and critically successful feature film The Elephant Man (1980), which can be found on Netflix Instant Watching and is widely available on DVD and is part of that all-inclusive Lime Green Set mentioned earlier.
Eraserhead Trailer

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  1. Very interesting. I dont realy know what to say except I totaly agree with your analyse of Lynch's work especially when you say that Blue Velvet is "one of the best films of the 20th century cinema". I just love this movie and you know what I realy dont know why. I think finaly its precisely the reason I think its a great movie, cause I just cant totaly get it. You can watch it again and again and you will always find something to enjoy and each time you are never sure what it was. Its true, Lynch is realy like a great painter. By the way, sorry for my poor english.

  2. Agreed. With most traditional films, watching them once is really as much as anyone wants to watch them. But Lynch shapes into existence on the screen such rich and deeply layered worlds that his films really improve greatly on multiple viewings. How many directors can we say that about?

  3. no one can make such a movie than lynch

  4. Michael, I need to know more about Lynch's impact on the world of filmmaking. Do you know where I can read more, or can you tell me more?

    Best Regards