This time of year in Minnesota provides ideal conditions for sinking into David Lynch’s Eraserhead. The midwinter weather has by now encrusted everything in dirty shades of black and white. A lonely wind howls constantly. Cabin fever is making you tense, paranoid, and a bit loopy. You warm yourself by the hissing radiator that may or may not have a little lady nestled in its heart. Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer lives in this kind of world for eternity. Welcome to his fever dream.
Is there a more hapless hero than Henry? His hair flares out from his head as if trying to flee the premises before things get even weirder than they already are. Wearing a perpetual look of consternation on his brow, Henry doesn’t purposefully navigate his way through his environment as much as he shuffles from one bewildering predicament to another. Henry is really just a simple guy trying to make his way in the world. But hoo boy, what a world. Everyday objects and events that are normally innocuous in our humdrum lives become threatening and otherworldly in a heartbeat in Henry’s world. Surprisingly, this also makes for some moments of great comedy.
We are introduced to Henry as he finds his way home through a barren industrial graveyard, surely the worst neighborhood on Earth (if it is indeed on Earth.) Soon we are witnessing Henry having dinner with his estranged girlfriend, Mary X, and her peculiar family, a scene that is best described as Extremely Awkward. Before long, Henry and Mary are saddled with a not-quite-adorable baby swaddled in bandages, though, truth be told, “the doctors aren’t sure it even IS a baby!” All the while, Henry finds his troubling affections torn between his anxious girlfriend, his mysterious and seductive neighbor across the hall, and a happy-go-lucky lady who likes to smile and sing, and who just happens to be living in his radiator. Life is complicated for Henry. Then things get much more complicated.
Things aren’t necessarily less complicated for the viewer. It would be best to check your real world logic circuits at the door. Henry is our sympathetic guide through the surreal. He’s unsettled, ambivalent, and unsure of what to say or do in circumstances that would baffle anyone.
Lynch, well-known for his decades-long devotion to Transcendental Meditation, claims this is his most spiritual film, and indeed the seemingly mundane bristles with a chaotic, animating energy: light bulbs, radiators, and even, um, dead chickens flare to a kind of life as if another dimension is starting to crack through. As one character croons to Henry about heavenly bliss, her soothing, mantra-like lullaby seems to contain all the secrets of the universe. Lynch is equally obsessed with the gritty and intricate machinery at work within objects both living and dead. He shows us what lies beneath the surface of things, often in ways we’d much rather he not. (Let’s just say that Henry struggles at being a good dad.) Adrift in a decaying landscape, repulsed and entranced by the body in its many states, Henry Spencer certainly grapples with his material existence and a potentially transformative salvation.
It’s a wonder that Lynch’s first feature film ever got made, let alone found an appreciative audience. It took years to complete, during which time Lynch held down a part-time paper route and basically lived 24/7 on the set (the abandoned back lots of the American Film Institute where he was a student for a while). Production proceeded in fits and starts. The tiny but dedicated crew consisted of friends and fellow oddballs who would become regulars in later Lynch films. When it was finally released in 1977, the movie somehow did not achieve the blockbuster status of that year’s Star Wars but instead grew in popularity only slowly over time, finding its niche on the burgeoning midnight movie circuit.
Eraserhead manages to be simultaneously gorgeous and grotesque, truly horrifying and truly funny. Few film debuts show a young director so confident and preternaturally talented in his (very) unique vision and its execution. This weekend in the Trylon microcinema, everything is fine.
Dave Gomshay grew up in the untamed wilds of suburban Long Island but has called Minneapolis home going on twenty years. He is interested in religion and mysticism, and he also enjoys reading weird fiction, noodling around on untuned guitars, and meditating like the dickens.