David Lynch, a name that is for many film enthusiasts the epitome for weird, surreal, and bizarre, surprised many people when he had characterised himself as a Boy Scout from Missoula, Montana. He is also known as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” or “Jimmy Stewart on acid”—a very polite, happy-go-lucky, enthusiastic individual, who unironically uses words and phrases like “Golly!,” “Holy jumping George!,” “Howdy!” etc., and who just happens to have a vivid imagination that has been the basis of nightmares for many of his viewers. Contrary to popular belief, Lynch is not the type of a guy who, for instance, chops off his fingernails in his grandmother’s basement and then puts them in his dinner salad, but is somebody who is actually trying, through foundations, meditation recommendations and charity work, to promote, and achieve without a hint of irony, peace and prosperity. But Lynch’s worlds are full of such contradictions, full of idealists who also happen to be scoundrels below the surface, and Lynch is fascinated with the dark and perverse facet of the human condition, but also on the profound and gentle side of humanity, a soulful aspect of his work that doesn’t get nearly mentioned as the former one. The oblique and mysterious nature of Lynch’s work draws many to become obsessed with finding a universal explanation or an enlightened meaning to his films. But Lynch insists on never revealing what the abstractions in his films “mean,” and he suggests to his viewers that they also try to find out for themselves more on an intuitive than a rational level as to what the disturbing visuals, the labyrinthian plots and the unreliable characters truly convey. Lynch claims that everybody is a detective, but it is also important to note that Lynch’s movies are not merely a puzzle to be solved: they are to be experienced, after which a powerful cinema-going epiphany may come out of his best work. This set of essays will try and derive certain interpretations and explanations of Lynch’s ideas, but they are in no way to be understood as definitive or let alone indicative of what the director himself was thinking. Every reader should be an autonomous detective indeed.
After an 11-year break from filmmaking, Lynch returns for, as he puts it, an 18-hour feature divided into 18 parts, called Twin Peaks, which sounds familiar to pretty much anyone remotely acquainted with the man’s work. Lynch’s cult television show that originally aired in 1990 and 1991 and revolutionized television storytelling returns, against all odds, for a special event series starring Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper. Very little is known about the plot or the characters, apart from the fact that it is indeed happening again, 25 years after the murder of Laura Palmer, the teenage homecoming queen whose death has set the plot of the old Twin Peaks into motion. A 200+ cast list has been released, including newcomers such as Naomi Watts, Laura Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth and Tom Sizemore. This mammoth project for a 71-year-old Lynch will, therefore, serve as a jumping point for Cinephilia & Beyond to go to the past and explore his ten feature films, starting from the debut film Eraserhead in 1977, all the way to Inland Empire in 2006. His short film, web, commercial and television work will not be included, with the clear and notable exception of Twin Peaks itself, which is an essential component for this retrospective.
The nightmarish journey into the world of David Lynch begins with his arguably most inaccessible and puzzling work, the epitome of the term “midnight movie,” launching the career of a talented director with his own unique style and sense of the unknown, who has made it possible to put terms such as “avant-garde” or “surrealism” more fiercely into the public sphere of cinema and, with some of his later works such as Twin Peaks, even into the mainstream. Eraserhead was a passion project and a labor of hardship, where Lynch had put his heart and soul into its development for five years, running out of money and temporarily halting the production on various occasions, changing the key role of the cinematographer during filming and going simultaneously through his first divorce during this period. It is therefore a miracle that Eraserhead was indeed made, that it became such a cult classic and that it looks the way it looks, taking into consideration its troubled production and a low budget, with its stunning black-and-white industrial, dystopian, noisy landscape, where something threatening always lurks just behind the screen and whose stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere permeates through every frame of the film. This would never be accomplished in such a striking manner if not for the unique sound design by Lynch and his close sound collaborator Alan Splet, which has since become the primary indicator of a Lynchian world—the “room tone,” as Lynch refers to it—a continuous, humming, industrial sound that heightens up the feel of a malevolent presence hidden in plain sight, somewhere in the air, or behind the walls, or simply in the twisted minds of Lynch’s unreliable protagonists. Lynchian visual motifs that will be repeated throughout his career also have their genesis in Eraserhead: electricity buzzing, old gramophone players, fish models, zig-zag floors (making an appearance in one of Lynch’s most iconic set pieces, the Red Room of Twin Peaks).
This external sense of dread and uneasiness reflects itself internally in the main character of Henry Spencer, memorably played by Jack Nance, who is nervously and wearily observing the unsettling world around him, trying to comprehend its gray and macabre features and at the same avoid its trappings and tribulations. Henry is in many ways a classic Kafkaesque character; he observes the world around him with a combination of reluctant amusement and baffling paranoia—there is a sense that the world is closing in on him, although there is never any hint of a reason as to why this feeling continues to linger. Lynch is an admitted fan of Kafka, ‘The Metamorphosis’ in particular (for which he had actually written a script adaptation), although ‘The Trial’ might be the one whose influence could be recognized all over Eraserhead. Kafka and Lynch also share their sense of perverse humour that comes in the oddest and most awkward of moments; David Foster Wallace, the great American novelist, author of the mammoth ‘Infinite Jest,’ one of the greatest novels of the late 20th century and an enthusiast for both of these artists, has described the word “Lynchian” as describing a sense of something unbelievably grotesque mixed with the unbelievably banal. There are plenty of such moments in Eraserhead, where the randomness and banality of certain absurd events one has to laugh with (instead of at, which is what some Lynch critics pretend to do; Lynch, in fact, is a big fan of humor and very actively introduces it in even the darkest of his stories), combined with the grotesque and the morbid, representing a cinematic experience that refuses to take itself all too seriously apart from those moments where it decisively shocks and horrifies the viewer. In the case of Lynch’s first feature, the atmosphere of Eraserhead does not have the luxury of the false solace of a comfortable picket-fence neighborhood of Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. Instead, the darkness persists, putting its suffocating mantle all around Henry, who seeks to find comfort in his small but serene one-room apartment, where a significant portion of the film takes place.
This sense of comfort soon changes when Henry finds out he has spawned a creature that can be only referred to as a “baby” with a certain amount of caution. Henry’s offspring is repulsive, miserable, cruel and at times oddly hilarious, its internal organs are held and meshed by a body-covering bandage and it seems it cannot be quiet at any point in time, ruining any sense of balance or inner peace Henry might have had in the past.
A lot has been theorized and discussed regarding Eraserhead. Lynch has called it his most spiritual film, and his interpretation of the film, which came after it was already done and after Lynch was frustrated with the fact that he made his debut based on a set of ideas he didn’t fully understand, comes from a Bible verse he refuses to divulge to his fans. Lynch always says his movies are to be experienced and not understood in the traditional sense of that word; their meaning should come to the viewer from their subconscious; to use a clichéd phrase—they’re meant to be felt and not analyzed. But there is an emotional undercurrent to most of Lynch’s films and Eraserhead, although cruder and more unapologetically deranged than some of his later work, has a certain human aspect to it that comes into the forefront, in largeness due to Jack Nance’s vulnerable, anxiety-ridden performance.
Lynch has stated that Eraserhead is not autobiographical and that Henry is not an extension of his persona, but that he understands him and relates to him. One of the more common theories as to what the meaning of Eraserhead is, and what it really is about, is the absolute fear of fatherhood, mundane family life and, in general, responsibility. Lynch had indeed had certain fears about all sorts of impediments to his creativity and having a family at a young age certainly could have been a challenge in the achievement of his artistic goals. The bizarre scene at the family house of his girlfriend pretty much plays out all of the most horrible and surreal scenarios that any future groom might dream of when coming into the allegedly welcoming arms of future in-laws, including sexual innuendo, hysterical episodes and bizarrely awkward interactions. This is also the section which has the most dialogue in the film; Lynch has described dialogue as a sound effect, and the staccato, slowed down dialogue adding to the atmosphere and mood instead of trying to realistically depict human interaction will spill over to his entire body of work. Henry has different archetypes that come to him in an attempt to break him away from the horrible baby which has proven to be the cage to his ability to function in an already oppressive environment. The “beautiful lady across the hall,” as she is credited in the film, may represent lust and excess, while “the lady in the radiator” could symbolize a more tranquil form of escapism, although this particular benevolent form might be slightly more devious, summoning Henry to her “Heaven” in the form of a notoriously catchy lullaby, “In Heaven (Everything is Fine),” that was covered, among others, by successful alternative bands such as Bauhaus and Pixies. This is one of many examples of Lynch’s work where song performances lead to darker and deeper levels of Lynchian universe—Dean Stockwell’s demented take on Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet, or Jimmy Scott’s “Under the Sycamore Trees,” which welcomes Kyle MacLachlan’s character in the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks, are other infamous examples which will be examined in their respective articles. The Lady in the Radiator welcomes Henry to what could be a brand new life, or an afterlife, while crushing weird spermatozoa-like creatures which got Henry into trouble in the first place (creating this wicked infant, whose creation may or may not be depicted in the movie’s cryptic, creepy prologue), clearing and erasing his head of all the nasty, external factors that have contaminated his originally peaceful and soothing room, but also making him numb and subservient. Eraserhead may focus on the unpleasant aspects of a marriage and an unwanted child, but it does ask at what price escape and artificial freedom indeed come.
The success of Eraserhead came gradually: it was shown in cinemas on a midnight movie circuit for a very long time and thus acquired its cult status over the years, getting some unexpected fans such as Stanley Kubrick, who has described Eraserhead as his favourite film, which was a huge honour and acknowledgement to Lynch who considers Kubrick to be one of his favourite filmmakers. Kubrick wanted to convey the atmosphere of dread and paranoia in Eraserhead and apply its mood to The Shining, making the crew watch Lynch’s nightmarish vision before they started work on the movie. The influence of Eraserhead is immeasurable, its originality is immune to the poor man’s luxury of impersonations and its audacity opened doors for Lynch to bring his art to wider audiences.
Written by Lovorko Marić
Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Photographed by Catherine E. Coulson & David Lynch © American Film Institute (AFI), Libra Films. A special thanks to Will McCrabb.
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