The David Lynch Chronicles (Volume Three):
“A Dream of Dark and Disturbing Things”
By Nick Cato and Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel
Nick Cato: It was inevitable we’d get to David Lynch’s famous first feature, ERASERHEAD (1977) for this column. However, we didn’t think we’d tackle it so soon. At first, my Lynchian sister and yours truly felt the film had enough coverage over the years, and for Lynch fans, is simply played out. But upon further thought, we agreed ERASERHEAD is the kind of film that can never have enough written about it, and its historical significance as both a classic midnight cult movie, as well as Lynch’s first feature, make it more than worthy of a closer look.
ERASERHEAD initially played at NYC’s Cinema Village, where it premiered in the fall of 1977 and played as a midnight attraction until the summer of 1978, when it switched over to the Waverly where it played for 99 consecutive weeks, becoming a genuine midnight cult hit. Today, the Waverly Twin is now known as the IFC Center, where they show the film about 4 times a year. Over the past few years, I’ve seen the film there 3 times and Sheri has seen it 6. There’s a certain aura that comes with seeing ERASERHEAD in the same theatre where it has earned its reputation and dazzled, baffled, and just plain freaked-out countless people over the past 34 years…so this column begins with a 35mm midnight viewing we attended there on a hot August night in the summer of 2012. The film print was a tad scratchy, but nonetheless beautiful, and as soon as it began (despite this being at least my 20th viewing), I still had goosebumps running all over me. And two minutes into it, I again felt as if I was experiencing something I had never seen before.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: Although I’ve seen ERASERHEAD more times than I can count, I always get the feeling I’m experiencing something truly remarkable each time I view it. Seeing it at the place where it all began has a special significance. The 35mm print we saw in August added to the nostalgic beauty of the David Lynch experience.
One thing I find especially endearing about viewing ERASERHEAD in a theater setting is experiencing it along with others, some of whom may be seeing it for the first time. ERASERHEAD is, for the most part, a very dark film with disturbing imagery and a thread of despair running through it. Even so, there are absurdly hilarious moments. Hearing a few people laugh uproariously during those moments really made the experience meaningful to me.
ERASERHEAD is as hard to categorize as it is to forget. Part post-apocalyptic tale, part horror flick, part art film, it could be one of the most polarizing films ever made. Some critics pooh-pooh it as nonsensical garbage. Fans see it as a masterpiece. I’m of the mind that almost everyone can take something away from this film. The message may not be pretty. It’s not intended to be a lighthearted tale. But sometimes reality is hard to swallow.
Nick Cato: The first ten minutes of ERASERHEAD are perhaps the most surreal and unusual among all of Lynch’s work. And it’s within this opening sequence where audiences are either drawn in or turned off.
We begin with a strange-looking man’s head seemingly floating through space. We eventually learn more about him (the main character, Henry Spencer), but here we don’t know what to make of this guy wearing a business suit with his hair piled high above his forehead. As Henry’s face coasts in and out of the frame, we see what looks like some kind of asteroid or planet floating behind him, and soon the scene shifts to a room where another strange-looking man sits looking out his window, pulling heavy-looking mechanical levers. Cut back to Henry, as a ghost-like embryonic creature comes from his mouth and begins its own otherworldly drifting.
After multiple viewings, this odd introduction can be taken many ways. It’s apparent the man pulling the levers represents God, or at least a god, and Henry is somehow seeking him, or aware that this being is not only watching him but “pulling the strings” of his life. The embryonic creature is Henry’s child, who comes in to play a bit later in the film. We later learn Henry and his girlfriend Mary had the child out of wedlock, so perhaps the entire opening of the film is a huge portrait of both Henry’s guilt and growing apprehension of fatherhood.
It should be noted that Lynch’s musical score—which at this point consists of odd-sounding winds and crashes—makes this sequence as eerie as it is fantastic. These sounds have become a staple of Lynch’s films, but here they’re raw and add a sense of uncomfortable surrounding. The film has barely begun and we’re already in a world we’ve never been in before.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: The sound for ERASERHEAD came courtesy of sound pioneer Alan Splet, who also did the sound for BLUE VELVET (1986) and DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989). If you’ve seen several Lynch films, you’re probably familiar with the eerie buzzing noise present in the background, just low enough to cause disquiet, and sometimes building to drive home a particularly stress-inducing scene. An interesting side note about Splet. Apparently, Mr. Lynch keeps some of Splet’s ashes in his studio.
The noise is the perfect background for our introduction to Henry (Jack Nance). In contrast to Nick’s interpretation, I’ve always felt that Henry doesn’t realize he’s being watched by the Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk). The man, who is decrepit and weary, could be a direct symbol of God, or perhaps he’s symbolic of predestination, those things over which we have absolutely no control. I’ve never felt that Henry realized that his fate was being decided by this God-like individual. Henry has set these things in motion, of course, by having sex with his girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart).
One thing I find fascinating about this film is that it is told in chronological order, despite the surreal circumstances. Many of Lynch’s later films do not necessarily follow a linear storyline. ERASERHEAD starts, albeit symbolically, right at the beginning, when that sperm is released, and the wheels are set in motion for a nightmare.
We then see Henry stumbling along in a bizarre city. He has to walk over muddy hills against a backdrop of poverty and industrial waste. He lives in a dingy, tiny apartment, in between the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Roberts) and a brick wall. The girl across the hall tells Henry that a girl named Mary called for him on the payphone and left a message for him to come over for dinner that night.
His apartment is small, that of a bachelor. It’s a one-room apartment just large enough for his bed, which is covered with a hole-riddled blanket. We later discover that those holes came from Henry’s nervous habit of picking at the material. In fact, Henry maintains an exasperated, desperate expression throughout. He always looks like he’s being chased by a monster.
Nick Cato: After we see Henry at home in his apartment, he goes to his girlfriend’s house for dinner, where he meets her truly bizarre family. Mary’s mother is a ball of anger, waiting for the opportunity to confront Henry about the baby Mary recently had. Her father, in contrast, is quite happy, despite being a bit irritated on the state of their town’s plumbing (he claims to have laid every pipe in the city over his lengthy career). And in the kitchen we meet Mary’s grandmother, who we’re never quite sure is dead or alive, like the grandfather in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974). Mary’s mother helps the seemingly deceased senior to mix the salad, and even places a cigarette in her mouth which we never see her inhale.
Once dinner is served, Mary’s father asks Henry to carve the chickens. They’re small game-hen-sized birds, and when Henry begins to slice, the chicken begins to bleed out, as its legs kick in stiff spasms. If ever there was a film that portrayed the awkwardness of meeting your girlfriend’s parents, ERASERHEAD nailed it, albeit in a most unusual fashion.
When Mary’s mother takes Henry away from the table, and asks him if he is responsible for Mary’s baby, the house turns dark. Henry’s paranoia and guilt begin to bubble, especially when he’s commanded to marry Mary. And in this one crucial sequence, we see Henry accept the fact his single, lonely life is coming to an end, although he assures Mary’s mother he loves her daughter, despite the continually apprehensive look on his face.
Sheri Sebastian Gabriel: Life for the newlyweds is anything but happy. Their baby is a horrific monster—literally! The baby, who was born prematurely, is wrapped in bandages and cries all day and night. Mary can’t handle it, and bails on Henry. She heads back to her parents’ house.
Henry seems to handle the kid well enough, but every time he tries to leave, the baby goes berserk. This scene rings true for anyone who has ever made it through the body-sucking, brain-draining first year of a child’s life. You can’t leave. The fear of being trapped is played out very well here. Henry, the man who lives between temptation and a brick wall, can’t even step outside without his baby screaming.
Marriage is another trap for Henry. We see Henry and Mary, who has apparently returned to their apartment, battling it out over the bed. Mary, sound asleep, takes up the majority of the bed, nearly knocking Henry off. She chomps her teeth and rubs her squeaky eyes. It drives Henry mad. Again, the fear of being trapped and having to deal with someone else’s quirks is portrayed here. Henry is drawn in the night to a mysterious sperm-like object he found in his mailbox and put on a shelf. It’s a symbol with all the subtlety of a brick to the head. Your sexuality is on a shelf now, pal, because you’re married and have a baby. It’s all over.
It’s hard to tell if Mary is really back, or if we’ve just witnessed Henry’s own dream-world perception of his new wife. The girl across the hall then appears, and Mary is gone. Seems the girl across the hall has locked herself out of her apartment. She asks Henry if she could stay with him. Then things get really weird.
Nick Cato: And I think this is where the film loses most people. It’s a dream sequence taken to surreal heights as only Lynch can do it, although at times during it, it seems we shoot back to reality for a few moments, and then back again. After staring into his radiator and dreaming about an odd-looking woman who promises—through song—that, “In heaven, everything is fine,” Henry is now seriously contemplating suicide. His own personal Angel of Death (the singing radiator woman) has assured him there’s nothing to be afraid of and that what lies beyond his current world can only be better.
In the middle of this sequence, we flash back to Henry’s room where he attempts to have sex with his neighbor, all the while trying to distract her from his hideous child who’s just across the room atop a dresser, wrapped in a dirty cloth. Henry’s neighbor seems to make eye contact with the creature, but as they begin to consummate their short-relationship, Henry and the woman begin to melt into the bed, bringing us to another dark sequence where we follow a worm traveling around the rock-planet seen at the beginning of the film.
It is here where we also discover why the film is called ERASERHEAD: when Henry loses his head while listening to the radiator woman sing, it falls on the stage floor and eventually finds itself on the street in an industrial area, where a young boy brings it to a factory. The head is examined and it’s discovered it’s made of the same material used to make erasers in pencils. The boy is paid for his find. Perhaps this is Henry feeling his new, standard existence as a husband and father, illustrated in a most bizarre and comical fashion?
While this off-beat section of soul-searching symbolism still causes me to scratch my head, in the end Henry wakes up…he has denied his angel’s offer of the after-life (despite the vivid, eerie dream) and decides to go on with his child.
Albeit not for too long.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: The scene at the pencil factory really drove home the full message of this film for me. When I initially saw ERASERHEAD, I believed it was about the pure fear of becoming a parent, which is terrifying enough. After a few viewings, I realized that it’s really about the futility of life itself.
Henry’s head pops off to be replaced by the grotesque head of his child. Henry’s head is used to make assembly line pencils, all exactly alike. The message is clear to me. We are only here to reproduce and become as useless as Mary’s grandmother. I don’t necessarily think Lynch meant it to be prophetic. Perhaps it was meant as a way to urge people to break away from the futility of existence, to be individuals rather than accept our role as reproducers. The act of reproduction doesn’t have to mean that we lose our own identities. If we allow ourselves to live in this manner, to be replaced by our children and to become useless, the only way out of our inevitable unhappiness is suicide. It’s the feel-good movie of the 20th Century!
Nick Cato: As if the film couldn’t become darker, Henry survives his dream and is now alone in the apartment with his child. He wonders if his dream was real and knocks on his neighbor’s door, only to find no one home. He paces his apartment a few times, looks at his child, and then hears his neighbor in the hallway. He opens the door he sees her with a male friend, then closes the door and spies on them through his keyhole, a picture of Henry going back to the common adolescent practice of voyeurism. His life is now quickly unwinding.
Henry begins to come to grip with reality (something few audiences do during screenings of this). He’s a father…for all he knows, a single father as Mary seems to be gone for good. He’s no longer his own man. There was no sexy neighbor in his bed last night. He looks back at his child, or what passes for a child, and decides to grab a pair of scissors, where he cuts it free of its bandages…then its life.
Upon the release of ERASERHEAD, critics cited the ending as grotesque, classless and disgusting. Perhaps it’s a bit of each. But what few took the time to understand is that, when Henry stabs his child to death, he’s really killing himself (proved by the final shot of Henry embracing the woman in the radiator). He has finally agreed that the next life is where he belongs, that he has become the norm and the norm isn’t where he wants to be. For the sake of the film, his child has been put out of its misery; for the sake of Henry, he has gone on to better things. It’s a dark, depressing statement, yet, in its own way, one full of beauty, especially in the brightness of the film’s final shot.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: In fact, the final shot is the only time in the entire film in which we see Henry smiling. He’s free. If life means being trapped, death is the happy solution.
I think that Henry killing his child really drives home the point that you can’t take back your actions in life. You can’t undo what’s been done. After the heinous act is completed, some horrible infection begins spilling from the baby’s guts. The baby’s gigantic, disembodied head begins popping up throughout the room, as if to say that this solution was not for Henry to decide. If things are predestined, as Lynch seems to believe given the existence of the Man in the Planet, there’s nothing you can do about it.
Nick Cato: Some may wonder what has drawn so many people to multiple viewings of film that deals with such depressing, bleak topics. While on the surface ERASERHEAD may seem like a dingy, gloomy freak show, created only to cater to acid-taking crowds, when you let its simple messages sink in, it actually becomes a celebration of life.
I know many people who consider ERASERHEAD to be too strange and that it makes no sense. This is hardly the case. While Lynch may have used unique symbols and methods in telling his tale, when you take away the bizarre imagery, it’s basically a look at one man’s fear of fatherhood and marriage, and of the mistakes he has made in life. And unlike your typical by-the-numbers Hollywood movie, Lynch’s nightmare-ish vision only improves and has more to offer with each viewing. As far as debut films go, ERASERHEAD is simply incredible.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: I’d like to go on record as saying that ERASERHEAD is not for everyone. Some people see movies for an escape. Some enjoy a good action flick to get away from the doldrums of everyday life. Some people love romantic comedies because they provide some solace for the downtrodden. ERASERHEAD is a film for those who like to ponder big questions.
The broader appeal of Lynch—to me, at least—is that he gives you something you can sink your teeth into. Each time I watch ERASERHEAD, I pick up another layer. There’s always something else just below the surface that I didn’t pick up the last time I saw it. If you’re looking to escape the harsh realities of life, this film—and possibly most of Lynch’s films—would not appeal to you. But if you’re looking for something that will make you question existence, something that will force you to dig a little deeper, there are few films that come closer to perfection than ERASERHEAD.
© Copyright 2012 by Nick Cato and Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel
(NOTE: although ERASERHEAD is easily available on DVD, it is strongly suggested you seek out a midnight screening. The film continues to screen in theaters around the globe to this day).
Henry (Jack Nance) sits abandoned by his wife in his small apartment, contemplating fatherhood and his future.