Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
Director: David Lynch
Starring: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates, Judith Roberts, Laurel Near
In an almost forty-year career filled with undeniably strange films, David Lynch’s first is still perhaps his most brilliantly baffling. A nightmarish black and white head-trip, taking place in an intensely grim industrial town where the mundane casually rubs up against the horrific (with the two often being shown as one and the same), Eraserhead really announced Lynch’s idiosyncratic style with queasy, feverish effectiveness.
The film doesn’t have much of a plot, as much as a series of increasingly strange and disturbing occurrences involving bleeding chickens, a sinister pencil factory, a singing lady in a radiator and a hideous, inhuman foetus creature. We follow Henry (Jack Nance), a young man just trying to get through the relentlessly oppressive and quietly hopeless world he lives in, attempting to deal with his girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart), who is prone to collapsing in violent fits, and their hideous mutant baby. Eraserhead relies on mood more than narrative in any traditional sense, and throws up some genuinely twisted and creepy imagery which haunt long after the credits have rolled. The sound design also adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere, with chugging machinery and howling wind reinforcing a sense of inescapable bad-dream doom.
The overall sensation Eraserhead leaves you with is confusion. What does it all mean? Are we watching Henry’s nightmare? Is Henry in hell? However, these questions are essentially unimportant. Lynch has never explained what the film is ‘about’, and it doesn’t really matter; the film’s downright weirdness is its biggest strength, allowing for multiple interpretations, all as valid as each other (although Lynch has gone so far as to describe the film as “a dream of dark and troubling things”, so maybe there’s a clue).
Personally, I can’t think of any other film which so expertly captures the sensation of nameless, ambiguous dread that comes from a particularly troubling nightmare. You don’t ‘understand’ a film like Eraserhead; that isn’t the point. You experience it, wide-eyed and slightly nervously, preferably in the dark… and then you try to sleep afterwards. Good luck.