About this column:
Con-Tro-Ver-See! is a biweekly column that takes a look at the most controversial films ever released in America. Tracing cinema from both past and present, Con-Tro-Ver-See! explores why these films rattle us and whether or not they deserve the polarized opinions they incite.
The time is ripe to give Eraserhead (1977) another nice long, bewildered look, what with both Sacred Bones Records’ reissue of the film’s soundtrack on vinyl and recent screenings of the film in 35 mm popping up from New York to San Francisco. David Lynch started filming this surreal, unsettling vision in 1971 with a grant given to him by the AFI Conservatory. The story follows Henry, an unusual man who appears frightened by life itself. Amidst a black and white industrial wasteland and scenes of troubling dreamscapes, Henry must deal with meeting his new in-laws and cope with the arrival of his newborn baby (but you can’t really call it a baby…). After Lynch worked through AFI’s grant, the film had to be paid for out of pocket and was thus worked on intermittently by the director and his crew over a five-year period. It was screened for the first time in 1977. Terrence Malick once played the film for a financial backer, only to have him walk out and call the movie “bullshit.” Variety panned the film in 1977, calling it an exercise in “sickening bad-taste [sic]” and saying “the mind boggles to learn that Lynch labored on this pic for five years.” Despite puzzling critics and upsetting many, the film was a hit on the midnight movie circuit in New York, San Francisco, and London. It continues to baffle viewers and top fan-made lists of “Creepiest Horror” and “Most Disturbing Films.”
In the same way that T. S. Eliot makes aspiring writers salivate over how he gets away with writing whatever the hell he wants, cinema students and young artists flock to Lynch as an auteur with an originality and dedication to personal impulse unrivaled by just about anyone. Eraserhead is certainly horrific, but I wouldn’t exactly label it a horror film. It is profoundly disturbing, but not exactly in the real-world way that other films may have unsettled you. The film is most notorious for perhaps two reasons: a baffling and seemingly unconnected narrative and its off-putting gore. One of film’s many obsessions is leaking fluids (a Lynchian fascination pointed out by Manohla Dargis for the New York Times in 2007). A bloody substance oozes from the supposed genitals of a “man-made” chicken. Milky white pus spouts from fetus-like worms. Lynch said in a 1977 press release for Eraserhead’s San Francisco premiere, “Everybody has a subconscious and they put a lid on it… When something touches them, it frightens us, although inside we are grateful.”
And this is one way to view Eraserhead: an exercise in exploring the bad dreams that hide in our subconscious. Life, if you can even call it that, is shown frame by frame in distilled shades that reduce social interactions and everyday emotions into the grotesque and frightening rituals or impulses that they truly are. The film’s introduction, in which the fetus of a wormlike creature emerges from Henry’s mouth and falls into a pool, is a repulsive vision of sexual climax. The Man in the Planet is an embodiment of orgasm, pulling levers and possessing a post-ejaculatory tick. Later, in the dinner scene, Mr. X’s nihilistic but all-too-believable dialogue and Mrs. X’s sexual approach to Henry are familiar, awkward in-law encounters. Only the interactions have been simmered for so long that we are left viewing their glazed, sticky remnants at the bottom of the pan. Lynch takes his time and lets every moment breathe; not a single scene is wasted, despite their obscure meanings or connections. The film takes place in a reality different from our own. But as viewers, we have no choice but to compare this to our own reality. Yet Lynch challenges us to simply drink in the environment instead, wallow in unbelievable visions that take an impossibly cohesive tone, and enjoy a movie that feels nothing like a movie.
When Lynch was recently asked by Pitchfork if he imagines people listening to the Eraserhead soundtrack on its own, he replied, “Absolutely… if you turn the lights down and play this [album] in full, a whole world can emerge in your head. And it will be really, really beautiful.” Lynch’s own feelings of dread while living in Philadelphia were the inspiration for the bleak industrial landscape that plagues Henry. On living in Philadelphia, Lynch has said, “I hated it. And, also, I loved it.” On a personal note, when I was a kid, I use to have a recurring fever dream. The dream alternated between two scenes. One was of my family shouting during an impossibly loud, war-like competition in which we frantically built fortresses out of building blocks. We were violently bombarding a faceless opposition when the dream immediately cut to a silent scene of me on my knees struggling to build my own tiny wall out of much smaller bricks. An elderly woman would hang over my shoulder and whisper in my ear, “Be careful… Oops… Watch it… Be oh so careful…” Thank god I outgrew that one (that is to say it has been replaced by more mature yet equally fucked up night visions). At any rate, in Eraserhead, the sound of the man-made chickens cooking in the dinner scene brings back the exact same feelings that my old fever dream used to give me: an oddly familiar, feel-it-in-your genitals anxiety. I have the very same recognition with the quirky smile of the Lady in the Radiator. The notoriously tight-lipped Lynch has called Eraserhead “a dream of dark and troubling things.” And I believe, if you let it, this film taps into the subconscious on a level that you will disturbingly relate to. And there’s some artistic accomplishment in that. That’s part of why I thoroughly enjoy this film. But to “love” the feeling it gives you or find it “beautiful, ” that may just be an enjoyment we have to leave to Lynch himself.