Saturday 26 March 2011

Eraserhead (1977)

This is about as close to the definitive cult movie as you're ever likely to see.  As well as being weird, stylish, revolting, arty, dreamlike and resolutely impenetrable, it's also totally unique.  I've never seen anything else like it, outside of other films by David Lynch.  I hesitate to offer a plot summary because there isn't a plot in the conventional sense.  In fact there's nothing about it that could be described as 'conventional'; not even the credits, which jump about from cast to crew to cast again.

The main character is a chap called Henry Spencer, a painfully shy man who lives in a dingy one room apartment in some nameless, clanking urban hellhole.  A series of bizarre things happen to him, culminating in him apparently being eaten by a planet.  It's that sort of film and having sat through it all, the ending doesn't seem as weird as it must do just reading about it now.

Lynch has steadfastly refused to offer an explanation of what the film means, preferring to describe it as "a nightmare".  As far as I'm concerned it's about fear or, more precisely, phobias.  Henry seems to be terrified of everything but above all human interaction.  He fears being alone, being in a relationship, commitment, rejection, parents, children, you name it.  The sum total of these fears is an omnipresent dread, which leads Henry to stay in his room most of the time, occasionally scuttling outside, hugging the walls like a timid mouse.  The personification of that dread may be the unidentified, horribly scarred man who appears at the beginning and end of the film, pulling levers like some omnipotent signalman.

Henry on his way home
From what I've read, Lynch had spent some time living in extremely poor and unpleasant parts of Philadelphia and has described the dread that was a constant feeling during his time there.  He has replicated this on screen in ERASERHEAD but it's difficult to describe how because there isn't really any violence or villains.  I think it's just that no-one in the film really seems to care at all about anyone else, resulting in a terrible feeling of alienation.  Normal situations - spending time with a girlfriend, visiting her parents, eating dinner, feeding the baby - become nightmarish experiences either through people's abnormal and unsettling behaviour or revolting detail.  There are occasional moments of tenderness - Henry nursing his ill 'baby' or his brief liaison with his alluring neighbour - but they are brief interludes in the awfulness of life.

Henry tends his 'baby

An amazing sequence where Henry and his lover literally sink into his bed
It's difficult to imagine now quite what the impact of ERASERHEAD was on its first release; we've grown accustomed to David Lynch's surreal visions and to an extent they have become acceptable - you'd never have pegged him in 1977 as the future director of a worldwide smash hit TV show.  But when you consider that ERASERHEAD was released a year before something as utterly derivative and mundane as THE EVIL you can perhaps get a sense of the context.  Like a lot of cult films, or delirious films as I prefer to call them, it was met with widespread bafflement, if not revulsion, on first release although some notable figures championed it and Lynch, paving the way for his move into bigger budget film-making.

An iconic still of Jack Nance as Henry Spencer
Jack Nance, who plays Henry, was part of Lynch's stock company, appearing in at least half a dozen more of his films before his untimely death at the age of just 53 following a blow to the head during a drunken scuffle.  One other point to note for film anoraks like me is Darwin Joston in a tiny part as Paul, the man to whom a boy brings Henry's head during the dream sequence which gives the film its title.

Darwin Joston as Paul
... and as Napoleon Wilson in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13
Joston had a much bigger role as the good-hearted convict in John Carpenter's brilliant ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976) showing considerable charisma.  His film career never really took off, sadly, and he ended up working as a teamster on film and TV productions.  Joston died of leukemia in 1998.

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