David Lynch was studying as an artist when he came across the idea of using film was a possible medium in his art. His first works were literally moving pictures, images without narrative which nonetheless evoked emotions in the spectators. He is by no means the only artist to turn to cinema as his main form of expression but perhaps he more than anyone else has succeeded in rendering popular art cinema in terms of contemporary Hollywood. His films frequently feature big stars, and have enjoyed a success far beyond the coterie of devotees. His television series Twin Peaks, which belatedly returned to screens with the triumphant Return in 2018, captured international popular attention and critical acclaim. But it all started with a small art film which took four years to make: Eraserhead.
In his biography/autobiography Room to Dream, David Lynch talks of Eraserhead fondly as a moment of creativity in which he had almost total control. With a group of close collaborators, including friend Jack Fisk and actor Jack Nance, Lynch was to spend years working on his debut feature, living in the studio where the film was being made and living on a grant. He took paper delivery jobs to finance the film when money was short and spent as much time as he could perfecting the set, the special effects and the lighting. Despite being a newcomer to film, Lynch had enormous confidence in his vision, knowing exactly what he wanted and not wavering from this.
The film tells a relatively slender story. Henry Spencer (Nance) lives in an apartment in a dusty dark apartment building. He goes to his girlfriend's house for dinner where he's informed that his girlfriend has had a baby - 'they don't even know if it's human' she says worryingly - and he must look after it. Mary (Laurel Near) moves in with him for a while but, driven crazy by the baby's incessant wailing, she soon abandons her 'child' and moves back in with her parents. Henry tries to care for the child which now seems to be ill, with sores and a breathing problem. He has a sexual encounter with a dark lady from across the hall (Judith Roberts) and also enjoys some solace with visions of a Betty Boop style figure who lives in his radiator, played by Laurel Near. This fantasy dream theater becomes threatening and he envisions himself decapitated and his head being turned into erasers to go on the end of pencils.
The strength of the film is that despite being surreal it exists in a recognizable universe which is consistent with its own rules. Metaphors become literal. In a sense it's almost too obvious. There's the fear of fatherhood - Lynch himself had recently become a father - an alienation from a nightmarish version of urban America, strongly influenced by Lynch's unhappy experience of living in Philadelphia and both an attraction and revulsion of sex. The genre and tone are mixed between horror and humor. But this isn't uncertainty. Lynch is not striving for a straightforward audience reaction: laugh here, jump with fright here. As he would do in later films, Lynch just stuck to his vision and either the audience came along with him or didn't.
For me personally, Eraserhead was a revelation. I watched it before I knew what art house cinema was. This could easily be a false memory but I remember seeing it on television when there was a mini-season of David Lynch films prior to the release of Dune in 1984. I would have been 12, but that sounds about right. It could've been later. I remember watching it again on video when I was 18 and being very interested in it. It felt right. I understood the comforting background of the film. Yes, things were nightmarish, but look at the way the lamp is designed. What a strangely narrow life Henry has but look how tall his hair is. And there is a cosmic angle with sperm creatures, an alien planet and Jack Fisk as a Vulcan (myth not Star Trek)-like figure pulling levers that in the end go out of control.There is a horror of mess but also a tidiness to the vision - everything serves a purpose, even a severed head. It's like the neat little chickens. They ought to be a good idea if only they weren't you know spewing ichor and still alive. The film was trimmed on release, after a too loud screening and the sound remixed. It became a popular midnight movie. With its weird quirkiness, it's almost the definition of that genre. But it is also technically hugely adept. From the performances to the look of the film, there's nothing that doesn't work. You might not understand what it's doing but it works. It was with some delight that while working on his next film, Lynch heard that Stanley Kubrick had screened the movie for some of his friends, calling it his 'favorite film'. It was a remarkable debut but one which promised more to come.