This week the ICA hosted a special screening of a genuine masterpiece of cult, avant garde cinema. Ever since its release thirty four years ago, David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) has remained a defining moment in the world of experimental cinema and, in my view, remains Lynch’s crowning achievement.
As one of surrealist cinema’s finest exponents, David Lynch has managed to carve out a truly distinct and unique vision with each and every one of his projects since Eraserhead’s release. Even in light of cult classics such as Blue Velvet (1986), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001) Eraserhead can be seen as the film to set the template for each of the subsequent pieces. Its combination of disturbing imagery, with Lynch’s trademark balancing act of placing extremely dark, horror conventions alongside surreal moments of an almost comic nature, provide the blue-print for the bizarrely unsettling experience which has become so synonymous with every David Lynch release.
The story of Eraserhead takes place in a nightmarish, industrial landscape. Shot in grainy black and white, the tone set by the huge machines and the thick smoke spewing from them is one of ominous threat and intense loneliness. The landscape depicted here serves as a typically stark, Lynchian metaphor for the psychological state of Henry, the film’s complex protagonist.
Played to near perfection in a career-defining performance from Jack Nance, Henry exists in a lonely world, in which he lives with his girlfriend Mary. The unusually cold nature of their relationship is mirrored by the strange activities that go on within their apartment. With frequently flickering lights and Henry’s recurring vision of a lady in his radiator, singing of finding peace in heaven, Lynch immediately sets the tone for the horrific events about to unfold.
In one of the most memorable and iconic moments of his career, the birth of Henry and Mary’s ‘baby’ remains one of Lynch’s defining creations. Resembling something more akin to a dying alien than a human child, the grotesque abomination created by the couple, may well be seen as a symbol of Henry and Mary’s mysterious and somewhat doomed relationship. The extremely disturbing appearance of the couple’s newborn has subsequently become the most speculated and talked about invention ever to grace a David Lynch movie.
With no discernible way of telling just how the infant was constructed, to this day, Lynch is still questioned as to how it was made and what it represents. As one would expect from a director renowned for his unwillingness to reveal any details concerning the more ambiguous elements of his work, Lynch is still unmovable on the subject, wisely opting to keep his creation shrouded in mystery and intrigue, rather than shattering one of cinema’s truly infamous talking points.
Following this birth, Mary abandons Henry, leaving him alone to care for their mutated creation. Over the ensuing days, via a series of increasingly deranged visions involving the lady in the radiator, Henry’s behaviour grows ever-more erratic. His unpredictable actions culminate with him stabbing the child in a fit of rage, having assumed the infant to be laughing at him. Whether laughing or merely whining as a result of its ever-declining physical state, there is a strong sense of inevitability following Henry’s attack on the child, as one suspects that his fractured state of mind is incapable of shouldering such a burden alone.
While Eraserhead is no doubt certain to divide and polarise audiences for many years to come, its abundance of visual imagination and creativity is unquestionable. To this day, the exceptional aesthetic that has become an intrinsic component in all of Lynch’s work can be traced directly back to Eraserhead. From Henry’s startlingly severe hairstyle, to the memorable images of the lady in the radiator and the couple’s child, there is an unmistakable visual signature that Lynch has maintained throughout each of his projects. Despite its age Eraserhead has, if anything, improved with age, without losing any of its magic or power to shock.