Eraserhead and the Ways Movies Change, Part 1

Originally published on The Solute

Listen: Eraserhead has come unstuck in time.

It’s autumn, 2012. I’m lying on a bed in a dorm room in Tennessee across from my roommate’s life-sized poster of himself. I’m watching Eraserhead on a laptop, on Hulu — they still have access to the Criterion Collection.

It’s 1970. David Lynch comes up with a story about Henry, a man struggling with his horrible nightmare baby (“They’re still not sure it is a baby!”) in a horrible nightmare world, based on his actual dreams and daydreams. He begins living in an abandoned stable that’s also his film set.

It’s 2011. I’m in a small town in Montana, David Lynch’s birthplace. I’d always loved movies, but now I’m beginning to take them seriously. I’m especially interested in the German Expressionists, because I know they’re the ancestors of Tim Burton, one of the few filmmakers I’d already studied seriously. And I’m interested in anyone who exists on that wavelength, somewhere between my newfound interests for horror and classier fare — shadowy movies, often black and white, often low-budget, about other worlds. I’m starting to think I should check out Eraserhead. I read it compared to those other filmmakers, especially to Metropolis. It seems like a safe bet.

It’s 1972. David Lynch moves into an abandoned stable, which is also his film set.

It’s 2012. It wasn’t a safe bet. I was already learning to enjoy horror movies, but this isn’t that. This is a true nightmare, and I just want to wake up. We all know horror movies are thrill rides, but this doesn’t have the cathartic payoff and adrenaline rush. It’s just that sickening dread as you go up, up, up, and never come down. And I hate it. Rest assured, I am on the internet within minutes (well, days) registering my disgust throughout the world (well, throughout my Facebook friends).

It was the style at the time.

It’s 1976. David Lynch is still working on Eraserhead.

It’s October 26th, 2018. I’m back in Montana again. I’m watching Eraserhead again.

It’s July 16th, 2015 (thank God for Letterboxd for giving me the specific dates so I can make this bit work). I’m in Crazy Mike’s, my hometown video store, may it rest in peace. After years avoiding Lynch, I dip my toe back in the water. I play it safe — I start with The Straight Story. Not just because a G-rated Disney movie isn’t likely to traumatize me like Eraserhead did, but because I just had to know what the fuck a David Lynch Disney movie would be like. I love it.

It’s 1977. David Lynch is finally showing Eraserhead. It still isn’t finished.

It’s August 16th, 2015. I’m watching Mulholland Drive. It’s my mom’s idea, but I love it even more.

On October 26th, 2018, after all that, I’ve overcome my Lynch-ophobia. I’ve seen all his major movies, two in the theater, and most of Twin Peaks, even The Missing Pieces. I posted on Twin Peaks Logposting for fuck’s sake. And I keep going back because I want that sickening nightmare feeling, that pure Lynchian terror. And I keep going back more than I do to other filmmakers I like more because I rarely get more than a glimpse of it. I always feel like he’s holding back. And I remember Eraserhead. I think maybe this time I’ll be on its wavelength.

I’m not. Everything that kept me unwillingly under its spell the first time does nothing at all. I see the images that horrified me so much, and they’re just images — random, disconnected, and held on for way too long. How can the same movie be so different at different times?

It’s November, 2020. I’m planning on what Years of the Month to do next year. I set aside 1977 for May. I look at what came out that year, I see Eraserhead, and I think of that question again. Well, I think I have to write something about that.

It’s May 13th, 2021, maybe later. You’re reading something about that.

It’s May 11th, 2021. I’m in North Carolina. I watch Eraserhead again, finally on a real TV, hoping that this time I’ll thread that needle between getting hurt by the movie and not feeling anything at all. This is the third time I’ve seen it. I’ve hardly watched any movie I loved immediately that much. Maybe this time I’ll get it.

I do, more or less.

In 2012, I’m still developing my sense of what makes a good movie. I know great art provokes emotions. But I’m still influenced by my family, who don’t like horror and use “depressing” as a negative. So what do you do with great art that provokes emotions you don’t want to feel? I apply this to, of all things, my childhood VHS tape of Bambi while I’m rewatching it. All that great artistry going into sickening cuteness — is it still great art?

Eraserhead’s about as far as you can get from that, but it provokes such a violently negative reaction I have no problem putting it in the “bad” column for how it makes me feel no matter how skillfully it manipulates me.

But you know what? I like sickening dread. It’s the main ingredient in some of the best horror movies — The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Beyond the Black Rainbow, The Neon Demon, Videodrome, Society, The Babadook, which I even went back to that roller coaster metaphor for. And Lynch understands it better than anyone. Those shots I used to think went on too long go on the exact right amount of time. In some ways, this kind of horror is the opposite of jump-scare horror. The one is based on suddenness, the other’s based on taking its time. All kinds of horrible things happen in Eraserhead, but nothing’s quite as horrible as the sense that something’s about to happen.

It’s sometime in the ’70s — Eraserhead’s long, long production kind of fucks with any attempt to nail down exact dates — and Jack Nance is in a vacant lot covered inexplicably with piles of dirt. He jumps around on them.

It’s 2000. I’m seven years old, jumping around on piles of dirt in a construction site.

It’s 2021. I know Nance’s character is going to do some terrible things in this movie, but I see how this scene pushes me to side with him anyway. It makes him seem innocent, childlike, even as he’s about to be thrown headfirst into raising his own child. The baby’s the same — horrible and hideous, but still recognizably a helpless baby. Its gurgling and crying is distorted in horrible ways, but there’s still some evolutionary instinct that draws us toward it even as Lynch pulls it away. You can’t side with Henry and the baby at the same time. Which one is the monster?

Lynch has said some of his movies take place in the same universe, and fans have come up with connections on their own. But I’ve always thought they all take place in the same universe, parallel to ours but never intersecting, because they all play by the same rules. And then there’s this one. The others have some baseline level of reality for the nightmare to intrude into, but this one is all nightmare, all the time. I guess it could fit into Lynchworld somewhere on the other side of the Black Lodge.

Part 2

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