"Eraserhead" and the Birth of "Lynchian" Surrealism
Updated: Jan 24, 2021
The 20th of January this year marks the 74th birthday of one of the most important filmmakers of the modern era, David Lynch. This year will also mark the 43rd anniversary of the film that made him a household name, 1977's Eraserhead.
David Lynch is undeniably one of the most influential filmmakers of the past fifty years. Over the course of his half-century long career he has cultivated a surrealist style so unique to him it has been labeled "Lynchian." Perhaps the film most emblematic of this distinctive style is none other than Lynch's first feature film, Eraserhead. The movie's popularity has even lead to its filming location in Philadelphia being nicknamed "Eraserhood." So what makes this strange film so influential and highly regarded in the first place? It's time to take a look back at the film that changed the industry and the art world for good.
Eraserhead is not a film that is easily explained. Although it could be described as a fantasy/drama/horror/dystopia, it is essentially genre-less. However the film's oddities do not simply end with a lack of category. When he released Eraserhead in 1977, David Lynch put out one of the most unique, indescribable films in history. In a s short summary, the film takes place in a dystopian version of Philadelphia and tells the story of Henry Spencer who is what would be considered an "everyman" in this universe. Aside from that the film does not really have a solid plot, it mostly consists of random scenes structured around Henry's life. As far as narrative structure goes, Eraserhead is about as unorthodox as you can get. Some notable scenes from the film include Henry trying take care of his mysterious creature baby and a sequence of a singing girl in a radiator, everything quintessentially surrealist.
However being a surrealist is not what makes David Lynch unique. Over the course of his half a century long career Lynch has curated his own style of filmmaking that's come to be known as "Lynchian" which includes surrealist imagery along with unusual subject matter and haunting sound design. It's amazing how much emotion and story the director is able to portray with virtually zero dialogue for a good part of the movie. Lynch made this entire film almost by himself meaning he is the director, writer, producer, editor and composer, he does basically everything except stand in front of the camera. One of the most distinctive aspects of a Lynch film is the eerie ambient sound design that perfectly encapsulates the unsettling dystopian nature of the movie itself. It's not so much music in a classical sense, instead it sounds like the soundtrack to a hopeless nightmare. It's a movie you can almost physically feel due to how immersive the atmosphere and sound design are. The otherworldly soundtrack of Eraserhead is one of the main features that sets it apart from other surrealist movies and makes it truly Lynchian.
An interesting fact about Eraserhead is that the film was stuck in "development hell" for years. Jack Nance was originally cast as Henry Spencer in 1971 but the film was not to be released for another five years. Production took so long that a three second long sequence of Henry opening a door and walking into a room were shot one year apart. Half a decade is a long time to be making a film and it would be understandable if Lynch and the crew decided to surrender out of frustration. Needless to say millions of people are glad they didn't.
Perhaps just as interesting as the soundtrack is David Lynch's screenwriting, Lynch was inspired by works such as Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis and Nikolai Gogol's The Nose as influences and to anyone who has read Kafka that should come as no surprise. Eraserhead includes strong themes of fatherhood that come from the director's personal experience. During the film, Henry witnesses the birth of his own child who is some sort of inexplicable almost alien-like creature, bearing no resemblance to a human being. The movie's parental themes stemmed from Lynch's personal experience with becoming a father after his first daughter, Jennifer was born with a foot deformity, needing lots of corrective surgery to correct. Jennifer's unexpected conception and subsequent birth defects played a large role in shaping the tone of the film. The tone of Eraserhead also takes a lot of inspiration from the the director's experiences living in Philadelphia which he has described as "crime-ridden poverty zone" filled with "violence, hate, and filth." The region of Philadelphia that Lynch based his film around has since gained the nickname of "Eraserhood." All of these elements like the eerie soundtrack, personal screenwriting and inspired set design combine to make Eraserhead the most exemplary "Lynchian" film in the director's catalog.
While not a comforting nor conventional watch by any means, there are many things about Eraserhead that makes it so enigmatic and downright impossible to look away from. It's a great introduction to anyone wanting to explore the world of surrealist films or the director's filmography. There is something so indescribably perfect about this film and there's no doubting why it has been a favorite of cinephiles around the globe since its release over four decades ago. Long live Eraserhead and happy birthday, David Lynch!