Midnight’s Children

Howard Hampton on David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977)

David Lynch, Eraserhead, 1977, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 89 minutes. Henry Spencer (John Nance). Photo: Catherine Coulson.

IT’S FRIDAY NIGHT, a couple days before the end of 1979. A young woman is driving past a movie theater on Santa Monica Boulevard, going nowhere but away. She argued with a boyfriend while trying to watch an X show at Madame Wong’s: Sick of his macho-crybaby shit, she shoved him into some angry skinheads, jumped in her rusty Datsun, and bolted. On KROQ, Frazier Smith’s following “Search and Destroy” with “Baby’s on Fire”...

It’s almost 12 AM now, though who trusts the clocks in LA? Streets are pretty deserted, but she sees an orderly queue of people lined up at the theater’s box office. MIDNIGHT SHOW, says the marquee. FRIDAY: ERASERHEAD. SATURDAY: PINK FLAMINGOS. What the hell is an Eraserhead? Porn, maybe? Didn’t look like a porn crowd, gay or straight. Nor the glittery trick-or-trashers who came out for The Rocky Horror Picture Show or even the hardy Pink Flamingos faithful. Looked more like the people at the X gig, both onstage and off. She turns this over in her mind for a slow block or two before making a U-turn and going back.

The movie is starting when she gets into a seat. Black-and-white, eerie, bewildering—darkness visceral. Like some lost artifact from an obsolete universe. First, the ghostly sideways image of a man with an electrocuted pompadour superimposed over a craggy planetoid and a starry background. He floats out of shot and the camera moves in on the planetoid, which she’s thinking might be a fossilized brain: Camera descends into the crevices like a coal miner, while the sound track’s murmur becomes a roar of machine and organic sounds all collapsed into a single keening drone.

This, she imagines, is what a black hole sounds like, aural gravity sucking her into the images. Now there’s another man on the screen, or some kind of half-man, half-demiurge, a living statue covered in growths and craters and cobwebs, sitting beside a broken window, in the dead of night. There are switches in front of him, as at a railroad yard. Sideways man returns, the screen all to himself, his mouth opening like a fish asking an underwater question. Some kind of phantom being emerges from his mouth. Deformed man pulls the switches (there’s an almost classical beauty to him—like a god born with birth defects) and the being is yanked away. It lands in a muddy pool of water and the camera follows, the camera emerging through another hole in the ground into the light where our big-haired hero is pausing anxiously before scurrying back through the industrial flatlands toward his lair. Jesus, the woman thinks. Did that asshole at Wong’s put something in my drink?

Eraserhead gradually lurches into a simple, primal story. The man with humongous hair is called Henry. His room includes an earthen mound for a bedside vase, a record player with a Fats Waller organ 78 on the turntable, and peas in his dresser drawer. Henry has the deadpan manners of a silent film comic, but shot through with genuine terror: He is hanging on by the barest possible margin. He will visit his girlfriend Mary and her family for supper. Mary has the permanently stricken look of somebody who has seen something unspeakable and can’t get it out of her frantic head. Father’s a cheerful idiot, while the mother’s a tense, unstable enforcer who cuts the small talk and tells Henry why he’s really been invited. Mary got pregnant, secretly had his baby, and he’s going to marry Mary or else.

The picture leaps ahead to Henry’s room: Mary and he and baby make three. Except baby isn’t precisely, or even remotely, human: eyes and a mouth swaddled in bandages, with a newt-eel–umbilical cord body underneath, a grotesque sock puppet made poetic, diseased, mutely sentient flesh. Suddenly it’s as if the voice behind every physically disquieting punk song—Pere Ubu’s “Final Solution,” the Germs’ “Lexicon Devil,” and the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies”—had found its apotheosis in the form of this squirming limbless fetus-child.

At this point, the woman who ducked into the theater feels a rush of sickened, giddy understanding, but of—or by—what, she couldn’t begin to tell you. The more concretely nightmarish and nauseating and perversely empathetic Eraserhead becomes, the more it seems to be speaking in mysterious tongues she somehow understands better than English. Then she remembers the rest of the audience, which she’d completely blocked out. There are a few gasps, some too-knowing laughter, a testy couple grumbling on their way out (“I thought midnight movies were s’posed to be fun”).

There are also folks like her, tuned into the movie’s ecstatically negative wavelength and translating those tongues into the idioms of their own fears or hopes. One guy to her left is just quietly rocking back and forth, his eyes closed, mouthing the sparse lines in soundless unison, like a jazz cat she knew who listened to Complete Communion on headphones while fingering the notes on his horn in “Right on!” solidarity.

Eraserhead is Eraserhead,” the filmmaker will tell more than one interviewer. No one in the theater has ever heard of him, but half of them will use those exact words in telling friends or loved ones or smart-asses whose cages they feel like rattling this film is really unlike anything they’ve seen, even if they’ve seen it all. Postgraduate types will throw in or throw out allusions to Cocteau and Un Chien andalou, Bartleby the Scrivener and the second bananas of Freaks, Antonin Artaud among the ruins of the old Modern Times factory. But in their hearts and bones, they know how irrelevant all that learned metapalaver is in the face of this movie.

The woman has decided what she’s watching wasn’t so much made as painstakingly uncovered: the director assembling a cinema-verité documentary of the unconscious, by living in it the way an anthropologist—or a mystic—might live among a secretive population or a sacred community. More enigmatic, electrifying things happen in the film, all operating under the flashing sign of oddball preordination. She notices how in any given scene you can’t parse the tone—the comic and the horrific, the beautiful and the forsaken, overlap and intermingle in a way she’s never felt before. A femme fatale appears and seduces Henry, but when she’s in bed with him, the bed dissolves into a milky pool; she turns her head and sees the baby, and the stunned expression that crosses her face tells the viewer she isn’t just a stock character in Henry’s story. She has her own movie going on we haven’t seen: Eraserhead is just the tip of that world, one portal out of an infinite number of possible permutations.

When she leaves the theater, the woman expects the sun will be coming up. Impossible, it’s only two in the morning. Lost all sense of time in there. Feels shaken and exhilarated, a different person. Puts a tape in the deck: Los Angeles, “The World’s a Mess; It’s In My Kiss.” Knows she’ll be coming back to see whatever this was again, already nervous with anticipation and happier than a film has any right to make her.

Eraserhead (1977) is now available on Blu-Ray from Criterion. The new edition features numerous interviews and special features, including David Lynch’s “Long Live Eraserhead” trailer, his personal thank-you to the Nuart Theater and its patrons in Los Angeles, where the film ran every Friday at midnight for four years.