Dennis Cozzalio’s fond recollections of his first encounter with Eraserhead, David Lynch’s 1977 feature film debut, have brought me back to those bright college days when I first got a look at Henry and his mutant child.
Word of the film had been bubbling for the better part of a year, with rave reviews in Cinefantastique and Newsweek sharpening my appetite, and on a rain-drenched, chilly Sunday night in early spring, my date and I folded ourselves into her tiny car and crossed the mighty Raritan into New Brunswick, where an art cinema cunningly named the Art Cinema showed Eraserhead to round out its weekend roster of midnight movies. (Fridays and Saturdays were reserved for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was still a somewhat fresh phenomenon, so we’re talking ancient history here.) There was no way we could have anticipated what we were going to get. Cinefantastique, that most knowledgable of magazines, had taken the easy way out by citing Bunuel, though the writer added that the film was unique in that it seemed to have no real stylistic precursors. The Newsweek piece touted it as a horror movie. It wasn’t, but I don’t blame the reviewer for misusing the term — Eraserhead appeared at the same time David Cronenberg was making his name with queasy venereal-horror items like The Brood and They Came From Within, and it appeared some squelchy new movement was being born. It would be several years before “Lynchian” entered the lexicon via Blue Velvet, so how to find a short, snappy description of Eraserhead?
As it turned out, I coined the perfect description as we left the theater, so shaken by the movie’s repulsive imagery and distortions of flesh that the mere idea of physical contact was unbearable. What we had just seen, I realized, was the worst date movie ever made.
It was also, later on, the wellspring of an endless stream of black-humored one-liners — to this day, whenever I pass Cornish game hens in the supermarket, I have to resist the impulse to cry, “They’re manmade! Damnedest things I ever saw!” — because Eraserhead is, among other things, a film that gets weirdly funnier with each viewing. Maybe that’s the reason I still like the movie even though I finally consigned Lynch to the same life-is-too-short dumpster occupied by Woody Allen. In Eraserhead, the dream logic of the story — in which Henry seems to retreat from the post-industrial horror of his daily life to the even more surrealistic space inside his head — seems purer and less forced. Eraserhead is the film David Lynch made before he started making David Lynch films. Lost Highway was where I finally lost patience with the dicking around. People tell me Mulholland Drive is the flick in which Lynch pulls it together, but I heard that same line for Wild at Heart, Lost Highway and Twin Peaks, both on television and film. Inland Empire is out on DVD, you say? Fine — go have a ball. Knock yourself out.
Some of Cozzalio’s commentators debate whether Eraserhead is best seen in the kind of dirty, coffin-sized theaters that would have shown a film like Eraserhead in the late 1970s, and I have to come down on the side of the theater experience. The Art Cinema was extremely small and extremely dingy, and the other people in the audience seemed on the verge of engaging in some Lynchian activity (e.g., having their heads pop off and sink through the floor), so the film gained considerably from its setting. New Brunswick itself was a very Lynchian place in the late 1970s, never more so than after midnight, when the abandoned buildings lining Albany Street looked like they had nasty secrets to keep. Part of the reason Grindhouse fell on its face earlier this year was that it could not replicate the most crucial element of the real grindhouse experience — the nagging doubts about whether you would be able to make it to your car after the movie ended, and whether your car would even be there if you did. The excellent DVD version of Eraserhead released in 2000 has none of that impact, though it does allow one to freeze-frame the many What the hell just happened? moments that give the film its continued punch.
It didn’t take much longer for the Art Cinema to stop being an art cinema — Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara finished it off — and revert to its X-rated grindhouse roots. Everything along Albany Street, from the train station to the river, ended up being torn down. Lynch used to tell interviewers that his debut film was inspired by his time living in Philadelphia, but for me, Eraserhead will always exist in a private New Brunswick of the mind. It may sound strange, but I consider that a compliment to the film. I don’t doubt for a moment that David Lynch would understand.