Exquisite and yet somehow, simultaneously, luxuriant, writer-director David Lynch’s first feature, Eraserhead, announces, in gorgeous black and white, an intuitive artist. What precisely does this mean? If you have seen Charlie Rose interview him, you know that Lynch is incapable of “explaining” whatever it is that he is doing in his films; he becomes bashfully apologetic. Lynch is “receptive” to currents and forces in his culture and society, and in Western culture and society in general, enabling him to make works that grasp, in a highly symbolical and mysterious form, a complete sense of the twentieth century (Lost Highway, 1997; Mulholland Dr., 2001) or, more locally, America during the pathological Reagan presidency (Blue Velvet, 1986) without having set out to do any such thing or knowing, really, what he has accomplished. Similarly, Lynch is peculiarly in contact with the dream landscapes of his own unconscious. The Ancients might say he is visited by “the Muses.” At his best, he “feels his way through” to making masterpieces. Nearly all artists are intuitive to some degree during the creative process; but Lynch is almost wholly so. He can remain happily blind to his own themes even at the stage of editing, when less intuitive artists begin to discern certain aspects of their work as it takes shape, allowing them to make significant choices on the basis of what they “see” as the emerging “sense” of their work. As a result, in addition to masterpieces, Lynch is capable of making incoherent messes that drone on and on (Dune, 1984; Inland Empire, 2006). No other American film artist has graced the new millennium with anything quite so stunning as Mulholland Dr., but after the unequivocal artistic disaster of Inland Empire, for a spell Lynch turned in frustration to a simpler project: devoting himself to the cause of world peace.
Eraserhead takes place in a dark, ravaged industrial landscape that is a nightmare, which may be reality—a post-apocalyptic reality, some say. The protagonist, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance, pitch-perfect and brilliant), works in a factory, though not at the moment; he is either on vacation or has been sacked. He lives a lonely, solitary life in what appears to be a mostly vacated apartment building; there is an attractive woman across the hall and, inside Henry’s apartment, a reassuring, celestial “lady in the radiator.” Henry’s girlfriend, Mary X, lives in a nearby building but has had nothing to do with him for more than nine months. Now he is summoned to her apartment for dinner, where he is introduced to what Mary X identifies as their child, a raw, disgusting blind mass of neediness. Henry must marry Mary X, Mary X informs him, and apparently they do marry, for the next thing we know they are sharing Henry’s bed in his apartment, fighting for the covers. The “baby” is there, too. Mary X cannot stand the infant’s perpetual crying and moves out, but Henry does his best to be a responsive dad, even though he suspects that the child isn’t his. When Henry (literally) gets his head zapped off, and the head is a while later just as suddenly restored, we know this is “a dream.” But is it all a dream? Is Baby driving Henry insane?
The staggering cinematography—the equal of Gregg Toland’s for Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)—is by Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell, and it helps Lynch to create, paradoxically, a vision of pollution of exceptional grandeur. Already Lynch has his signature bits, for instance, flickering and suddenly extinguished electric lights—signs of existential overload. Throughout, he feels his way through to creating a vision, both vast and detailed, whose central, and centrifugal, feature is The Factory, which warps and pollutes everything in its environment, including human relationships and even infancy.
I propose this double-bill: Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville’s Numéro Deux/Essai Titres (1975) and Eraserhead. At least consciously, Lynch is not at all a “political filmmaker,” one of the “committed”; but, it seems to me, Eraserhead is an intuitive, visionary version of Godard and Miéville’s hyper-analytical film. If Numéro Deux/Essai Titres is a film about the making of a film, Eraserhead is a nightmare of the conjuring of a nightmare: the nightmare of industrial capitalism.
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