David Lynch has produced several surreal masterpieces during his time but none of them have surpassed the sheer bizarre nature of his 1977 debut feature Eraserhead. The enigmatic film has influenced several generations of filmmakers, ranging from masters such as Stanley Kubrick to modern pioneers like Richard Linklater who claimed that Eraserhead taught him a new visual language.
Although Lynch’s films are famously impenetrable, Eraserhead is a paradoxically transparent parable about existential impotence, paternal fears and the grotesque continuation of the human species in an industrial wasteland. Drawing from the unique sensibilities of artists such as Franz Kafka and T. S. Eliot, Eraserhead constructs a fantastic cinematic experience that sucks the audience into its nightmarish world.
In an interview, Linklater said: “I just love [Eraserhead] because he’s just taking you so much into Henry’s world, you know, Jack Nance’s world. I remember watching it the first time [and] just how fucking long it took the elevator door to shut. And that happens in our lives, like, every day, right? But to put that in a movie, I was thinking, the real time ride up to the floor and the water, it just blew me away.”
Adding, “It’s like, ‘Oh! film can do that.’ Films set their own visual palette and their own tone and I’ve always been amazed in how forgiving audiences can be and accepting [of] the way we take on art, the way we watch it, the way we perceive it. I think if you just set your rules [then] an audience will follow you, they want to. You can set a tone and a pace [and] as long as something about it is intriguing or compelling, you might be able to keep an audience with even that kind of reel of time, realness.”
At the time of its release, audiences were baffled by the surreal narrative of Eraserhead and were convinced that only a demented artist can come up with such things. The script was inspired by Lynch’s time in a troubled neighbourhood in Philadelphia. “I saw so many things in Philadelphia I couldn’t believe,” Lynch once said. “I saw a grown woman grab her breasts and speak like a baby, complaining her nipples hurt. This kind of thing will set you back.”
Many fans and critics have asked Lynch about his artistic intentions behind Eraserhead but the filmmaker has always maintained that meaning is something that is projected onto art by the audience. In doing so, Lynch has successfully preserved the haunting mystery and the undeniable cinematic legacy of Eraserhead.