I don’t disagree with people who say there are whiffs of “student art film” about David Lynch’s debut. The surrealist master was still testing the waters with Eraserhead, experimenting with themes and ideas that he would perfect much later in his career. And he was also hampered by a small budget and crew, not to mention an abnormally long production period. It’s a miracle this was finished without being dumped on and left on the trash heap. Audiences back in 1977 realized that Lynch was special, and by putting this on the midnight movie circuit, his career was able to soar and soar until we got to witness its culmination this past summer with the masterpiece that is Twin Peaks: The Return. Had Eraserheadflopped, I don’t think Lynch would’ve gone anywhere. And can you imagine a world without Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive? I certainly can’t.
The reason Eraserhead didn’t flop is because most people back then had good enough taste to recognize a stunning debut when they saw one. You cannot watch it without being taken aback by how relentlessly detailed it is on virtually every level, whether it be the gruelling industrial sound design or the incredibly specific art direction, where every set piece and prop gives meaning to the people surrounding them. The world built here is so precise, so lived-in that it feels like it hasn’t aged these past four decades. In fact, if there’s anything that truly shocks about Eraserhead, is that it’s like a prophecy from another time. Forty years on, and this world of relentless clanging and unseemly spawn feels like a destination that is just within reach.
It is also, may I say, starkly beautiful, lensed with a masterful eye and a keen awareness of how a monochromatic palette can become poetic. Chiaroscuro in the grip of chaos, with the humanity still shining through. Some shots in particular, like the close-up of the baby’s eye following Henry around the room, or the neighbor’s seductive entrance, are so incredible in their simplicity that they almost shouldn’t be there. This is technique that even seasoned filmmakers have trouble getting right. The fact that it’s all here in such fluid working order goes to show that Lynch was the real deal from the very beginning.
As I said, knowing the trajectory of his career, Eraserhead is but the merest glimpse into Lynch’s esoteric headspace. His later work is unequivocally more arcane and well-developed, but that doesn’t prevent me from calling Eraserhead a superlative achievement in its own right. Debuts really don’t get much better than this.