Mary Lynch has the uncertain advantage of being married to the writer/producer/director of Eraserhead, a film currently playing weekend midnight's at the Cinema Village "I saw one 20 minute segment before I saw the whole film," she says, " and it was so beautiful. I had no idea of anything about it, and I was so struck by it's beauty. Then I saw the whole thing, and some of the images were really disconcerting. I mean, I just couldn't look at some of them, and sometimes that bothered me so much that I didn't actually see what was going on. Now I've seen it eight or ten times, and the images have gotten less and less like that to me, and I see more of the integral part of the film. I'll tell David what I think it means and sometimes he'll laugh at me."
David Lynch, a 30-year-old painter and filmmaker who was born in Montana, has created in his first feature-length film an experience and atmosphere that is so unlike anything that has ever appeared on the commercial screen before, that it almost defies description or interpretation. Even his wife, obviously a close part of his life, must try to understand solely for herself, from her own experience. He's not telling.
"That's the way it oughta be, "he says. "The whole film is undercurrents of sort of subconscious ... You know, and it kind of wiggles around in there, and it's how it strikes each person. It definitely means something to me, but I don't want to talk about that. It means other things to other people, and that's great."
The story upon which the film is structured is simple. It' s merely the thread that holds the images together. The protagonist, a printer named Henry Spencer, has perhaps got a woman pregnant and he marries her. After the birth, she leaves him and goes back to her parents. He has a sexual encounter with a beautiful woman who lives across the hall in his apartment building. He "kills" his child out of mercy and goes off into the sunset with a fantasy woman in the radiator in his room. "Henry is like sort of a confused guy," Lynch says, " and he's sort of come unglued. He's trying to maintain, and there are problems."
Lynch thinks of Eraserhead as "A dream of dark and troubling things." The remarkable fact of the film is that, unlike other films that are dreams (Dead of Night, Fireworks) or have dream sequences (Wild Strawberries). Eraserhead actually reproduces the dream state in all its nightmarish possibilities and impossibilities. The effect is not achieved by showing someone going to sleep and/or waking up (although there are dreams within the film),The film itself is the dream, the nightmare.
The film is very personal, and because there was no deadline for its completion, it is very controlled. It took two years to finish. The time and personal attention show. The framing, the tones of black and white, the montages, the slow pacing all reveal the effort of an artist creating a work. The dialogue comes in cluster, and the rest of the soundtrack is filled with heightened industrial noises, steam, and assorted natural sounds that have been distorted. "Alan Splet and I worked together in a little garage studio." Lynch says "with a big console and two or three tape recorders, and worked with a couple of different sound libraries for organic effects. The we fed them through the console. It's all natural sounds. No Moog synthesizers. Just changes like with a graphic equalizer, reverb, a Little Dipper filter set for peaking certain frequencies and dipping out things or reversing things or cutting things together. We had a machine to vary the pitch but not the speed. We could make the sounds the way we wanted them
to be. It took several months to do it and six months to a year to edit it."
The sounds and sound effects of the movie do not work like a conventional soundtrack where the music is used to underscore or flesh out a weak scene. At times, the sound/ noise changes with each shot in the same scene . It is used as atmosphere, almost as a character, and is a memorable part of the film.
The characters themselves are drab depressing figures in a wrist-slittingly cheerless environment. John Nance, who plays Henry Spencer, is in Lynch's words "just a regular guy an a real good actor," He was Henry for a long time and really got into the part, even wearing Henry's slippers at home.
The character Mary X was played by Charlotte Stewart, who can be seen on television in "Little House on the Prairie" as the schoolteacher. With her cardigan and shapeless dress , she is the perfect "Unknown". Her scenes with Henry are painful. Her mother , Mrs. X, is Jeanne Bates, a veteran of numerous Columbia Pictures B-films and currently a soap opera actress.
Judith Anna Roberts, the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, was married to Pernell Roberts of "Bonanza" Eraserhead is her first big break, and already most people are talking about her scene in Henry's room. Although she has very little dialogue, her presence is charged with sexuality.
The Black and white tone of the movie is evocative of early Polish films and some Japanese and Russian films. Greys are shot against greys, figures emerge out of grey and become translucent (especially the appearance of the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall). There is no sense of obvious lighting; the film is lit beautifully. Eraserhead was filmed entirely at night in Los Angeles, and subsequently the movie has a very nighttime feel to it.
Lynch disclaims any influence from foreign films, and says he hasn't seen them. "Well people say that Eraserhead has a real Germanic quality to it," he admits, but I got Eraserhead really from Philadelphia." Lynch went to Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts on Broad Street, where he studied painting and eventually made his first movie, a one minute animated film loop projected on a sculptured screen. "I lived at 13th and Wood, right kitty-corner from the morgue; That's real industrial. At 5:00 there's nobody in that neighborhood. No one lives there. And I really do like that. It's beautiful , if you see it the right way."
Eraserhead was made with a grant from the American Film Institute, but Lynch will not say how much it cost. Mary Lynch says she did fundraising for the film before she had seen any of it. "For me," Lynch says "The film cost a lot of money. The warehouse only cost about 35 or 50 dollars to build, but other things cost a lot of money. You know you can build something and work it up over some time and really make it look just the way you want it to. The most frustrating part of the whole thing was finding locations. There just isn't anything in L.A. like I wanted. Like the front of Mr. and Mrs. X's house I'd seen a place in San Francisco that he had the kind of feeling I wanted. But when we went looking in Los Angeles, we finally had to build it. In the movie, it's just a facade. In fact, the steps are Styrofoam, and there's no porch at all. When Henry walks up there, he's standing on a plank. The whole thing was barely held together."
Lynch will talk about the technical production of the film to a point. The child that Henry and Mary Spencer have is premature. It is one of the images that is most repellent and fascinating.
- Q: Did you make that thing?
- A: That I . . . I don't . . . I . . . Stephen, I don't wanna, uh . . . talk about that.
- Q: Can you just tell me if it's a . . . sculpture? It's so well done. Someone I saw it with thought that it might be a calf fetus.
- A: "That's what a lot of people think it is."
- Q: I thought it was made, but couldn't figure out how you got it to move. Was it battery-operated?
- A: "I really don't . . ."
- Q: Even if I don't print it? I want to know.
- A: "Stephen, come on..."
- Q: You credit a doctor in the film. Is that related?
- A: "Well, I was looking into different ways, you know, in the beginning . . . "
- Q: And?
- Q: And?
- A: " If I say, I'll really feel bad."
- Q: Is it because you'd be giving away a technical secret, or you'd be arrested?
- A: "You know, there's no promotional photos of the baby because people, like, uh...you know... it's like, nice to discover along in the film and to not know, like...much about it."
- Q: You say all the sounds are organic. Do you use the sound of a real baby crying?
- Q: Then what is it? Or won't you tell that
- A: " I'm sorry, Stephen. Doggone it, you know, I'm not trying to, you know... It's just the baby stuff, I, uh....
Salvation Army Life
David Lynch's background of surrealistic painting surfaces in Eraserhead. Surrealistic obsessions with dreams, chance, libido and intuitive rather than logical thinking are manifest in the mood and narrative of the film. Henry Spencer decides very little about his life. He lives in a room that seems to be furnished with Salvation Army purchases, with piles of string that appear and disappear, bowls of water on drawers. Fetuses are "delivered" unceasingly in his bed, electrical malfunctioning occurs throughout and climaxes in the cataclysmic denouement. A fantasy figure, The Lady in the Radiator, smiles inanely, dances sedately on a black-and-white-tiled stage, steps on and squashes fetuses and sings: "In heaven everything is fine/ In heaven everything is fine/In heaven everything is fine/You've got your good thing/And you've got mine."
The film was worked up rather like a painting, "It changed a couple of different times," Lynch says "But it was real weird how stuff that had been shot before was ready for a change. And a few of the new things just went in naturally, and I changed emphasis. I never got locked in and said I wished it had been done like that. There were scenes that were taken out, but they were scenes where Henry went off, away from the line. They fell away pretty naturally. The lady in the Radiator was not in the original script at all. It was a very dark film until she came along.
I Wake Up Screaming.
Women tend to react strongly to the film, to be afraid, and perhaps this is because they fear the chance of giving birth to abnormalities. Others who have seen Eraserhead have hated it, gone home to nightmares, or laughed. There are funny moments, but they work as releases.
"There's a guy," Lynch says " a projectionist, who will not see this film, and he couldn't stand to see the film I made before this, The Grandmother. It would do something to him inside that he could not stand. It wasn't the film at all, it just triggered something. Everybody has a subconscious and they put a lid on it. There's things in there. And then along comes something, and something bobs up. I don't know if that's good."
Lynch images have a strong emotional impact and dredge up experiences in the viewer; although the facts of the viewer's experiences maybe different, the intuitive knowledge of them is similar. It's as if Lynch subscribes to the Jungian theory of "collective unconscious." Or , as Mary Lynch says. "There's a little Eraserhead in everybody."
Eraserhead concerns itself with death and rebirth. Jung describes a state not unlike Limbo (called Bardo in the Tibetan Book of the Dead), and intermediate state between death and rebirth. It is broken up into three stages: 1) the psychic happenings at the time of death, 2)the dream state that follows immediately after death and is accompanied by karmic illusions, and 3) the birth instinct and prenatal events. At the very end of Eraserhead, Henry goes through the radiator and joins his fantasy woman and the screen becomes flooded with light so that the figures are hardly visible. In the Book of the Dead, it says, "The wisdom...will shoot forth and strikes thee with a light so radiant that thou will scarcely be able to look at it"
Anyway, Lynch isn't saying. "The films gotta make sense somehow, you know, in your own way. When you go to a mystery film and they tie it all up at the end - to me, that's a real let down. In a mystery, somehow in the middle it's all opened up, and you can go out to infinity trying to form your own conclusions. There's so many possibilities. And that feeling is like, real neat to me.. In Eraserhead, there are a lot of openings and you go into areas and it's all...There're sort of like rules you kind of go by to keep that feeling kind of open and I don't know, it's real important to it. It's more like a poem or a .... more abstract, even though it has a story. It's like an experience"
"I've heard people say that people who write and direct their own things sort of make the same film over and over again, but I don't know about that. I don't know where these things come from really. Ideas sort of pop up out of some different levels somewhere, and down in there that's where Henry is. So it's hard to say it's a philosophy or anything. Everything makes sense to me, you know. Eraserhead is real logical to me, and it has rules that were followed and it has a certain feeling that was followed all the way through. And you sort of tune into that at the beginning of the film, and you sort of know what's right. And it makes certain sense to me and it feels right."
And again, he says, "Other people seem to pick up on that, but they have different interpretations of what it all means. Because the openness has room for different interpretations."