My senior year of college was a long slog. In particular, I was in rough shape at the beginning of my final semester. Graduation was tantalizingly close but still weeks and weeks away. I was still reeling from my father's death the year before. My friends were all struggling with their own personal problems, so bad vibes were just hanging in the air. Also, Ohio's weather was cold and slushy, which didn't help. So when my friend Brian asked me if I would drive him to Columbus so he could take care of some family business I said sure, because I really wanted to get the hell out of town for a little bit.
Brian took care of his obligations quickly, then we spent the rest of the weekend goofing off. By Saturday night we were already running out of ways to entertain ourselves. We decided we wanted to see a movie, but what sounded good? Well, there was a new Adam Sandler movie out, and we both kind of liked Sandler. (This was eleven years ago, before Sandler had completely turned into a lazy hack, so cut us some slack.) We drove over to theater, bought our tickets and sat down. A strange feeling slowly crept over us, and after a few minutes we finally realized why we were getting a weird vibe - we were the only pair of men in the entire theater and all of the boy-girl pairs were kind of side-eyeing us. We had accidentally bought tickets to see Fifty First Dates on Valentines Day without realizing it was Valentines Day, and none of the people who were there on a date could quite figure out what in the hell our problem was.
Exactly eleven years later, I watched Eraserhead on Valentine's Day. Let's just say it was a... different experience.
For one, this time I knew what day it was before the movie started. Also, there's a huge difference between seeing something in a theater when you are feeling self conscious about your surroundings and seeing something in your own home where it's just you and your cat. And of course, I'm in a completely different mind-state now than I was back then, because my self confidence has really grown now that I'm no longer surrounded with people who don't really understand me.
Oh, and I almost forgot - watching a cute rom-com about two sweet people falling in love is kind of dissimilar to watching a dissonant art film about an alienated loner who is forced to take care of a mutant baby that won't stop screaming.
Eraserhead is David Lynch's first film. It's about a man named Henry who works in an oppressive factory and who lives in a sparsely decorated apartment by himself. One day as Henry is coming to his hellish home from his hellish job his across the hall neighbor stops him and tells him that a girl named Mary came by looking for him. Apparently, she wanted to invite Henry to dinner with her family. He seems confused about this news, but he decides to give swing by her house anyway. Unfortunately, the whole dinner thing turns out to be a trap. Before Henry can finish eating his food (which consists solely of a miniature chicken whose stuffing hole is bubbling over with blood) Mary's mother ambushes Henry and asks him if he's had "sexual intercourse" with her daughter. You see, there's a baby to be taken care of - well, the mother calls it a baby, but Mary helpful adds that "the doctor's still aren't sure" what it is. Whatever it is, she thinks Henry needs to be responsible for it.
The rest of the movie is one long fever dream where the mutant baby haunts every facet of Henry's life. The baby cannot be placated or appeased - it will not stop making noise no matter what he feeds it - and it's chronic wailing begins to drive Henry completely insane. He starts to have nightmares about a moon faced woman who lives in his radiator and who sings a song about how everything is okay once you get to heaven, as well as Oedipal dreams where his head falls off and the mutant baby's head begins to grow out of his neck hole. If you'll pardon the pun, he does not seem to be in a good head space.
Eraserhead is basically the polar opposite of your average romantic comedy, in that it is purposefully off putting instead of being romantic or comedic. (Although if you can laugh at existential terror then there are quite a few scenes here that you will find funny.) The film's black and white cinematography always leaves a lot of black at the edge of the frame, suggesting an ever-encroaching darkness, and almost every scene is scored with abrasive industrial noises. The more interesting comparison, however, is that Eraserhead begins where all of those rom-coms end. There is no flirting or love in Eraserheads - just the visible after effects of sex, since we come into Henry's life after the baby has already been born. Most romances want to tell you "once you're married you live happily ever after", but Eraserhead starts off by saying "unending alienation is inevitable once you're stuck taking care of a kid."
In some ways, Eraserhead is a very potent exploration of deep seated psychological fears. It dispenses with a conventional plot structure so that it can give free reign to a series of impressionistic set pieces, each of which walks a thin line between being appropriately abstract and being a bit too on the nose. The mutant baby looks like a sick dinosaur that isn't completely out of it's shell; it's obviously inhuman, but it's cute enough that you could kind of see it being a good pet if it would only behave. All of the movie's dying sperm and weeping vaginas, however, aren't nearly as well designed - they get the film's point across, but in a way that's more crass than intellectually compelling.
That said, the fact Eraserhead's imagery is not-quite-abstract and yet not-quite-concrete does allow the film to hit a certain sweet spot, because it allows it to be more digestible than a pure art film and more expressive than a traditional film. If Lynch had disguised his authorial intent a little better, the audience might have missed some of the film's existential underpinnings, but Eraserheard is blatant enough that it would be pretty hard to wholly misinterpret Lynch's metaphors. At the same time, it's also a lot more expressive than films which literally depict parents struggling with demanding children, because these characters are abstracted to the point that they stops representing individual people. Clearly, Henry is a stand in for every parent that has to deal with a newborn that can communicate just enough to make incessant demands but not enough to explain how those demands could be satisfied.
Eraserhead's ultimate irony is that even though none of it's characters seem human - not even the ones who can walk and talk like real people - it still manages to say more about the human condition than most other movies. Lets return to 50 First Dates for a second. (I will admit that picking that movie just because I saw it on the same calendar day that I saw Eraserhead is a bit arbitrary, but that doesn't really matter - it will serve my purpose as well as any other movie would.) Even though I should be able to relate to what Sandler's character is going through because I have also gone on dates and fallen in love, I never once saw myself in that movie. There just isn't any reason why I would watch him try to woo a woman with a very specific type of amnesia and think "Oh, I can relate to that, because I have also been sexually attracted to someone with a rare and kooky brain disorder." In contrast, Eraserhead is also massively implausible, but when I watch Henry struggle with his child I can immediately imagine how terrible he must feel because I can intuitively grasp how frustrating it is to be stuck with that type of unending burden. I don't have any mutant children of my own, but I know what it is to feel like you're suffocating under an unreasonable weight. It was called my senior year, and unlike Henry, I got to graduate.