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What's the Deal with Eraserhead?

"In Heaven, everything is fine. You've got your good things. And you've got mine."

Some movies have to be seen to be believed.

While he was still in film school, an unknown artist named David Lynch got funding for the most bananas movie I've ever heard of.

This wasn't his first rodeo. Want to have trouble sleeping? Check out his nightmarish and completely unsettling version of the alphabet song, one of his first films and evidence that David Lynch saw a potential in cinema that most people never would.

If you're a film buff, you've heard of Eraserhead. It's famous. Or infamous, depending on who you ask. But one thing is certain: it leaves a mark on people.

I have a problem where I want to watch movies at the right time and the right place. If you live near a nice theater (not that sticky place in the mall) then you know there's no point in streaming a movie at home when you can sit in a still, dark room to watch a movie stretch out before you on the magical silver screen. To me, the movie theater is nearly sacred, and some movies need to be viewed in that church-like space.

So I leaped at the chance to watch Eraserhead when my local Alamo Drafthouse had it playing. The wife and I couldn't hold ourselves back from finally seeing what the fuss was all about.

Let me tell you, it was bonkers. Bonkers.

This movie is the most bonkers thing that's ever happened in the history of the human race. Since the first cavemen scrawled drawings on their cave walls, nothing has been produced with the sheer amount of WTF as Eraserhead manages every five seconds.

"Weird" is the first word that comes to mind, but David Lynch is not just an auteur with a camera. Technically, he understands sound and visual design as well as anyone in the industry. He makes odd-looking films with strange noises that seem haphazard or clumsy at first, but it doesn't take long to realize he's masterfully crafting... something. Every angle. Every sound. Nothing is incidental. And while no one can ever agree on what his movies are about, people just can't turn away from them.

Seeing it on the big screen was a delight. David Lynch is a strong critic of watching movies on phones when they're designed for the theater experience, and I tend to agree with him. This was the perfect place to get lost in the movie's insanity.

Eraserhead is challenging. It's told out of order, but that's not obvious, so many viewers spend the whole time furrowing their brow at the oddly placed scenes. There are strange people who just... show up.

We see a guy with a diseased face looking through a window in an otherwise empty world. In the credits he's called "The Man on the Planet." He's the first person we see and then he's only in a few other scenes, usually moving a mysterious lever.

Our protagonist has a strange haircut. Since it's a David Lynch film, he takes long walks around a bleak environment and we have to watch every single step of it. He goes to see his girlfriend and gets a surprise: she had a baby, but... it's not clear if it even is a baby.

What? Well, we soon see the... thing, and it's an inhuman mess that hisses and screams from its misshapen head. It's a monster. It doesn't move. Can't do anything but yell. And, yet, this immobile infant might be the most terrifying thing I've ever seen in a movie. David Lynch outdid every big budget scary movie with nothing but cheap practical effects. I promise, there's not a horror film with expensive CGI to match the unsettling image of that child.

Anyway. His girlfriend hates the baby and leaves him. He doesn't seem to mind. He's got a crush on his hot neighbor, but the responsibilities of being a dad are just too much for that kind of steamy romance.

But just as you think maybe this oddball movie filled with symbols and subtleties is going to go somewhere that makes sense... we see a woman with large plaster cheeks (I don't know how to describe it) dancing on an old-fashioned stage, singing a creepy song about doing whatever you want in Heaven. At this point, you're going to give up and wonder if someone slipped you a mickey.

She's credited as "The Woman in the Radiator." Sometimes our hero just gazes into his radiator and watches her. At one point he, uh, throws a bunch of, well, how do I explain this... he has a wet dream (I think) and throws a bunch of oversized gross things at the radiator. (They are actually umbilical cords Lynch dug out of a hospital dumpster, here to symbolize sperm. I think.) The woman in the radiator dances to muzak while stomping on each one. I'm not making this up.

Why is it called Eraserhead? Because at some point in the movie (time has no meaning) the main character has a vision that his son kicks off his head and then it rolls to a pencil factory where it's crammed into a complicated machine that turns his head into erasers. Yep.

Eraserhead has lots of themes. The frightening nature of fatherly responsibility. The bleakness of industrial life. The post-modern tendency to slap our own preconceptions onto the blank space of an artist's canvas.

And while it's easy to call this a pretentious student film, it's really not. It's a masterfully-built experience meant to sow certain feelings in the audience. The narrative is only hinted at because the director doesn't want us to feel settled at any time. Our wide eyes scan the screen for anything that will serve as an anchor while the images before us tear apart our feelings of confidence.

This hypnotizing, nihilistic landscape, littered with hints of hope, is exclusively Lynch's playground. Many filmmakers have tried to follow him, but none of their efforts accomplish as much as Eraserhead.

Which explains why those films have not been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Eraserhead was given this honor in 2004, with the curators believing that this oddball film was "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Love it or hate it, you'll never get Eraserhead out of your mind.
Adam D. Jones is a writer, musician, medievalist and cat dad.

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