In Lynchland, though, it’s a different story altogether. That’s because this week’s entry in The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series is David Lynch’s bombshell of a first feature, Eraserhead (1977). If you only know one thing about Eraserhead and its imagery, it should be this: they’re gross and disturbing. In Lynch’s distorted vision of human relationships, sexual anxieties get literalized with all the oozing pus and foam you could ask for. It’s the kind of movie that makes me go, “Ew! Ew! No! Put down those scissors!” for like a solid minute. Compared to all those grotesque mutations, my choice for best shot is relatively innocuous:
At this point in the film, protagonist Henry Spencer’s wife Mary is all fed up with their mutant baby’s constant yammering, so she’s moved back in with her parents. With her away, Henry takes a chance on the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, and they start getting intimate… when the Beautiful Girl spots that icky, whining baby. On the most basic level, then, this shot is about how much of a turn-off babies (especially mutant babies) are. The second Henry’s paramour gets an eyeful of his weird-looking offspring, she goes back across the hall, and he remains sexually frustrated for the rest of the film.
It’s also very visually striking. Like the rest of Eraserhead, it’s shot with extremely low lighting and low contrast, so it’s hard to tell where Henry’s face ends and the Beautiful Girl’s face begins. It’s like we’re gazing down at a fleshy nocturnal landscape. (It also reminds me of René Magritte’s painting The Kiss.) These two distinctly unhappy people look for some pleasure by frantically groping and kissing one another—but in Eraserhead‘s sick world, it’s never that easy. It’s all too appropriate, in a film that represents sex as a disgusting ordeal of writhing and fluids, for this little tryst to end with the Beautiful Girl’s eyes bulging out in terror.
In Eraserhead, everything’s ever so slightly off-kilter, psychologically and visually. No one talks like real people, and nothing looks quite like its real-world analogue. This makes the tiny resemblances to real life that much scarier. In Henry and Mary’s dysfunctional relationship, in their screaming baby, in the depressing emptiness of their apartment, and in the utter gloominess of their environment, we can see little echoes of very real horrors and everyday problems.
In the image above (my second-favorite shot), the perpetually put-upon Henry raises his eyebrow; his misery is tinged, for once, with curiosity. In the background, Mary clings to a door while her father, the impotent patriarch, perches at the head of the table. (His face is obscured by Henry’s strange, massive hair.) This is Lynch’s perverse take on the nuclear family and their domestic milieu. This shot’s just barely canted, with the composition and the many shades of gray geared to indicate that something’s, well, off. Get out, Henry. Get out while you still can.
I’ll end with an illustration of Eraserhead‘s overwhelming ickiness, as Henry is enveloped by a metaphor for his own sexual anxieties. I have one word for this: YUCK.