Eraserhead Essays

On 19 March 1977, the world changed, after which there was a long uncomfortable silence. The occasion was the first public screening of Eraserhead, the feature debut of David Lynch, at the Filmex festival in Los Angeles. It was not a hot ticket. The film arrived with little advance publicity at the only festival to accept it. The screening took place at midnight, drawing a modest crowd who dutifully watched for the next two hours (the film was then longer than the 89 minutes it became). When it ended: nothing. But no one left either. Just silence. Then, finally, applause.

Lynch was barely into his 30s, still a way off from the master surrealist with the silver quiff who created Twin Peaks. And it hadn’t yet become apparent that this was how everyone would react to Eraserhead. You wonder exactly how many people since have been left mute after their first encounter with Jack Nance and his socket-finger hair, cast as luckless new father Henry.

Actually, forget about first encounters. The thing about Eraserhead is that it never gets less disturbing, never loses the sense of a small but indelible psychic trauma. “A dream of dark and troubling things,” Lynch called it, and it was and is, a film people view as a demarcator. There is life before you see it, and life after. (I was 14 the first time, which takes some getting over.) You used to be able to get a lapel badge: “Eraserhead,” it said simply. “I saw it.”

And now it’s 40. Fans will have seen stills of a faintly shaggy Lynch on set, but show the black and white film to someone with no prior knowledge of it – God help them – and when would they guess it was made? 1960? 1931? Last Tuesday? While its near-contemporary in urban paranoia, Taxi Driver, doubles as an archive record of New York in the filthy heatwave 70s, Eraserhead is a slideshow of nothing but the brain of David Lynch.

But once you have it in a timeline, you see the shadow it casts over the future (an irony for a film about the terror of procreation). There is a popular version of events about what happened to American movies in the 70s, where a lost Eden of mavericks is crushed by the triumph of Star Wars (which premiered just weeks after Filmex). But that narrative too quickly forgets the parallel history of Eraserhead, the scores of no-budget kids with cameras it gave permission to be strange, the new audience it brought to the cinema, how it broke out beyond the cinema anyway.

The famous poster image of a dumbstruck Nance became a subcultural bat signal – a wink between oddballs when seen on a T-shirt or a million Xeroxed flyers plugging the movie and/or all manner of nightlife. Despite the only music in the film being a snatch of Fats Waller and the sugared wheeze of In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song), the film had a sense of cracked alienation that meshed with the weirder end of punk. Maybe it was fate that after five penniless years in the making, it finally emerged in much the same moment as Ramones and Talking Heads. New wave subversives Devo asked Lynch for permission to play In Heaven live. Eventually, the soundtrack was released – like a practical joke, mostly clanks and rumbles – on the label Alternative Tentacles, run by hardcore band Dead Kennedys.

Of course, traces of it worked their way into other people’s films and the bloodstream of movie history. Lynch was reportedly irked enough by the homage paid by Alien to the Eraserhead baby to bear a grudge against designer HR Giger. Then there was The Shining. Before he started filming Eraserhead, Lynch screened the grand old Hollywood nightmare Sunset Boulevard as if summoning a spirit guide. Making The Shining, Stanley Kubrick announced Eraserhead was his favourite film and showed it to his cast and crew, “to put them in the mood”.

There was an epic scale to the fear: no humdrum new-dad ennui but a rolling freakout at sperm, sex, the lot

It made perfect sense. Both films, after all, were tales of infanticide. Eraserhead could feel like stonefaced comedy, blessed with the flawless timing of Nance (the film took place during what was meant to be Henry’s vacation). But its darkness was dark indeed.

While Lynch talks of the film as a product of his art-student days in grimy Philadelphia, it was wholly shot in LA, and the menace of that city bubbles under it. Watching it can feel like a ghost story. The main location was Greystone Mansion, a Beverly Hills pile built by the oil tycoon Edward Doheny (later fictionalised as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood). Doheny gave the place to his son Ned, who, in 1929, died in a guest bedroom in a murder-suicide that also killed his secretary Hugh Plunkett. Peter Ivers, the musician who cowrote In Heaven, was bludgeoned to death in his LA apartment in 1983. No arrest was made. In 1996, another unknown party struck Jack Nance during an argument at a Pasadena donut shop. He died the next day.

But Eraserhead is also a horror film because Henry spends it in horror. The cause, of course, was the baby. While Lynch denied it, his daughter Jennifer knew everyone assumed it was how he’d seen her – quite a thing to take through life. There was an epic scale to the fear: no humdrum new-dad ennui but a rolling freakout at sperm, sex, the lot. When the baby cries (mewls, really) it sounds like all our inner children bleating their unhappiness. And when Henry has dinner with the in-laws, we watch as he joins the dreadful beckoning loop of family life: turning into our parents over oozing mini chickens.

As is often the case with auteurs, what the film said about Lynch’s attitude to women is interesting. But the film also belongs to the late actor Catherine Coulson, then married to Nance. Her role on-screen would be cut after the Filmex premiere, but without her multi-tasking off-screen, the movie would never have got that far. For five years while also working as a waitress, Coulson operated the camera, lit scenes, held the boom, took photographs and did the catering. She also supervised her husband’s hair.

And one night she put on her glasses and Lynch had a vision of a character he hadn’t yet created. In 1989, the story goes, he told her: “Cath, I’m ready for you to play that woman with the log.” Coulson’s Log Lady would be the first person we saw in Twin Peaks, sagely introducing each episode. While Eraserhead was filled with all-purpose Lynchisms – the fizz and flicker of electrics, the narcotic pace – his madhouse avant garde debut ran deep in his TV show. The zigzag floored Red Room was the repurposed home of the Lady in the Radiator; the backwards-talking dwarf the heir to an abandoned experiment on Eraserhead. (Lynch learned to say in reverse: “I want pencils.”)

And Twin Peaks was another story of father and murdered child. Naturally, when the washed up body of Laura Palmer began the whole saga, the character who found her was played by Jack Nance. When the show shortly returns to TV, the noise will likely be deafening. Worth remembering then that it all began in silence. Happy birthday, Henry.

I recently had occasion to demonstrate the properties of the eraser that comes with the Palomino Blackwing. I don’t mean its actual efficiency but the fact that the eraser, which resembles an elongated Chiclet, pulls out of the distinctive flat ferrule by means of a tiny clamp (I’m sure there is a name for this piece of pencil hardware) and can be extended and slotted back into the ferrule for longer life—or, better yet, reversed, providing fresh edges for your precision erasure needs.

Not that I rely on the erasers that come crimped into the tops of pencils. I can always tell that a foreign pencil has entered my collection when the eraser is worn flat. I make a lot of mistakes, thus requiring an eraser at least as large as an ice cube. Our house eraser is the Magic Rub, which is of grayish-white vinyl in the shape of a domino. I use it to erase the screeds I sometimes feel compelled to write in the margins of proofs and then regret. Part of my routine is sweeping the eraser crumbs off my desk like foundry dust after every job. I used to take just one eraser at a time and wear it down to a nub—a nub that I’d then search for frantically, worried that the cleaning lady had thrown it out. Now I grab a whole box of twelve Magic Rubs. In fact, my current twelve-pack is down to the last layer of three. Time to visit the supply cabinet.

Eraser-tipped pencils have a contentious history. Consulting my notes from the pencil party that I recently attended in honor of the Blackwing, I find that it was in 1650, in Nuremberg, that lead was first glued to wood, creating the modern pencil. It was not until 1858, according to Henry Petroski’s authoritative book “The Pencil,” that an enterprising Yank named Hyman Lipman, of Philadelphia, patented a method of attaching an eraser to the pencil. Joseph Reckendorfer bought him out and patented a new, improved eraser-tipped pencil in 1862. In Europe, despite the fact that in 1864 an eight-foot-long rubber-tipped pencil was carried in a parade honoring Lothar Faber, the German pencil king, the eraser is more likely to be sold as a separate item.

In England, erasers are called rubbers, after the material they were originally made from. (What we call rubbers the English call French letters.) Before rubber, the material most suited for erasing pencil marks was bread crumbs. A snob might say that the eraser-tipped pencil is like a sofa bed: it sounds like a good idea, but it often features neither the best possible sofa nor the best possible bed. Focussing on the eraser, unscrupulous pencil-makers sometimes stiffed consumers with inferior lead. Or maybe the lead was O.K., but the eraser smeared your mistakes around, making them more conspicuous. In short, the effort to combine two distinct things in a single product can lead to something distasteful; for instance, Guinness gelato, which, trust me, is not a good flavor.

I do not pretend to be an eraser connoisseur. While I don’t mind being known in certain circles as the Pencil Lady, I’d rather not be called Bride of Gumby. Friends who are artists are particular about erasers; the traces left by an Art Gum or a Pink Pearl can give texture to their work. Stick erasers permit them to erase without laying the meat of their hand on the work. There are even electric erasers that look like the tool the dental hygienist uses to polish your teeth. A former colleague on the copy desk, the late Bill Walden (stiff-bristle hair, gritted-teeth grin, breast pocket full of writing instruments), had a prototype of a battery-operated eraser; it drilled holes in paper. I think he would have been more satisfied with a Koh-i-Noor eraser that I saw recently in a fountain-pen store, which was suitable for ink and said on its label “imbibed with eraser fluid.”

In a charming appendix about his pencil collection, Petroski records Nabokov’s remark that “his pencils outlasted their erasers.” John Steinbeck “could not use pencils once he felt their ferrules touch his hand.” I am in Steinbeck’s camp. That fancy ferrule on the Blackwing, once the pencil has reached half its length, digs into my hand and makes me sharpen a fresh pencil.

There is a wonderful reference to erasers in Ian Frazier’s “Travels in Siberia.” He and his guide are driving around Yekaterinburg, looking for the house where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered during the Russian Revolution. This was not an incident that anyone in town particularly cared to commemorate, but finally someone showed them the spot: “The house, known as the Ipatiev House, was no longer standing, and the basement where the actual killings happened had been filled in. I found the blankness of the place sinister and dizzying. It reminded me of an erasure done so determinedly that it had worn a hole through the page.”

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez.

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