Wednesday, May 21, 2008


EraserheadImage via WikipediaLike Ring of Bright Water, I saw Eraserhead when I was already grown up. In fact, my son Alan was a teenager. If it weren't for him, I would have just paid heed to Eraserhead movie reviews and never would have seen such a strange and -- I guess the best word is icky -- movie.

When Alan was in high school, we moved to a new neighborhood. This meant he had to go to a new school. Eventually, after a few months he became friends with some boys who used to take the bus on Saturday nights to see midnight movies such as Pink Flamingos by John Waters and the Neil Young movie, Rust Never Sleeps. And they were all very proud that each had logged at least 15 viewings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I met all these boys when they came over to the house after school to bum cold bottles of RC Cola from our basement refrigerator. I also managed to speak to at least one parent of each boy. Maybe I was being controlling, but Alan grew up in an insular neighborhood where everyone knew each other. In our old neighborhood, I took his safety for granted. Now that he was in new surrounds, I placed a few phone calls to make sure I knew who he was associating with. Trusting blindly seemed like I would just be accepting the equivalent of poker odds when it came to my son's well-being. It's not that I didn't trust Alan; it was them I didn't trust.

I was reasonably sure these kids were more interested in movies than the marijuana I had heard was passed around the audience during these midnight shows. But increasingly I couldn't put my head on my pillow at night for wondering what exactly happened at these late-night showings. So, one Saturday I wrangled an invitation.

Now that might seem weird to you. But Alan and I had a special relationship. He never doubted who was the boss (or at least that I was one of them; his father was the other), but we also had a kind of friendship. So he only hesitated about 30 seconds before he said, "Yeah, I guess that would be okay," referring to my joining them for a screening of Eraserhead.

"But I'm warning you; it's weird."

"Weirder than your Aunt Minna's new face lift? Those gathers of skin at the side of her face are pretty hard to look at."

"No, I guess not," Alan said.

"Okay then. What time do we go?"

To make my presence more welcome for the other boys, I volunteered to drive our Riviera to the theater. After only a few minutes of obvious horror that I was accompanying them, they seemed to relax. By the time we got into the theater, they almost forgot I was there.

After I got my Junior Mints and bought the boys a box of candy each (which further endeared me to them), we opened the door that led to the formerly plush but now fading theater. To my surprise, a thick billow of smoke engulfed me and I started to cough. Once I caught my breath, I began the sniff test to see if the smoke was from cigarettes or marijuana. I wasn't a big expert on the difference between the two, but I figured if the air didn't smell like cigarettes, I could assume something else was being smoked. But it smelled like cigarettes to me, so I breathed a sigh of relief -- at least as much of one as I could with my head trapped in a cloud of fumes.

As we waited for the movie to begin, there were all kinds of weird characters walking around. I assumed they were dressed for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, even though I'm not even sure it was playing that night. One late-night freak show was as good as the next to some of these people, I guessed. Anyway, after listening to the audience hoot and howl at trailers for other strange movies, Eraserhead began.

I have to say, I had never seen anything that creepy coming from a movie screen before -- or since. Bleeding miniature chickens at the dinner table, a deformed premature baby that made hideous noises, industrial wreckage and a lot of other dark images just rolled forth, one after another. It was the kind of stuff that makes you wince involuntarily. Or at least that was my reaction. The boys, on the other hand, giggled and made cat-calls with every new freakish scene. It's a good thing this movie was pre-video camera and those impressionable boys had no aspirations to become filmmakers. I certainly wouldn't have wanted them to learn how to make a video by studying David Lynch's technique.

As the movie went along, I found myself watching the boys more than the movie. It was funny to see them cringe and laugh at the same time. This was like pulling the wings off flies to them, without the animal torture. There was obviously a perverse pleasure in it. I watched them just long enough to reassure myself that they were only there for the freak show; not to play with drugs. Their wide eyes, total attention on the screen and sniggering told me I had nothing to worry about. That left me free to excuse myself and go to the lobby.

There was a similar freak show going on out there, but no one was bleeding or screaming; there were just teenagers trying to find their individuality by dressing as characters from Rocky Horror. Ironic really, but harmless. Being a non-teenager, though, it wore thin quickly for me. I heard "Damn it, Janet!" so many times in the space of a half-hour, I was delighted when the boys poured out of the theater and into the lobby so I could go home.

If you'd like to see what the Eraserhead fuss is all about, there's a video below of director David Lynch talking about the movie, along with some sample scenes. Good luck.

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Pat said...

What a great story! I tend to think you were a cool mom - my onw mother wouldn't make it through two minutes of "Eraserhead."

I finally saw "Eraserhead" myself only last year on DVD. That whimpering alien baby creeped me out completely. I'm glad I finally saw it, but I don't have a burning desire to ever see it again.

Gina Faust said...

Hi, Pat. Thanks so much for stopping by and for thinking I was a cool mom. I certainly tried.

As for Eraserhead, I attempted to watch it again last night. Ugh. Although I have much more appreciation now for David Lynch's tactile style and unique vision, that baby creeped me out too. I finally turned it off about an hour into it. There's only so many crawling alien worms and inhuman moans I can take in one sitting.

Rachel said...

I saw Eraserhead back in November. A writer at MSN had posted an article of his Top 10 scariest movies of all time, and this was #10. I hated every second of it. My husband watched it with me and it got to a point that we just sat and made fun of it, MST3K style. Maybe if we had been in a dark theater with a crowd I would've had a different experience, but I felt that this was a complete waste of time.

On a lighter note, I really enjoy your story telling.

Gina Faust said...

Hi, Rachel.

Thanks for the kind words about my storytelling. I'm still getting used to this form of expression, so I appreciate the encouragement.

The only thing that surprised me about Eraserhead when I watched it recently was that I could see some artistic value to it. There wasn't enough to transcend its creepiness, but at least I could see how people like John Waters could call it brilliant. Based on some of the cinematic choices he's made, I have to assume that his stomach is stronger than mine. I imagine one needs a strong stomach -- and possibly some Valium -- to actually enjoy this movie.

the_underground_man said...

I am not finished reading your essay on Eraserhead, but it is cool to gt the perspective of a mom on the film.
I think I once watched Eraserhead and some other similar film as back to back dates movies one time at my place in San Antonio. I could never understand why the gal never called me back.

No doubt it is not to everyone's taste. I think it can be a bit plodding and too abstract to keep some people's attention. Sometimes Lynch can loose me. Often actually.

Yet I like the film, and not because it is weird or creepy and therefore I belong to special club, but it is actually a good movie and some of the motives that appeared in Lynche's later films (long scenes with minimal dialog, incongruity, thick atmospheric soundtrack) all begin here.

I do not even know if I would call it a horror film but it seems to get lumped into that category for lack of fitting into another one neatly. A film it is often compared to (though I do not see the connection other than both are B/W) is a Japanese film called Tetsuo: The Ironman. I would not let kids see either one I guess, lest they grow up to be like me, but you want to sample that odd little ditty one day as well if you are in an odd movie mood.

Gina Faust said...

Thanks for your comment, underground man.

You're right, Eraserhead actually is a good movie, or at least displays incredible thought and technique. I was surprised at that when I tried to watch it again recently.

As far as classifying it, I think I would call it a horror film, although I don't claim to be an expert in that genre. The fact that parts of it are truly horrifying to watch puts it in that category for me.

Thanks for stopping by.

Bill Courtney said...

Sure it is a horror film the more I think about it. i ahve not seen the movie in years really. I have a copy here and should get it out.

By the way, just call me Bill. The Undergroundman thing is some blog I used gmail for the address to and the last time I could not change the settings.

Again, great sight and I will try to get to yur back pages here soon.

Rita said...

I had a hard time sitting through Eraserhead too.

I can only assume Lynch is some kind of an odd duck, based on this and his other movies.