Late last week I got an e-mail from one Violet Lucca. I have no reason to suspect that Violet Lucca is not this person’s real name. She is a student at New York University, and if V.L. is her real name, then all’s the better, for it strikes me as one of the best names I’ve ever heard. I want Violet Lucca to grow up to be famous so I can one day say I got an e-mail from Violet Lucca before she was Violet Lucca! Anyway, Violet was stumbling around on the Internet in search of material on David Lynch’s Eraserhead and, through the magic of Google, no doubt, found herself amongst the SLIFR archives, where she uncovered the story, told by my best friend Blaaagh, of the time the two of us crept out of the movie in disgust the first time we’d seen it. Well, turns out Violet, who I am assuming is a film student at NYU, wanted to hear more, as she is writing a paper on how people reacted to Eraserhead when it first came out. Violet asked me if I would submit to some questions regarding the experience, which I immediately agreed to, and when I asked her if I could double up and post my answers for the amusement of SLIFR readers, she agreed as well. So, in the interest of informing the young, as well as preserving a place for myself in the Intolerant Moviegoers in the Presence of Future Classics Hall of Fame (I did redeem myself re the movie at a later date; I hope Violet asks me about that!), here then are my answers to Violet Lucca’s Nine Questions About Me and Eraserhead.
1) How did you first hear about Eraserhead?
Since it was a film Lynch produced under the auspices of the American Film Institute, there may have been some mention of it in the AFI magazine American Film, to which I subscribed throughout the ‘70s. It premiered at the Los Angeles Filmex Film festival in March of 1977, and theatrically in New York in September of that same year. But I think the first time I was aware of it was in an article published around that same general period in Newsweek magazine. It was in an article about cult/horror films and some of the ones on the horizon that might be of interest. There were two or three others mentioned in the article, but the magazine’s description of Eraserhead, however ill-informed and misleading—I came away thinking the movie was an X-rated, gory horror shocker in the mold of Night of the Living Dead-- made it seem the most interesting. (And that may well have been—I don’t remember the titles of the other films.) Newsweek’s piece was accompanied by a shot on Lynch on the set—it might have been this accompanying picture, or perhaps another— and the article hinted strongly at the film’s underworld nightscape of twisted dreams, the concertina-wire ensnarement of domestic life, a mutated baby (the natural result of that hellish domesticity) and crater-cheeked singers warbling about transcendence from behind a radiator. It would be about two years from when I saw this article to when I first actually had an opportunity to see Eraserhead for myself. During that time, I imagined I could actually imagine what the movie might be like. Needless to say, I wasn’t even close.
2) Where did you first see it?
My best friend Bruce and I took a break from our studies one Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1979—it was not hard, as I recall, to pry us away from our studies—and walked into downtown Eugene from the campus of the University of Oregon, about a 20-minute walk at most, to a small art house called the Cinema 7. The Cinema 7 was a tiny auditorium tucked into a corner on the third floor of a very homegrown shopping mall called the Atrium Building. I had a lot of seminal college moviegoing experiences here. This is Werner Herzog Central, where all the German director's filmed played (and played, and often played again) – I saw Aguirre, the Wrath of God, The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, Nosferatu and Woyzeck all at the Cinema 7. The spark that ignited my great love for Nashville got kicked up here. I saw Behind the Green Door here, as well as North by Northwest, Duck Soup, To Have and Have Not, Seven Samurai, Once Upon a Time in the West and countless other important contemporary and classic films. This is also where my love-hate relationship with just about any film that challenged my sturdy preconceptions of American narrative constructs took place. On that Sunday afternoon, Bruce and I took in a double feature that suggests we were not the only ones who had pigeonholed Eraserhead into very limited wacky-midnight-movie expectations—our $5.00 got us in to see Lynch’s movie along with its notorious co-feature Myra Breckinridge. Somehow we made it through Rex Reed’s transformation into Raquel Welch. That, somehow, was not the stuff to make us bolt for the exits, traumatized. Eraserhead, being the real deal, of course did.
3) How many people were in the theater with you that first time?
The Cinema 7 had, at most 75-100 seats, and that may be overestimating the situation. It was small enough that 16mm prints, especially of the older films shot in Academy 1.33 aspect ratio (an aspect ratio not instantly compromised by standard 16mm), were routinely screened, and the image was plenty bright enough. Both Eraserhead and Myra Breckenridge, if I’m not mistaken, were screened in 35mm, and the audience on that Sunday afternoon—the movies were booked for a very typical three-day run—was a smattering of what you’d expect for such an anticipated movie. (Even Myra Breckenridge, only nine years off its original run, was very rarely screened and carried with it a cache of, at the very least, novelty.) Had the Cinema 7 booked Eraserhead for a month or two as a midnight attraction it might have made more of a splash—by 1979 Rocky Horror mania had gripped Eugene’s other regular midnight movie source, the decrepit Mayflower Theater just off campus. But Eraserhead didn’t offer Rocky Horror’s decadent glam-rock good time, and besides, the Cinema 7 was pretty solidly committed to its repertory of popular porn films of the day-- Behind the Green Door was the figurehead, but it would occasionally rotate out with Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones and another epic from Green Door’s Mitchell Brothers, Sodom and Gomorrah. So Eraserhead was limited, in its first couple of engagements in Eugene anyway, to standard repertory bookings and never did build up much of a cult following there on the big screen. The day we saw it, there might have been 40 paying customers.
4) Did you know of other people who had a similar reaction or saw it more than once?
As I suggested in the last response, Eraserhead was still pretty rarified viewing as far as the general student population was concerned. Campus screenings of everything from Fellini to Altman to Mizoguchi to Monty Python were available in fistfuls every weekend. But I don’t recall much of a movement on campus to get behind the film. And though I’m sure everyone who went to the same criticism and film production classes that were my staples throughout my last three years of school saw Eraserhead, I just don’t remember much discussion about it. A woman in my senior year film production class must have seen it, however. Her class project, a black-and-white homage to Kenneth Anger featuring her husband and his very proud penis slapped on top of the gas tank of a revving motorcycle in some sort of pre-Cronenbergian man-machine coitus scenario, also showed some visual, but even more aural evidence (the soundtrack faintly reverberated its biker rock as if being transmitted from behind that radiator) that Lynch’s movie, along with Anger’s, were among her influence.
5) Did you attend other midnight movies during that time? Were the audiences similar or different?
Well, as I said, I never saw Eraserhead as a midnight movie, though that was certainly how it gained much of its notoriety throughout its run in the ‘70s, so I can only imagine that its audiences at that hour were fairly typical—cult film aficionados, wild and crazy college kids, wilder and crazier high school kids, and perhaps even remnants of “head-trip” viewers who made lysergic experiences out of El Topo, 2001 and Fantasia (though any medically enhanced viewing of Eraserhead would, I would think, be a very bad trip indeed). I can’t help thinking that the same audiences who flocked to everything from Clockwork Orange, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Two-Lane Blacktop, Slap Shot and Yellow Submarine, to name just a few of the midnight movies I saw my freshman year of college, would have found something to get behind in Eraserhead. I attended midnight movies straight up through the end of my senior year, which was right at the beginning of the VHS-Beta years (some of the last ones were Peeping Tom, Sisters, Help! and The Duellists), and audiences always seemed to remain the same, even when the programming was monotonous and predictable. I like to think Eraserhead would have done very well as a regular midnight movie on the University of Oregon campus, but we never got to find out.
6) Do you remember how long it played? Did it have multiple runs in the same theater, or did it play elsewhere?
As far as I know, that spring 1979 booking at the Cinema 7 was about it as far as Eraserhead was concerned, although it certainly could have appeared after I graduated. (I left Eugene in the spring of 1981; the Cinema 7 lasted for a few years after that.) The only other place in town that would have touched it would have been the Bijou Theater, an art house that cropped up during my last year in Eugene. It was converted from an old mortuary—the main auditorium was where they used to display the open caskets—and it still does ripping business in Eugene to this day. So sometime in between 1979 and the present, it would stand to reason that Eraserhead might hae popped up in that grandly creepy venue at some point, but I don’t know for sure. I suspect that it got much more play in the homes of film fans throughout the city when it appeared on videocassette in the mid ‘80s—that’s certainly where my relationship with the movie was cemented.
7) What prompted you to walk out of the theater?
Walking out of a movie is a very rare occurrence for me. Until Bruce reminded me that we bolted from this one, I would’ve said that the only time I ever did was out of a screening of a movie called Turtle Diary starring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley as two introverted and lonely souls who bond over trying to return some rare turtles out of captivity and back to the sea. Turtles as heavy metaphors for emotionally caged humans who just need to be set free from their inhibitions and phobias. Lots of close-ups of Ben Kingsley. Written by Harold Pinter. I fled, and I don’t regret it. But as far as Eraserhead was concerned, I don’t remember any specific conversation, but I can imagine it had a lot to do with seeing such a claustrophobic, oppressive, relentless, and relentlessly impenetrable universe in such a small, claustrophobic theater, knowing full well the light of day was just a door away. It was an offer we ultimately could not refuse. I regretted that decision for a long time afterward, simply because I knew what we’d seen on that screen was in many ways extraordinary. It was a chore to sit through, but only after a few days I remember wanting to give it another try. I wouldn’t get the opportunity for three more years, but when I did, that’s when the movie opened up to me as a singular, organic vision, not just as a piece of bleak set design and a series of randomly wacky occurrences.
8) Why did you go back to see it again?
I realize I’ve already partially answered that question—because it was eating on me that I’d dumped out of a movie that, even though I found it unpleasant, was like nothing else I’d seen before. Eraserhead was a movie in which I could sense the intelligence even though I had no handle on how that intelligence informed it. I also didn't know how that intelligence was able to access its at times ephemeral, at times anatomical (in both a biological sense and in how the interior structures we see were made to feel) imagery, or how that intelligence unified the film without tidying it up in a neat little Freudian package. I knew the key to the film wasn’t in pinning it down but in experiencing it and finding connections that may have been only specific to my own perception of it. And I was annoyed that I let myself talk myself out of having that experience. I mean, for God’s sake, I stayed to the bitter end of so many worthless movies in my college days-- Up the Academy, King of the Gypsies, Midnight Express, just to name a few. It annoyed me that I had more patience for those individual turds than I did Lynch’s movie. (Of course I’ve always considered that those movies, and hundreds more like them, simply petrified me with boredom, preventing me from doing the obvious thing and bolting like lightning.) Upon my first visit to Los Angeles in Spring 1982, I ran across Eraserhead again, this time on a double feature, ironically enough, with Night of the Living Dead. It was playing at the New Beverly Cinema, a place with which I would become intimately acquainted over the next 25 years. Not without some trepidation, perhaps fearful of what such a pairing might do to my fragile psyche—little kid alone in the big city and all that—I ponied up to the New Beverly box office for the privilege of having my dreams and my waking world shattered and expanded simultaneously.
9) How did you feel after you saw all of it?
By the time I finally saw Eraserhead in its entirety, I had already seen The Elephant Man, which David Lynch infused with much of the industrialized horror of his earlier, more intense inside-out "narrative." In a strange way, I had been prepared for the tangential oddities and visual schemata of Eraserhead by seeing the beloved later film that was its direct result. The 1977 film seemed at once stranger, and more accessible at the same time. It still wouldn’t fully speak to me until I saw it again a few years later, on videotape, even with the stark contrasts of Frederick Elmes’ cinematography flattened out by the unapologetically mediocre quality of VHS. It’s not a movie that depends on life experience so much as a way of seeing its world in the way that it does, though certainly Eraserhead draws on connections with real-life fragility and personalized terrors for some of its visceral, insinuating power. Anyone who was my age when I saw it the first couple of times (late teens, early 20s) would surely be able to tap into the near-universal fear of having your future closed off by a suffocating marriage, or even just the uncertainty of a future that might hold love, but also might hold endless nights where the clanking of pipes and hissing of radiators (and the warbling of those within) might be preferable to the howls and shrieks of a baby (unwanted?), even one far less obviously frightening and mysterious as the one in the film. When the movie finally did burrow under my skin for good, in the days of the marvelously weird and operatic Dune and just before Blue Velvet recast Eraserhead’s worldview into a oversaturated, picket-fence and Panavision-ized canvas of subterranean, primal madness and sensuous wavelengths of inexplicable evil, I watched it repeatedly, fascinated by Lynch’ unique methods, his ability to tap into moods and desires without making a big show of his peculiar mechanisms. After all these years, Lynch’s sensibility has been familiarized by exposure to more of his films, good and bad, and copied by filmmakers whose application of the term “Lynchian” to cover their own flimsy tracks with a patina of oddball humor or random violence has become increasingly desperate. Yet Eraserhead has aged well. It is of a certain time, but it is not betrayed by that time, and despite its slow seepage into film culture and, to the extent that David Lynch has become a brand name, into the culture at large, its effects remain elusive, its intent pleasurably masked by the dark heart of its games of time and space. It is not a horror film, yet it is at times horrifying. It is not a comedy, yet how can one not laugh at its absurd parody of courtship and, eventually, family dynamics? It may have had its reputation made on the midnight movie circuit, but it was never engineered to be a cult film. It is, of all things, sincere. Eraserhead plays as though it was never intended to be seen, like a precious and weird artifact from a bizarre universe, an interior projection of horrible, muffled, and horribly funny REM imagery. Still, tucked away in a dark, moist, brick-and-pipe-lined corner of an unknown basement, it finds its way into the hearts and minds of those prepared to see the world differently through its darkened eyes. It is the landscape of a mind, and the beasts within.