This is the story of a lost film, but to care about its loss you first need to know what happened in 1976. Back then, a 30-year-old Montanan painter called David Lynch completed his first feature after five years of shooting and editing. Nihilistic and Freudian, Eraserhead was about a character whose detached head is taken over by a mutant baby, and who exists in rooms vacated by the mysterious "woman in the radiator." The film was a revelation of textures. For visual inspiration, Lynch had dissected a cat, seeing an abstract beauty in its membranes, hair and skin which he translated into the glistening, fleshy imagery of the film. Variety called it a "dismal exercise in gore… commercial prospects nil."
But an alternative New York distributor, Libra Films, which had screened the psycho-western El Topo for over a year in the city, bought Eraserhead and ran it in a single cinema for as long as El Topo. Lynch described the process by which such experiments gain recognition: "First, the real weirdos will see it; they’ll see anything if it’s running at midnight. If it clicks with them it’ll enter the next phase, which is a slightly bigger group of people. All these transitional areas are critical. You can’t tell how long it will take for word to spread."
Stanley Kubrick admired Eraserhead, though Lynch wouldn’t tell him how he filmed the mutant baby. Sounds, the British rock magazine, raved about the film. Its soundscapes influenced metal-industrial noise bands like Throbbing Gristle and Test Dept. David Bowie claimed that all he wanted to see in the 21st century with was a videotape of it.
Eraserhead is now a staple of student film societies, and considered a work of high surrealism. Its additional interest, for those of us who care about the relationship between the avant garde and what we still call the mainstream, is that it also provides a model of how to cross over. If it hadn’t been for Libra Films and the midnight weirdos, Lynch’s textural, allegorical masterpiece would have disappeared.
This is the fate facing a new film which has much in common with Eraserhead. Like Lynch’s film, the experimental epic Cremaster 3 was directed by an artist; it too is a textural nightmare (in this case the texture is that of solid and melting Vaseline), featuring deformed human beings. The film’s soundtrack is as layered…