The last time I saw ERASERHEAD on the big screen was in Prague in 2001. The place looked like a Lynch interior, had old ornate European furniture in the lobby and an escalator leading up to the main room. Again this is how I remember it and I’m not fact-checking with friends because memory is mutable in the David Lynch world and that’s where I was. The theater wasn’t made for movies but had a huge screen, a screen so big that it makes most of the current New York city arthouse theaters look like Ipods. It was sold out… sold out! I looked around at the audience, noticing that many wore geriatric and clunky looking headsets to hear a simultaneous live translation of the movie in Czech. Poorly designed, these headsets leaked their sound in murmurs. Somehow it was so fitting… all these strange mechanical humming devices just another layer of the soundtrack for this startlingly odd and wonderful film.

ERASERHEAD is described often as a “surrealist-horror film.” It’s the disturbing dream-like odyssey of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) living in a lonely post-apocalyptic industrial landscape filled with threatening loud machinery, strange worm-like organisms, and grotesque liquids that seem to spew from everywhere. At the same time there is a Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin-like sweetness to the innocent main character, with his coiffed hair and dark suit. He is juxtaposed against this malevolent world, stepping in puddles and around large dirt piles. There are also plenty of comedic gags that seem to be pulled from the silent comedy era.

The very loose story line follows Henry as he finds out his ex-girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) has given birth to a baby after a strangely short pregnancy. When she runs off, Henry ends up caring for this baby, a reptilian alien-like whining creature.  There are many other bizarre encounters with unusual characters, my favorite being the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), who through her puffy cheeks sings a sweet song “In Heaven” as she stomps with delight on slithering worm-like creatures.  And of course there’s the pencil factory scene that gives the movie its name.

Released in 1977, it took Lynch six years (with the help of only seven people) to make what was originally a twenty-something page script. He made it while a student at the American Film Institute and conceived and built it as he went, a process pretty much extinct in the film world today (except for those made expressly for the art world). The narrative is dream-like and loose but somehow the logic of the world fits together. It makes me think of something Fellini said in an interview about how expressing a fantasy is like a mathematical equation.  Lynch also spoke of his process in a similar way: “There’s an original idea somewhere that’s sort of a magnet, and it attracts ideas that will join up with it – sort of like a solar system. They all swim about around the sun, which is the original idea, and pretty soon you’ve got a system going… and that’s why ERASERHEAD is an honest picture – even though it isn’t “normal” or explained, it goes by the rules, and those rules were adhered to. You can feel the honesty and a logic to it.”

I love the idea of the Lynch solar system, planet ERASERHEAD being not just one of the creative masses circling its maker… but one of the purest and one of the first.

Watch the original trailer here:

Read more about Sundance Channel’s May salute to David Lynch.