At the 1976 Filmex in Los Angeles, a startlingly original film appeared, apparently out of nowhere. Dark and brooding, its moody black and white images slipping seamlessly from mundane reality into nightmarish fantasy and back again, it wielded a powerful effect on its audience, leaving many stunned and disturbed. Few could fail to be impressed by the assurance and skill with which the filmmaker manipulated both picture and sound to create an imaginary world of such depth and conviction.
But who was the filmmaker ? And where did this film, ERASERHEAD, come from ?
David Lynch was thirty at the time of the Filmex premiere of Eraserhead and he had only two previous short films to his credit (The Alphabet, four minutes ; The Grandmother, thirty-four minutes - both combining live action with animation). His interest in film had been slight. Unlike the generation of directors epitomized by Lucas and Spielberg, he had not been enthralled by the Saturday matinees of his childhood and filled with an ambition to recreate those thrills. His first love was painting and his work with film began as an extension of his exploration of painting techniques.
During his high school years in Virginia, Lynch shared a studio with his best friend, Jack Fisk, and on weekends he would go over to Washington, D.C., to study painting at the Corcoran School of Art. After high school, he went on to the Boston Museum School, which he attended for a year. Dissatisfied with that, he set out on a three year visit to Europe which lasted just fifteen days.
“I didn’t take to Europe”, Lynch recalled. It might have been different if he had “just gone to see it, but I was all the time thinking, ‘This is where I’m going to be painting’. And there was no inspiration there at all for the kind of work I wanted to do.” So he returned to the States, finding himself cut off financially. He did not want to go to school and his family were unwilling to give him money.
During this period, he went through a number of jobs - at an art store printing blueprint ; in a frame shop. “And I kept getting fired from these jobs because I couldn’t get up in the morning.” Finally, while working for a man named Michelangelo, Lynch was fired again for scratching a frame - and then rehired as a janitor. This Michelangelo had a bell installed in Lynch’s apartment with which he could wake Lynch in the morning. This arrangement seemed to work well, although instead of being paid, Lynch was simply given food money : “Then he would make me show him my food, because he didn’t want me spending it on just paint and not eating. Well, I wasn’t going to do that. I mean, I was hungry !”
It was while Lynch was working as a janitor, living on peanut butter, bread, and milk, that Jack Fisk turned up one day at four-thirty in the morning. At that time, Fisk’s name was Luton : the two of them were called at the same time for their draft physical. “I never would have woken up for it”, said Lynch, if Fisk had not got him out of bed. Fisk had gone to Philadelphia after high school to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. “And out of school or in art school”, said Lynch, “you’re not in school. Art school didn’t hold any weight. So we were both called in.”