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12 Hair-Raising Facts About Eraserhead

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Back in 1977, no one had ever heard the term “Lynchian.” In fact, no one had ever heard of David Lynch. The director of The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive had never made a full-length movie when Eraserhead arrived on the scene. But the cult horror film quickly seared a number of black-and-white images onto fans’ brains—chiefly, Jack Nance’s wild hair and that grotesque “baby” at the center of the story. In honor of its 40th anniversary, here are 12 gross, trippy, and terrifying facts about the midnight movie classic.

1. DAVID LYNCH ACTUALLY WANTED TO MAKE A MOVIE ABOUT INSECTS AND ADULTERY.

Eraserhead is technically a student film, since Lynch started making it while he was studying at the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies. But if things had gone a little bit differently, his first feature would’ve been Gardenback, not Eraserhead. Gardenback was a 45-page script that came from one of Lynch’s paintings of a “stooped figure with green things growing out of its back.” The screenplay concerned a couple named Henry and Mary. When Henry looks at another girl, “something crosses from her to him.” It’s a bug, which proceeds to grow into a monster in Henry and Mary’s attic.

Lynch’s professors at AFI urged the young director to lengthen Gardenback into a feature-length film, which apparently didn’t go well. Lynch ended up hating the retooled screenplay and that, combined with some other school frustrations, nearly made him quit the program. But then his teacher and mentor Frank Daniel asked him what he’d like to do instead. Lynch said, “I want to do Eraserhead.” Daniel simply replied, “Okay, do Eraserhead then.”

2. ONE LINE IN THE BIBLE INSPIRED ERASERHEAD.

In his book Catching the Big Fish, Lynch called Eraserhead his “most spiritual movie,” and even cited the Bible as an influence. Well, just one tiny part of the Bible. “Eraserhead was growing in a certain way, and I didn’t know what it meant,” Lynch wrote. “I was looking for a key to unlock what these sequences were saying. Of course, I understood some of it; but I didn’t know the thing that just pulled it all together. And it was a struggle. So I got out my Bible and I started reading. And one day, I read a sentence. And I closed the Bible because that was it; that was it. And then I saw the thing as a whole. And it fulfilled the vision for me, 100 percent.”

3. NO, LYNCH WASN’T WORKING OUT HIS ANXIETIES AS A NEW DAD.

Eraserhead concerns a man who unexpectedly becomes a father to a very unusual baby. In 1968, Lynch had also become a father to an unplanned baby (Jennifer) with his first wife, Peggy Lentz. That baby was not that unusual, but she did have club feet. Critics were quick to draw conclusions that Lynch was working out his own anxieties as a new father with Eraserhead. Jennifer, however, has always downplayed this link. “I was born with club feet and people have made insinuations about it because the baby in Eraserhead was deformed,” Jennifer said in an interview. “But I don’t think David credits that directly as where Eraserhead comes from.”

David offered similar thoughts in an interview from Lynch on Lynch. “Obviously, since a person is alive and they’re noticing things around them, ideas are going to come,” he said. “But that would mean there’d be a hundred million Eraserhead stories out there. Everybody has a kid and they make Eraserhead? It’s ridiculous! It’s not just that. It’s a million other things.”

4. HE DISSECTED A CAT FOR RESEARCH.

To prepare for the shoot, Lynch decided he needed to look at a dead cat’s membranes, hair, and skin. It was apparently a texture thing.

5. PHILADELPHIA INFORMED THE MOVIE’S IMAGERY AND SOUND.

Lynch moved from his hometown of Missoula, Missouri to Philadelphia to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1965. The city had a profound effect on him—though not necessarily a positive one.

“The biggest influence on my life was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” Lynch later told Philadelphia Weekly. “I loved the fact that Philadelphia had a mood, and that mood was dark and foreboding. I felt industry. I felt smoke and fire and fear. I felt insanity. These things that I felt influenced me." Lynch has said that “industrial world” directly shaped the Eraserhead’s feel and sound.

6. IT TOOK FIVE YEARS TO FINISH THE FILM.

Eraserhead was in production for five years, largely because Lynch kept running out of money. He relied on AFI, his parents, and several friends for financial support, and picked up one other unusual source of funding …

7. LYNCH PAID FOR IT WITH HIS NEWSPAPER ROUTE.

To make ends meet, Lynch took a paper route; he delivered The Wall Street Journal during production, which earned him an extra $48 per week. This wasn’t actually a “day job,” as his route was scheduled during the night. Lynch also insisted on shooting Eraserhead at night, so at some point each evening, he’d have to suspend shooting to go complete his paper route.

8. SISSY SPACEK HELPED OUT ON SET.

Jack Fisk played the so-called “Man in the Planet,” and sometimes invited his girlfriend to the set. That girlfriend (and later wife) just happened to be Sissy Spacek. She would hold the slate while Fisk was on camera, which is why she received a “thanks” in the credits.

9. A TORTURE SCENE WAS CUT.

Lynch claims he cut three or four scenes from the final print, and one was a strange sequence where the main character Henry looks into a room with two women tied to a bed. They were not alone. There was also a man holding an electrical box with large cables and sparks leaping off it. He moves toward the women before the scene cuts, leaving his intentions to the imagination.

10. LYNCH WILL NEVER TELL HOW THE “BABY” WAS MADE.

Fans have speculated about how Lynch made the deformed baby prop (nicknamed “Spike”) for decades. Some say it’s a lamb fetus, others think it’s a skinned rabbit. But they might as well keep guessing, because Lynch has repeatedly refused to reveal its origins. Same goes for Jennifer, who won’t even tell her own daughter.

11. THE INITIAL REVIEWS WERE NOT KIND.

Eraserhead was not an immediate critical darling. In 1976, Variety called it “a sickening bad-taste exercise.” And that was a relatively early review. Eraserhead screened almost exclusively as a midnight movie for a couple years, but when it went wider in 1980, Tom Buckley at The New York Times was no fan, either. He dubbed it a “murkily pretentious shocker” with an “excruciatingly slow pace.” Ouch.

12. BUT MEL BROOKS LOVED IT.

Critics may have been initially cool on Lynch’s first feature film, but it garnered some famous fans. Stanley Kubrick called it his “favorite film” and Mel Brooks liked it so much, he gave Lynch a job. The story goes that when Lynch’s name was floated as a director for The Elephant Man, Brooks—the film's producer—had never heard of him. So Brooks went to see Eraserhead. After he got out of the theater, he went right up to Lynch and said, “You’re a madman, I love you, you’re in.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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