Dir. David Lynch
Written by: David Lynch
Starring: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart
Finally getting to write about Eraserhead, something that I’ve avoided ever doing despite enjoying the film for the last 15-odd years, should be a liberating experience, but it feels very daunting at the same time. It’s a film that I know well, having watched it over a dozen times since first experiencing it in my late teens via a little red Netflix envelope, but it’s a film that still vexes me in many ways. It’s the auspicious debut of my favorite filmmaker, and a dark indicator of the themes and content that would make up his ensuing output. Lynch’s filmography is celebrated, but also troubling, with his films asking audiences to bear witness to dark urges that exist buried deep within themselves. His films are designed to trigger deep-seeded anxieties and fears that rest at the core of the human experience. Eraserhead begins this trend with its look at the anxieties surrounding bringing new life into a flawed, disturbing world. Though it’s presented in an exceedingly strange package, at its core, Eraserhead is a look at the struggles of an everyman trying to get by in a world that is designed to sap him of his energy and his will to live. It took me a long time, and many, many repeated viewings to come to some sort of understanding of this film, but it was a process that was richly rewarding, and one which helped to open up my mind to new analyses of the films of my favorite director.
I wasn’t really ready for Eraserhead when I was 19 and I first saw the movie. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, because I did enjoy the movie, and I thought that it was delightfully weird and esoteric, but I didn’t have any sort of framework with which to really understand it. I had seen visually experimental, non-narrative films in college, but those didn’t seem to apply here. Eraserhead was using some of the tools of experimental cinema in a symbolic and narrative way that I had trouble reconciling. Even in reference to the other David Lynch films that I had seen, Eraserhead was something totally foreign and new. In Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr., I recognized the world that Lynch was depicting as somewhat similar to my own; even if I did find Mulholland Dr. narratively inscrutable, I still felt that I had some foothold into its world. Eraserhead, on the other hand, felt hermetically sealed, existing in a separate and decidedly interiorly-focused cinematic space, one that I could observe but not enter into in any meaningful way. The film’s bleak industrial-noir setting felt at first familiar, but it gave way to the unfamiliarity of tiny, misshapen chickens that ooze black inky liquid, hellish factories that turn men’s heads into pencil erasers, and, of course, one monstrous and insatiable infant. This was uncharted cinematic territory. Trying to cobble together meaning out of the film’s disparate and confusing imagery seemed impossible, but I was still drawn to the film. By the end of my first viewing of Eraserhead, I wasn’t sure exactly what I had watched, but I knew that I wanted more of it.
I’ve encountered countless films in my life that I’ve held up as seminal or formative in some way, and I encountered many of those for the first time in my late teens and early twenties, as my cinematic world was rapidly being expanded, and my understanding of the medium was growing by the day. Eraserhead found itself firmly in that group of highly meaningful films. Though I didn’t screen Eraserhead again for two years, it lingered around the periphery of my consciousness, its iconic images popping up from time to time. I expanded my viewership of Lynch’s films, but I still wasn’t able to find a direct line into the heart of Eraserhead through an auterist critical approach, which was often my preferred critical approach to films at the time. Even within this singularly weird filmography, Eraserhead stood as an outlier, defiantly experimental, refusing codification by my young brain. I read critical analyses of the film, which attempted to parse out its dense symbolism and orient it within the larger context of Lynch’s body of work, but still Eraserhead remained a mystery. Eventually, I just chalked up my lack of ability to come to complete grasps with the film to the mark of Lynch’s true artistic genius, and my own woeful shortcomings in that department.
While I’m certainly still not a genius on the level of any of the filmmakers I’ve been writing about for this project, much less on the level of a visionary like Lynch, I do think that I’ve come to a much more comfortable place of understanding with regards to Eraserhead. Clearly, Lynch is using the film to help work out some of his anxieties about his newfound status as a father, but it’s also obvious to Lynch fans that Eraserhead sets the table for all of the films and media projects that would come later. The film’s chaotic, densely-layered soundtrack points forward to Lynch’s continued sonic experimentation. He is known as a master of film sound, and that use of sound as a mood setting and narrative device is very much on display in Eraserhead. The film’s soundtrack swells with an omnipresent whooshing, intermittently interrupted by industrial banging and cranking. The way Lynch records the plaintive cries of Henry’s monstrous baby results in an unnerving caterwaul that stops far short of invoking sympathy in the audience.
Thematically, Eraserhead finds Lynch already mining the source material for his later films. Paranoia, anxiety, and voyeurism all factor heavily into Eraserhead, and Lynch will return to these ideas more explicitly in films like Blue Velvet and Lost Highway. Eraserhead is also one of Lynch’s most complete explorations of a dream space, as much of the film could be interpreted as an extended dream triggered by Henry’s fear of his impending fatherhood. Even if you eschew that reading, the film contains several notable scenes that explore Henry’s interior fantasies, including his obsession with the tiny woman who lives in the radiator, and the nightmare that gives the film its title, in which Henry’s head is stolen and sold to a factory where it is ground down to make pencil erasers. Dreams are privileged sources of symbolism and truth in Lynch’s work, and he often attempts to explore the liminal space between dreaming and the waking world, in which that truth is most accessible. We see dreamlike sequences in all of Lynch’s media, but Eraserhead is a bold film that spends nearly all of its time locked into its protagonist’s interiority.
I’ve neglected the plot synopsis that I typically write for each film because Eraserhead’s narrative can be summed up in just a sentence or two. Henry (Nance) is informed by Mary (Stewart) that she has given birth to his child, though she isn’t sure that their offspring is a child at all. The couple marry and take the baby back to Henry’s one room apartment, where it is revealed to be a monstrous lizard creature, without arms or legs, that cries incessantly. Mary can’t handle the crying and she leaves Henry alone, to go insane as he tries to care for a creature that he can’t understand or relate to. The film is narratively straight forward and simple, though its surface weirdness might obfuscate this, but it is incredibly symbolically dense. Henry is trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare and the only logic that can prevail is the logic of the dream, therefore we are presented with a stream of imagery that makes no narrative sense, but carries deep symbolic truth. Henry’s responses when faced with the responsibility of caring for his child are all in some way attempts to infantilize himself. He dreams of the lady in the radiator, which represents a womblike space, and when he finally connects with his beautiful neighbor (Judith Roberts), they have sex in, and eventually submerge themselves in, a pool of milk. Henry’s apartment is strangely symbolic itself, with mounds of dirt on his furniture, many of which are sprouting small trees or shrubs. The apartment should seem like a productive, organic, space, but instead these strange dirt piles give the room a fetid and decaying feeling. Of course the most obvious symbolic element in Eraserhead is the baby itself, which both Henry and Mary view as a monstrous Other. The baby is an unwanted imposition in their lives, and, as such, they view it in a way that allows them to disassociate themselves with their offspring. This disassociation leads to Mary’s abandonment of the child and Henry’s ultimate infanticide/mercy killing. These are just a few of the more obvious symbolic signifiers in Eraserhead, but the film is rich with impressionistic dream sequences, non-sequitur dialogue, and other-worldly imagery, which allow for a richness of unique interpretations of the film.
This fluidity of meaning is one of the things that I think initially drew me to Eraserhead, and that has kept me coming back to the film as frequently as I do. Although I’ve settled on my own interpretation of the film, I still find myself challenged by it with each subsequent screening, and I often find myself considering it in a new context, based on my own changing life experiences or on my changing relationship to the film and to related media. Watching Eraserhead in 2018 with the viewing experience of Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return fresh in my mind was a totally different experience than any other time I’ve seen the film. For me, the newest season of Twin Peaks functions as Lynch’s magnum opus. It contains throughlines and references to Lynch’s earlier films and serves to bring all of his disparate thematic and aesthetic concerns together in one dense, strange viewing experience. I felt several affinities between Lynch’s first feature and what I believe will be his final visual media project, and my recent screening of Eraserhead only strengthened those connections for me.
I found a thematic kinship between Henry’s abandonment by Mary and subsequent retreat from adult responsibility and Audrey Horne’s (Sherilyn Fenn) curious appearances in The Return. Though the narrative circumstances in each case are quite different, something about the dreaminess and illogical, circular dialogue used in both Eraserhead and in Audrey’s scenes with her husband Charlie felt very similar. Both characters are being neglected and emotionally abused by people close to them, though Audrey’s victimhood seems more obviously apparent, while Henry seems to be in a more mutually dysfunctional relationship where he, too, adds to Mary’s mental anguish. Both characters are infantilized, with Charlie’s gaslighting of Audrey keeping her in a subservient and dependent role, and Henry’s chosen retreat away from responsibility and into the safety of a childlike interior fantasy world. In the end, both characters are also last seen in a blindingly white space. Eraserhead has a superficially happy ending, with Henry finally uniting with the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), whose earlier song reminded the audience that “in Heaven, everything is fine,” indicating that Henry has killed himself after killing the baby. This marks the furthest expression of Henry’s retreat, as his suicide can be read as a rejection of all of life’s responsibilities.
In The Return, Lynch reverses this dynamic to some extent with Audrey’s final scene, in which she reprises her iconic dance from Twin Peaks. Audrey’s dance is interrupted by a fight breaking out and she rushes towards Charlie, who is sitting at the bar, imploring him to get her out of there. There is a brief crackle of electricity, and Audrey appears in a starkly white room, staring at her face, sans makeup, in a vanity mirror. She, and the audience, are stricken by this jarring change of scenery, and it throws into question the handful of scenes in which Audrey has appeared thus far in The Return. This being Twin Peaks, the most operative reading of the scene is that there are two Audrey’s, and we are discovering that the “real” Audrey has been trapped in a Lodge all along. However, there is some indication to support a reading that Audrey’s interactions with Charlie may have been a dream or a vision that she had, before waking up, confused, in the white room, which appears not dissimilar to a mental hospital. Though there is very little of the white space around Audrey shown, she appears to be wearing a white hospital gown, and the sheer blankness of the space indicates a sterile, clinical setting. This reading, when coupled with the ending of Eraserhead, provides for a very bleak vision, indeed. Audrey dreams of a sad and dysfunctional life, from which she is ripped during her one moment of ecstasy performing her dance, while living a reality that may be even more maddening. Henry’s narrative begins with an unhappy reality from which he retreats into a dream that is by turns menacing and seductive, ultimately succumbing to the temptation to live in the dream by taking his own life and murdering his child. For these characters there isn’t any easy way out, and the few reveries they get to experience are symbolically and explicitly linked to madness and death.
Eraserhead is a landmark film, a bench mark and a step forward for modern surrealist filmmaking. While Bunuel and Jodorowsky were making films that set their aims on societal structures such as religion and class through an experimental and surrealist viewpoint, Lynch sought to examine the more personal territory of the human mind and emotion. He had trouble getting financing for the film and it took over five years to complete, as the production was plagued with complications. When Eraserhead finally arrived, it was a film that was seen as a visionary work by some and a confounding mess by many, although its stature in film history has certainly appreciated over time to the point that it is almost universally regarded as a classic. I have come to love the film for what it represents as the true foundational text in my favorite filmmaker’s body of work, as well as for the singular viewing experience that Eraserhead provides. There’s not a film that I can think of that is quite like it, and it is a film that two people can walk away from with markedly different opinions about and experiences of, and I really like that. More than many of the movies that I’ve written about, Eraserhead isn’t for everyone, but for the initiated it’s a rewarding treasure of a cinematic experience, with iconic visual imagery, rich symbolic nuance, and a terrifyingly original vision.