“In heaven, everything is fine.”
My first experience with David Lynch was seeing Mulholland Drive a few years back. I didn’t know much about the director yet, so I wasn’t sure at the time what he was really going for, but later research has helped me understand and come to appreciate his style. This was my first time seeing Eraserhead, and I actually found it to be a more interesting piece. As Lynch’s first film, you really get to see him play with dreams and surreal imagery for the first time, and I think being a lot less subtle actually helps Eraserhead. I felt like it had a more coherent message while still feeling like a David Lynch movie, and I was pretty entertained by the whole thing.
I was a bit worried by the first few minutes that this whole thing would play out like some surreal dream sequence without much grounding, but I think Lynch puts just enough cohesion into the plot to give context to the absurdity. I even found myself laughing at a lot of moments in the movie. The awkward dinner conversation between Henry and his girlfriend’s father is hilarious in an uncomfortable sense, and the ensuing incident cutting the chicken is disturbing but laughable. I found myself taking Eraserhead pretty lightly at times, understanding that the commentary and the vision had some charm to it as well. Some of the surrealism is so blatant that it can come off in a fun way, albeit still disturbing.
However, this is not to discount the grim overtones in Eraserhead. The industrial landscape of the film is stunning at times, and every location drags the mood down to a dark place. Henry’s apartment is dismal and depressing, with little touches of despair such as a framed portrait of a nuclear explosion in the background. There’s also the baby itself, a freakish lizard monster that I took to symbolize the consequences of Henry’s actions and the overarching despair of his passive life. The most jarring moments of the film seem to involve the baby, such as when Henry turns to find it sick and covered with boils or the climactic scene where Henry finally takes matters into his own hands. Lynch is effectively employing body horror, this very personal, physical horror that twists the familiarity of the human body for grotesque results. He accomplishes such a harrowing atmosphere at times, along with the decision to film in black-and-white, that Eraserhead reaches some serious lows in terms of tone.
There’s a lot of talk about the meaning behind Eraserhead, and I’m convinced after seeing the film that it’s a heavily about sex and consequence. Henry sees constant sexual imagery: the thrusting, gushing chicken on the table, the sperm creatures falling from the sky, the testicle-faced woman – it all serves to remind him of this fascinating, destructive act that left him with a child. I saw the child to actually exist and have premature birth defects, but I believe we see it in a horribly distorted way because Henry views it with such disdain and anxiety that it can only be viewed as a monster. I think most of the second half is a classic David Lynch dream sequence, except perhaps the climactic infanticide scene, which I believe is a real manifestation of Henry’s madness that he projects into the real world. I was also fascinated by the fatalism in the film: Henry’s terribly passive attitude as the world continues to do him wrong with no way out. I think these ideas came through a lot more clearly in Eraserhead than some other Lynch works, and I believe it helped keep the film engaging as well. Leaving your work open to too much interpretation can have it feeling hollow or evasive, and I think Lynch finds a nice balance with this movie.
I have to give praise to all the actors in the film as well. Jack Nance gives a heartbreaking, unsettling portrayal of a broken man and guides the film in a chillingly sympathetic way. His voice is always weak and cracking, furthering this fatalism that Lynch is conveying, and you almost root for him when he finally does something about his situation in the end. (Almost.) Laurel Near gives a wonderfully eerie performance as the Lady in the Radiator, as does Judith Anna Roberts as the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. While one is more fantastical and the other more grounded in reality, they both have a strange sexual presence that hits right at the theme of the film. All the actors seem on board for the vision Lynch is trying to convey, and the payoff is a splendid but disturbing work.
Where Eraserhead impresses me the most is its sound. David Lynch and Alan Splet spent nearly a year composing and incorporating the auditory elements for which Eraserhead has become famous. There’s always some kind of ambiance creating atmosphere in the background, but there are also these other noises to complement individual moments. Every door opening, dog barking, sperm-monster falling from the sky – it all hits you in a grotesque sort of way that complements the visual elements of the film. The sound is familiar and disgusting to the ears just as “body horror” is to the eyes. Lynch creates a distorted, unsettling world of absurdity for his protagonist to experience, and the sound is the driving factor behind all of this. It also makes the dialogue feel more precious, as it feels like some desperately-wanted humanity and reality in spite of all this despair and confusion.
I think it would be easy to dismiss Eraserhead as some surrealist experiment in cinematography and nothing more, but a closer look will show that it’s actually a calculated, impressive debut work. Every piece of scenery, every noise, every word spoken – it builds into a dismal experience that you are allowed a glimpse into for a brief 90 minutes. While it certainly isn’t for everyone, I found Eraserhead to be a fascinating, humorous, despairing look at some interesting themes. While I wasn’t always comfortable, it’s clear that I wasn’t always supposed to be, and this is a movie that I don’t plan on erasing from my head any time soon.
Films Left to Watch: 946