By Jeremy Carr.
David Lynch, via the Criterion Collection’s newly released Blu-ray of Eraserhead (1977), includes a television calibration option as a supplemental feature. With this, Lynch emphasizes that what we are about to see is a visual experience. It is important, therefore, and rightly so, that we adequately prepare to absorb said imagery. The textured black and white cinematography by Frederick Elmes (the film’s second though primary DP) is punctuated by deep, dark shadows provocatively obscuring what is perhaps best left obscured. And Lynch’s brilliant and disturbing compositions of the banal bolstered by the bizarre are what contribute most to the film’s effectiveness.
But just as much as Eraserhead is a visual experience, it, like so many of Lynch’s other films, is an aurally ambitious work as well. This Renaissance man has worked with music and sound a great deal outside of movies, so it makes sense that his films would emit an evocative cacophony of audio detail. Here, these elements range from unidentifiable ambient noise to wind, humming, some electronic sources, and the grading of factory labor.
A celestial set-up begins the film, with spherical planetary bodies and starlight suggesting that the following drama is not of this world; it could very well be of a wholly other sphere of existence. Even in its most realistic sequences, Eraserhead exists in the realm of an equally foreign time and place. As we move in further, we enter a box of sorts, its dimensions indeterminate. For in these shots, there is no concrete gauge to judge space, size, or scope. There is a man there though, with levers and machinery that seem to be running things. He is scarred with scabs of fleshly disfigurement. There is also a reappearing wormlike organism that splashes down in water. Dust rises and the camera pushes in further, moving into the light.
Now in the apparent real world, we meet Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), who is looking behind the camera. Did he see what we just did, or has something else caught his eye? What is troubling this strange looking fellow with tall frizzy hair stretching to the heavens? Henry is anguished, agitated, and anxious. He is troubled by the faulty electronics that plague nearly every building he enters (a frequent Lynch motif), just as he is hot and bothered by the come-hither seduction of his neighbor (Judith Roberts). After all, he is spoken for. He has a girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), and he is to meet her for dinner. Their relationship is unsound though. We know this by a ripped up picture Henry keeps, Mary’s photo torn at the head.
The dinner with Mary and her parents elicits a good deal of laughter—a coping mechanism perhaps, finding comedy in the uneasy so as not to be simply disturbed. But it is funny (those little chickens, Mary’s eccentric father, played by Allen Joseph). Yet it is also awkward and, on occasion, terrifying (mother and daughter spasms, the disgustingly amplified sounds of puppies nursing). During this hellish dinner, we get key elements of the narrative. It’s revealed that Henry has a job, for instance. He’s a printer at one of the nearby factories (“Henry’s very clever at printing,” Mary proudly declares). As Henry gets the third degree from Mrs. X (Jeanne Bates), we also find out Mary has given birth and the baby is at the hospital—one of the most unsettling lines of the film, from Mary: “They’re not even sure it is a baby!”
As this outing sets the scene in terms of Eraserhead’s story, it is simultaneously abounding with the fascinating, amusing, and disquieting. These appear as small details, as in the clock with only one hand, and as more elaborate bits of business, as when Mrs. X manhandles the immobile grandmother into tossing the salad before she lights the static old lady a cigarette. Key dialogue comes from Mr. X (Bill, he is also called). He decries the current state of affairs when “people think pipes grow in their home.” While this is a continuation of his occupational complaining, it also alludes to the organic nature of many of Eraserhead’s settings. Henry’s apartment, for example, is adorned with mounds of dirt, and we see grass, soil, and weeds invading interiors throughout the picture. The way this town is constructed, pipes very well may grow in homes.
The industrial wasteland Henry inhabits is a granular melding of earth and man, overlapping unnaturally together, the discarded remnants of each altering this desolate and inhospitable landscape. Generally, this is a place no one should live in. But people do reside here. The area is indeed populated. There are horns and whistles, grinding and pounding; there is work being done somewhere, by someone. There is also distant music, a haunting melody performed by an unseen musician for an unseen audience.
One of Eraserhead’s defining features is its use of setting, and in several of the interviews included with this Criterion disc, Lynch and his collaborators revisit the film’s locations. It is revealing that when returning to discuss the movie, those involved head back to where it was filmed, as if they need to become once again absorbed and influenced by its atmosphere in order to come to terms with their own experience. While apparently much of the film’s urban design was based on Lynch’s fear and dislike of Philadelphia, the Los Angeles sites seen in their real world context never once betray that they could have served as backdrops for this most unusual picture. Eraserhead may be many things, but foremost among them is that it is an excellent example of a cinematically constructed and creatively manipulated place.
Some time passes, and the new parents are living together in Henry’s apartment. And with them is their child, a supremely intriguing example of low budget ingenuity on the part of David Lynch. This “baby” is one horrendous creature, and its practical construction and functioning is mind-boggling and left to speculation (Lynch has never told how he made the little guy). The baby only exacerbates the rocky relationship. A sick kid, difficulty sleeping, sexual frustration, temptation, infidelity; all of this leads to a fairly straightforward narrative of an unhappy couple becoming unprepared parents. Following the film’s prologue, Eraserhead goes along on a relatively “normal” storyline. A storyline with more than its fair share of strangeness, granted, but a clear plot progression nevertheless.
But then we get a reappearance of the worms, insertions of indistinguishable fluids and objects and, most memorably, and, actually kind of pleasantly, there is the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near). This diminutive women, as her name implies, lives in the radiator of Henry’s apartment. Her chubby plaster-cast cheeks and her song and dance routine may simply be a figment of Henry’s imagination, but her presence is like a “beacon of light,” according to Lynch, and her pleasant demeanor provides brief respites of escape and entertainment for the uncertain father.
The latter third of Eraserhead veers into more ambiguous territory, with some of the film’s most enigmatic actions and grotesque images. During this, we meet several new characters, including a young child, a homeless person, and some workers at what appears to be a pencil factory (where we discover the meaning of the film’s title). This brief disjointed interlude is probably Henry’s dream, and like any of the aforementioned moments of weirdness, one can read into its significance whatever one wishes. But there is, at Eraserhead’s most basic level, a rather typical story told in this atypical fashion. Though filled with surreal illustrations, it would be inaccurate to categorize the picture as a nonnarrative, experimental, or avant-garde work. There is an uneasy and disconcerting pacing, but there is a pacing, and while we’re not quite sure of the causal factors that drive some of the action, there is an essential beginning, middle, and end, with, make no mistake, many digressions and departures in between.
Still, after rewatching the film, I’m left to wonder if Eraserhead’s arresting visuals amount to as much as they did when I first saw them. The film itself has never left me. It’s one of my favorite movies and was my introduction to David Lynch, a favorite filmmaker. But now, so much of what makes (or made) Eraserhead so mesmerizing and uncanny almost seems clichéd. Are we so jaded and desensitized that even a film like this may fail to get a rise out of some viewers, or is it that the film now seems less the groundbreaking work of original filmic art and more a model of so many pretentiously artsy student films? Or is that what Eraserhead was to begin with?
In any event, one of the most insightful bonus features on the Criterion Blu-ray is a 1979 interview with Lynch and Elmes. Here, Lynch reiterates his description of the film as “a dream of dark and troubling things,” and certainly, dream logic and a dreamlike construction are apt associations to make with Eraserhead and its nightmarish features. To this, however, Elmes issues a cautionary distinction, asserting that the film is “more dream than nightmare.” Dream or nightmare, this assessment of the film’s ominous tone and formal design grants Eraserhead analytical freedom. Whether what happens in the film is real or not, as Lynch puts it, “anything goes” as far as interpretation. He dubs the movie an “open feeling film,” acknowledging that it’s knowingly abstract, that it’s meant to be. It’s not “thrown together,” he clarifies, but it is a “subconscious experience.”
A cop-out rationale, perhaps (you either get it or you don’t), but these qualifications are worth noting because they do ultimately give Eraserhead its power and its lasting appeal. True, the film is abstract, but it’s so masterfully assembled (over the course of nearly five years), so wonderfully realized, and so engagingly orchestrated, that it never feels affected or falsely eccentric. Indeed, Lynch is genuinely earnest in his discussions about Eraserhead’s weirdness. It’s odd, yes, but his explanations and reasonings are personal, sincere, and deeply felt, just as the film is for its admirers.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Bright Lights Film Journal, CineAction, Sound on Sight, and Moving Pictures Magazine.