James Crawford on Eraserhead
A confession: I came late to the David Lynch party. Which in some cinephile circles is cause for excommunication. Like not praising Wajda. Or Von Sternberg. Or failing to worship at the altar of Bulle Ogier. I came late to Lynch because I never had a film-obsessed companion to insist that my life wasn’t complete until I’d seen Blue Velvet or The Elephant Man, which seems to be how most burgeoning film critics are drawn into his peculiar universe. That is, until a friend and I decided to go see Lost Highway on one unoccupied high school afternoon. (Canada is very liberal about kids watching this kind of thing). Not knowing exactly what to expect, the film made me furious. It came off as a resounding fuck-you to the audience, because it assiduously avoided coherence or identification. (Incidentally my friend loved it, but he also laughed all the way through David Fincher’s Seven—clearly not a kid to be trusted). So began a crusade against Lynch—mere mention of his name prompted untold vitriol. And then came Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet, chiefly because people I hold in esteem kept insisting on his brilliance; and while I began to warm to some of his sequences (the too-good-to-be-true Technicolor and decayed underbrush reveal to inaugurate Blue Velvet poked more holes in the myth of bucolic suburbia than all of American Beauty), full-on love didn’t follow. Until it came time to see Eraserhead for this blind-spot symposium. I’m finally beginning to get David Lynch’s aesthetic and intentions (or at least I’d like to think so), and I am willing to profess grand affection for this most idiosyncratic of pompadour’d directors.
Eraserhead was one of the more difficult films I’ve had to grapple with in any context, particularly for this magazine, and for no other text have multiple viewings seemed so necessary. Each time revealed more nuances, more clues as to what it is “about” (though I’m not sure that I have yet arrived at a definitive one, because it is filled with so much stuff). To reflect these ever-changing opinions, this piece is structured into two separate impressions; for the sake of brevity, all viewings following the first are lumped together.
Trying to summarize Eraserhead is like trying describe Guernica to someone who has never seen it. Somehow, relating the sum total of images, themes, and bleak color is inadequate, for they don’t explain the purely visceral reaction to Picasso’s piece, the gut-punch experience of contemplating such grand chaos. Similarly Eraserhead has to be experienced, and more so than other Lynch films, it requires giving yourself over to the film and submitting to its singular, rather difficult logic. As such, its perverse audiovisual delirium—intense, immersive, at once feverish and shockingly mundane—doesn’t translate well into words. To say that Eraserhead is about dreams is akin to saying that Guernica is about war. In many ways, Lynch’s film is like an avant-garde work from the Thirties, and what comes to mind most potently is Limite (li-MI-chay), a feature length work by Brazilian director Mario Peixoto. Peixoto uses a threadbare plot—the back stories of three ocean castaways adrift in a rowboat—as a coalescing center for graphical constructions and visual analogies that beg deconstruction metaphor and simile (in Limite themes of bondage, imprisonment, and boundaries—all forms of limits), but also has constructions that are internally, hermetically constrained. The repeated trope of a latticed windowpane with a view of nothing but a brick wall, and the vertical striations created by his radiator suggest imprisonment from the outside world, but it’s also possible to deny latent content. There’s a certain pleasure to simply revelling in the content-neutral black-and-white chiaroscuro patterns created of light sources just beyond visual reach—jagged lights glowing and receding just outside the window, and a mysterious ethereal glow emanating from behind the radiator—and marvelling at neural graphical correspondences.
Eraserhead begins in the mind of Henry Spencer (John Nance), in a dream where Henry’s face and torso is translucently superimposed over the cosmos, drifting slowly up across the screen. We slowly approach a craggy planet, traverse one of its canyons and eventually enter a sheet-iron shack through the gaping hole in its roof. There the camera encounters a lithe, bare-chested man covered in pustules staring blankly out a window, his knees inches away from train-track switch levers. Lynch intercuts this sight with Henry, out of whose gaping mouth blossoms a worm-like figure resembling a brain stem. Starman pulls some levers, the worm slides offscreen as though flushed down a toilet, and falls into a crater of tepid water, which immediately begins to seethe and boil. Panning left over an inky expanse of gently floating bubbles—like the lazy effervescence of just-poured cola—the frame advances towards a jagged, blindingly white hole in a sea of black, and we dissolve to Henry, looking to all the world like a frightened rabbit. So begins a film of contradictions. Henry looks at the camera, but still manages to avoid its gaze. His vision of himself is simultaneously surreal and dull—Henry’s suit, funereal in cut and color, armed with a pocket protector no less, contrasts with the brain-stem issuing forth from his mouth. The liquid froths like acid in water, but then gives way to placid, organic patterns. When the dream ends, Henry is staring at the camera, shaken and scared like he’s been visited by a specter.
But is it a dream? The camera advancing towards a circle of white light could as easily be levitation towards death as awaking from sleep. And the world Spencer enters into—literally, through a hulking behemoth of a door—is just as nightmarish and purgatorial as the one just exited. Not a soul does Henry encounter as he trudges home, and he barely ever leaves his apartment. His girlfriend’s family is a gallery of grotesques; his baby turns out to be a squealing worm-brain thing that looks eerily like his dream; his apartment is rotting and full of organic detritus; and over the whole scene, a symphony of ominous, disturbing sounds—electromagnetic humming, hissing steam, clanking machinery. Woven throughout is a mammoth bravura succession of shifting fantasies, hallucinations, visions of indeterminate character—it is tempting to say that Henry dreams them all, but it’s never really certain if the apocalypse in which Henry finds himself is itself dream—populated by characters from his life (the nubile woman across the hall is the subject of one fantasy) and others of his own invention (a hyperbolically and grotesquely chubby-cheeked lass singing on the stage hidden behind the radiator). He also visits the family home of his girlfriend May (who gives birth to the alien worm-baby), a nightmare of domestic discord.
Eraserhead’s overall structure similarly thwarts attempts at definitive interpretation, being a series of intense fever dreams and escapist reveries interrupted by a mundane reality. That reality also contains obtrusive elements of intense phantasmagoria, and yet the image of a baked, “man-made” miniature chicken suddenly coming to life—moving its limbs and spurting a fountain of blood—seems commonplace and unsurprising. In that sense, Eraserhead partners with Buñuel, because it resists the traditional dichotomies splitting fantasy and actuality (absurdist dream logic versus concrete reality logic), suggesting instead the slipperiness and permeability between the two. The radiator-chanteuse’s hair resembles Henry’s wife (but is played by a different actor); the brain stem and the baby have the same nematode physiology. In Mulholland Drive, set in the fantasy factory of contemporary Hollywood, the structure was employed to get at the correspondences between the cinematic apparatus and human dreams; in Eraserhead, there isn’t a similarly graspable hook, and the same structure is use to expand the limits of cinematic expression. With his absent wife, grotesque alien baby, decaying household, and the escape within ugly fantasy, Lynch seems to be excoriating the myth of the American nuclear family. But this is ultimately a MacGuffin. Like a modern-day surrealist (or perhaps a putrefactive equivalent to the literary magical realist movement), Eraserhead is not primarily interested in constructing meaning. Rather, in eliding the difference between figurative dreams and literal ones, it’s about exploring how much anti-narrative the audience will accept. For Eraserhead is an assault on the senses—in addition to surrealist visuals, the film is filled with all manner of subtle acoustic menace—and I can only imagine the totalized sensory experience of witnessing it on the big screen instead of through my tinny, tiny television.
Seeing Eraserhead a second time (no director benefits more from multiple viewings than Lynch; this particular work more so than most) significantly reconfigures my initial impression. The most salient difference is that the film seems so mundane, though that’s not meant in the pejorative sense. In repeated screenings, familiarity doesn’t so much breed contempt as acceptance, and a second time around, nothing seems quite so weird. More to the point, the whole metaphysical conundrum—the underlying instability where it was uncertain whether this world was purgatory or indeed a dream-within-a-dream—is rendered moot by a revelation. About 40 minutes in, as the camera observes a corner of Henry’s one-room apartment, a small picture of an atom-bomb mushroom cloud is plainly evident above his bed, suggesting that this is indeed some apocalyptic future or nuclear winter and not the product of someone’s addled imagination (there are people present, but they are unseen, suggested through ambient sounds such as tinkering dance-hall music). There is perhaps no better way to express the anxieties surrounding the nuclear family (I think the pun is intentional) than in that milieu. And now it becomes clear that domesticity really is a target for Lynch’s camera. In addition to Mary’s creepily beatific father and borderline mentally retarded mother, traditional views of the home are travestied in more subtle ways—shot in wide angle, the dining room takes on a distended perspective; Henry is asked to cut the miniature “man-made” chickens with a knife that resembles a gigantic curved scimitar. And not so subtle ways: What else is that grotesque baby than a farcical punishment for having a child out of wedlock? And is there any more obvious simile than a flat adorned with rotting piles of dirt and grass?
These dreams, as well as being hermetic objects of astounding surrealist construction, are means for Henry to escape domestic drudgery, and in that incredible, perpetually shifting sequence, Lynch explores dreams in all their different valences: night-time reveries, daydreams, fantasies—both escapist and erotic. Henry’s hatred for his constantly mewling baby is sublimated into fantasy, in which the radiator lady stomps on and kills a number of wormy surrogates; his anger at Mary is displaced onto a vision where he pulls little babies out of her stomach womb—for Henry, corruption’s name is woman. Henry’s frustration with his wife is plainly borne out in a fantasised tryst with his neighbour across the hall. Far from being latent, these sequences have meanings that are manifestly clear, and surprisingly, they are constrained in film vocabulary familiar from Hollywood narrative that makes them readily identifiable as fantastical visions.
So why the grand difference from initial to subsequent viewings? I think it has to do with the consistently astonishing images that unfold in an unending tumble. Just as you’re assimilating and deciphering one composition (say, the ailing infant recovering next to something so commonplace as a humidifier), Lynch hits you with another (an immense close-up of the gaping chicken’s maw spewing frothy blood), and as soon as some meaning is generated between shocking juxtapositions, the scene is changed again. In these cases, the cerebral subordinates itself to visual overload, and the most minute connections are overlooked. The concealed (and fairly obvious) content becomes readily available because the second time around, the images are familiar. The connections and arguments Lynch makes are fairly straightforward (e.g. “In Heaven, everything is fine,” while this physical world is resolutely fucked up) but are rendered in a bewilderingly destabilizing fashion.
Which is why this film helps to illuminate the brilliance of David Lynch’s subsequent oeuvre: in Eraserhead lies the kernel of how he renders the familiar fantastical, and how he makes the surreal feel amazingly mundane.