If you read one my recent articles on how I got into surrealism as a genre you may remember me mentioning David Lynch’s 1977 film, ‘Eraserhead’. Now I talked about it very briefly there but I want to go into more detail about it – if anything just because it’s considered to be such a landmark work in terms of both surrealism and horror.
And there we have our first issue – what actually is it? While I totally get on board with the whole ‘you don’t have to put it in a genre’ thing, I would still say that it’s two most prominent elements are genre and horror. Now I think Horror is the word that people might disagree with, despite the fact that it follows the nightmares of Henry (John Nance), a lot of people would claim that it’s not a horror film because it has no elements which are intended to frighten. Now firstly I think that’s a far too specific term for horror, and secondly I was honestly pretty scared while watching this. It has this constant frantic and dark undertone, so you genuinely have no idea when something weird is going to happen. As well, I think there are a number of scenes that do have some quite disturbing imagery in them, But more into that later.
First of all let’s look at where the film came from. Many of you might know David Lynch as the guy who directed the sci-fi classic ‘Dune’ (1984) and the ‘Twin Peaks’ series (1990-91.) Before any of this though Lynch went to study painting in Pennsylvania, later moving to producing short films. It wasn’t so long after that he moved to Los Angeles and that’s where his debut picture ‘Eraserhead’ came from. Lynch’s style is usually very surreal, any exposition he uses is minimalist and the overall imagery in his films is pretty off the wall – but for me this film is the weirdest. It was produced on a minimalist budget, and yet conveys an atmosphere that many films struggle to, in a way it’s an early triumph of independent American cinema. Lynch himself stated in an early interview that…
“it needed to look a certain way, and the look comes about from what’s in front of the camera and how it’s lit”
Then right off the bat we have an insight into his focus when filming, and that’s what came through for me when watching it. The film is shot in black and white, with grainy textures and crackling audio. The low budget feel lends itself to the distance of it, makes you feel even more that you’re looking in on someone else’s nightmare. I think that’s an initial thing I like about it. While a lot of surrealism tends to mirror parts of our own psyche, and perhaps ‘Eraserhead’ does this on some level, it retains it’s ambiguity and instead feels like a distant vision of someone else’s psyche instead. This makes it all the more disturbing, as there’s very little of the film you could watch and say ‘yeah, that’s just like me’. The aforementioned audio contributes also to an overall nightmarish feel, but one that’s distinctly separate. Lynch goes on to comment that the soundtrack, as well as the design, was…
“inspired by the city of Philadelphia, and it’s an industrial world. It’s a smokestack-industry world. It’s factory-worker homes tucked away out of time. It has a certain feel, and the sounds have to marry to that feel.”
So again, we can see Lynch’s perspective on marrying up these elements of film-making to produce a very specific nightmare. And while many people see and relate to different meanings of the film’s content, the setting and production of the film feel intensely distant from many elements of our own lives.
Then of course there’s the content itself. Yeah there is definitely a plot in there, as a young Henry meets a girl, meets her parents and ends up having a child with her – but it’s more about the process of those events rather than the events themselves. Again, i’m going to look at the film as having these series of events at their core, but producing surreal images around them almost as a kind of distorted exploration of them – like having Lynch do his own commentary on a series of normal events. The acting style of the characters throughout is anxious – every line is delivered with a certain stiffness which feels deliberate, and so the result is that any viewer feels nervous watching it. The camera angles linger often so you end up feeling like you’re watching something you shouldn’t. I suppose the best way to pick out this style further is just to show some examples.
One that I think most people would remember is the dinner table sequence. This is when Henry meets Mary X’s (Charlotte Stewart) parents and has a decidedly awkward meal with them. There’s vast silences which seem to fill up the very room you’re sitting in, as well as a small section where Mary’s mother makes sexual advances on Henry – perhaps a comment on the desperation of age, or the young male fear of older female figures – who knows to be honest. But I suppose what you call the party piece of this scene is when a small roast bird is served up the table. Henry is asked to carve the bird by the father figure, who appears void and generally dis-empowered in the scene. As Henry does so the bird flaps it’s wings and blood pours out of it (I’m presuming it was blood) – as well as that Mary’s mother begins to enter a trance like state of moaning. It’s kind of sexual ad kind of torturous – either way it’s difficult to watch and ends with Mary storming out. Now perhaps this is a comment on the mantle of ‘fatherhood’ being passed from the old to the young, or maybe the mother’s reluctance to let her child go as Henry seems to be physically affecting the mother with every one of his actions. To be honest I don’t know. But the surrealist imagery of the whole thing puts you about – once again you feel like you’re looking in on something you shouldn’t be. I found myself clutching my desk and tensed up ridiculously. At the same time it’s something you can’t turn away from, it hypnotises you.
Another example is the dream sequence. Throughout parts of the film Henry is taunted and flirted with by the radiator woman, a partially deformed woman who I think represents Henry longing for fresh sexual experience and an overall fear of commitment. In this particular dream sequence Henry is put into a trance by the radiator woman and ends up appearing at a kind of circus-esque courtroom (after watching both the woman and a small man dance on a stage.) During this sequence he gets decapitated and turned into a pencil at a factory. I mean – there’s nothing really I can say more to emphasis just how purely random this sequence seems. You don’t really understand what’s going on and that’s what feels so uncomfortable. Again, you get the sense that you’re in someone else’s nightmare, someone else’s head. In this sense the character of Henry develops quite well, different viewers building different views of him. I suppose it could have been interesting to explore the other characters too but in doing this I think the film would have lost it’s momentum. By sticking with Henry you feel totally engrossed in his world.Although the downside of that is that your viewpoint is constantly with Henry, with a camera sometimes lingering for what feels a little too long. I ended up wanting it to skip to the next scene just to see what happens next, and I suppose that touches on the difficult aspect of surrealism – that being how to keep an audiences attention when you’re not doing something surreal as such.
Now i’ve deliberately tried to avoid discussing the potential ‘meanings’ of the film just because it’s so difficult to decipher. Not only that but Lynch is deliciously vague about specific interpretations of the film, with most critics agreeing that each individual viewer has their own experience with it’s themes. The one thing I will say is that I (and many others) believe it concerns the fear of fatherhood. After all, Henry’s child is a grotesque, Xenomorph-type creature as we see in a disturbing scene where Henry ends up stabbing it to stop it’s hideous cries. There’s a total absence of paternal love, and instead we see the dramatic nature of Henry’s anxiety and fear towards the very idea of fatherhood. I would also go on to say that Henry seems to have an overall fear of responsibility. Even putting aside the parenthood thing, Henry’s anxiety stems also from doing typical ‘adult’ things like meeting a spouse’s parents and moving in with said partner. It’s not so much child-like fear, but a kind of mid-20s fear of falling so far from your adolescence and being forced to accept responsibility for more than just one’s own self. You could also see this in his longing for the radiator woman representing his longing for days before this responsibility was forced on him. As well as that, his sequence in the courtroom and as a victim of the ‘pencil-execution’ (no idea what to call that) shows his fear of punishment, like he’s being judged by a higher power. This higher power is not God, but rather the expectations of others and even society for him to take on the whole concept of responsibility – reinforced further by the industrial, workforce setting. Even from the beginning Henry is alone in a desolate apartment – it’s like he’s stepped into the working world for the first time and feels a distinct and piercing fear.
Though that’s only my opinion, and I really would suggest watching this film just to see what you make of it. The surrealist tone throughout is oppressive and therefore conveys the same oppression Henry feels. I believe that although the story feels deliberately distant, it concerns an anxiety that many could identify with. Whether you have kids or not, whatever age it was you entered the working world alone – I think the majority of us can identify with that first fear of the empty space of the world, the little anxiety that whispers ‘what if you mess it all up?’ The reason I love ‘Eraserhead’ for this is that is puts across Henry’s story as just that – an example of someone else’s story – but the themes feel unnervingly close. It’s horrific imagery acts as an exaggerated form of this anxiety and so for me it brought the point closer to home, despite the fact I don’t have kids myself.
I usually hate saying things like this but I think you should watch (or at least try to watch) this film just as a staple of surrealist and independent cinema. Lynch is a fantastic director to get into if only because he influenced so many others. The film may leave you totally cold but it’s a spectacular example of post modern surrealism in a fairly contemporary setting. It’ll assault every sense you have, but it’ll be worth it, if anything, just to see a perfect example of surrealism taking an everyday emotion and completely ripping it apart.