David Lynch’s Eraserhead oozes strangeness and screeches in discomfort. While it revealed Lynch as an auteur-in-the-making, Eraserhead only partially formulated his uniquely disturbing artistic vision.
Today, Lynchian is used with a variety of associations in mind, from the macabre to the absurd, the grotesque to the cerebral. It represents an aesthetic that collects the randomness and the significance of dreams and finds truth in the dichotomies of reality: light and dark, life and death, society and crime, order and chaos, machinery and nature.
Eraserhead is not Lynchian, but it has half of the equation: the darker half. In this first feature film released in 1977, the picturesque is nowhere to be found among a desolate, apocalyptic wasteland of machines and machine-like people and inanimate objects.
The movie follows the misery and madness of Henry Spencer, played by Jim Nance, a frizzy-haired man of few words whose barren life is interrupted when he finds he has a child with an appearance resembling semen or an alien more than anything human.
Lynch has said that Eraserhead is a movie about his time in Philadelphia, where he went to art school, married Peggy Lynch and fathered his daughter Jennifer. But he grew up in the American Midwest with what he called the perfect childhood, “tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass.” Eraserhead’s depiction of Philadelphia is just as telling of a rundown city as it is to the unhappiness of a young man thrust into it and living out the nightmare of unexpected fatherhood.
It’s dark, visually, in black and white, with a gruesome aesthetic that Lynch used again in The Elephant Man. But the Lynchian includes both the beautiful and the ugly often within a single frame. That phenomenon arrived with Blue Velvet.
In Lynch’s second written and directed movie, Jeffery, played by Kyle MacLachlan, is strolling through a field in an idyllic American town, Lumberton, when he finds a severed ear in the grass. As Jeffery investigates, he finds the more complex, the ugly, and the brutish just under the surface of his suburb, yet that is itself not without pleasurable images.
Singer Dorothy Vallens (played by Isabella Rossellini) performs “Blue Velvet” beautifully, which drives her sociopathic kidnapper Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) into fits of rage and raging pleasure. But more interestingly, it examines the intentions behind Jeffery’s curiosity, which takes the form of voyeurism. Is Jeffery noble and a part of the upstanding community? Or is he perverse like the criminal underbelly of the city?
The beauty and ugliness, the good and bad, act as gestalts to interpret Jeffery and love itself. Midway through the movie, Frank’s friend Ben (Dean Stockwell) sings Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”: “In dreams, you’re mine all the time, forever, in dreams.” In the context of Blue Velvet, “you’re mine” can be seen equally as a genuine love or perversely controlling and possessive.
The two tones and their interpretations add an unsettling depth to the Lynchian, not quite produced in the bleak Eraserhead. There is no love in Eraserhead or redemption to be found. The nearest beauty is the sexual commingling of Henry and “the beautiful neighbor” into a pool, followed by an abstract visual of fluids blended together. But the child cries throughout and the neighbor watches out of the side of her eye, creating an effect closer to horror than anything else.
After the fame of Elephant Man and Dune but before the genius of Blue Velvet, Lynch summarized his first feature film as a “dream of dark and troubling things.” Everything Lynch has made, has a dream-like quality. In Eraserhead, the entire setting feels reduced to the shadows of a dream. Its inhabitants often act with dream logic, that is, unexpected or exaggerated behavior and unexpectedly tame reactions.
The dinner scene at Mary’s, the mother of his child, is a good example. Henry reacts with a mild curiosity or disgust to the freak show of a rotisserie chicken moving, the mother biting him, and to his child’s alien appearance. Just as in a dream from which you wake up and realize how strange and abnormal were the things and events you took for granted. Then, there is the fantastic: Henry and the neighbor’s encounter, the radiator, and him losing his head.
In Blue Velvet, Lynch builds the setting on a more realistic version of reality that incorporates the surreal. That is to say, anything bizarre or dream-like that happens can be explained by the physical world of the story. The most vivid scene of this nature is when Ben lip syncs to “In Dreams.” And just when you might have forgotten that he’s not singing it, his lips stop moving but the song keeps playing. It’s uncanny and one of the most original Lynch scenes.
Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is more like Eraserhead in that its world has a surreal quality throughout and operates with dream logic at all times. The point of highest contrast with Blue Velvet comes when a performer sings Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish. Halfway through her rendition, she falls over dead but her voice carries on.
The two main characters, Betty Elms a.k.a. Diane Selwyn (played by Naomi Watts) and Rita a.k.a. Camilla (Laura Harring), both projections in Diane’s dream, begin crying and holding each other. They’ve come to a truth from outside the dream: After Diane hires a hitman to kill her former lover, Rita exists only as a beautiful impression in her mind, while the source, Camilla, has been taken away.
Where dreams have found their way into life in Blue Velvet, life has manifested itself in dreams in Mulholland Drive. Eraserhead, lacking a counterpoint, can’t achieve the same level of depth.
While Lynch may not have found happiness among the urban landscape, he certainly developed a fascination for its machines. The movie has an auditory texture of deep industrial whirs, and electric hums interrupted by the screaming of steam whistles.
Lynch uses the cutting in and out of vacuums and electric churn to pace scenes or add a surreal quality to his world. A clerk erratically hits buzzer when the kid brings Henry’s head in. Which ambiguously leads them to a pencil sharpening machine.
Mary, the mother of Henry’s child, and her family have that same erratic, quality, of something animated but not quite living. When they’re about to eat, her mother raises her head like a baby bird before running off to cry, while the rotisserie chicken flails its wings like a malfunctioning machine.
Later, Mary makes the same motion in bed with the blanket wrapped around her elbows to make her arms look like chicken wings. This is when Henry first discovers the semen-like offspring and throws them against the wall, with only one surviving and crawling away.
The similarities suggest an industrialization of the reproductive process. As a point of reference, there is a kennel full of a dog and her puppies in Mary’s house. And they expect Henry to marry their daughter even though there is no love between them.
But Lynch also found consciousness in the machines in Eraserhead that remains a major part of his artistic focus to this day. In the last season of Twin Peaks, major plot points involve a cosmic machine that sucks up anti-matter and takes pictures of it, an absurd machine-like room where Agent Cooper is trapped with an eyeless woman, and a return from the Black Lodge through a car engine.
In Eraserhead, it’s the radiator. Henry’s only escape from his squalor is a woman with huge paper mache cheeks singing on a stage inside the radiator. “In heaven, everything is fine, you’ve got your thing, and I’ve got mine,” she sings, reflecting Henry’s desire to escape to a life without the responsibilities of a child.
Henry joins her in the room and his head falls off. Another grotesque child rises where his head was, suggesting that we’re all still needy, helpless children underneath. After, when the kid takes his head to the man at the pencil sharpening place, the scene ends on an extreme close-up of the pencil shavings.
The presence of machines in Eraserhead shows a theme that’s been there from the very beginning: that consciousness can be found in all existence. His work often explores the possible, fantastical overlaps of human consciousness and consciousness found elsewhere. When Jocelyn Packard (played by Joan Chen) dies in Twin Peaks, her being has transferred the knob of the bedside table. It’s a visual callback to Eraserhead when a circular stage light introduces the radiator lady by illuminating its knobs.
Lynch tells stories from the atomic level to cosmic abstracts. As the pencil shavings are blown into the darkness, the audience considers Henry’s, the eraserhead’s role, in this industrial system.
By the end of Eraserhead, both life and the lightbulb have been extinguished. We’re always afraid of what Henry is capable of. We know what he is going to do. There is no struggle for this character to come out of darkness into a kind of light.
It’s simplistic, but the character arc may be the biggest difference between Eraserhead and the rest of Lynch’s more Lynchian movies. Redemptive character arcs build his love for the absurd around an emotional connection with a character, whether they’re successful in finding the light (Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet), or not (Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway). It might not be the absurdity that comes to mind when you think Lynchian, but the interplay of black and white dualities, as well as his eye for nuance between them, is what pulls his compelling stories forward.
Lynch has said as much in the most Lynchian fashion.