A Surrealist Masterwork: Eraserhead 45 Years Later
Eraserhead was the first film from director David Lynch. It is an absolutely baffling experience and the definition of sensory overload. It is also one of the bravest and most artfully-made debuts from any director in the history of film.
The first thing any prospective viewer of Eraserhead should know is that it conjures up an incredibly oppressive atmosphere. This is created through a combination of onscreen visuals and sound (y'know, like a movie). Unlike most films, Eraserhead places a special emphasis on sound design and it is an absolutely crucial element in the film. There is a constant drone in the background of any scene and sounds of urban decay. Factory noise, glass breaking, and sounds of conflict dominate the soundscape of this film. The sound is so masterfully created and implemented and makes the film special in a way no other film has been able to recreate. Lynch has always placed a special emphasis on sound in his films and he is often credited as the sound designer of his films. Speaking of interesting credits for a director, in the Eraserhead credits Lynch is credited as the director, producer, screenwriter, film editor, composer, sound designer, production designer, art director, and special effects artist. Later on, I'll get into why he had to take on so much responsibility. For now, let's return to the filmmaking aspects of the movie.
Along with the sound, probably the most oppressive aspect of the movie is the practical effects and visual design. Let's talk about the Eraserhead baby.
What the hell man?? When I was getting into film, I have a strong memory of an urban legend that they made the baby out of real animal parts. However they made the baby, it is truly uncomfortable to endure. Its visual appearance and its constant crying end up reducing it into an annoyance by the end and in some interpretations the villain of the film (according to the Villains Wiki). Along with the practical effects, the set design is also so inspired and interesting. The film primarily takes place in very few locations and we spend the most time in Henry's (Jack Nance) bedroom. The design in Henry's bedroom is fantastic (watch the film to see the whole thing) but my favorite element is that he has a small tree on his night stand. In the context of the film's industrial hellscape that Henry lives in, I've always taken the tree as a way to hold on to nature in a rapidly decaying and doomed world. That's how I read that specific element but the film leaves so much to interpretation.
Before I discuss various interpretations of the film, let's do a recap of where Lynch was in life during the making of this film. During the production of Eraserhead, two major things influenced the film. Lynch's daughter was born and had severely clubbed feet, which required corrective surgery and also Lynch was living in a dangerous neighborhood in Philadelphia. The oppressive reality of Lynch's life came to represented onscreen in the industrial and dangerous world in which Eraserhead takes place. As discussed earlier, multiple elements contribute to the oppressive atmosphere, but this paragraphs over.
Here's some Lynch quotes:
"Believe it or not, Eraserhead is my most spiritual film."
On the writing of the screenplay: the film "came together" when he opened up a Bible, read one verse from it, and shut it.
On living in Philadelphia: "I saw so many things in Philadelphia I couldn't believe...I saw a grown woman grab her breasts and speak like a baby, complaining her nipples hurt. This kind of thing will set you back."
Film directors are weird people.
Before I get to the end of this, I wanted to mention Jack Nance's performance. Nance and his famous haircut are who the viewer follows throughout the film. Nance's body language, mannerisms, and facial expressions are absolutely on point. His presence as a neurotic, extremely nervous and troubled man lend so much credibility to the film's main conflicts. As with everything else in this film, his performance can be seen in multiple ways but however you see it, Nance did his job and he did it extremely well.
Eraserhead is an absolute mystery. I don't think I'm going to discuss plot specifics because 1. there's not much of a point since the elements of the film contribute so much more than the literal plot events and 2. spoilers r bad. If I do divulge plot points, just ignore them.
There are many recurring elements in this movie: blatant sexual overtones, fear of fatherhood, deformation, industrialization. How these elements build and the meaning of the film depends on the viewer but the way the film is structured and the way information is presented is clear, concise, and effective. This is an 89 minute long film. There are not a lot of long takes and the camera doesn't linger. It is incredibly focused and at the same time so open-ended. Lynch's famous refusal to speak about what his films mean contributes to this.
A very popular interpretation of the film is that it is about Lynch's fear of fatherhood. The baby is a constant antagonizing element to the protagonist and is alien in appearance. The guy at the Loft described the film as "the perfect fathers day movie." I would say a large portion of the film tracks as being about the challenges that fatherhood brings. Henry has relationship challenges, difficulty with child care, and general discomfort with his whole situation. There are recurring elements that can be connected with Henry's emotions at a given point in the film which also support this interpretation, such as the Lady in the Radiator's appearances. And to me, the ending seems to celebrate a particular event (celebrate it as in, this is a good thing to the main character, not to the viewer) which would support this interpretation. Another interpretation closely related to this, but not exactly the same is that in Henry's subconscious he sees the baby as an alien creature but in reality it is just a regular baby. Henry's discomfort with being a father literally reshapes his reality into a nightmarish fever dream. The fear and anxiety of fatherhood and child-rearing is probably the interpretation I most closely align with, but an issue I have fully accepting this interpretation is that it doesn't explain the frequent sexual allusions portrayed in the film. Most interpretations probably have an issue. This film is in no way impenetrable, nor is it weird for the sake of it, but it is confusing to first-time and twentieth-time viewers and defies expectations and explanations. One KAMPer found the film to have religious themes. Another KAMPer said the film was about "fucked up shit man." Another KAMPer closely analyzed a particular scene and had a conclusion that focused on two character's subconsciouses. Another KAMPer described the film as "the playback of a neurotic and anxious mind approaching death." This KAMPer saw "fear of time, the unknown, and sex" as constant themes throughout the film. In focusing on multiple analyses, I wanted to illustrate the point that the fun (if you could call it fun) in watching Eraserhead isn't about finding the "correct" interpretation, it's about finding your own personal interpretation and meaning of the film. That is truly the joy of art.
Eraserhead is a surrealist masterwork from a visionary director and you should celebrate your Thanksgiving weekend (or whenever you read this review), with a viewing of the film which is streaming on HBO Max.
Production Company: AFI Center for Advanced Studies
Streaming Service: HBO Max
Release Date: March 19, 1977
Reviewer Name: Luke Wise
Date of Review: 11/22/22