Eraserhead remains David Lynch’s supreme cinematic achievement. Endlessly enigmatic, his debut feature exhibits the thematic and technical concerns that would come to shape each of his subsequent projects. Those looking for a puzzle to solve, however, are better off playing with Mulholland Drive. Much of the difficulty in talking about Eraserhead comes from a tendency to make connections, to generate answers for each of the challenges posed by the film. If you’re interested in, say, an autobiographical reading of the film, the answers are quite easy.
It also renders the film woefully uninteresting. You’ve missed the point. Approaching Eraserhead as a technical exercise, as the development of an authorial style, generates an endless fascination. The effects attained by Lynch are, in a more rigorous fashion than in his later work, eminently cinematic. The concern here is not one of content, but of form. Eraserhead is a work of sound and image.
Alan Splet’s soundtrack for the film is itself a masterpiece. The term “soundtrack” carries an unfortunately limited scope in the public imagination, where soundtrack stands in for the musical score. On this understanding, musical cues do the emotional work for the spectator otherwise caught up in a bucket of popcorn. Splet, on the other hand, is involved in the creation of a cinematic space. Eraserhead is listened to, as much as it’s watched. Even the silences buzz and hum with an oppressive, industrial intensity. The soundtrack isn’t in place to be seamless, but rather to play – or, rather, grate – on the spectator. Splet’s work is richly thematic and intimately tied to the actors’ performance.
The soundscape, like the setting, is bleakly industrial. Non-descript clanging emanates from nowhere in particular. Despite the incessant noise, there is little to suggest activity beyond the scope of the frame – that is, beyond the scope of what is placed on the soundtrack for the spectator and Henry (Jack Nance). The effect is of a closing in towards our limited awareness. There’s an unmistakable menace crashing in towards the action, made all the more disconcerting by having no definite shape. The strategy here is one of aesthetic displeasure. Eraserhead is uncomfortable not because it explores something hidden (it’s quite naïve, in that regard), but rather because Lynch and Splet, at every turn, seek to throw you off balance. Moreover, in closely tying this imbalance to Nance’s performance, the film is made into something intimate.
This strategy of intimate imbalance is most memorably achieved in how sounds are introduced and edited alongside the image. When Henry first meets Mary’s (Charlotte Stewart) parents, he is assailed by a persistent, oppressive sucking sound. This, as so many things, makes him nervous. It is unpleasant, in part, because we are first exposed to an unidentifiable sound. It is only after a few moments that the image cuts to a litter of feeding puppies. While this relieves a degree of tension, insofar as we’ve identified the source of something displeasing, we are thrown along at pace into another in a series of strange situations.
Mary’s father wants to show Henry his knees under a crescendo of shaking pipes. Her mother has an episode of some kind. There’s an old woman in the kitchen. None of this matters all that much, other than as a piling on of the oppressive atmosphere. By the time Henry is carving the tiny, man-made chickens, the sole effect is one of anxiety. If Eraserhead achieves anything, it is the development of a richly textured anxious palette. When Mary’s mother presses Henry to admit whether he and Mary have had sexual intercourse, his response sums up the myriad strategies employed throughout the film: “I can’t, I’m too nervous.”
There’s a close relationship between the sound and the image, as evidenced in the scene with the feeding puppies. This pulls the spectator in close to the cinematic object, to the very texture of Lynch’s aesthetic preoccupations. Binding the soundtrack to the photography is likewise consistent with his work as an artist. Lynch’s first short film, “Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times),” is a painting upon which further images are projected accompanied by a wailing siren. The title “expresses what little plot there is,” but what’s interesting is how each disparate element is put in action towards the same end. There is no commentary to distance the viewer from the odd, off-putting nature of the project. It is, as the title suggests, a series of vaguely human figures vomiting. If that weren’t disconcerting enough, the siren puts the whole thing over. The result is a cinematic object in miniature.
Compare this to a famous sequence in a later work: Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive. Here, there is no orchestra, yet we hear the music. Rebekah Del Rio collapses while performing “Lloranda,” but the singing continues in her absence. The appearance is of a decisive break between sound and image, but this is altogether unsatisfactory. Lynch displays the same concern with the cinematic object as he does in Eraserhead and the six figures. In the Club Silencio sequence, he places pressure on this unity, which nonetheless remains intact. Cinema, for all of its immediacy, remains a recorded – that is, a constructed – object. Neither Eraserhead nor Mulholland Drive are the result of spontaneously captured reality.
Grappling with the formal aspects of Lynch’s work reveals a commitment to cinema more interesting than any difficulty of interpretation. Lynch generally gets credit for what he’s created (all the more prevalent since the uptake of Twin Peaks revivalism) rather than how he’s gone about creating it. We ride along with Sailor and Lula, while neglecting to grapple with the problem of Bobby Peru, if you will.
Lynch’s work is often profoundly ugly. The dead girls wrapped in plastic are an excuse to wax rhapsodic about black coffee and cherry pie. Taken as a whole, there’s an overriding concern with the breaking down of received perceptions. Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, perhaps his most readily recognisable projects, both peel back the careful façade of small town life. Eraserhead forgoes the veneer of respectability to present a world radically at odds with Henry’s limited subjectivity. It’s a film of breakdown, a collapse around the edges of understanding.
Eraserhead is scaled to the grey. Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell employ stark lighting. The shadows are deep, the light precise, but muddled. Figures often inhabit the very limit of perception. The photography constricts, it brings the world crashing in around Henry. This is mirrored in the action of the film by objects breaking down, the camera descending into apertures. Henry seeks refuge within the radiator. He sinks into a pool with his neighbour. The camera is swallowed by the small, maggot-like object Henry receives in the post. The film itself is bookended by a descent into, and eventual collapse of, a small planet. Our minds may be cast into liminal spaces, but we never arrive anywhere. The boundaries crossed by the film are self-replicating. The radiator is both home to the Lady in the Radiator and the location where Henry loses his head. It is a refuge and a source of anxiety.
Henry, alone in his apartment, hears a commotion outside his window. Looking out, he sees two figures scuffling on the ground. This is the richest sequence in the film. In Blue Velvet, the careful veneer of suburban banality is peeled away. Eraserhead, however, takes as its starting point a festering wound. The industrial landscape spews steam through rattling pipes. The setting is dangerous and incoherent. It is this that makes Eraserhead worth revisiting here at the far end of Lynch’s career.
Much is made of the strange things that happen in the film: the Lady in the Radiator stomping on giant sperms, the baby, and Henry having his brains turned into pencil erasers, to name a few. These are points on which interpretation hinges. We read significance, generally related to sexuality and fatherhood, in these actions. But these don’t capture the full breadth of the strangeness on display. Rather, these moments reduce the totality of the object to the kernels that can be subsumed within the chosen interpretive framework. Eraserhead is too pervasively strange to yield to such signifying activity.
David Lynch films are too often reduced to moments. Winkie’s, “In Dreams,” Robert Blake, etc. This limits the scope of any given film to a specific, usually extractable, scene. Overlay Julee Cruise or Angelo Badalamenti over the thing and you’ve got David Lynch. Isn’t it too dreamy? What these appropriations miss is the underlying nightmare. Eraserhead, foregrounding, as it does, the varied textures of aesthetic displeasure, revels in what is obfuscated in the reception of his more well-known work. Nothing in the film suggests the mainstream success Lynch would come to enjoy. Eraserhead grates against the spectator. We generally accept cinema as a thing that distracts and entertains, rather than as something with which to grapple.
A film like Blue Velvet is entertaining, insofar as it features recognisable movie stars. The graphic violence and perverse sexuality challenge the spectator, while remaining entirely amenable to visual pleasure. Lynch’s later films are distinctly voyeuristic. Eraserhead is an attempt to produce a film inward-looking enough to keep any but the most dedicated spectator away. It is not a pleasing object. However, even after 45 years, it remains deliriously enigmatic and persistently essential.