Eraserhead (1977) David Lynch
Libra Films International
The David Lynch Project Part I
David Lynch’s first feature took five years to finish, but many of those who view it may give up after about five minutes. Even those who love the film often find themselves in disagreement over its meaning and some would question whether it even has one. Lynch himself – as with all his films – isn’t willing to divulge any answers. If you’re looking for interpretations, you can find a multitude of them on the Internet. While I’m certainly interested in the film’s interpretations, I’m also interested in it’s worldview and how the film affects us personally.
The promotional materials for Lynch’s most recent film, INLAND EMPIRE (2006), contain the tagline “A Woman in Trouble.” You could realistically summarize Eraserhead with the tagline “A Man in Trouble.” Henry (Jack Nance) lives in what appears to be either an industrial post-apocalyptic wasteland, a nightmare, or both. He’s taking a “vacation” from his factory job, married to a woman he doesn’t love and caring for a hideous baby, all the while dreaming of a different life.
One of the difficulties in watching Lynch is determining where his reality ends and his dreamworld begins. With the exception of Eraserhead and Dune, most of Lynch’s films take place in a world we recognize on some level. In the majority of his work, we see cities, cars and people who aren’t that out of the ordinary. (Okay, maybe the people are out of the ordinary…) Even if they’re in historical settings, we recognize them as such. But since Lynch has chosen to film Eraserhead in black-and-white, this palate places us – consciously or not – firmly in the world of the fantastic. Lynch has said (in one of the supplements from the Criterion Collection Blu-ray) that Eraserhead was always conceived as a black-and-white film. I cannot imagine it otherwise. Eraserhead contains so many scenes of absolutely beautiful black-and-white cinematography that it’s staggering, yet audiences (myself included) often don’t take notice due to the weirdness of many of the images. Each shot is a visual wonder of control of darkness and light. Whether you like the film or not, you can’t take your eyes off it. No one forms images quite like Lynch.
(From this point forward, I’ll be discussing several details of the film, so if you plan to see Eraserhead, you should stop reading now.)
Before discussing the film any further, I think it’s interesting to mention what little Lynch has told us about Eraserhead. Lynch mentions (again, from the Criterion Blu-ray supplements) that the idea for the film came to him while he was living in Philadelphia, where he attended the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. For Lynch – originally from Montana – the city became a place of fear and isolation, themes clearly explored in Eraserhead. The dreamlike opening of the film and its subsequent scenes convey that Henry is looking for answers, if not a way out of his life. The “Man in the Planet” can be seen as God or a god who is determining the course of Henry’s life. Again, regardless of how you interpret the film’s opening, it soon becomes obvious that Henry’s life is troubled.
We get the sense that Henry is living with Mary and taking care of their baby out of obligation, which suggests he subscribes to some type of moral or cultural code that involves doing one’s duty. It’s also clear that he wants something else – sometimes desiring the seductive woman who lives across the hall, sometimes the strange woman in the radiator, and sometimes just getting the hell out. Henry’s conscience won’t let him forget that he has obligations.
Much has been discussed about the baby, whether it is an actual baby, a manifestation of Henry himself, or if it’s even real. Is the baby a product of Henry’s sin? Is it a representation of himself? Lynch wants us to make a strong connection between Henry and the baby and perhaps they are one. You could make a case for that opinion based on how Henry treats the baby at the end of the film. Is he trying to destroy the baby, himself or both? You could also make the case that Henry is seeking to kill something that is abhorrent to himself which actually is himself, so that when the baby dies, he also dies.
So is the Radiator Lady a dream? Is she the consequences of his actions? Is she deliverance or damnation? I can’t help but think that the Radiator Lady represents some type of hope, some type of salvation (as well as escape) for Henry. If the snakelike creatures that drop from the ceiling represent Henry’s sin, it’s possible that the Radiator Lady is a Christ-like figure, literally stomping them out for Henry’s sake. She clearly wants Henry to join her in her world and the final scene is one of the only scenes (perhaps the only one) that’s full of light, an element largely absent from much of the film. The many images of electric light flickering (which happens in nearly all of Lynch’s work) seem to suggest that this is an imperfect light, just barely hanging on to maintain any level of illumination, while the light at the end of the film is brilliant, almost blinding.
On a basic fundamental level, Eraserhead is a film about a man in trouble, a man in conflict with himself and with his ideas of what’s right and wrong. In that sense, it’s really not a difficult film. Yet it causes us to examine our own thoughts and fears, our own desires and frustrations at not having those desires met. Eraserhead is so many things: comedy, horror, mystery, fantasy… the list could go on. We don’t know exactly what Lynch has in mind, but it doesn’t matter. Art is not necessarily something to be “figured out,” it’s something to be experienced, felt, and embraced, something we take into ourselves and live in. It’s often said that all artistic works contain only one correct interpretation, but many applications. Lynch may have had one interpretation in mind, but art allows us to bring our own applications to the table when we encounter it. It’s more important for us to experience art than it is to “figure it out.” Eraserhead causes me to laugh, squirm, and wonder. It also reminds me that I’m human, imperfect and seeking.