"In Heaven Everything is Fine", action, apathy, avant garde, Baby, Catching the Big Fish, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation Consciousness and Creativity, Charlie Chaplin, Clerks II, David Lynch, Eraserhead, fathers, Film, film review, Girl in the Radiator, horror, Individual Will, Industrial Nightmare, Literature, Nosferatu, Parenthood., Philosophy, Seriously What is Eraserhead Actually About?, sex, Sexual Reproduction, Sexuality, sperm, spirit, What is Eraserhead about, Will Power
I get it. Or at least I get that one scene where the little boy sells Henry’s head to a pencil manufacturer to make pencil eraser’s. I have no idea if the title is a reference to the head of erasers or if David Lynch just put that scene in the film to fuck with the audience, but by the end of the movie Eraserhead there’s so much that one is feeling or thinking about that trying to make quick sense of such a movie is just…well, damn near impossible.
To be honest my first initial reaction to the film is similar to Becky’s reaction to the donkey blowjob scene in Clerk’s II:
Becky: I’m disgusted and repulsed and… and I can’t look away.
Comparing David Lynch’s cinematic masterpiece to a man giving head to a donkey may seem ridiculous to some, but honestly I can’t really find a better summation of the film, and most of my friends who have seen the movie report similar befuddlement. My friend Tom who hosts a blog dedicated to short reviews of films (140 words at the most) recently confessed to me that he wasn’t sure if he even could write a review of Eraserhead because it left him so perplexed and sick. I offered my services and as of this writing he’s putting it under review.
Eraserhead appears in my life and I use that word carefully because I’m writing about a Lynch film after all. I don’t remember any situation in which the movie made some kind of blip on my radar. I don’t remember stumbling upon scenes of the movie on YouTube. I don’t remember seeing or hearing any of my friends discussing the movie. I just remember my friend Michael, who’s also a friend of Tom’s and actually showed him the movie first, always mentioning this strange film called Eraserhead and explaining why it was his favorite film. I trust Michael’s opinion in these matters because after all he introduced me to Twin Peaks and that show left me floored. I began Googling images from the film and sure enough the aesthetic seemed right up my alley, but I held back because I was told, by Michael, that it was a hard film to take. So I put it off for a while seeing Amadeus first.
Fuck you Salieri. Just, fuck you bro.
But I knew that I had to watch Eraserhead at some point, so last month when my family made the trip to Half Price Books in Dallas I tried everywhere until I stumbled upon a DVD copy in the horror section. I had a day off from the library. I sat in my kitchen. Popped in the DVD to my computer. Plugged in my headphones. And I disappeared for two hours.
Finishing the movie there was this wonderful sense of happiness. That statement by itself is probably evidence enough to have me committed, but I stand by it because I loved Eraserhead. The film was intense and dark in a way that wasn’t needlessly, or pornographically, gory. The film is built on this beautiful nightmare landscape from which absolutely everything follows, but what is most important is that Eraserhead is quite possibly the most beautiful cacophonous silent film ever produced.
Once I got past the constant darkness and paranoia about sexual reproduction, birth, and fatherhood I saw the film much like the silent movies my little sister is a fan of. The main character Henry, played by Jack Nance who would become a staple of Lynch films, is bumbly the way Charlie Chaplin tended to be and in fact his outfit seems almost a homage to Chaplin seeing as how it is a simple black and white suit. Chaplin was the first silent film I thought of, but the second was F. W. Murnau’s classic film Nosferatu. I don’t have a solid explanation for this latter film except that the score of Eraserhead constantly reminded me of the pipe organs that typically play during Nosferatu which always manages to contribute to the legitimate creepiness of that film.
But the score I think is what sold Eraserhead for me because every second of the film the viewer is constantly assaulted by a bombast of white industrial noise. Henry after all lives in a post-industrial wasteland devoid of any kind of natural wild-life, and so the various groaning’s of machinery and technology leave him in this constant surrounding hum. At one point during my viewing my dog needed to go outside to pee (or else eat more of the honey-bees who are enjoying my oxalis). I paused the movie and removed my headphones and immediately I became drunk on the silence. This sensation though helped me appreciate the film even more while I was watching because I began to see how important the sounds were to the film. Each time a character speaks, or each time a lightbulb breaks, or each time the chicken wiggles it’s legs, or when Mr. X complains about his knees, or when the “baby” cries the words are not so important as the sounds themselves and the way they contribute the general atmosphere of the film.
At this point though the reader probably has one important question: what is the damn film actually about? And why should I give a shit?
Well, to start, that’s technically two questions. Second, the problem with the first question is, there’s no real clear answer. Whatever plot does exist is so buried beneath abstraction and various frame narratives that trying to argue that there is a plot to Eraserhead feels unintelligible, or else just constricting. The most simplest explanation is this: there is a bumbly loser named Henry who lives in an industrial nightmare. He conceives a child with a young woman named Mary who gives birth to a grotesque creature that is referred to as a baby. Mary briefly lives with Henry to take care of it but she eventually leaves leaving Henry alone to try and care for it as it grows sicker and sicker. Henry eventually cheats on his wife with the beautiful woman across the hall, and in a fit of frustration, madness, or curiosity he murders the baby by cutting its swaddling bands with scissors and then stabbing it in the heart.
This is the simplest explanation for Eraserhead because, as I’ve stated before, the film is odd and has no obvious structure. The film was David Lynch’s first movie and was shot over a period of five years. This was partly because Lynch didn’t have enough money to make the film in one sitting. But despite this the movie manages to feel cohesive even after one realizes that you’re watching a series of pieces and sequences that are connected under one entire whole.
For my part I think about the constant industrialization and the morbidity that actual organic life seems to have. Lynch sets his character Henry in a world that isn’t dying because it’s clear the world is pretty much dead. One only need look at the scene in which Mr. X brings out the dinner:
Mr. X: I thought I heard a stranger. We’ve got chicken tonight. Strangest damn things. They’re man made. Little damn things. Smaller than my fist. But they’re new. Hi, I’m Bill.
Henry Spencer: Hello there. I’m Henry.
Mrs. X: Henry works at LaPelle’s Factory.
Mr. X: Oh. Printing’s your business? Plumbing’s mine. For 30 years now. I’ve watched this neighborhood change from pastures to the hell-hole it is now!
Mary X: Dad!
Mrs. X: Bill!
Mr. X: I put every damn pipe in this neighborhood. People think that pipes grow in their homes. But they sure as hell don’t! Look at my knees! Look at my knees!
This scene isn’t terribly depressing or horrific, but it is Lynchian and weird and only contributes the general atmosphere of hopelessness that pervades the characters and it only grows worse during the actual dinner.
Mr. X: Mary usually does the carving but tonight since you are our guest, you could do it, Henry.
Henry Spencer: Of course. I’d be glad to. So I just, uh… I just cut them up like regular chickens?
Mr. X: Sure, just cut them up like regular chickens.
Henry cuts into the chicken which proceeds to bleed from between the legs which also start to wiggle making little squeaking sounds. This scene would be bad enough if not but a minute later Mary’s mother confronts Henry about the affair and the baby which ends in an ominous line:
Mrs. X: Henry, may I speak to you a minute? Over here. Did you and Mary have sexual intercourse?
Henry Spencer: [stammering] Why?
Mrs. X: Did you?
Henry Spencer: Why are you asking me this question?
Mrs. X: I have a very good reason, and now I want you to tell me.
Henry Spencer: I’m, I’m very… I love Mary!
Mrs. X: [interrupting] Henry, I asked you if you and Mary had sexual intercourse!
Henry Spencer: Well, I don’t… I don’t think that’s any of your business!
Mrs. X: [interrupting] Henry!
Henry Spencer: I’m sorry.
Mrs. X: You’re in very bad trouble if you won’t cooperate…
[nuzzling at his neck]
Henry Spencer: Well, I…
Henry Spencer: Mary!
Mary X: [grabbing her away] Mother! [sobs]
Mrs. X: Answer me!
Henry Spencer: I’m too nervous.
Mrs. X: There’s a baby. It’s at the hospital.
Mary X: Mom!
Mrs. X: And you’re the father.
Henry Spencer: Well, well that’s impossible! It’s only been…
Mary X: Mother, they’re still not sure it is a baby!
And the baby itself remains for me the most horror inducing aspect of Eraserhead because of one key scene. Henry is constantly watching his radiator and seeing in his mind a young woman with grotesque puffed up cheeks who stands on a quasi-vaudevillian stage. In one shot she is dancing and stepping on small sperm creatures that fall from the ceiling and later she sings a song that, I shit you not, remains one of the most creepy and catchy tunes you will ever hear. And because I’m feeling monstrous, here it is:
Following the blinding light Henry finds himself alone on the stage. A tree begins to emerge from one side and he steps off, holding a small bar before his head literally bursts from his shoulder and the “baby’s head” slowly emerges crying while the tree bleeds over the stage and around Henry’s severed head. The sound of the baby crying gave me chills and I legitimately had to stop the film for a moment to breath. But this small scene seems to illuminate a theme that numerous bloggers and vloggers and writers and critics have touched on which is that Eraserhead is a film about the paranoia of becoming a parent.
David Lynch was about to become a father as he was finishing up Eraserhead and most people have latched onto that idea as the explanation-de-jure of why the film is doing what it’s doing. I think there’s certainly plenty of evidence for this reality, the fact that the film opens with a sperm creature coming out of Henry, and later the grotesque “baby” itself all lends great weight to this argument.
But I’m always cautious when I hear that everyone seems to have the same interpretation of a work of art because then it feels like there’s nothing left to do in terms of personal understanding or interpretation. Something else is bothering me: a small book by David Lynch. I received the book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity as a birthday present last year. It’s not the normal kind of stuff I read because I find spirituality books tedious and usually boring as fucking-fuck, but because it was written by David Lynch I made an exception. Reading the book there was one small passage that stuck out to me:
Eraserhead is my most spiritual movie. No one understands when I say that, but it is. (33)
It’s a small quote, but I think it lays a great foundation for a possible argument that Eraserhead is a film about spiritual power, and not necessarily the religious. Spirit as a word and idea is not solely about religion or divine energy. Spirit is also a measure of a person’s individual will. When a child demonstrates initiative, or is really passionate, or acts crazy it’s sometimes said that they have spirit. And this definition is important in our day to day lives because our spirit is our ability to give a shit. If a person is strong spiritually it means that they care and that they’re involved and engaged in their world and reality. If a person has low spirit it usually means they’re apathetic, disengaged, and divorced from their reality.
Looking at Henry I often see a man with little spirit. I’ve referred to Henry twice in this essay as bumbly and that’s purposeful because Henry never seems to be active. He’s always being passive to the world, to his environment, to the people interacting with him, and just letting life happen to him. Returning to the dinner scene for a moment demonstrates this:
Mr. X: Well Henry, what do you know?
Henry Spencer: Oh, I don’t know much of anything.
That’s it. After this Mr. X and Henry stare at each other for several minutes and until it becomes clear that’s going to be the extent of the interaction. Henry is a man who watching his life happen to him, and rather than try to make his life something else, he just goes about receiving and watching until he performs his only real action: killing the “baby.” I won’t get into the implications about fatherhood here because there’s already so many people on the internet offering such analysis.
My final assessment of Eraserhead lies in Lynch’s interpretation. It is a film about the human spirit and how it’s possible for people to become inundated by forces which seem out of their control. Looking back for a moment at Catching the Big Fish David Lynch talks more about his life during the filming of Eraserhead and I think it offers more proof for my assessment:
When I was making Eraserhead, which took five years to complete, I thought I was dead. I thought the world would be so much different before it was over. I told myself, Here I am, locked in this thing. I can’t finish it. The world is leaving me behind. I had stopped listening to music, and I never watched TV anyway. I didn’t want to hear stories about what was going on, because hearing things felt like dying. (35).
Lynch seems remarkably like Henry in this passage, a man who feels like his life is passing in front of him because there are forces which seem out of his control. Henry finds himself in a dead world where industry and technology have left the world buried in ash, and the people who live around him and interact with him seem just as dead, or else decaying. What life does exist is often grotesque and sick. In such a world how does a man find any kind of spirit, or else any incentive to continue living?
Ultimately, Henry finds some kind of redemptive act in action; in actually taking some kind of control in his life. It may be a destructive act, and horrifying one at that, but ultimately it does deliver him from the passive servitude that is his life.
Each person will bring their own self and interpretation to the movie Eraserhead, and so trying to come up with one central interpretation is going to be ridiculous. Instead the best advice I can offer the reader is to watch the film (preferably not at night) and see what your own reaction will be. The impulse at first will probably be depression or horror, but beneath that, at least in my experience, is a beautiful film about how the human spirit can overcome the seemingly endless onslaught of forces that seek to dominate it.
The film is also a wonderful example of why if you’re going to eat chicken, you might consider picking up some Raising Canes. At least the chicken strips won’t wiggle their legs at you.
I’ve included here several links if the reader would like to dig a little deeper into Eraserhead the film. Below is a link to the original trailer:
The following are several online articles either about Eraserhead or David Lynch himself:
And finally here are a few videos by film vloggers who offer up some analysis of the film, and one which is an actual interview with Lynch not long after he made Eraserhead.
It’s easy to be buried underneath the darkness of a film like Eraserhead, that’s why remembering it’s just a movie can be beneficial. Here’s something that will help: a picture of a young David Lynch talking and laughing with Jack Nance between takes during the film. I don’t know why I love this picture so much. Part of it may just be the fact that, in this moment, neither men would probably know how much the film was going to change their lives. That, and it’s fascinating to observe David Lynch’s most straight-forward haircut.