Rob: Welcome back to Weird on Top, your bi-weekly digest of all things David Lynch. I’m Rob DiCristino.
Alejandra: And I’m Alejandra Gonzalez.
Rob: This week, we’re talking Eraserhead, Lynch’s 1977 feature debut. Produced in pieces over the course of five years, Eraserhead saw Lynch (then a 24-year-old student at the American Film Institute) flex some abstract creative muscle in the motion picture world for the very first time. It’s the grim and grimy tale of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a mild-mannered man who has just discovered that his girlfriend (Charlotte Stewart as Mary X) recently gave birth to his child. Pressured by Mr. and Mrs. X (Allen Joseph and Jeanne Bates) to live the family way, the couple move into Henry’s one-room apartment, a run-down shoebox buried inside an industrial cityscape. Though they should be happy to start their new life together, Henry and Mary are horrified by the behavior of their deformed, inhuman offspring. As Eraserhead unfolds and Henry struggles to manage fatherhood, he encounters freakish beings like the Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk), the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), and the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts).
Ale, what are your thoughts on Eraserhead? What’s your history with the film?
I do really find myself enjoying some elements of Eraserhead, though. I think some of the humor in it, however cynical, acts as a palate cleanser during really tense moments. I also really love that it portrays the story of a single father as opposed to the single mother narrative that I find to be more common in film. I have seen it be argued that the film is about the anxieties that come with fatherhood, but I would argue that it’s more about the general anxieties of settling down. The miserable atmosphere was there before Henry even learns about the baby. He already feels trapped by the bleak repetition of his every day, but these feelings intensify when he becomes a parent. Rob, how do you feel about Eraserhead?
With all that said, I think you and I are in the same boat. It’s not a film I revisit very often. It’s cold and alienating. It makes me uncomfortable. It makes me angry and hurts my ears. This is by design, of course, but it’s such an intellectual exercise that I often have trouble connecting with it in any deeper way. This from a filmmaker who would later produce some of our great romances! But, I get it. He was a young art student. He loved Kafka. He was eager to make his mark. What’s funny, though, is that I realized on this rewatch how conventional Eraserhead is when considered literally: A young man works a dead-end job, mostly inert and uninterested in the world around him. He chats with the girl across the hall. He has an awkward first meeting with his girlfriend’s parents. He gets married and begins raising a child. When his wife leaves him, he fantasizes about the things his life could be if it weren’t for this strange, irritating little space monster. He eventually finds warmth and comfort by letting go. We’ve seen this movie a thousand times.
Rob: Right, but since this is David Lynch, those familiar themes are executed in the most abstract possible ways. Rather than write dialogue, Lynch conveys Henry’s anxiety and frustration through pipes and electricity (both of which would become a career-long obsessions, most notably in Twin Peaks). In Lynch on Lynch, author Chris Rodley asks him about his interest in electricity: “When electrons run down a wire...they have that power. It’s amazing...I can feel those random electrons hitting me...It’s like when you go under power lines. There’s something very disturbing about that amount of electricity. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not, you know, whacking you.” Electricity is tantamount to magic in Lynch’s eyes, which explains its frequent appearances. Rodley also speculates that these motifs — pipes and wires, coupled with the cramped nature of Henry’s apartment — signify the intense pressure building in Henry’s life. Once we start incorporating these ideas into our reading, Eraserhead gets much clearer.
Alejandra: That dinner scene might be one of the best family table scenes of all time, and I think it captures how uncomfortable some family dinners can be perfectly. It’s also an incredibly interesting point you bring up concerning the miniature chickens possibly being other babies. I’ve seen this theory brought up before, and though it makes a lot of sense, it makes even more sense when we consider how Lynch uses the sound in Eraserhead to create these subconscious reactions in the audience. The sound the chickens make when Henry cuts into them is almost exactly the same repulsive, squishy sound that we hear when his baby squirms about in its bandages. Because of this, viewers associate the baby and the chickens whether they’re aware of it or not.
Rob: The sound is intense, and I encourage everyone who owns the Criterion Blu-ray to check out the behind-the-scenes features that go over the intricacies of the sound design. It’s insane how much time and imagination was put into it.
Now that we’ve talked sound, it’s probably a good time to bring up the body horror and gore. I mentioned in our introductory piece that my love for story structure conventions would seem to contradict my love for Lynch (though I’m finding that his films have more traditional structure than I’ve given them credit for), and I’m equally surprised by — given that I’m not a huge horror fan — how fascinated I am by Lynch’s use of gore. I think it’s because he’s always using it to exaggerate an emotion or event in an abstract way. Lots of filmmakers do this, of course, and I’m not taking anything away from their work. I’m just saying that I’m drawn to it when Lynch does it because I’m already bought into his visual language and I can draw a direct connection between the visual and the emotion. Lynch seems to find the human body equal parts seductive and repulsive. He’s using that painter’s palette to express something that, again, others might do through dialogue.
Alejandra: Which again, is why there is so much to unpack in his work despite the relatively conventional themes he explores. Also, I find that the design of the baby is extremely ahead of its time, and never looks like a puppet until what happens at the very end. It looks so...real. Like it would be extremely possible for something like that to be birthed by a human. I’m glad you mentioned body horror, because it is so evident that Eraserhead goes on to influence the work of directors more well known for it, such as Cronenberg and Barker. It’s also interesting because I don’t think many people would consider David Lynch to dabble in horror much, but I can’t help but feel like if Eraserhead were made today that it would be one of the most viscerally frightening things we’ve ever seen. It already is, and every time I think about it I reconsider ever having children. What if I kill it?!
Alejandra: Thanks for the tips! In all seriousness, while I personally don’t enjoy watching Eraserhead, to ignore what it accomplishes would be unfair. I think it’ll be studied and remembered forever as one of Lynch’s most appreciated and effective works. That doesn’t mean I ever have to revisit it again, though!
Rob: I thought we could close by throwing it to the readers: What are your thoughts on Eraserhead, and what would you like us to cover in our other special Scary Movie Month edition of Weird on Top? Until then, remember: This world is wild at heart...
Alejandra: And weird on top.