Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Weird on Top: A Discussion of David Lynch

by Alejandra Gonzalez and Rob DiCristino
Week Three: Eraserhead

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?
Alejandra: Eraserhead was the very first full length feature by Lynch that I watched after being introduced to his short "The Alphabet." I will admit that once it was over, it felt like the craziest and most unsettling thing I had ever seen up until that point, and looking back now I can’t believe that 18 year old me didn’t write off David Lynch completely. Six years later, I still can’t really decide whether or not I like it. Here’s the thing — I know Eraserhead is incredibly well done because of how effective it is in inciting such intense feelings of dread, misery, and anxiety in viewers, which it was clearly aiming to do. That being said, I absolutely don’t find myself wanting to go through 90 straight minutes of that very often. I don’t like the feelings the film incites in me, but that’s not to say that I don’t think Eraserhead is one of the most phenomenal installations in Lynch’s filmography.

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?

Rob: As I mentioned last time, I appreciate Eraserhead most as the experimental student film-turned-midnight classic that introduced Lynch to the wider world. I appreciate the stories behind its production: Lynch and his skeleton crew worked out of (and sometimes lived in) a set of stables while shooting, waiting tables and running paper routes to fill in funding gaps. Lynch and first wife Peggy divorced during the long production (their daughter Jennifer serving as partial inspiration for the screenplay), and Jack Nance maintained his iconic haircut from beginning to end. There are so many things that make Eraserhead a landmark. It’s a fascinating hybrid of media, parked firmly at the intersection between painting, sculpture, and motion picture. Combined with its idiosyncratic sound design (painstakingly assembled by Lynch and Alan Splet, who would also work on Dune and Blue Velvet), Eraserhead endures as an early calling card for one of our true geniuses.

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.
Alejandra: Yes! Actually, this seems to be true of so much of his work. As we mentioned in our last piece, Blue Velvet is also a very straight forward story that feels more abstract than it really is because of the way Lynch presents it to us. Again, there’s a lot to unpack with Blue Velvet, and now with Eraserhead, but at the core of these films is a very conventional story that has been told several times before.

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.

Maybe the most famous element of Eraserhead, though, is its portrayal of sex and conception. In the opening, Henry’s head floats through space while the Man in the Planet pulls on levers that send sperm-like creatures out of his mouth and into a pool of liquid. This is about as grotesque and impersonal as a sex scene gets, but hey, that’s Lynch. I’m sure we’ll talk about The Baby itself in a bit, but I was struck this time by the miniature chickens and Mr. X’s explanation that they are “man made.” Are they babies, too, the products of other sexual encounters within the X family? Maybe. There’s a kind of logic to Lynch seeing all reproduction as inherently icky, though I doubt he would offer a conclusive explanation. The bizarre dinner scene is something, though, isn’t it? Lynch has always talked about his disinclination toward married life, and I love the way he portrays Henry’s future in-laws as, well, off-kilter weirdos. I think plenty of people can relate to that. A lot of us can also relate to the droning, penetrative soundtrack, which many have suggested stands in for a newborn’s endless crying.

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.
Which leads me to my next point — the creepiest part of Eraserhead isn’t what we’re seeing, it’s what we’re hearing. The sounds of Eraserhead are some of the most revolting, unpleasant noises I’ve ever heard. The Lady in the Radiator stomping on what seems to be semen doesn’t just sound sticky, it sounds like an erupted organ. The baby’s ceaseless crying is more of a wail that I don’t stop hearing for a long time after the movie has finished. I heard that Lynch’s daughter provided the crying sounds, but I don’t know that that’s true. If that is true, I guess it doesn’t help disprove that Henry’s feelings towards his baby represent how Lynch felt about Jennifer. What’s worse (or better depending on perspective) is that these sounds are inescapable, constantly ringing in the ears of the audience throughout the entire film so that it’s almost like its own character. Eraserhead would be just as upsetting with my eyes closed, not having seen the baby at all.

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?!
Rob: You won’t kill it, but you’ll definitely dent it up a bit. Don’t worry about it. A little spit and spackle, and you’re all set. The high-pitched screaming will die down eventually.

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.


  1. I have nothing to add to the discussion, just wanted you two to know someone is out there reading and enjoying the cloumn. Really looking forward to the take on Mullholland Drive and Wild at Heart.

    1. As for the other SMM installment of this piece, I wouldn'w mind seeing Inland Empire show up. I've never actually watched it, but have routinely seen it classified as horror. Your column just might motivate me to finally jump into the weird deep end of another Lynch film.

    2. Thank you! It's nice to get some feedback on this. It looks like we're going with Lost Highway for next time, but we'll get to all of them eventually!

    3. Yeah that's a spooky one for sure.