Eraserhead (1977)

Let’s get the obvious out of the way for people who’ve read many of my reviews of any kind of surrealist film: generally speaking, I hate David Lynch films.

Blue Velvet put me to sleep out of sheer boredom. Mulholland Drive put me to sleep, but I woke up and watched it from the beginning and it was boring and dissatisfying. Lost Highway had difficulty holding my interest and just generally seemed totally unnecessarily obscure and uninteresting. His self-described fans make me hate him even more, much the way Quentin Tarantino’s fans do. I’ve actually liked some of each of their work (I did like The Elephant Man and Dune quite a bit, and the great majority of Tarantino’s work). I do separate myself from that when I sit down to watch either of their films, but they often suffer under their own weight.

That said, I always kept an open mind to Lynch’s work. I tried Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me a few years back, and it, too, bored me to tears. But I always had an eye open for Eraserhead, which I consistently felt was going to be darker in a grittier way, and, if more obscure, then more obscure in a more fantastic and disturbing sort of fashion. I thought its age, certainly, would help things, as my major complaint with the most recent of Lynch’s work was the slickness of it, the bombastic images that seemed to carry no meaning–I think the blue-haired woman saying “Silencio!” with such unnecessary gravitas is what completely broke me and perfectly carries across the reason I do not normally like Lynch originals. It reminds me of the parodies of foreign movies floating through sketch comedy and the like–characters saying completely nonsensical lines as if they are the most meaningful thing in the world, seemingly intended to mean something grand but coming off as pretentious, nonsensical, illogical and self-important. I don’t like that kind of “mindfuck” movie (as Lynch’s are called), especially when they tend to completely lack characters or emotion. By characters, I mean of course people, rather than walking beings who bear the physical characteristics of humans but function primarily as symbols, concepts or images.

Strangely, or perhaps not, I found Eraserhead not to be what I expected. I considered a review with a fun bit like, “This film is about Henry Spencer (John Nance) who lives a simple life, but when invited to his ex-girlfriend’s house, he discovers that he is a father, leaving him now to–oh forget it, the story doesn’t even matter.” Truth is, I don’t think the story does matter–at least, not in a way that means I should explain it to you before viewing. It isn’t relevant to anything except the overall experience, meaning and message. It is inseparable from those things–at least with the intention of retaining meaning, and an element or three is not clear in its meaning in terms of events.

It’s clear–I feel–that part of what is undeniably expressed here is a distaste for sex, coupled with an understanding of its necessity, at least in terms of drive. We see Harry is definitely interested in it, but we also see that the eventual results are not a happy or pleasant thing to him. His world IS a simple one; he wanders around a very empty world into a very empty apartment, shuffling change in a drawer, checking the mail and often staring at his radiator and dreaming. He imagines a woman there, who sings a rather nice song that goes, “In heaven, everything is fine…” implying that this imagined radiator life is the reality Henry would prefer to occupy. He’s horribly uncomfortable in the real and empty world; he is constantly surrounded by droning noises of the radiator, elevators, buzzing, humming, clunking, trains and other industrial towns. Never overbearing or rhythmic, but consistent and intrusive all the same. The only other family is the “X” family–his girlfriend of sorts Mary (Charlotte Stewart), and her parents, Mrs. (Jeanne Bates) and Mr. (Allen Joseph) X. Mary is overly emotional and responsive, her mother is overly protective and her father is egocentric and falsely amicable. Not passive aggressive or secretly hostile, but just overly artificial, smiling broadly and shaking hands and speaking of his life and career without regard for the interest of others. Hardly a wonder, then, that another world is heaven. This world, too, is polluted in Henry’s dreams, though, when Mary begins to take a larger place in his life and his child appears.

The star is not Nance (though he has a wonderfully and appropriately expressive face, as well as a perfect demeanor of extended neck but pulled-in head, shoulders and arms hunched in, not in bad posture but in a sign of introversion, and an awkward walk that includes high-raised knees similar to the Tramp’s walk, but less exaggerated) but the cinematography by Herbert Cardwell and Frederick Elmes. I’ve had it said and suggested to me that Lynch is an “artist” and not a “film-maker,” unless one thinks of “film” as another medium for “art,” rather than as a vehicle for story-telling. I’m inclined to agree. Between said cinematography, which reminds me of silent films, especially of the expressionist variety, and the sound design and “score,” centered around the aforementioned oppressive machine sounds and what sounds like someone drawing a neverending bow across a cello string and someone else who has fallen asleep on a piano or synthesizer keyboard, we end up with imagery married to sound. Dialogue is used simply because there is motion in film; as if the story and this dialogue are necessary to the artistic medium and film, but should not be something you can separate from the whole product–which, as I’ve said, is true here.

What probably IS strange to people who know me–or possibly anyone who read the opening paragraphs above and knows those films–is that I did like it. I will say a few things now about what I did think of meaning, concepts and some actions. I think, as per usual for me, I have taken an atypical approach to things and see something more positive than most in a character. When Henry is finally home with the child he gave Mary, she screams at him as he tries to sleep thanks to the constant crying of the rather mutated near-foetal child. Henry’s response is to tell her perhaps that when she leaves to go home she should stay there. He then places a thermometer in the child’s mouth, and when he removes it finding nothing wrong, it suddenly turns clearly ill (one of only two images in the film I really felt my heart skip a beat for, thanks, in part to a jarring chord-thing–I don’t think it’s an actual chord, again, it’s like someone was sitting next to a piano and put an elbow out to lean on it and stayed there–that strikes as the image of this child-thing turning so violently ill appears) he says “You really WERE sick,” with a note, I feel, of concern. We soon see he has dropped a vaporator (I believe they’re called) next to the child and sits next to it, calmly and without any air of irritation. He thinks of the item he received in the mail and wishes to check for more mail, but when the child cries every time he tries to leave the room, he stops and sits back down, again seeming relaxed and calm, as if he knows this is where he should be and he’s comfortable with it.

He does then attempt to hide it from the woman across the hall who seduces him when he takes her to bed, but not in a way that gave me the impression he didn’t care, but simply wanted to satisy his own urge and desire at the moment. His final action with relation to the child I have seen described as vengeful, but I myself didn’t see it that way. It looked like a motion of curiosity though I was filled with a sick sense of dread until the ramifications made themselves clear. At that point the movie was nearly ruined I was so repulsed; but Henry has one final response, not one of anger, I think, but of confused and horrified mercy. From there I felt that the movie had found itself again; I had grown to like Henry and was not pleased with what he had done prior, and felt a bit betrayed that the one character I was drawn to was now so utterly reprehensible. But, he redeemed himself in my interpretation, and perhaps even then refined something, the final images seeming to suggest that perhaps the child was in fact himself, or enough of a part of himself–hinted at in dreams anyway–that he had done these things to himself.

What the hell was the bowl of water? What was the dream that gave the movie its title about? Honestly, I have no idea. I feel the dream was to suggest Henry’s own feelings of inadequacy, uselessness and misinterpretation by the world, and the bowl was simply a visual quirk related to Henry’s approach to things. It felt like a well-produced and proficient student film, essentially, a feel I think I’ve established as pleasing. The design overall, including Lynch’s own production design, was beautiful (as I’ve repeatedly mentioned of the excellent cinematography and sound) and Nance was proficient as what I think was a representation of Lynch himself (though, as I sort of roundabout implied through my distaste for styles coupled with my appreciation here, he felt like a representation of an actual person instead of something else), but it had the awkward, lively, slightly clumsy but earnest intensity of a student behind it, just an extremely talented one.

I’m still annoyed at people referring to Lynch as “genius,” because I think he’s hit-or-miss and often at his best in “normal” movies, especially adaptations, or at the folk who like to tell those who don’t like the films I don’t like that they didn’t “get” them, as if all that matters is getting them, not whether any reaction or emotion can be gained from them. The overly immature Roger Ebert criticized Clive Barker for saying that art inspires something, even if that something is a bowel movement. I think Clive was right (this is not a great surprise to many, I’m sure, my love of the man is well-documented) and that is absolutely true. Eraserhead made me react. I had a feeling of tension at the two moments noted, and otherwise was in line in some ways with Henry’s own feelings, and felt some empathy with his concepts and worldview. I think inspiring sleep is not one of the things Barker meant, however, and so regardless of meaning, I think those films I mentioned fail. While they don’t have to be “entertaining,” per se, I think they at least need to be engaging, which this film was. Perhaps the running time helped when this approach is used, but that’s not exactly relevant either–it does what it needs to do with all necessary steps.


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