What can one possibly hope to understand when writing about a film as complex and openly enigmatic as David Lynch's art house masterpiece Eraserhead. Admittedly, the first time I viewed this film it was on quite a small screen one that did not aid to the possibility of understanding the layered symbolism at play nor was I able to truly appreciate the ways in which Lynch creates a mise-en-scene so incredibly evocative and absolutely surreals as to serve as a standard for many a filmmaker to follow. Surely he is borrowing from the likes of Carnival of Souls and other B-movies of years gone by, but Eraserhead is also a precursor to so much of what would occur within body horror and phenomenological horror for decades to follow. I would never have considered a film like Eraserhead to be an "ideal" big screen viewing, however, I had the great fortune of encountering it is such a way and came to immediately realize that it is precisely what one could hope to gain from seeing something in such a setting. It is a moving and stirring picture that while far more unsettling than what Tom Gunning probably has in mind, still proves to be a work that exists within the notion of "cinema of attractions," here almost becoming knowingly aware of the ways in which viewers engage with cinema, using jump scares and non-linear narrative in a way that would not come into its most fruitful for at least five more years and in most of those instances by pure accident. Usually, when I encounter or more recently reencounter early works I am able to pick up on some of their flaws, although always finding myself erring on the side of forgiveness, a fact attributed to my love for Jarmusch's sloppy but endearing Permanent Vacation or Kubick's sporadic yet scathingly focused indictment of war that is Fear and Desire. It is a rare feat however for a filmmaker to approach their initial works with such fervor and focus, an attribute I would be more apt to direct towards the New Wave Directors, or someone like Wes Anderson whose Bottle Rocket is still the highest achievement of his critically and popularly well-received career. Eraserhead is cinematic expression at its most intimate, proving that such a focused and personal narrative can translate beautifully (if abjectly so) without really meaning anything of certainty to those not personally attached to the director. Eraserhead is a glimpse into the mind's eye of one of cinema's most evocative and provocative directors and those who have the chance to see it in a large scale setting should do so without hesitation.
Eraserhead focuses rather specifically on the experiences of Henry (Jack Nance) a wandering young man whose life appears to lead him around what is simultaneously a warehouse and his place of residence. Henry who is apparently a graphic designer, is subject to bouts of paranoid encounters and visions of haunting surreal formats, whether it be an unusual longing and fear for the neighbor across the hall from his apartment, one whose stares and constant providing of information cause Henry to feel incredibly unsafe. When Henry is informed that his girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) wants him to come to her family's house for dinner, the degrees of paranoia grow in Henry's mind, leading to the bizarre encounter at the household when Henry meets Mary's parents Mrs. X (Jeanne Bates) and the smiling, oaf of a man Mr. X (Allen Joseph). The enraged Mrs. X pulls Henry into a side room and demands that Henry admit to engaging in intercourse with Mary, because she has recently given birth to a child and believes him to be the father. Henry suddenly transports himself to a world where he is living with Mary and their "infant child" the disturbingly deformed bodiless being the whines incessantly, leading to the already mentally unstable Mary to leave Henry to take care of the child all on his own. This immediately spirals out of control as the infant becomes sick the moment Mary leaves, possessing rashes all over his face and spewing out various fluids uncontrollably. All the while, Henry's connection with reality breaks as he begins to see visions of The Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) singing to him and as well as watching her trample what appear to be less developed versions of his and Mary's already deformed child. In the wildest section of Henry's visions he imagines his head exploding off and falling into the street only to have a child grab his head and take it to a factory where the cerebral cortex of his brain serves as a stem of eraser for men. Awaking from all of this the maddened Henry takes a blade to the child in frustration assumedly destroying it for good, although it is uncertain as his reality is far too convoluted at this point to be certain of anything, instead, we only know that the disturbed Henry continues to seek solace in the presence of The Lady in the Radiator.
When one searches for theoretical scholarship on Eraserhead, it is most commonly tied to phenomenology in that it is suggested to be a film influenced by personal politics and individualistic endeavors. As such, Eraserhead can be read as a variety of things, but considering the amount of information provided by Lynch on the film it is worth wholly considering the metaphors within his own admittance of it resulting from his fears of fatherhood. Indeed while the film does consider Mary's own issues with the child, it is a responsibility thrust upon Henry who is clearly not only inept at dealing with the newly brought about child, but also manages to accidentally make it sick and eventually kill it in a decidedly more active manner. Henry is assumedly a manifestation of Lynch's own fears ones that are both a suggestion of his own fears of ineptitude with a child, as well as a clear commentary on his burgeoning loss of freedom that invariably emerges when one is faced with adding a life into the world that is purely dependent on another for help. Of course much more of this exists in a surreal space for Lynch and all is not to be taken literally for to do so would be to stifle things like The Lady in the Radiator as extending to multiple forms of meaning and theoretical possibilities. I mean thinking about the fact that she is assumedly a small figure living in the radiator of Henry's (and possibly Mary's) apartment that is a projection and point of looking for Henry is incredibly complex and fascinating, although she extends well beyond this issue. Indeed, her stylized look and Cold War dress sharply contrast her swollen face in an incredibly stirring and decidedly perplexing way. Furthermore, as phenomenological as the film may be it is easy to see other narratives emerging within the film, indeed my post screening discussion with a few friends resulted in readings ranging from a positing that the film is a Catholic slanted understanding of pro-life issues (I would say a larger statement on abortion anxiety, although problematic in its masculine issues) while others found it to be a burgeoning post-modern text on shifting notions of masculine identity. All this is plausible and no less possible, even in the phenomenology ideal placed upon this film, because when considering fatherhood and identity these other issues and a lot more come to the forefront, Lynch just proves with Eraserhead to be a pioneer.
Key Scene: In Heaven, everything is fine...
I am waiting with baited breath for the alleged Criterion release of this film, it has HD prints available, but only in the non-region one context. As such patience is of the essence with this viewing, unless, of course, you are afforded a chance to see it on the big screen.