In Heaven, everything is fine . . .
You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine . . .
We’re having chicken! Strangest damn things! Man made! Tiny as my fist!
When Henry is “birthed” into an alien world at the beginning of Eraserhead, we sense that his conception is pervaded by a kind of sentient industrial impetus, personified by a decaying man wrenching metal levers to effect his conception. And yet, once set amongst the bleak factories and looming caverns of reverberative booms and slow relentless power, Henry reconfigures this landscape as benevolent. This is, after all, David Lynch. As Trevor mentions in his coverage of the short films, Lynch’s vision is still somewhat embryonic and deeply mysterious and symbolic at this point: but certain tropes are, particularly with comparative hindsight, already beginning to take shape. He makes the strange palatable and the normal peculiar: where they meet in the middle is where familiarity and weirdness mingle and where we find ourselves in a Lynch work. Familiarity will become weirdness as its barely-hidden fragility is drawn to the surface. The underlying becomes the prevalent. Thusly, the mindset needed to endure conventional life, with its lip service to flimsy facades is one of a certain psychotic bent, Lynch has it. Normality is freaky once closely examined or experienced: we have had to adjust. How? We dream. Eraserhead is, to an extent, the battle between dreams and reality. And battles tend to be violent; even, perhaps, to involve a certain bending of the rules. He gives short shrift to accepted takes on anything and pulls out of everything what he feels is latent and truthful.
For example: the sounds of terrible, incalculably powerful hidden machines are soothing omnipotence as opposed to grinding inhumanity. That is the key to the whole thing as far as my reading of this great oddity goes. Henry has to find a way of making what is terrible into something else. His “creator” or facilitator, a menacing, scarcely human presence, is only seen once more in Eraserhead, invading his dream (which descends into horrible surreal nightmare) before once more being quelled. Henry is in constant battle with demons, real and imagined, one of which seems to be his actual origins, which are far from auspicious. But on he goes: horrified but comically stoic, a painfully human alien on an Earth a few degrees askance from most cinematic iterations but which feels more real than pretty much all of them.
Henry, who’s “on vacation,” and who has worked somewhere amid the multiplicity of factories that seem to form an entire world (“Henry’s very good at printing”), strolls foalishly through a flat tableaux of drab, timeless buildings fronted with puddles, muddy pocks, and very little else. It’s a film obsessed with apertures, orifices and holes: ways in and out of things. As we move during the opening sequence, as Henry, through that fringed hole fringed with hair on the way to his abrupt insertion into the world that he will never shake off, we’re reminded of the ear found in the field at the start of Blue Velvet, or the camera moving through the top of a skull into a brain cavity in Lost Highway — a transformative voyage, from the known to an unavoidable alien remanifestation.
He’s a literal fish out of water, a glaring and conspicuous figure, iconic but diffident, and Jack Nance (brilliantly and comically occluded with and by every gesture and movement) is just . . . perfect. The only other person, surely, who could possibly have played Henry is David Lynch. He’s an alien not particularly struggling with human convention: he’s forever outside every moment of interaction he experiences and seems to know it. His struggles are in having no real interest in anything outside his own head.
He pays a visit to Mary, who we first witness staring out of a dusty window as though expecting the grim reaper, a blighted, frayed figure, ready to capitulate (and we’ll find out why) and quick to bemoan Henry’s lateness after his eventual arrival. He’s there for dinner with the folks. Boy, does Lynch not find any comfort in the U.S. family homestead. It’s a place of fantastically strange terrors: whereas someone like John Waters will simply exaggerate caricaturisms in the mutually-culpable nuclear family to horrid satirical effect in Polyester, Lynch does something much worse. He isolates each and every member of this multi-generational household and freezes them in a particular aspect of their nightmarish persona. Grandmother is an almost static, virtually dead thing sat in the kitchen, not even capable of mixing a few greens in a bowl, or putting a cigarette to her sandpaper lips; mother is a demonically frustrated volcano, almost insane, hanging on by dint of observing a certain level of imposed decorum (which slips, gruesomely, as her vicious and tawdry advance on Henry suggests that she’s now no more than a series of jumbled, misfiring behaviorisms that can’t find an outlet, energy contorted and corroding); Mary is ruined by the slow hiss of her family and its appalling and implicit contradictions; and dad, Bill, is a game, guileless stream of aw shucks radio announcer commentary, again only recognizably human in his adherence to vague, addled convention. He’s funny in the same way that clowns in nightmares are funny. Lynch is quite happy to make him an unequivocally ruinous series of grimace-smiles and hysterical homilies.
Anyway: the news is relayed by mother that a baby is at the hospital, and it’s apparently his (I’d wager it’s dad’s but there were no DNA get-outs back then). Mother twice asks: “Did you have sexual intercourse?” as though culpable confirmation of this will condemn the criminal. It will: the baby is no prize and is, literally, a life sentence, one way and then, ultimately, another.
The unrelenting misery of assumed domesticity ensues, Henry’s apartment now host to a breakdown-teetering Mary and baby, which torments them with an otherworldy mewling persistence. It becomes unwell, and Mary is taken to heading back to the folks (that’s how bad this baby is!) for some uninterrupted rest. Henry is marooned; soon enough (after a very Lynch scene in which Mary, abject and lamentably one-note of aspect, struggles to free her suitcase from beneath the bed as Henry jiggles atop, looking a little Stan Laurel as she finally claims it and escapes), the baby plunges into a pustulant and gruesome illness, which unfolds in a jarring, cymbal-heavy quick-cut revelation. A word, here, on Alan Splet’s genius sound editing and all-round atmospheric mastery. The soundscape informing Eraserhead is a thing of nerve-jangling harsh beauty. Through it, we feel those nearby factories through the walls and screen, we’re pierced by this strange entity wailing its soul-harrowing plea, we feel sullied by every splutter and phlegmy croak. It’s a magnificent element of the film, no mere backdrop, but a physical aspect of the constructed world and an unerring accomplice to Lynch’s visual bravado.
Henry and baby draw closer: attempting to leave the room once its pain is subdued temporarily, it suddenly whimpers imploringly. He is trapped. Juddering of movement and cloudy-eyed, it seems near death. Boiling water percolates and matter draw to a critical point. Henry yearns desperately for a way out . . . and the Lady In The Radiator arrives as Henry lays in bed.
Bulbs flash on as we see dancing feet, the camera pulling away to reveal a gauche but happy deformed woman dancing coyly on stage . . . a foetal (by way of Geiger) embryo squirms at her feet; more are dropped onto the stage and she continues, watching her step, then purposefully squishing the eelish entities . . . she retreats into darkness . . .
So here is a friend fathomed from somewhere: the depths of his soul or imagination, or an evolving counterbalance to the turmoil. She has growths on her face but a happy disposition; she’s an imperfect, apt angel. Slightly worrying, I might suggest, that she’s singing about heaven, ie death, as the only way out: is her killing those oversized spermatozoa a hint at where he’s gone wrong or a suggestion as to a plan of escape? (He will heed it later.)
Henry awakes from these hopeful visions to snake-sized versions of the squirming sperm coiling around he and Mary in bed: throwing them against the wall. A smaller version, the dried embryo mentioned earlier, which Henry placed in a chest, animatedly scurries away when he opens the door into a place very akin to the opening lunar landscape we saw that preceded Henry’s “birth” . . . it becomes a flowery mouth (another hole) into which the camera travels . . .
Henry hears noises and opens his door (early in the film, a deeply diffident Henry shares an uneasy, sexually uncomfortable moment with his openly seductive neighbour across the hall) and through the gloom appears the neighbor, who has “locked herself out of my apartment.” She seduces Henry, a deathly agent of life through sex, and they kiss as the baby mewls. They submerge themselves in a pool of milky liquid and we see the woman observe the lunar rock. This leads to a fateful return of the Lady in The Radiator: she is clasping something on her spot-lit stage and seems to beckon Henry, who advances to a jolt of light . . .
She then becomes the man who launched Henry into life . . . a man-sized version of his bedside sapling wheels onto the stage. Henry is decapitated, his blood running around his floored head; the baby emerging from the hole in his neck, wailing. The head is then dragged beneath the bloody floor. It reappears in the industrial landscape, collected by an opportunist child in front of a despairing old man, who wants it but is immobile. The child delivers it to a man behind a makeshift counter, who is reprimanded from a large bearded emerging man for buzzing too persistently. Business as usual.
Sex is forever a bad idea in Eraserhead (when isn’t it, with Lynch?): it can only lead to disaster, death, putrefaction, disease, and misery. But the woman across the hallway is a blessed momentary way out of Henry’s head and potential replacement for Mary. However, she wisely doesn’t hang around afterwards (or perhaps even vanishes during the brief coupling? And Henry is once again marooned with “baby.” When she eventually returns (he knocks shortly after their tryst to no answer — cue devilish baby laughter that sounds curiously like the ancient, rotting woman clambering from the bath in The Shining . . . hmmm, this was Kubrick’s favorite film for a while — I wonder . . .) with another man, he opens the door and stares yearningly at her, but she is repulsed and now sees Henry transformed, his head replaced by that of the baby. His and its fate entwined irrevocably.
Returning inside, he cuts its bandage away and its innards are revealed; he stabs at its organs with a scissor arm, imitating the act suggested by the Lady in the Radiator, puncturing them, blood oozing (and, soon enough, a horrible bloom of insectoid larval mush surges out of the seemingly dying baby). The head becomes a separate entity, with a straggle of umbilica and nothing else, as sparks fly out of a plug socket: a series of jump cut images of the head follow; the baby head, grown bigger and puposeful now detached from the compromises of bodily sickness, flashes, darkness, Henry terrified and shrunk back, the head moving for a lightbulb, seeking its life-force, darkness.
And then we meet the Lady in the Radiator once again, euphoric and effulgent, vivid in a pervasion of bright light, come to meet Henry in some kind of afterlife initiated by his untethering of the demonic offspring which, in a desperate attempt to extend its life beyond the susceptibilities of weak corporeality, shorts out Henry or jolts him into a world he has been fed hints of in his darkest, parentally besieged moments. Bodily confines are no friend of anyone’s here: only post mortality or deep inside one’s own head is happiness achievable.
Or: does Henry finally become the baby towards the end? Is his way into another world via transmutation and electricity (an alternate life-force)? Is he eschewing the superficialities of the material for a purer, more honest decay and surface repellance? Only the Lady in the Radiator, perhaps, herself clearly subject to some kind of terrible transformation, can see the real Henry (whatever that is, and it may be indefinable) and embrace it, without any deference to conventional acceptability.
Lynch is open about quite a lot of his Eraserhead influences in his book of interviews with Chris Rodley. I think the particular influence that bears heaviest on the film is Francis Bacon. It’s just impossible to think about this film without thinking about that factor: Bacon’s obsession with meat, violence, and the torturing limitations of what Lawrence Durrell referred to as “the bars of the bodily cage.” The surrealist strain running through it — coins in a pot full of water; growing saplings for some reason plonked on bedside tables; Henry’s decpitated head being grabbed by an opportunist kid and sold on to a nefarious factory for use as pencil eraser nubs — seems to be a scrambling of reality out of trauma, a fracturing of realism out of creative rage. Almost a plea for a new kind of U.S. cinema. For whatever reason, such wilful veering away from norms is a move into a realm of psychological intrepidity that Lynch would continue, exploring human relationships in a freer, truer way.
We also can’t help watch Eraserhead without looking to later work for clues. What are his insistent themes, those recurring concerns that thread through all the films? The ruinous, as opposed to bonding, role of sex; the squeamish terror of emotional attachment and resultant eruptions of violence (which prompt identity alterations); the nightmares of becoming obsessed or controlled by someone or something; identity crises and doubling. Henry, as with both Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring in Mulholland Dr., or Balthazar Getty and Bill Pullman swapping places in Lost Highway (not to mention Dennis Hopper assuming a disguise in Blue Velvet, or Piper Laurie spending several episodes as a Chinese man in Twin Peaks . . . alongside unsuspecting husband, Jack Nance), is of distinctly malleable properties. His dreams invade his life because he wants them to, and whilst the end result, we think, is finally successful (if abstract), the interim, and the price paid for inviting the fantastical to hold sway over a deeply repugnant and horrific reality is heavy. Apt that Lynch was subsidizing the production of Eraserhead with, of all things, a paper round, whilst living on the set: he ran out of money at one point, and as he remarks in an interview, there’s a scene involving Henry opening a door . . . the footage comprising what’s on the other side was shot two years later. Imagine that hiatus! The hell of the impoverished creative mind.
There’s a brief moment in the film that’s amongst my favourite in all cinema. It’s also another key to what the film may mean, and certainly seemed to on my part. Henry returning to his apartment (after collecting a dried embryo (?) from his mail box) quickly heads over to his bed and lies face down, head towards the radiator. He is back in his new-found parental domestic scene and he instinctively looks to escape — but the lady, the manifestation of his yearning for escape, doesn’t appear. There’s a flicker, her presence is felt, but her arrival is aborted by impinging responsibility. He is forced back into the immediacy of his surroundings, and regards a carefully framed image of Mary tending to the sick baby. He manages to isolate that moment, connect, and smile. The horror, for a few fleeting seconds, is abated. There is something there, indefatigable, that we get a glimpse of, and even as the nightmare usurps this layered-over impositional reinterpretation and the smile fades, it’s a breakthrough. It’s love wrenched from torment. How can it possibly survive this malformed, disconsolate world? But it has and it does, incomplete and intermittent, but enduring.
A final cop-out: Eraserhead really does yield to countless interpretations, beyond the fact of its poisoned domestic center. What it’s ultimately about is up to the viewer as Lynch, aware of diminishing its uniquely formed properties, rightly won’t open things up. Asked how the baby had been designed and created, Lynch clams up. He is excited by abstractions as more absolute than anything proclaiming definitiveness. He thinks, and I agree, as his films have taught me to, that tangents, abstract juxtapositions, non-linear structures and downright peculiarity have more of a chance of capturing this world, which is endlessly strange, than any traditional or conventional approaches. Eraserhead, like all Lynch’s films, makes a mockery of the majority of cinema by tapping into our inherent mystery. Those outside the loop see it best. We’re a weird species on an odd planet — Lynch reminds us we always have the option of building our own inside our heads that’s as real as the noises pressing up against our walls, within or without.