If we were being prickly, we could say that David Lynch’s debut feature Eraserhead has set the director down a 40 year path of trying, and failing, to recapture the cinematic mayhem and malfeasance of his coming out party. That’s not entirely true – Dune, The Elephant Man, and The Straight Story don’t bother as much with explicit disruption, but they are failures of ambition all the more so for that very reason, effective films though some of them may be anyway. But Lynch’s greatest works – Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive– have all been formalist fever dreams that, if expressively advancing the terror of Eraserhead’s self-censuring dreamscape, also rein the Lynchian-id beast in ever so slightly so that they are perhaps less fully capable of exploring the broken-edges of experience. Their relative – and I emphasize relative, for this is Lynch we are speaking of – formal sanity in envisioning a world bent out of shape makes them feel less honestly afflicted with the terror of the world they depict. To some extent, all of these films are commentaries (fantastic commentaries), but only Eraserhead achieves genuine embodiment. While other films strive to “mean” something about discombobulated terror, the formally spasmodic Eraserhead is discombobulated terror.
Which is why Eraserhead stands at the top of the irradiated hill, or at the bottom of the nightmare chasm, sucking up all the deranged energy and the exiled nematodes and hooligans of cinematic malcontent. Lynch’s lengthy correspondence with the devil has permeated new realms over time, certainly the American dream suburbia of insinuation and suggestion that has more or less structured all of his masterpieces. But the blaring, flaring hell of Eraserhead hasn’t been matched for full-on fiery cinematic holocaust in the director’s canon, excepting maybe Inland Empire thirty years on. There’s something slimy about Mulholland or Blue Velvet both, but Eraserhead just envelops you in its own acid-spewing maw. If you can imagine, even Mulholland Drive is tame and timid in comparison, much more of a play-ball tentative friend to cinema that might just stab the medium in the back as it draws blood from it. Eraserhead has no use for such clandestine mischief; this is a full-on, full-frontal cinematic parasite with no interest in the mutualistic symbiosis of most films that befriend conventional cinema form – putting on safe cinematic airs – to secretly, subtly warp it.
Eraserhead, an avant-garde collage always unraveling and unfettering outward into entropy, avoids reconcilable explanations or “outs”, ways we can flatten the terror by explaining it, muting it, rendering it explicable. The mood piece focuses on, but isn’t really “about”, Henry (Jack Nance), and it escapes from easy “one-to-one” readings where every image corresponds to a meaning; rather than meaning as its girder, Eraserhead prefers mood and milieu (superior “m” words both). The obvious temptation, to thaw the film’s simmering mischievousness out by “understanding” it through the lens of psychology – that all of this is a visualization of Henry’s fractured psyche – just isn’t enough for Eraserhead.
In the beginning, superimposed space rock envelops Nance’s head without really controlling it, and something that looks like a brain stem seems to leave his body like it is ready to investigate the cosmos or abscond with Jack’s inner soul before it evaporates into an incorporeal, cloudy threat he can’t possibly grasp. But before we can say “space” – turning the film into a sort of disreputable Star Wars from the same year – we’re subsumed into French poetic realism where the instances of insanity only invade and violate the minimalist doldrums of modernity, palpably visualized in the barren, crestfallen set design. The film’s influences are disparate and almost irreconcilable, avoiding the temptation to accept the limit of any one style, and the constant fluxion of the influences keep us from pining the film down to any on theme or meaning. The film shifts before our eyes and beyond our control, slipping away – violently – from our need to make it mean something specific; rather than letting us flatten it, stomp all over it with symbols, the film prefers a cacophony of varying suggestions and hints that battle for screen time and envision a film humble enough to deny that it is gifted with a specific answer for its crime of confusing the audience. The net effect is a film, and audience, grasping for straws that bend and break within brittle fingers.
For instance, the usual point of ingress for the film is the intimate question of fatherhood (suggested most notably in the hellfire treatment of an amorphous nightmare of a baby), but some of the film’s more lasting implications are more anthropological and less individualist. Released in 1977 amidst the hell-on-earth of urban dissolution and the mismanagement and implosion of the auto industry, the motor-city limbo of Eraserhead’s distinctly fell mise-en-scene – eroding mechanical slate-grey materiality by the barrel – is bracingly frightful. Whether or not Eraserhead “means” or “intends” a commentary on industrial modernity’s failure to suture together the running-in-every-direction dysplasia of humanity, the film undeniably inscribes, even embodies, the feeling of exiled and crumbling sanity of an America without an idea how their erected industrial monoliths – the totems to human volition and Enlightenment conceptions of “work” – had failed them so.
More impossible to reconcile, and thus more telling of the film’s genius, is the way its oblong, surrealist-injected narrative structure elides those very principles of character growth and human agency that were themselves the building blocks of Enlightenment thought, Enlightenment industrialism, and Enlightenment cinema. Rather than simply depicting corroded factory tableaux, Eraserhead delegitimizes the ideological brick and mortar – the individual-centric progress narratives – that catalyzed and were buttressed by the ideology’s tactile manifestations, the industrial centers, to begin with. Rather than watching a man overcome, learn, assert, or better himself, we are trapped with passivity, aimlessness, even sickly human extinction.
For such a low-budget film, Eraserhead sparkles with glistening Old Hollywood beauty that only curdles as we confront the film’s failures to conform to Old Hollywood ways. The noir was back in fashion amidst the seedy nihilism and tattered-humanity of post-Watergate ‘70s American cinema. But no film from the decade so reflexively summons the mise-en-scene of the noir to explicitly reentrench what the genre stood for in another time of similar terror – the early ‘40s – and to release the neo-noir from the mortal coil of simply copying noir form. Rather than simply applying the dusky shadows and sparkling chiaroscuro of the noir to the ‘70s – displacing the noir by thirty years without actually exploiting those three decades of change to reevaluate the genre for a new time – Eraserhead uproots the precise laser-like shadowplay of the genre, transforming its form. Rather than judiciously divided and subdivided black and white light signaling points of hostility and safety in the frame, Lynch’s film – abetted by cinematographers Frederick Elmes and Herbert Caldwell – is a portal of continuous, jaundiced grey that signals the lack of definable, discernible safety points altogether. The fractured morality of the traditional noir, with the shards of good and bad dancing all around the screen, are sabotaged by the fell void of emptiness and grey, uncaring amorality. This is a world, unlike the traditional noir, without even the courage or conviction to enjoy, to revel and find life within, the toxic evil of a good ol’ shadow . In Eraserhead, such a primary, uncompromised color would feel pristine and pure.
It’s a vision of life uprooted, by fatherhood or industrial malaise or whatever your pick, but the chokepoint of the film, its linchpin, isn’t the real-world thematic implication or the content, but the threatening fear and soul-deep ennui encrusted in a form that defies any reason you want to give it. Visual form, and aural form as well; whatever beauty is enshrined in Eraserhead as a visual artifact, it is outclassed by a work that may very well be the most bracing work of sound to grace its decade. A toxic fugue of a white noise drone suffuses the film, modernity and industry clawing at your feet without ever being explicitly present in the diegesis, suggesting a distant rumor of industry that we can’t even grasp as real anymore. A manifestation of an industrial world that was now both omnipresent/world-structuring and yet somehow omitted from your grasp, the sound envelops the film – denouncing the possibility of real mental peace-of-mind or silent rest – while also refusing to be corporealized or represented as part of the physical world.
Rather than representable noise, Lynch prefers a maddening out of control spiral of vaguely industrial sound that can’t even be understood in tactile terms anymore (much like the shift from old-school nuts and bolts corporeal violence, the beacon of the past, to the more enveloping threat of aimless subservience in the modern service-centered economy that is seemingly more safeguarded but not inherently more benevolent). Violence becomes intangible – the unending threat of a noise we don’t understand, rather than an in-and-out punch-to-the-gut. It’s as though the very structure of life – the factory work that has curtailed or censored other opportunities in the first place – is now denied you as even an outlet for structuring the nothingness of life. It exists as a figment, a hope, a desire, and a nightmare more than something we can touch, wonderfully essaying life as something that exists beyond us, a mind-out-of-body experience that won’t even grant us the benevolence of touching it, of hurting us bluntly, so that we may accept that the object of our fear really exists.
It’s when the noises stoke into something non-representational – not really industrial machine, not really fleshy baby’s cry, not really pitter-pattering rats under the floorboards – that Eraserhead truly takes flight though, asking us to perform the same mental dance – “what is going on here?” – that Lynch envisions as the crux of a world out of control. Fear becomes nondescript, non-specific, like an anxious caterwaul enveloping us but not really coalescing into a form we can understand, and it’s all the more terrifying. The search for cause to the effect – the need to say “it is the baby”, “it is the machine” – is but a feeble pass at grounding something that eludes us. It’s a feeling we can’t intellectualize, a sensation we can’t append definition to, a suggestion that our Enlightenment rationality has defeated us.
Maybe it is a baby, maybe it’s just a figment, but it is the “maybe”, the realm of something seemingly tactile that also doesn’t truly observe our rules for it, that sends the mind sputtering outward in a whirlwind chaos. The baby may cry, we can look at the baby and say “this is what Eraserhead is”, but when the white noise envelops every inch of the frame, refusing to grant us an origin or a cause, our mental capacity to symbolize, to suture cause to effect as Enlightenment thinkers need to in order for their mental compartments to prevail, is turned into sand falling out of your hand. The act of inscribing meaning onto Eraserhead becomes an embodiment of the modern world’s faltering inability to cope by compartmentalizing. The content can be a “pick” for fear of the moment – failing industry, failing parenthood – but the form of the film entwines this specific fear with the ever-present oblivion of not really knowing that your pick is correct, and that it may just be a salve, a way to literalize something more existential and monstrously hybrid. Giving it a cause only makes it go down easier.
But is there an escape plan? Lynch’s fascination with an increasingly old-world Americana would congeal in his later films, but the melancholic malevolence of fairy tale damnation is already fully-formed here (insofar as any Lynch film being “fully-formed” is really a good thing; the beauty of them is how they refuse to be suffocated by achieving completeness or perfection and prefer a state of blessed-out deformity). The sincerity with which Lynch disrupts classical Hollywood style and classical American morality (implicitly tethering them together) also suggests, disarmingly, his appreciation of that simple-fabric moral fable; in many ways, the futurist nightmare of the radical style actually calls back to a more elegantly simple time when melodramatic, endearingly uncomplicated emotion was appreciated without the call for narrative complication, contortion, or the sometimes timid restraint of thought. Any irony found in Eraserhead is a fallout of an audience’s ability to confront the profound honesty with which Eraserhead treats its emotions, and this honesty of emotion may just be Lynch’s beacon of new possibility, or new life, amidst the doldrums of the Enlightenment realism that has failed our hopes and dreams and imaginations.
In its own way, Eraserhead is very much the film of a man who would fall in love with the beauty of the soap opera, even as he challenged them, the work of a man who is both rejecting overt emotion as passé and trite but who secretly suggests that melodrama may be a possibility of new community, of new existence rooted in connection and unmitigated emotional hope. A man battling between his mind’s Enlightenment-tortured need for restraint, for realism, for analysis, for subtlety, and a man who perverts those impulses by marinating his art in the kind of disarming innocence that makes the world feel uncomfortable with its garish, outré surrealist emotion that fails to obey our assumption about how intelligent people speak, think, and act.
Thus, his later Twin Peaks is absurdist but not ironic, and it deeply respects the insouciant honesty of its characters even as their actions deny the reality principle; it is why The Straight Story, with its gee-whiz Americana, and his deeply compromised Dune, with its fluffy mid-century hope and space-age dreams, are actually more tethered to the heart-on-the-sleeve Lynch sensibility than they initially seem. They are works from a man who has been taught that such emotion is the enemy of serious intellect, but who can’t quite accept the denunciation of his heart’s inner desires, a director who, with childlike whimsy, inscribes his films with these desires in hopes that they create a new possibility for interaction, a new dream to have now and again.
In Eraserhead’s obliteration of the status quo, the director also recollects his sometimes hidden but always apparent appreciation of this way of life, this style of being, that he is usually accused of mocking. After all, while Nicholas Ray’s cinema was the nightmare version of Douglas Sirk’s dreamscapes, they were both formally acclimatized to the belief that emotionally outward cinema, that feeling, rather than thinking, was the only potential liberation from the modern world. Maybe Lynch is the Boogie Man, warping our feel-good dreams into nightmares, but beneath all the formal playfulness, one detects Lynch’s tearful resignation that he is simply depicting a nightmare, the failure of thought, that already exists.