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“I don’t know much of anything,” says Henry, the hapless victim at the crossroads of a beautiful and unenviable nightmare, and a fitting summation of how one might feel after watching this nightmare named Eraserhead. A cobbling-together of upsetting imagery, characters that act out in reality-violating ways, utterly nonsensical sequences, and a looming presence of a score that throbs and pulsates instead of harmonizing, it feels useless to deign or even pretend to understand what Eraserhead and its director David Lynch are possibly trying to tell us. But in a way, that’s the beauty of this 1977 body horror experimental, and of all of Lynch’s works; the way that they compel us to reckon with the true subjectivity of any work of art, despite widespread and, admittedly, quite credible theory that Eraserhead is ultimately a metaphor for the anxieties of becoming a parent. But as a creator that continues to this day to refuse to give away the meaning beneath his seeming absurdity, the audience is forced to settle with their own interpretations of this cinematic abstract art installation, making Lynch both an exasperating and admirable artist, and his works, especially Eraserhead, an amalgamation of frustration, intrigue, endless speculation, and utter elegance.
Eraserhead is told through the eyes of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a quiet and nervous man, taking vacation time off from his job as a printer in an industrial hellscape. He resides in a ramshackle apartment decorated by the occasional pile of dirt, the sporadic tiny, leafless tree, a small cupboard where Henry places a worm he received in the mail, and a singing woman with chipmunk cheeks who lives in his radiator. One day, he goes over to the house of his equally anxious and peculiar girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), to have dinner with her parents, where they are served miniature man-made chickens that move autonomously and spurt blood, and it is there Henry discovers that Mary just had a baby – Henry’s baby (well, the doctors aren’t even sure it is a baby). From there, the happy couple bring home their bouncing bundle of joy, a dreadful creature swaddled in bandages, with skin that glistens like goo and a face that might allow one to reason that Henry’s side of things didn’t quite finish their required construction.
Mary eventually leaves Henry to go back to her parents, unable to sleep due to their baby’s incessant cries that continue into the night. This leaves Henry to care for the child, as he discovers that parenthood is quite the daunting task (at one point, Henry checks the child’s temperature, suspicious it might be ill despite appearing fine; he has trouble discerning what the thermometer reads, and when he looks back at the child mere seconds later, it’s already gasping for air and covered in pustulating boils; “Oh you are sick” Henry, almost comically, exclaims). In the meantime, he’s experiencing visions and engaging in an affair with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts) who eventually betrays him, leading to a bloody boiling point encouraged by the child’s ceaseless mewling and apparent guffaws at Henry’s misfortune.
Re-watching this movie with eyes that have scoured all things Twin Peaks makes it quite apparent and fun to perceive the inspiration Eraserhead eventually left on its successor; a scene where Henry watches an aggrieved Mary crouch down at the foot of their bed to retrieve her suitcase from under it, parallels that of Killer BOB stooped in the same place when Sarah Palmer has a vision of him in her home; electricity that crackles of its own accord in Henry’s apartment and Mary’s parents’ house is a reminder of electricity that acts out when Lodge spirits are accessing it for transport; the lone, claw-like tree that resides center stage in one of Henry’s visions could be the sibling of the tree with its own beating heart from Twin Peaks: The Return; even the black and white zig-zag floor pattern in the lobby of Henry’s apartment building feels eerily similar to the floors that line the halls of the malevolent Black Lodge. And with the way that the world of Eraserhead feels so entirely not of this world at all, one could theorize that the entire thing takes place in a Lodge itself.
But it would be a fruitless endeavor to have spent this entire review positing theories of what Eraserhead is trying to do, because it is what critics and viewers have already been attempting for the past forty-one years since the film’s release. Eraserhead does evidently give you a glimpse into Lynch’s bleak outlook of the world at the time and even, perhaps, his own life (the film’s desolate aesthetics, Lynch has actually divulged, were heavily inspired by the Philadelphia area he’d been previously living in). Nevertheless, Eraserhead is, in the end, just like any other work of art regardless of narrative clarity or artist simplification; entirely what you make of it and with no right or wrong interpretation. Lynch is not keeping his underlying intentions from us because he is cruel, but because his intentions do not matter when it comes to the subjective nature of all art. What matters is what we, the viewers, choose to take from Eraserhead, what we believe the The Man in the Planet is pulling his levers for, or why underneath the horrid child’s bandages rests not a body, but a pile of organs.
Still, there is something about Eraserhead which feels quite accessible, despite the confusing visuals and narrative oddities, though it’s hard to not be constantly intrigued by and curious about the film’s world all the same; there is a reality still very much present, grounded and tangible underneath the visions of decapitated heads being turned into erasers. Parenthood is a terrifying struggle that no one knows precisely how to manage or cope with; romantic and personal relationships are often difficult to navigate; the world around us is strange, wonderful, and horrible all at once; and there are always glimpses of the good things, even if only you can see them. “In heaven, everything is fine.”
You can view Eraserhead on Criterion here.
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She is passionate about film and writing about film and also talking about film but can’t really decide which she wants to do with her life, but it’s not a big deal (that’s future Brianna’s problem). She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. She met Greg Sestero once and it was weird. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs