When talking about the bizarre, black and white movie Eraserhead from 1977, it is nigh impossible not to mention its creator, David Lynch, in the same breath. His filmography contains such cult hits as Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart and many more.
He is a filmmaker who seems to use the medium of film, not as a way to tell stories in any traditional way, but instead uses it to express and visualise his own troubling thoughts – from Blue Velvet’s look at the dark side of middleclass-American, suburban culture, to the thin line between dream and reality explored in Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire.
The reason for his popularity seems to be the narratives and worlds he is able to create, the bizarre characters that inhabits them and the sense of black, disturbing humour that is always found in his dialogue and use of imagery. This means that no matter whether you think his films are deep with symbolic value or whether you think they’re utter nonsense, they are all very entertaining, unique and well made.
With this in mind, Eraserhead may be David Lynch’s most encapsulating work, pretty much summing up every element, every trademark and every weird idea that would come after this, his first feature film. The following article will examine some of these elements.
The story itself is pretty simple. It revolves around Henry, a lonesome factory-worker, played by the enigmatic oddball and David Lynch-favourite, John Nance, whose girlfriend, Mary, unexpectedly gives birth. The child however is born prematurely in a foetus-like state, leaving it in a feeble, helpless state. The table-bound foetus’ wrangled cries and abnormal appearance proves too much of a handful for the nervous Mary, and she leaves Henry to take care of the monstrosity on his own for the rest of the movie.
While the foetus functions as the film’s central plot-device, seemingly representing and visualising Henry’s fear of fatherhood, most of the films’ surrounding characters and surreal dream-sequences are left ambiguous to either be interpreted on their own, in light of the rest of the movie or completely ignored by the viewer.
Take the prologue for instance: It starts with a shot of a lumpy planet, floating in space, with Henry’s head superimposed sideways on top of it. The camera then directs the viewers attention to the planet itself, panning over the moonlike surface of it, until it reaches an unidentifiable tin box with a hole in the middle.
Inside this tin box is a man, referred to in the credits as ‘Man In the Planet’, sitting on a chair, in an apartment looking out of a window. As he turns a couple of levers we switch to the shot of the planet with Henry’s head still superimposed on top of it. Henry opens his mouth and out comes something that resembles either a foetus, very early in development, still clinging to the umbilical cord or something that resembles a single sperm. It shoots down to the planet and lands in a puddle of gooey water. After this scene the movie seemingly ‘starts’ with Henry leaving work.
That’s a lot to take in and in true David Lynch fashion he only vaguely alludes to the meaning of any of the imagery the prologue throws at the viewer. The aforementioned Man In The Planet is never identified nor is it ever stated, explicitly or implicitly, what his purpose in the movie is.
As I mentioned before, this vague type of exposition is not uncommon in David Lynch’s filmography. However, Eraserheads’ particular sense of fragmentation from scene to scene and lack of any real context for most of the characters and scenes in it almost gives it the structure of a montage of similar themed short-stories coupled together. That the movie was made over a 5 year span somewhat explains this lack of coherence from scene to scene, though it also makes it obvious that Lynch was and still is an artist first and a filmmaker second.
Another way in which Eraserhead follows the style of Lynch’s later films is its cinematography, sound-design and overall mise en scène.
First of all the movie is entirely filmed in black and white. While many modern black and white movies, especially smaller, experimental films, use this technique as a crutch to appear more ‘artsy’ or intelligent than they actually are – a movie such as Escape from Tomorrow is a perfect example of this – David Lynch uses it here as a tool to empower the foreboding atmosphere of the movie.
The lack of colour and use of low contrast gives the viewer the feeling that the world itself in which Eraserhead takes place in is actually void of colour. This makes it feel alien and uninviting. This sense of alienation is complimented by the sound design, which, as it always is in Lynch’s films: absolutely haunting.
The background is filled with a constant noise which consists of howling wind, leaking steam pipes and loud humming, while the sound effects always seem to come from off-screen or not quite fit with the object they should be representing. The latter is especially evident in a particular disturbing scene in which a group of puppies sucking at the tits of their mother, sound like scattering rats.
At some point it simply becomes unclear whether the sound design is part of the soundtrack or actually originates from the world itself. While many films try to draw the audience in through use of a somewhat familiar and relatable setting, Eraserhead almost seems to want to push its audience away with its audio-visual style.
With the movies mute colour-palette and eerie sound design combined with its garbage-filled interior designs and barren factory exteriors, it manages to create a constant sense of dread in the viewer that is hard to put into words.
While Eraserhead at first glance may seem to diverge from the director’s later works – especially in its black and white colour-palette – upon further inspection, it is clear that the film very much is a David Lynch-movie through and through. Most notable of these similarities is the many mysteries the story throws at the viewer, which is left unanswered and so it is up to the audience to wring some kind of sense or meaning out of them. That is, if they choose to do so.
The movie can just as well be enjoyed with the mindset, that it is a representation of a foreign universe, which we aren’t part of and will never come to understand fully. This, when taking into account what mad, wonderful mind brew up this dream of dark and troubling things, is perhaps the most fitting interpretation of the movie.