The re-release of Lynch’s debut Eraserhead is a prime opportunity to re-visit this idiosyncratic masterpiece! Lynch claims that, in all the years since the film appeared, no reviewers have come anywhere near to his own interpretation of the film. I have no intention of trying to suss what was happening in The Head of our dear Mr Lynch, yet I shall attempt to give some impressions of my own.
Eraserhead sets the tone for Lynch’s career, the Emphasis upon 1950s Americana, the many dreamlike slow-motion scenes with constant industrial rumblings and hissings always subliminally present. The place is hideous, the homes and interiors depicted in the film are hideous – you can almost smell the damp and the grease! And yet, these images are also exquisitely Beautiful in their hideousness… A kind of Beauty from Hell!
The film opens with the Main Character Henry out in the eternal cosmos limply jettisoning a sperm from His mouth (‘In the beginning was the word’). Within a cosmic egg awakens a Vulcan Type character, deformed and of evil appearance, who noisily cranks the gears of machinery. There is a sense of this figure being at the heart and centre of the creative forces of the universe… but Lynch depicts even this figure as being reflective of the diseased and claustrophobic Industrial squalor that the rest of the film is steeped in.
Henry is the archetypal fool, Nature’s plaything and tool, who bumbles through the film’s dark byways without any conscious realisation of what exactly may be happening, with his dorkish backcombed high-style hair, haunted glare, uneasy manner and ill-fitting suit! Henry is trapped within a constantly oppressive mechanical nightmare – the view from his room… a desolate brick wall! … A fitting symbol of his future. Even the chicken at the family dinner is a man-made mechanistic parody of Death made life. Getting his girlfriend mysteriously pregnant is somehow part of this grinding, creaking nightmare of life, and the resulting baby, which he is left to care for after she freaks out and leaves, is the most hideous Alien slimeball, cackling and taunting him in the night.
Lynch plunges Henry through various convoluted, highly symbolic mini-adventures, all with a strong theme of hopelessness and Nihilism. As is characteristic of much of Lynch’s work, there are scenes embedded within the film which may be nothing other than some twisted dream. Such is Henry’s encounter with a Woman who lives in the room opposite: his bed becomes a Bath of milk into which they both sink. Coming as his masculine force is being relentlessly crushed by the pressures of being left alone to tend the creature, this scene feels very much like just a fantasy.
Eraserhead gets its title from a scene where Henry’s head is ejected by the sheer force of the Alien child’s own head sprouting forth from his shoulders, replacing and Erasing his own identity. His head is found by a young boy in an industrial wasteland and taken to a factory merchant where the brain is drilled out and used as rubber for the ends of pencils! The poor man’s intellect has been reduced to a symbol of pure nothingness, his creative force and individuality destroyed by the Evil offspring that is now completely possessing him.
Henry keeps a small worm reminiscent of his lost seed in a cupboard, the seed that was set in motion seemingly against Henry’s will by the sinister Demiurgic figure seen in the opening sequence. Opposite the cupboard is a Radiator, Henry’s only place of refuge and escape from the grimy cold monotony. Within it is the ‘LADY IN THE RADIATOR’, a kind of perverse, hamster-cheeked caricature of Marilyn Monroe, who sings a fantastic and haunting melody about everything being Fine in Heaven, as if she was the source of his salvation.
At the end of the film, Henry seems to be set free. By destroying the alien baby, Henry seemingly performs his only true act of ‘Will’ in the whole story. The Demiurgic figure Stares with Menace at Henry and struggles to maintain his grip on the grinding gears, now screeching and kicking forth masses of sparks, his face contorted in a grimace of pain as he strives to hold this world together. Destruction and creation are merged, and our hero realises that the source of heaven is within the light and heat of the Radiator Lady’s arms. Here he is at last absorbed, and mercifully released from the bondage of the dark creator’s world.
The film’s atmosphere was inspired by industrial Philadelphia, where Lynch had spent much time. In the interview included on the new DVD, Lynch states that when he arrived in LA he was overwhelmed by the light, compared to the oppressive gloom of Philadelphia. This may have something to do with the inspired choice of the Monroe-like figure, the star being associated with LA, as a source of Heavenly light.