David Lynch’s 1977 debut – Eraserhead – was my first introduction to the man’s uniquely idiosyncratic work. In the summer of 1999 I was fifteen years old and I was on holiday in Scotland with my family. During those couple of weeks we visited Edinburgh, and being a film-mad teen I was eager to scour the shelves of HMV and Virgin Megastore (back when the latter still existed).
At this point DVD was still a long way from taking over VHS, so the landscape in these stores was dominated by the reassuringly sturdy forms of video cassette boxes. With money to burn (relatively speaking), my eyes grew wide at a special offer – three videotapes for £15 – and I duly selected three titles: Graveyard Shift (Ralph S. Singleton, 1990), Evil Ed (Anders Jacobson, 1995), and Eraserhead.
Featuring screaming faces drowning in rat-infested water, severed heads, a screaming, crimson-coated, lunatic film editor, and bold text proclaiming “BE WARNED: The nightmare has not gone away…”, it’s little wonder I was drawn to the box art of these particular titles. Being fifteen at the time – and each video alluringly brandished with an 18 certificate – it fell to my Dad to purchase the videos. The store clerk knew full-well who the videos were actually for (proclaiming knowingly “I see you’re quite the connoisseur”), but they didn’t care. To me there was a sense of danger and fascination about it; I wasn’t legally of-age to be purchasing these videos, and yet by that point I’d been watching 18-rated movies for six whole years (don’t worry – they weren’t anything wildly inappropriate).
I found Graveyard Shift to be an average, but not all that memorable Stephen King adaptation, and Evil Ed to be an utterly barmy horror comedy that really earned the cover blurb “a rampage of exploding heads and flying limbs make this gorefest truly splatterific!” … however, Eraserhead proved to be an entirely different journey.
It was to take me the best part of the ensuing 12 months to get through every one of the 89 minutes in the running time. The film was so bizarre and unsettling to the early development of my cinephile senses that I could only manage 5 or 10 minutes at a time – with gaps of weeks or even months between these sporadic portions. No doubt this extremely fractured form of viewing didn’t help in achieving any kind of understanding of the narrative, but even if I’d viewed it in one sitting, I simply wouldn’t have ‘got it’ one bit aged fifteen with the typical attention span for my age.
More than a decade later, and with The Horror Channel showing Twin Peaks in-full (which I’d never seen before), I truly discovered the work of David Lynch. Blue Velvet (1986) revealed itself as beautifully dark and consuming, while second-attempts at Lost Highway (1997) and Wild At Heart (1990) proved successful. A transcendent witnessing of Mulholland Drive (2001) was followed by the half-baffled enjoyment of Lynch’s most cryptic work to date – the three-hour-long Inland Empire (2006). Aged fifteen, the latter wouldn’t have even been attempted had it been out at the time, but now things were very different – and as such I realised that I would need to return to Eraserhead, which had spent the last 12 years sitting on a video shelf quietly goading me.
I had realised that Lynch’s actual work, and his reputation, are two very different beasts. The content of his work is far easier to decipher once you understand what information in each scene is key to the plot, and what information is unique, inspired, dream-like, Lynchian window-dressing.
The following blow-by-blow account is laid out by time, during which I will posit my personal understanding of Lynch’s most widely analysed, and argued about, film.
January 15th 2012
8:02pm – Resembling the Lady in the Radiator, I steel myself with a face full of Jaffa Cakes, and press play.
8:04pm to 8:09pm – Henry, full of apprehension, floats in space, but it seems the planetoid going through his mind is in fact a nightmarish ovum. Is this happening now, or is this a guilt-ridden memory – a memory of Henry’s shame, and perhaps even lust, as engendered by the scarred man who instigates the terrified release of Henry’s sperm. Splash down: conception.
It was at this point, I seem to remember, that I first took a lengthy breather from the film as a freaked-out fifteen year-old.
Industrial landscapes that howl with angry, distant machinery – a typically Lynch obsession is birthed on film. Guilt, corruption, intimidation and paranoia seep from every brick, every stained and broken window, and every blackened steel girder.
8:12pm – Ah, the ever-popular zigzag patterned flooring. As the elevator doors slide shut on Henry, I finish my Jaffa Cakes and prepare to enter the nightmare.
8:13pm – “Are you Henry” – we meet ‘The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall’ – the temptress of apartment twenty-seven.
No wonder Henry’s a bit down in the dumps. His shitty one-bedroom apartment roars with the sound of a hissing radiator and features a window without a view.
8:18pm – Henry and Mary X: their relationship is a fractured one amidst a terrifying industrial hell that roars with a cacophony of man-made noise, smoke, decay, loneliness and no small measure of social awkwardness.
8:22pm – Time for dinner at #2416: The wild feasting of puppies upon an exhausted/indifferent mother canine foreshadows news which will bring Henry’s world – and vacation – crashing down around him.
8:25pm – Puppeteering Grandma to mix a salad. An eyebrow takes a subtle step forward in its ascent up my forehead. This is one of those oddball details, with little-or-no underlying meaning, that you so often see in dreams or nightmares that make little sense, but which provide background texture to a scene.
8:27pm – Henry carves the damn-near foetus-size chickens at the behest of crooked-kneed patriarch Bill … if I remember correctly, my fifteen year-old counterpart took another lengthy breather after the close-up of the viscous ooze that gushes forth from the miniscule chicken as its legs flail about. Considering a scene towards the end of the film, perhaps this is another moment of foreshadowing.
8:30pm – A blown bulb, a mother’s invasive questioning and out-of-the-blue personal-space-invading, and a nose bleed. A moment of handheld, free-roaming camerawork unsettles the glaring balance of the usually static, scrutinising camera.
8:34pm – Feeding the horrific premature result of Henry and Mary X’s premarital lust … and receiving a very small worm-like thing in a very small box in the mail. I sense that my fifteen year-old counterpart has gone AWOL once again.
8:37pm – A stormy night to mirror the post-natal torment of Mary X.
8:44pm – Mary X, the woman caged by her youthful indiscretion, flees leaving Henry alone with the monstrous baby … and the temptress next door.
The nightmare escalates – the baby is unwell … it’s sickly wailing, and its diseased appearance, have decidedly disturbed me. The power of the Jaffa Cakes is called upon.
8:52pm – The ‘Lady in the Radiator’, her swollen cheeks, her cutesy come-hither smile, and her dance upon the stage inside Henry’s radiator. Naturally in 1999 such an image simultaneously flew over my head, and exploded it, but I feel I have a better grasp of the scene’s meaning – or at the very least I have an interpretation to proffer.
This vision of Henry’s creation stomps on his sperm – the result of his lust; the very product that rendered him trapped alone with his ailing, premature, inhuman offspring – and so suggests a sense of innocent bliss, a suggestion of what could have otherwise been, before his pre-marital dalliance with Mary X.
8:56pm – Mary X is back in Henry’s ragged bed, crowding him out, but this seemingly normal scene becomes a ghastly unreality as our electric-haired protagonist exhumes giant, slimy, sperm-like worms from between the sheets (from between Mary’s legs … is this a form of afterbirth, or a rejection of his seed?).
As we return to that miniscule worm in the miniscule box that came in the mail, only to be devoured by it whole, I ponder if this worm is in fact a seed of an idea in Henry’s head, and become quite freaked out … I’m so glad I’m not on drugs right now.
9:00pm – The temptress of #27, locked out of her apartment late one night, comes to resurrect Henry’s lust … but where is Mary X, Henry’s new wife, and is this encounter a dream? Henry silences the gruesome progeny.
9:03pm – Infidelity strikes: The pair are quite literally consumed by their actions and sink into the cloudy pool within his marital bed. Sexual seas split – possibly at the moment of climax – but any ecstasy is usurped when the temptress comes face-to-face with the planet-like egg.
9:05pm – “In heaven, everything is fine” – so sings, quite hypnotically, the Lady in the Radiator. The Lady, and Henry’s infidelity, are juxtaposed … however she vanishes after a moment of happiness with him, only to be replaced before his eyes by the scarred man, his dead sperm, and a gnarled and lifeless tree.
9:09pm - A mixture of guilt and threat creeps in as Henry finds himself on trial for his actions.
Then his head falls off – replaced on his shoulders by that of his terrible offspring – as the dead tree secretes a trickling river of blood into which Henry’s severed head suddenly falls.
The head descends from the sky, the skull cracks open, and a child steals it as a homeless man protests.
9:12pm – Over the last 12 years I had almost convinced myself that the following sequence was just in my head, but no – Henry’s decapitated head really is taken to a pencil-making factory where a sampling of his head (much like you’d take a core sample of cheese) is used to make the eraser part … well that explains the title of the film, I suppose.
The dust of his ‘Eraserhead’ wakes him from his hallucinogenic dreamscape where thoughts of his tryst with the temptress plague him … just as two people feverishly dig (or fight?) in the dirt in the alleyway below.
9:18pm through 9:27pm –Henry’s grotesque child mocks him as the girl next door returns home with another man, much to Henry’s dismay. She sees the head of the baby on Henry’s shoulders.
Full of resentment, Henry hacks open the bandages that encase the screaming premature progeny – and he ruddy well stabs it … the disturbance levels in my mind have taken a big old leap … however quite soon both eyebrows find themselves making friends with my hairline as an oozing volcano of goo and sparking electrical outlets precipitate the baby’s head growing to room-consuming size so it can stalk Henry’s terrified form in the strobing Lynchian light … things have most definitely gone a bit mental.
9:28pm – The planet-like egg breaks open as the scarred man wrestles with his jammed levers – then Henry finds himself with the Lady in the Radiator. Hugging her, he discovers that in heaven everything really is fine.
He killed his hideous offspring – and did it in return kill him? – so he can live free of torment forever after.
9:38pm – I watch an episode of Cougar Town to un-freak my mind.
In summary the meaning of the film is quite clear – it’s all about the fear of an impending birth, the dread of on-coming fatherhood, and the torturous and guilty thoughts of a mind-in-fright seeking escape. To me it’s about responsibility versus temptation, and nightmares born out of a fear of everything going wrong – not only with the imminent birth but also your own life, and your relationship with the mother.
Twelve years apart, these two viewings of Eraserhead could not be more different. With age, experience, and even a film degree, comes understanding of a film that flew right over my head in 1999. Back then I struggled with it completely, whereas now I found it quite concise – and I have to say I rather enjoyed it.
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