Sorting through the abstractions of David Lynch’s 1977 debut Eraserhead—the mutated bodies and creatures, the clanking machines that produce pencils and control the heavens, the deepening mysteries and entryways into a feature-length nightmare—can be daunting, so it’s best to start with the man at its center. Though his afro thicket, plus a surreal interlude with the pencil-making machine, gives the movie its title, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) otherwise strikes a figure that wouldn’t be out of place in a campus comedy the following decade. He wears a loose-fitting suit with too-short pants that creep up his shins, revealing the white socks conspicuously tucked into his black shoes. In his suit jacket is a pocket protector and some pens, though the dreary occupation that requires this nerd get-up is never specified. In the liner notes to the new Criterion Blu-ray, there’s a photo of Lynch in a similar ensemble, though it’s hardly the only indication that Eraserhead is a personal vision.
More crucial to Spencer’s appearance, however, is his face, which is as easy to read as the action around him is wildly enigmatic. Anxiety, discomfort, bafflement: That’s the repertoire of expressions that settle around his eyes, and make Eraserhead identifiable as a character piece and a mood piece, no matter how far Lynch drifts into the avant-garde. It takes time—and perhaps repeat viewings—to unpack the film’s internal logic, but Spencer’s basic fears of intimacy, fatherhood, relationships, and the hostility of the world around him are easily and intuitively understood. That’s not always true of even Lynch’s more conventional narrative films, which break off from graspable (though strange) realities into realms like Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge, and present themselves as puzzles to be solved, disconnected from the experiences of any one character. Eraserhead is Spencer’s (and Lynch’s) headspace, and it feels like psychic stress made manifest, like the nodules that speckle the body of his mutant child.
Much of Eraserhead arose from events in Lynch’s life—specifically, the birth of his daughter, Jennifer, who needed surgery to correct clubbed feet, and his five years living in a Philadelphia neighborhood that deeply troubled him. Blue Velvet dreamed of a suburban idyll of blue skies and manicured lawns, and Twin Peaks laid out a mountain community of good neighbors and simple pleasures. They had their sinister undercurrents, but by contrast, Eraserhead offers no such sensuality or relief from darkness. Though Spencer does get time with the alluring Beautiful Girl Across The Hall (Judith Anna Roberts), even that is fraught with the wails of the mutant baby and the opening of an eerie, primordial bath around them. The performance of a song called “In Heaven” is as much threat as promise.
After starting with The Man In The Planet (Jack Fisk) adjusting the levers that control the universe—suggesting the gears of predetermination that mangle free will—Lynch follows Spencer as he carries a bag of groceries through a cold industrial landscape. His apartment looks sickly and dead, with no light to bring organic greenery to the sad stick he has planted in a pile of dirt by his bedside. Spencer is summoned to the home of his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), where her parents treat him to an awkward, disgusting chicken dinner and corner him with the news that Mary has given birth to his child, so the couple should marry. He plainly knows nothing about the baby, which doesn’t look like a baby at all, so much as a needy spermatozoon that coughs up blood and mucus, when it isn’t filling the room with hideous shrieks or chuckles.
Spencer doesn’t know how to care for this child, but his responsibility to it pins him in place, at least until his dreams and nightmares carry him elsewhere. Again, this is a very human reaction to very human situation, that of a first-time father feeling helpless and overwhelmed by a child whose needs he cannot meet. (In part biologically, because he isn’t its mother.) By abstracting it, Lynch just makes the terror more vivid. Ditto the internal and external spaces of Eraserhead: The oppressive, Dickensian darkness of the apartment building and the cold concrete structures and infertile plain surrounding it. There’s just enough of the real world to keep the film tethered in the recognizable.
There are plenty of arresting black-and-white images in the film, which Pauline Kael likened to the German Expressionism of the 1930s, but Eraserhead’s sound work is its primary legacy. Lynch and sound designer Alan Splet spent a year of the film’s five years in production coming up with dense layers of noise that create a low-level ambience in one scene, and rise up to an overwhelming crescendo in the next. Viewers today are familiar with similar walls of sound in movies, which is an unsettling constant in the Coen brothers’ work since Barton Fink, and David Fincher’s since Seven. But Eraserhead proved that it could be an inexpensive way to add depth and dimension to a low-budget independent film.
Lynch and Splet deploy sounds that have a visceral shock, like the squish of the smiling, crooning Lady In The Radiator (Laurel Near) stepping on wriggling, oversized spermatozoa that look like Spencer’s baby before full development. Beyond the howling wind, the driving force is the sound of machines: The hums and hisses of a radiator, the clanks and chugs of some unseen factory that seems to operate perpetually beyond the walls. This is the relentless soundtrack of Spencer’s life—and of modern life more generally. It sustains (and frequently aggravates) the stress that dictates his waking hours, and the troubled subconscious that dictates his dreams. In one dark fantasy, he imagines a boy finding his disembodied head and taking it to a pencil factory to be converted into pencil erasers. In the film’s most famous shot, eraser dust bursts into the air like a cloud of snowflakes. That’s what awaits when life reaches the end of the line.
“In Heaven, everything is fine,” the Lady In The Radiator assures us. She’s the closest Eraserhead gets to it, despite the softball-sized masses growing out of her cheeks, and the squished beasts that dot the sort of zigzag performance space Lynch re-created later in Twin Peaks. But in Spencer’s world, the thought of any transcendence, even one this weird and grotesque, is still a daydream away from the unearthly howls and mechanical clunks defining his environment. The horror of Eraserhead is that there’s nothing organic or verdant present in any frame, not even the newborn, whose oozing insides underneath its swaddling resemble the wet goo oozing from the baked chicken Spencer tries to slice while at dinner with Mary X’s parents. It’s like Lynch exorcising his worst fears through Spencer: He translates human anxieties about home, family, desire, and life itself into an overwhelming, mutating shroud of darkness and noise.
Our Movie Of The Week coverage of Eraserhead continues with Tasha Robinson and Keith Phipps’ discussion of how to take its symbolism and where it fits with Lynch’s other work. And tomorrow, Mike D’Angelo surveys Lynch’s underappreciated short films.