Tasha: So Keith. I suspect we could spend thousands of words here just on talking our way through the specific symbolism of Eraserhead. Compared to David Lynch’s other dream-stories, it’s both more perverse and more penetrable: It doesn’t take a Freudian scholar to piece together the dream-logic behind a smiling woman smashing giant spermatozoa, or in a baked chicken that bleeds and twitches when cut open, or a baby that’s a fragile, demanding bundle of mess and need. (Especially when you consider, say, that Lynch became a vegetarian after making this film, and that his daughter was unplanned, and born with severely deformed feet, which required extensive surgery to repair.)
That said, I often wonder whether there’s really any purpose in interrogating his films scene by scene, looking for meaning. If I was writing a college paper on symbolism, I could certainly spin a few pages out of Henry Spencer’s severed head being used to make erasers, and the idea that he desperately wants to erase his own recent mistakes and restart his life. But knowing that the image came from a daydream of Lynch’s—essentially, him spinning up images from his subconscious, which he only later began to interpret himself—makes the entire effort feel silly to me. Lynch himself is usually fairly opaque about answering any “What did this actually mean?”-type questions. Trying to figure out the exact meaning of any given dream image he puts onscreen strikes me as about as pointless as trying to interpret people’s actual dreams.
But maybe I’m alone in that. So much of this film is in the incredible visuals, the superlative sound design, and the sheer uncanniness Lynch builds by pairing them. How much of the importance of this film is in the experience for you, and how much is in interpretation or analysis?
Keith: I think you’re right in suggesting that it’s foolish to get too rigorous with the analysis of What It All Means when it comes to Eraserhead, and to Lynch in general. Push too far, and it ends up sounding like Chris Isaak explaining the symbolism of every item sour-faced Lil wears in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It isn’t a code to be cracked, in other words. I think the opposite is also true, though: I’m not a big fan of the “Just let the experience wash over you, man” approach to Lynch. (Or film in general.) In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever responded as strongly to Eraserhead as I did after this viewing, in part because I felt like I understood it better now that I have a kid. Those sequences of the baby (if it is a baby) keeping Henry and Mary awake used to seem a lot more surreal than they do to me now, since I’ve been kept awake by a demanding little creature with no respect for anyone else’s time or well-being. When caring for an infant isn’t wonderful—and for Henry and Mary, it never seems wonderful—it can seem like a nightmare. I never got that about this movie before this most recent viewing.
I don’t think I ever appreciated how much of Lynch’s future we were seeing with this movie before, either: the glowing fluorescents, the strange stage, the voyeurism. There’s a lot of what’s to come already on display in this movie. That said, and to bring us all the way back to the first issue you raise, I found this viewing informed from having spent a lot of time thinking about Twin Peaks lately. The radiator world seems like a precursor to the Black Lodge in many ways. Would following that logic make the Lady In The Radiator a kind of demonic force? She seems angelic and childlike, puffy face and all, but she also brings Henry into her embrace after he’s killed his baby. I used to see that as a kind of peaceful moment, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe we should start from the end and work backward. How do you read the conclusion of this movie?
Tasha: Lynch has been fairly clear about what that All Means, at least: Henry has gone to the place of nirvana that Lynch reaches through transcendental meditation, a practice he’s been consistently advocating for decades. Call it the heaven of the Lady In The Radiator’s song: “In heaven, everything is fine.” She reads as more of a higher self, telling him to let go of the dark, flawed things of the world and embrace light, than a demon telling him to commit murder. As horrifying as the baby-thing is, in life and in death, it never reads like an actual child to me: It’s more a representation of anxiety, fear, and self-imposed obligation than a symbol of actual reproduction. If you read the Man In The Planet, with his levers and switches, as the darkness and struggle for control that’s the opposite of the Lady In The Radiator’s peace and light, it’s significant that his system breaks down at the end, when Henry embraces the light. Is Lynch advocating infanticide? (Or monstercide?) Only if you think that really is a baby. Or a human. Or real at all.
But here I am getting into specific scene interpretations, like I said I didn’t want to do. It’s such a temptation, with Lynch and with others directors whose work is impossible to take literally, but who tell stories that seem rational and self-contained on the surface. (Shane Carruth and Harmony Korine both leap to mind. Benh Zeitlin, too.) Let’s cycle back a bit: I strongly agree that there are echoes of Lynch’s later work here. I saw it most clearly in the Lady In The Radiator, who stands on a stage in a sort of theater of the mind: The place mostly doesn’t seem to exist, until the lights come up to a blinding degree and she gives a little presentation meant to communicate something dreamlike but insinuating and fervently important to the audience. We see the same thing in Twin Peaks whenever the Giant communicates something of import to Dale Cooper from his periodically appearing, overlit stage; there’s a similar stage in Mulholland Dr., at Club Silencio. In all of these cases, there’s a sense of presentation, where regular events stop and lives are suspended in time while a little psychic show delivers a message from the spirit world. How else do you see Eraserhead fitting into Lynch’s work?
Keith: A couple of different ways: There’s a recurring theme of scrutiny yielding horror. Lynch lingers on the awfulness of Henry’s apartment and turns up the volume on the noises of a newborn, and the more we get to see it, the worse it looks. Joseph Merrick’s deformities in The Elephant Man turn into a mirror for the ugliness of Victorian England. In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey Beaumont looks at pleasant-seeming grass and finds an ear covered in ants. The investigations of Mulholland Dr. uncover an awful revelation about the fundamental nature of the characters’ reality. And so on.
Beyond that, there’s Henry. He’s far less charming than Jeffrey or Agent Cooper, protagonists played by Kyle MacLachlan in later Lynch efforts, but he has the same kind of “Aw, jeez” hominess about him. (Lynch has brought the same quality to his own public persona.) This kind of simplicity comes up a lot in Lynch’s films, usually to get pounded by the unpleasantness of the world. Henry may not be an innocent, but he is enough of a naïf to be confounded when a world he knows is ugly just keeps getting uglier.
Scott’s Keynote also brings up connections I’d never considered, like how much Barton Fink owes to this film, particularly its sound design—and how much influence its sound design has had in general. Then there’s the production design, whose out-of-timeness must have been groundbreaking, and liberating, to those who first saw it. Why stay married to one period when you can mix-and-match the past and the future? Eraserhead seems to belong to some post-apocalyptic future permanently stuck in 1948. I don’t know if anyone who worked on Blade Runner, for instance, drew from this film, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I’ve always thought of Eraserhead as being an unrepeated oddity—and an unrepeatable one—but it seems part of a larger play of influences than I’d ever considered.
Tasha: One flip side of that I hadn’t considered before: There’s also a theme of lack of scrutiny of horror. It’s so striking to me how Henry’s apartment is full of strange, unremarked-on unpleasantness: the little tree at his bedside, not in a pot just in a pile of raw dirt. That hairy heap of whatever-it-is on his dresser. The similarly grassy whatever-it-is on the floor by the radiator. This is the stuff of literal nightmare: The out-of-place and inexplicable, treated as perfectly normal, as not even worthy of comment.
If anything, I don’t think Eraserhead gets enough credit for how perfectly it mimics the language of nightmares: the foreboding not tied to anything in particular, the inhuman behavior accepted in the moment (like the weird fits Mary X and her mother both have), the way things change abruptly in the moment, like the horrible pustules appearing on the baby-thing between one shot and the next, acknowledged by Henry only with a mildly surprised, “Oh, you are sick!” Later Lynch films often have the same queasy sense of unreality, but they always seem to strain more for elaborate surreality. Eraserhead is so basic, it just seems familiar to me. I’ve never had this specific dream, but I’ve had other dreams where there’s a horror in the room that no one talks about but everyone dreads, or where the story or setting or situation changes abruptly from moment to moment. The way Henry pulls giant sperm from his wife and throws them against the wall in disgust perfectly mimics how sequences in nightmares can seem to go on forever, without evolving in the way conscious stories do, and how the emotions of the moment seem so much more important than any sort of sense.
Speaking of the film being an unrepeatable oddity, how impressive is it that it comes across as such a cohesive vision when it was made over the course of five years, with Lynch putting together scenes whenever he got some money together? I never would have guessed, watching the film, that it wasn’t filmed in a couple of frenetic, haunted weeks, or even days. Apart from the creepy baby and giant-sperm special effects, which look convincing like no practical effects I’ve seen on film short of Alien, the film has that soundstage-and-guerilla-shoot indie look, like it could have been assembled on the fly by someone running around with a camera, grabbing what footage he could while his star was available. It boggles my mind that Lynch managed to maintain this haunted tone over the course of five years, especially given that the impetus behind the film was so specifically the emotional place he was in after his daughter’s birth.
Keith: Five years and the loss of a cinematographer: Frederick Elmes, who went on to shoot Lynch’s Wild At Heart and Blue Velvet, stepped in for Herbert Cardwell, who died during its production. I have no idea who shot which scenes, though, another sign of the film’s miraculous coherence. It may be a case of the results not betraying the process. Lynch’s collaborators often talk about him being inspired in the moment. There’s a long tracking shot in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me that moves along a floor covered with cigarette butts, one of the most memorable shots in the film. It’s also apparently the product of a last-minute decision that sent PAs to area bars asking for the contents of their ashtrays.
Maybe it’s just that the force of Lynch’s vision pushes past those obstacles. Maybe not always. Maybe not in Dune, particularly. But re-watching Eraserhead made me aware again of how personal Lynch’s films feel, as if they were saying something the director had to say, even if it only makes sense to him. And the wonder of Lynch’s films is that they’re clearly the work of a singular creator with no interest in watering down what he does for others, but they still find a way to reach so many people. Maybe not everyone—Twin Peaks, which brought him a mass audience, now seems like a freak alignment of all the right elements at the right time—but enough. And those who do connect to them carry them everywhere.
Don’t miss today’s Keynote on how David Lynch channeled his fears about fatherhood into a beautiful nightmare. And come back tomorrow, when Mike D’Angelo will take a deep dive into Lynch’s short films.