1977, Alan Splet, American Film Institute, Black and White, Catherine Coulson, Charlotte Stewart, David Lynch, Experimental, Fabian van Dongen, Feature, Film, Frederick Elmes, Henry Spencer, Independent, Industrial, Influential, Jack Fisk, Jack Nance, Jennifer Lynch, Lady in the Radiator, Midnight Movie, Philadelphia, Sissy Spacek, Surreal
By Fabian van Dongen
ERASERHEAD (US/1976/David Lynch)
‘A dream about dark and troubling things’ was the tagline on the poster back in 1976. And, this is exactly what ‘Eraserhead’ is, and all that creator David Lynch should say about its content and meaning – as he always does. He also stated that he is yet to hear an interpretation that matches with his personal vision; “every interpretation is valid”, he says, but his personal interpretation still hasn’t been discovered yet. That is, Lynch didn’t come across one yet. It has always been sort of my dream to present him with my personal interpretation, as I always suspected it to be pretty damn close to what he intended the piece to mean. Of course I’ll never find out, probably. And that’s cool. It’s the way it should be with ‘Eraserhead’. But for those who might be interested – myself included – here’s my interpretation.
The first thing to say about interpreting great cinema in general is that it takes a certain mindset to truly ‘see’ and comprehend a film. It is never based on rationality and/or real life logic; that angle is merely an element. Real life logic is something to hold on to, or keep your left finger on, while experiencing and understanding cinema. It helps, but is not necessarily part of the essential substance of cinema. The essence of true cinema finds itself on a different and unique level of consciousness. Even conventional plot movies are based on this essence of cinema, which isn’t reality as we know it from every day life. In cinema, our affinity with everyday reality is like an element, or tool even, that you need to go further. To reach further places, you first have to know what those places are you’re surpassing. So reality is sort of a basic ground level from where a film takes off, and creates its own reality; its illusion. Although, reality itself of course is already totally subjective and ambiguous – which leads to the essence of true cinema. An understanding of this, either conscious or unconscious, leads to the right mindset of which I’m speaking. What makes it magic and difficult at the same time is the fact that I (nor someone else) could never fully and effectively explain what this ‘certain mindset’ is. Everyone has to find that out for themselves, I guess.
Secondly, to comprehend the meaning of ‘Eraserhead’ one must realize that this film is even beyond the aforementioned. Where traditional films try to create their own reality (usually as close to real life as possible) in the way I’ve mentioned , ‘Eraserhead’ aspires to create a dreamlike or nightmarish reality. An artificial reality; the illusionist’s illusion. So everyday reality is even further removed from the arena it takes place in. It’s an abstract depiction of an idea. Lynch calls it “his experiment based on an idea; entering a certain world”. Therefore, the ‘decoding’ or unraveling of all that happens on a concrete plot level leads to only clues, not the true meaning. But, of course it is part of the fun and mystery of the film, and gives us some of the building blocks we need to find and feel the meaning of ‘Eraserhead’.
The film opens with a shot of ‘the black planet’ (earth/the world). Over the planet we see a horizontal close up of a man: Henry Spencer. Henry is ‘hovering’ over and around the world. He’s not planted on earth, so to speak. His expression is fearful and confused; vulnerable. Henry is an estranged and somewhat lost man. A dreamer. An naïve innocent. He is in a horizontal position, which symbolises his awkwardness and confusion towards the world; towards life. On a more physical level it represents him laying down. Because of his hovering and moving, the planet keeps coming in and out of his head. Finally Henry glides away, and we slowly enter the planet. Closer and closer. When we’re ‘on’ the planet it doesn’t seem to resemble earth, or does it? We find the top of a house; there’s a black hole in the roof. We slowly enter that black hole; that void. In the blackness appears a man sitting by a window: ‘the man in the planet’. It’s a half naked and sinisterly distorted man. His face and body are deformed and full of disease. He is watching through the window; watching life; watching Henry. Suddenly Henry opens his mouth, and out of his mouth Henry produces something: a sperm cell. ‘The man in the planet’ puts his hands on some large machine handles. He ‘sets things in motion’. In my opinion ‘the man in the planet’ symbolises Henry’s sexual desire; his perversion, and sexual guilt. He also can be interpreted as ‘the creator’ of Henry’s actions. After ‘the man in the planet’ rigorously pulls a handle, something happens: the sperm cell shoots away, and lands in a little round pool of water. Something happens. Aggressive activity in the water. When the activity and the bubbles settle down, all we see is darkness. Blackness. Something appears… a light. An opening. From the blackness we slowly enter this opening of light. We come out. This opening represents the conception and birth of Henry’s child: the deformed baby.
The opening is the most abstract part of the entire piece. It sets up the story, the context and the style, and almost tells the entire story of the film – by itself. This form of storytelling and structure is very often used by Lynch: ‘The Elephant Man’, ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Mulholland Drive’ use the same style of opening. After the opening the story starts for real. We see a close up of Henry – this time not abstract but in a desolate street. He starts walking, and we follow him on his journey: the film. ‘Eraserhead’ is fundamentally a portrait (inspired by an abstract painting). Nevertheless, the traditional linear storytelling structure is certainly still used. It just needs that certain mindset and understanding of the ‘codes’ to see this linear structure. If you ‘watch with opened eyes’ this film is really a straightforward story, as in: 1. introduction of the character, and his context. 2. the ark/the unfolding situation/the plot. 3. the resolution. ‘Eraserhead’ goes from A to B to C, clean. No flashbacks or a-chronology. At some point in the film – when the ‘lady in the radiator’ scene opens – we enter Henry’s head, and we see and follow him in his dream. The mystery and beauty that Lynch creates is in the ambiguous way as to where this dream ends, and reality continues again. But, the dream does end, clean and obvious. Then the storyline continious, and finds his resolution in the end. What Lynch does in the resolution is that he uses the same style and structure of the opening. The end of the film is almost as abstract as the opening (and the dream sequence, in the centre of the film). The opening sets an idea; a character, and the ending sets the resolution of this character. The entire film in between depicts this transition, and what situations and emotions generate this transition, or fate if you will.
The meaning of Eraserhead:
I almost hate to write about the meaning of this film, because it’s simply not meant for words nor explanation. It’s something to be recognized, to be felt, understood and admired on a different level than the rationality of words. Like Martin Scorsese once said: “If I could explain what the movie is about, why would I make it?” ‘Eraserhead’ – and the comprehension of it – changed my life. It gave my own life more clarity, direction and meaning. It touched and inspired me to believe in myself, including all my struggles ánd my dreams. This personal masterpiece gave me all the things that its story portrayed as lacking in the life of Henry. ‘Eraserhead’ is about the loss of innocence; innocence against darkness. It’s about a man – a dreamer – who loves to dream, and survives by living in his fantasies. He finds himself caught in a dark, scary and estranging world, that seems to want to devour him. A world of fear. His way of surviving/being is to create his own world, in his room and furthermore in his head. The beauty and personal element of the piece is what Lynch chooses as the earthly embodiment of this devouring dark reality. Lynch creates the angle of sexual guilt as a ground motive for Henry’s actions and frustrations. Henry becomes a father and a husband. More so, he is forced into this position – that’s a deeply relevant fact. He is forced into being a responsible ‘real man’, so to speak. That’s what attacks his safe and beloved fantasyworld. The wife and in particular the baby become his demons. When we see in the dream-sequence that the beautifully grotesque and deformed baby ‘pops out’ Henry’s head, it means that his baby is taking him over. His inner-demon is there to be fought. And, that’s the only thing in the entire film that Henry really initiates to do; everything overcomes him. He ‘follows’, he doesn’t ‘lead’. The only substantial thing he does is his attempt to pursue the lady across the hall; the symbol of his desire and longings. When he does ‘conquer’ her, it turns out to be part of the dream. In reality he finds her being ‘conquered’ by another man, which makes him feel embarrassed and inadequate as a man. It makes him feel like… a baby. Also deeply relevant to the film’s meaning. But, as I said the only thing he really initiates and does is that he ‘kills the demon’. He kills his – so called – baby. After he does this, things turn really scary and menacing. It becomes obvious that he did something with meaning; his action directly effects his ‘world’; his being. In the end he finds himself, somewhere. From out of the darkness into the light. He embraces his ‘dreamgirl’ (‘the lady in the radiator’) – the embodiment of his fantasyworld, who earlier in the film sets Henry at peace by killing some ‘sperm cells’ and singing: “in heaven, everything is fine” – and he’s free. Henry is free, and looks deeply relieved. But… the big question is: where has he found this peaceful freedom?