When in an early scene of Eraserhead Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is informed by his alluring neighbor that his girlfriend requests his presence at her parents' house for dinner that night, Henry's reaction is shock. Neither producing unhappiness nor fear (and certainly not pleasant expectation), the stimulus is so mortifying to awkward Henry with his polygonal hair and highwater slacks that his nervous system shuts down. Like a deer in headlights, he lacks the fortitude to process the danger that's coming his way. Having spent the first ten minutes of screen time silently wandering the apocalyptic city streets alone, he responds to the invitation by immediately sitting on the corner of his bed, drying his socks, and staring at the radiator, waiting for darkness to fill his room so that he can make his nighttime appointment. From inside the radiator comes a promising glow, a suggestion of something orderly, peaceful, and longed for, but the glow fades away with the promise unfulfilled. Tonight is not a night of pleasant routines. Tonight he will be yanked from his comfort zone into uncharted, perilous territory: girlfriends, parents, dinner etiquette.
Long past dusk, at the industrialized home of girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart), Henry is chastised for being late. Mary has stood by the window, nervously awaiting his arrival with a frown furrowing her face; in her opinion, there was no guarantee that he would come. Perhaps she's used to him blowing off plans with his friends, either from forgetfulness, fear, confusion, or something else. Henry supports her assumption when he tells her, in a panicked outburst like much of his speech throughout the film, "I wasn't even sure you wanted me to come!" Despite the straightforward terms of the invitation and Mary's obvious desire that he show, Henry has almost unconsciously convinced himself of what he wants to believe, that his presence at the uncomfortable dinner is neither necessary nor wanted. Nevertheless, he hesitantly comes, and the dinner that follows is more uncomfortable than he could possibly imagine.
In the corner of the room, a newborn litter suckles at a mother pup's teats. The sound, which fills the room constantly, is like feasting, scurrying rats. With this grating, inhuman noise combines a steady whir of lonely wind, a sound like chaos howling before the dawn of time, and the combined effect is to set the viewer--and Henry--constantly on edge. The sound could be his own overworked nerves on the verge of snapping; whether the film depicts an objective reality or a manifestation of Henry's subjective perspective (I lean toward the latter) is never quite clear. Mary's mother, Mrs. X, is at once abrasive, insistent, and dismissive. When Mary assures her that Henry is a very clever printer, she responds with what could easily be either agreement or sarcasm: "Yeah, I'll bet he's clever."
When Mr. X, an excitable plumber, enters, introducing a string of new conversation topics from chickens and pipes to progress and knees, Henry's panic level rises. Henry has trouble keeping up with one thread of conversation; following half a dozen is impossible. When Mr. X later asks him, "Well, Henry, what do you know?", the openendedness paralyzes him. "Oh, I don't know much of anything," he humbly replies, but the future father-in-law continues to stare at him with an expectant smile. The question is a banal piece of conversational fluff, a statement devoid of depth, intended more as grease for the wheels of social interaction than as any prying insight into human understanding. Henry could easily respond with any number of trivialities--the weather, sports, work, politics, a humorous anecdote--anything to keep the chatter flowing, but Henry, completely lacking in social consciousness, interprets the question literally as an interrogation demanding a complete accounting of the vast corpus of knowledge he possesses. "What do you know?" Where to begin? Better not to begin at all--and so the conversation stalls.
When Henry is asked to carve the chickens--a task made more difficult by the fact that these are unknown, alien chickens, miniature mechanical creations--Henry is forced to perform as the center of attention. If he had any fears about making a fool of himself, now would be the time when that would happen. The tiny, squirming chicken, moving in a rather sexual motion, vomits blood as he slices it, sending Mrs. X into a violent, screaming convulsion that causes her to run from the room. Pandemonium erupts. Mrs. X aggressively questions Henry about his "sexual intercourse" with her daughter, combining guilt, anger, and threats with sexual awkwardness when she suddenly begins licking and kissing his neck. Responsibilities, expectations, restitution, and threats are piled on: Henry has a baby, he must marry his girlfriend, he'll be "in very bad trouble" if he doesn't "cooperate." The whole spectrum of difficult, confusing social interactions and expectations combines in one disturbing climax as the ratlike puppies continues suckling and as Mr. X worries about the chickens growing colder and as Mary's catatonic grandmother puffs at a cigarette.
If I had to guess what Eraserhead was about, I'd say social anxiety disorder or perhaps even something severer like autism. How else can I explain the peaceful satisfaction that Henry derives from his lonely wanderings and his isolated quarters? His window looks onto nothing but bricks, yet this doesn't seem to bother him. Instead of pets or photographs of people, his apartment is furnished with plants and dirt. His favorite passtime (or should I call it a ritual or an escape or a safety net?) is the solace of staring into his humming radiator, where he imagines a shy, affectionate, inhuman woman dancing and promising him better things to come. The repeated lyrics of the only song she sings are, "In heaven, everything is fine. You've got your good things, and I've got mine." You have yours and I have mine--no "ours." They are both separate, and everyone is happy. Henry is prone to misinterpreting and misreading the statements and actions of others. When his beautiful neighbor tells him that she has locked herself out of her apartment by accident, we see her move close into his face in a sexual aggressive maneuver. Is this real, or is Henry's confusion--his eagerness to see the most awkward in any social interaction--forcing him to imagine a conversation that is much more complicated and loaded than it really is? Does every conversation Henry has really end in disaster, or does his hypersensitive mind merely convince him that they all do? Is Henry "on vacation" from the printing factory because of psychological reasons? Why does Henry's baby--which cries and moves like a real baby--look like a monster? Perhaps because Henry has enough trouble seeing fully grown adults as humans; a tiny, babbling creature is as alien to him as an embalmed calf fetus. Henry's problems and reactions, his fears and perceptions (if we are to view Eraserhead as existing entirely within Henry's perceptions) all resemble the innerworkings of a mind riddled with social anxiety, right down to the climax in which Henry, at the height of his stress, imagines his head becoming disembodied and used by caricatures as a cog in a factory machine. The portrait of severe social anxiety is disturbing, stressful, and accurate. David Lynch has fascinatingly depicted what it looks and feels like to feel utterly disconnected from the people around you.
Of course, when I first saw Eraserhead about five years ago, before I was dealing with the social anxiety I presently deal with, I didn't interpret the film in any such manner. I thought it was about the fear of growing up and facing responsibility. The worries of parenthood. Maybe even abortion. The baby's fetal appearance, the odd sperm-like creatures that the woman in the radiator stomps on, the infidelity that Henry commits with his neighbor while trying to conceal his crying baby, the bizarre infanticide: everything pointed to this conclusion, and I think that's a conclusion that many viewers reach.
But trying to analyze what Eraserhead is about is an exercise in futility, stupidity, or arrogance. No explanation is all-encompassing; any analysis will still be rife with holes and questions. If the film is about social anxiety, then what are the worms that the woman in the radiator battles with her feet? If the film is about anxiety or about fatherhood, then what does the horrifying man who lives inside the moon and pulls the levers that begin all the action in the film represent? David Lynch is a surrealist, and in his filmography he has proven himself a master of cumulative effects. Scenes, visuals, dialogues, songs, sounds, and other aspects of Lynch's films don't necessarily fit together like jigsaw pieces. More often the varied parts of a Lynch film harmonize together kaleidoscopically, achieving an effect of plenitude. In a symphonic composition, a flute plays a part, a tuba plays a part, and every few moments a tympani drum plays a loud part. In isolation, these parts are scattered, unstructured noise; together, they are music. The unsettling soundscape, the dystopian landscape, the bizarre dialogue, the overemotional overacting, the lush black and white photography, the immersive cinematography, the horrifying imagery, and the haunting music of Eraserhead combine to create the overall effect of a nightmare.
David Lynch's first film, assembled in Philadelphia over five years for a modest budget, is a fascinating, terrifying dream that pries its way into the mind, demanding to be understood despite refusing all attempts at explanation. In over thirty years, Lynch has never abandoned this aesthetic, instead perfecting his mind-boggling vision into works of art like Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire. Eraserhead may perhaps suffer from being too long and too baffling, but like certain disquieting dreams, it will never be forgotten by those who have seen it.
d/w: David Lynch
(Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart)