in preparation for kicking off this mega David Lynch retrospective, i watched Eraserhead twice over the past week. upon rewatching it, it has become deeply burrowed into my subconscious, ineluctable, a code to be deciphered. i’ve been cogitating and deliberating about the film and it’s meaning thoroughly. the images are burned into my mind. the uneasiness–the strangeness is palpable and unsettling even after i’ve familiarised myself with it. reading the interpretations of others, while an interesting and somewhat enlightening process, has ultimately been fruitless. even if they’re well thought out, the film remains an enigma. even with paragraphs upon paragraphs of interpretation, something always seems to be missing. it is for this reason that i’ve determined that the answers must come from within, rather than from an external source.
i’ve considered the possibility that the film defies explanation and is simply meant to be enjoyed on its technical/artistic merits. the fact that Eraserhead became a staple in American cinema, to begin with, is a miracle. however, while the “this film defies explanation” notion is fine and dandy, it’s still not satisfying, and frankly, feels like a copout. i am of the belief that the idea of an entire Lynch film being purely cerebral and not something that operates within its own internal logic is simply preposterous. this is not to say that there aren’t things in Lynch’s films that are simply implemented for their aesthetic qualities, but the idea that there is no interpretation to be exhumed is misguided. before he was a filmmaker, Lynch was a painter. and in the same manner of most painters, Lynch likely developed a thorough understanding of semiotic and symbolic language. this is evident in not only his earlier ostensibly importable short films but also his later ones. Lynch knows what the fuck he’s doing. so while i browsed for alternate explanations and the interpretations of others, i discovered this strange trend–this peculiar propensity among several analysts to boil down the film’s abstractions to mere sexual innuendo or comments on sexual/reproductive mores (an example being the planet dwelling man in the dilapidated house representing sexual desire/libido). while the film does indubitably address subagitation and reproduction, it does not seem to be integral to the film. it does not get to its thematic core. the majority of the interpretations are incomplete–readings that are only functional in the fog of convenient ignorance and operate under blatant disregard for elements and moments which contradict said readings.
one of the biggest things that made me reject the interpretations which assigned an overabundance of sexual allusion to the film was Lynch’s insistence that Eraserhead was his “most spiritual film”. this is not saying that sex in itself could not be “spiritual”. the conclusion that i’ve come to has more to do with taking into account the trends that Lynch developed throughout his filmography through his subsequent films–the most abstract ones often bearing a translunary and spiritual quality. upon reexamination of Lynch’s other works, i’ve concluded that with the exception of his films which follow narrative conventions, Lynch’s films are rarely ever so obtuse (or straight-forward, for lack of a better word). another notion that i reject is the idea that this film in anyway chronicles a tragedy, or that Henry’s journey ends in tragedy. the film’s darkness, however, is undeniable. this world of darkness, this “netherworld” as Lynch calls it in an ’79 interview, is pivotal to understanding Henry’s evolution. as we observe the trends and patterns that form throughout Lynch’s artistic growth, it becomes more and more clear that Lynch’s films, while often tragic in their chronology, rarely end in tragedy. the degeneracy and the terribility and the horribleness all climax to a euphoric release, a sort of bliss. this trend of hope prevailing, i think, provides some insight into who David Lynch is as a person. rather than being a cynical pretentious sicko, Lynch is someone who acknowledges the underlying darkness that rests in dormancy, seeks a solution/way to liquidate this darkness, and eventually finds it. this is partially why i dismiss the ‘bliss through death/suicide’ reading. this is not to say that Lynch isn’t allowed to make departures from his own trends, especially considering that this was his first feature length, but it’s strange uncharacteristic of him. surface level. also, it fails to address the events of the rest of the film. and it’s weirdly cynical. the same applies to the commensurately straightforward interpretation that Henry not only kills his only child due to an incapability of dealing with the anxieties of parenthood but also because the child acts as an obstacle to all of the things Henry wants to do. yes, the child ostensibly ridicules Henry. yes, it divides Henry and his wife. but there’s a sort of inexplicable disconnect here. something that makes me disagree with this interpretation on a purely visceral level. that’s it? henry kills his child because he makes fun of him and drives his wife away and makes it harder for him to indulge in his other vices (namely his licentious neighbour)?
not only does this interpretation feel incomplete due to the fact that it doesn’t make sense in a logical capacity (none of those things justifies killing a baby), but it’s also dysfunctional in that it doesn’t make sense for Lynch to had worked on such a film in the first place, considering the fact that he’d just had become a father himself hitherto the release of the film. indeed, the film does dabble in the anxieties of what fatherhood entails, but it’s difficult to imagine that Lynch would have any interest in rewarding a practitioner of infanticide, especially under the mode of logic that this theory purports Henry was supposedly operating upon. when approached in a semiotic capacity, this theory suggests that Lynch made the conscious decision to juxtapose the jocular nature tumid-cheeked girl, shrouded in a brilliant white light, with the grotesque association with death. on an intuitive level, the mere nature of the scenes do nothing to suggest this. a lack of substantial evidence aside, it merely seems contradictory and antithetical to how Lynch typically utilizes symbolism. i am of the belief that out of all of his films, or at least the purely original ones (script/book adaptations notwithstanding), that Lynch, throughout interviews and comments made even several years after Eraserhead’s initial release, has given us the most clues for deciphering the Eraserhead’s “code”–more clues than he’s ever given about any other film of his. while the key to the mystery is internal (much like how the answer to Laura Palmer’s killer is within Cooper), it is also through many of Lynch’s ostensibly evasive/cryptic messages that we could effectively discern the most plausible and implausible notions regarding the film’s “meaning”.
so, what clues does David Lynch give us? there are two important external (meaning beyond the film, or at least the film as it relates to David Lynch) factors to consider; two things that not only helped mould Eraserhead into what it eventually became but helped mould who Lynch is as a filmmaker. the first relates more to the film in question: Lynch’s fear of fatherhood, but more particularly, his daughter’s (Jennifer) congenital bipedal deformity–her clubbed feet. Greg Olsen’s “Beautiful Dark” will be particularly helpful to us for this reason. Olsen suggests that Jennifer’s pedal malformations were pivotal to the parental anxiety that the film has, stating:
“A linkage in Lynch’s sensitive mind between a possible glitch in his genetic code and his daughter’s birth deformity, or the thrilling act of sex with its aftermath of pain for a newborn girl and her parents, are certainly enough to inspire Eraserhead’s fear and queasy presentation of all things procreational.”
the second thing is Lynch’s relationship with Philadelphia, which too was pivotal to the film’s atmosphere, but also inspired aspects of other films to come. Lynch frequently reference the simultaneous beauty and ugliness of Philadelphia. he frequently recalls the decadence and perpetual decay of the Philadelphia streets–how despite its beauty, it’s still brimming with violence and fear. the industrial filth. the soot-glazed architecture. a hellscape of industrial decadence subsuming a fear-driven populace. this is absolutely essential to understanding the various themes and motifs percolating throughout Eraserhead’s carious world.
with that in mind, the most important question at this point is that if the suicide interpretation isn’t right, and if the release-through-infanticide is dysfunctional on an intuitive level, both due to it’s uncharacteristic callosity and obtusity, and the readings that place heavy emphasis on the more sexual themes of the film are only fragmented pieces of a larger puzzle, then which interpretation works both intuitively and logically? where is the interpretation that seems consistent with who Lynch artistically? if all of these interpretations are so wrong, then where’s your interpretation, smart guy?!?! well, my dear reader, i think that i may have an answer.
there’s this theory that it’s all just an illogical dream or nightmare which is unbound by any internal logic. i resent the idea that the supposed “dream” operates purely on illogic and nothing within this “dream” holds any intrinsic or symbolic value, but i don’t resent the “dream” theory in it’s entirety. in fact, it’s the most plausible theory and aligns with my particular predilection for Lynchian trends. i must emphasize that my adherence to this “trend” idea stems not from an insistence to establish order in Lynch’s ostensibly inexplicable worlds or from this desire to put Lynch in any kind of box. the reason i emphasize these trends is that Lynch simply does not drift from these trends, because Lynch’s entire filmography essentially explores the same themes/concepts in different ways. i explained a few of these in my first post, but there are several motifs that we see the origins of in Eraserhead. and when we take the “dream” theory into account, it’s easy to see how this is consistent with the “trends” of Lynch’s works; Lynch’s fascination with dreams. the first 3/4’s of Mulholland Drive is a dream, a large chunk of Lost Highway is a dream or at least some kind of escape from reality, Inland Empire in some capacity consists of fragmented sections of a dream–manically careering from dream to reality until the two become night indistinguishable, and dreams play a pivotal role in both Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. it is for this reason that my interpretation will operate under the dream theory. we can also assume that the dreamer in question is Henry himself. but rather than the dream being purely illogical, like all Lynch’s films, the world’s presented operate on their own internal logic. the “dream” theory helps rationalize the otherwise irrational behavior exhibited by Mary X’s family. “a dream of dark and troubling things.” says Lynch to describe Eraserhead. and the fact that he calls it a “dream” is no coincidence. it is this understanding that establishes a sort of blueprint to help us navigate through the semiotic wonderland that is Eraserhead.
so far, this post has been fairly presumptive in that it assumes that you’ve already seen the film. however, there is some merit to a synopsis. it seems kind of cliche and it falls in line with generic film reviewing conventions but recalling the events of a film can help us gain a deeper understanding of what we’re actually watching. it’s through describing what you’re actually seeing that one could pick up on things they might have initially missed. it’s a healthy practice; a necessary evil. so here we go. cue the semi-detailed summary:
the first thing we see is a semi-close up of the rugged surface of some vaguely selenian celestial body. we also see Henry’s head, which conveniently aligns with the planet, overlapping with Henry’s forehead. there’s a little house/shack on the planet. we will refer to this guy as The Man On The Planet. the man is clearly the victim of some sort of physiological malformation. he’s staring longingly out the window. the man, in perpetual proximity to a series of levers, pulls a propinquitous lever which triggers a spermatozoon (which overlapped with Henry’s head) to shoot out of Henry’s mouth, which is now agape, Henry’s expression agowilt and fear-ridden, brows circumflex. We then see Henry perambulating through an unyieldingly bleak and barren dystopia of sorts, a kind of industrial hellhole as he stumbles through the urban detritus. he accidentally steps into a puddle. he walks into a building, superfluously peaks into a perpetually empty mailbox, then takes the elevator up to his room. when he arrives at his doorstep, he’s interrupted by a concupiscent next door neighbour who invites Henry over for dinner. There is some level of mutual attraction here but Henry respectfully declines her offer without hesitation.
Henry walks into his apartment. he turns on a light. he perfunctorily turns on a record, fiddling with it before simply turning it on. he puts his wet sock on the radiator so it could dry. he sits down and stares outside his window, his view succised by a brick wall, his expression bespeaking a conticent forlorness, or a fruitless longing. he gets up, opens a drawer where two halves of a torn picture reside. we later learn that this is his lover, Mary X. he puts the dilaniated pieces together and examines the picture intently. there are some important things to note about the room: two athwart mounds/patches of dirt with ineffectual vegetation and feckless twigs and a framed picture of a mushroom cloud. Henry walks to Mary’s parents’ house, which, too, is shrouded in a sort of adumbral fog, wrought most likely through the coils of industrialization. Mary says he’s late. He goes inside and sits on the living room couch, where he meets Mrs. X. Mrs. X debriefs Henry on his daily activities, particularly his job, to which Henry replies that he works as a printer. he says he’s on vacation. Bill, who’s chipper attitude starkly contrasts with Mrs. X’s militaristic austerity, says they’re having chicken for dinner. he then drifts into a rant about the degradation of the quality of the neighborhood pipes. Mrs. X practically forces him out the room.
Mrs. X performs the morbidly humorous action of puppeteering her paralysed grandmother to prepare and toss some salad. The dinner is brought out and a thoroughly Lynchian mid-prandial one-sided discussion from Bill ensues, where Bill expresses something about his arm going numb. Bill’s rambling is followed by his insistence that Harry cut the tiny chickens which adorn the center of a table in a silver tray. Bill puts a chicken on Henry’s plate, bestowing Henry with the honor of cutting the chicken, a fork and a knife now poised in Henry’s helpless hands. Henry sticks the fork in the chicken and a viscous liquid flows out–deep and black and sweltering, boiling. Mrs. X has some sort of conniption fit, a paroxysmal scream accompanied by spasmodic jectigation, the scream ranging from orgasmic to an indistinguishable blend of anger and fear. Mrs. X runs away in fear and Mary follows, lachrymose herself. Bill is uncomfortably content with the entire scene as he simply stares at Henry with a smile on his face. Mrs. X comes back out, inexplicably calm but noticeably angry, telling Henry that she needs to talk to him. She walks out the room into one of the furthermost crevices of the entrance, and Henry follows, but not before watching as a lightbulb abruptly turns itself off, or possibly blows. Mrs. X interrogates Henry on whether or not he copulated with Mary. Henry equivocates incessantly, as he is embarassed by Mrs. X’s procacity. Mrs. X then engages Henry sexually with some involuntary and nonconsensual paizogony which creeps Henry the fuck out. Henry calls for Mary and Mary pulls her mother away from Henry. Mrs. X informs Henry that Mary not only got pregnant but had the baby prematurely. She insists without a willingness to hear any objection that Henry and Mary will get married. Henry is baffled by the ostensible impossibility of the existence of this baby and Mary herself is not even sure if it is a baby. Henry’s nose begins to bleed. Mrs. X gets ice.
we see Mary in Henry’s room. the baby is phrenologically malformed and practically has no body, or at the very least no limbs to speak of. it’s wrapped in bandages. it’s important to note that the baby strongly resembles the spermatozoon that we saw at the beginning of the film. Mary attempts to feed it but it spits out the food and cries. this upsets Mary. Henry walks in the building and checks his mailbox. there’s a box inside. he takes out the box and takes it outside. he opens it. he finds a small seed inside. Henry goes up to his room, the box hidden in his jacket. he walks in the room. Mary continues trying to feed the baby. Mary asks if there’s any mail. Henry says no. Henry collapses onto his bed, taking some minuscule delight from watching Mary take care of the baby, his eyes eventually drifting towards the radiator, where a small light resides, its shine bleeding through beyond the radiator’s metal bars. it’s a stage. overnight, Henry takes the aforementioned box and puts it in his floral cabinet. Henry gets in the bed, the baby crying incessantly and intensely. Henry attempts to embrace Mary, seeking some sort of affection but is brushed off by her. eventually, Mary is driven mad by the crying. she gets dressed and decides to leave, but not before pulling her suitcase from under the bed. there’s something inexplicably sexual about this sequence, in the way she pulls the suitcase, her face pushing against the edge of the bed frame. but at the same time, she’s both fearful and frustrated. she successfully discards the suitcase. she leaves. the crying stops.
Henry has a vision of his neighbor.
wondering if the baby is sick, Henry takes out a thermometer and puts it in the baby’s mouth. the baby’s temperature is normal, but it is indeed sick, as when he turns back around to face the baby after taking out the thermometer, the baby is mottled with boils and nodules of unknown origin. Henry sets up a respirator for the baby, putting the seed from the floral cabinet in his coat pocket, and attempts to leave. every time he reaches for the door, the baby’s anhelation and crying grows. this forces Henry to stay. Henry has a dream of the Lady In The Radiator–a cherubic, cavorting girl in an ivory dress and tumid cheeks–dancing and stomping on descending spermatozoons. he wakes up. he’s at the edge of the bed, at the mercy of a thrashing, paroxysmic Mary, who’s practically pushing him off the bed. coming from her are a series of spermatozoons, which escape from her ceaselessly, which Henry finds under the covers and throws against the bedroom walls, smashing them. the floral cabinet and the seed takes sentience, capering away onto the dark planet that we saw at the beginning. it opens. the camera effectively descends into this hole, revealing Henry. His neighbor knocks on the door, asking if she could come inside. the baby cries, but Henry puts his hand over it’s mouth. the girl kisses Henry. We then see them both embracing each other in a pool of white liquid. the two deosculate, arms coiled around each other, descending into the pool until they’re wholly subsumed by it.
The neighbor sees the planet and is noticeably repulsed by it. She repels into the darkness.
in one of the most iconic sequences in American cinema of the 20th century, we see The Lady In The Radiator, singing a song about heaven and how everything within heaven is “fine”. Henry approaches her. he touches her. It all goes to white upon taction. She disappears. we see The Man In The Radiator. the crushed spermatozoon are blown away from the stage. the trunk of a tree rolls onto the stage. Henry retreats to the furthest corner of the stage, shivering in fear. Henry’s head is popped off and replaced by a sort of vermicular creature. the aforementioned trunk gushes a dark liquid, presumably of a rich and thick maroon. Henry’s decapitated head becomes submerged by the blood. in a sequence that nearly suggests some sort of strange dimension traveling, Henry’s head falls onto an unknown street subsequently after it’s submergence in the puddle of blood. a child runs up, takes that shit (Henry’s head, that is), and runs off. he brings it to a factory and gives it to a man who seems like some sort of chief administrator, who brings it to a machine operator. the operator extracts a piece of henry’s brain and sticks it into the machine, which is presumably designed to use the surfaces of brains as the eraser heads. the operator takes a pencil, now adorned with a piece of Henry’s brain as the eraser head, makes a mark, then erases the mark. Henry’s brain makes for an effective eraser. the operator says that it’s okay. it’s functional. he sweeps the eraser dust off the desk, which brilliantly transitions back to Henry, his head fully intact. we see the brick window. the empty bed. we watch as Henry looks out the window, first at a pipe and a preterlabent puddle, then a distinctly violent affray among two figures, one subjacent upon the other, clearly with the upper hand. Henry hears the elevator doors open, and his pulchritudinous neighbor, now accompanied by a another man. the two exosculate playfully as Henry watches. the neighbor looks at Henry, his head replaced by the head of his child. Henry closes his door. the baby snickers at him incessantly, it’s laugh derisive and intentionally acidulous. an angry Henry withdraws a pair of scissors, cutting open the baby’s hermetic shell, it’s ivory buttress, revealing a rotten core, it’s organs putid and pulpy. blood and spittle spew forth from it’s spiracle. it’s dying. it cries. Henry looks away in fear. the baby’s neck extends, it’s blood loss violent and profluent. a doughy, suppurative white substance engulfs the baby. the baby’s head becomes gargantuan, practically taking up the entire room as the lights flicker virulently. the lights burn out as the head ostensibly attacks Henry. Henry recoils in fear.
it’s dark. Henry opens his eyes. it’s the planet from the beginning of the film. the planet explodes, and the man behind the machine with it. the man behind the machine is engulfed by the pyrotechnic lambency, his own industrial instrument killing him. it’s white again. we see The Lady In The Radiator with Henry. the two embrace. peace, at last.
iii. a nigh incomprehensible, incoherent analysis
well, what the fuck was that all about? first off that took way longer to do than i was expecting, but it should act as a helpful tool/reference point for the following analysis. even those who’ve seen the film might be a little foggy on the chronology of the sequence of events, so the synopsis above should act as a sort of guide. i will be referencing specific motifs/scenes/images/themes/whatever, and i’ll be doing it with such a degree of celerity and presumptiveness that one would need to have a formidable grasp with the raw material in order to fully understand the shit that i’m talking about. that’s almost about 3,900 words of preface with little interpretation, so i think it’s about to get into my actual reading.
there’s a subtextual intrinsicality to the film’s environmental abnormalities and the anomalous idiosyncrasies of the world’s characters. through the help of blatant to more subtle filmic symbology, we can create a sort of roadmap to help understand how the dreamlike world of Eraserhead operates, or rather, what these symbols actually mean in relation to Henry (as we’ve established, the film takes place in Henry’s head). so how does David Lynch clue us in on all of this shit? well, the most obvious is the blatantly unrealistic behavior of the characters. this could be simply be boiled down to one of Lynch’s many proclivities/isms, but i think that would suggest that Lynch is just doing it for the sake of it being weird. it’s not like Lynch never adds stuff just for the sake it of it being there, but that is only ever really limited to the aesthetic properties of Lynch’s films, i.e a character’s eyes may drift toward the ceiling even if nothing is there for some unexplained reason other than the fact that Lynch may have thought it looked good at the time. but when faced with a moment like when Mrs. X starts nibbling at Henry’s ear, i strongly doubt that Lynch did this because it simply “looked good”, as it’s a completely irrational detour in an otherwise straight forward conversation. other strange things include the objective impossibility of Mary and Henry’s baby, the X’s home and how it has two ovens and a clock with one arm and flower patches embedded into the walls. it’s through things like the unconvincing texture of the supposed “brick wall” that clue us in that we shouldn’t take everything that happens literally.
the most prominent figures in the film are all assigned with their own symbolic meaning, but they’re also literal extensions of Henry’s subconscious, because if we’re operating under the “dream” theory, then nothing we see in the film is actually a separate entity from Henry because Henry is dreaming it up. all characters and situations take place within the same psychic landscape (Henry’s mind) and bear no true independent existence. so with this understanding, what we’ve established is that all these characters represent things and are just pieces of a larger whole. what they represent is the question.
now, allow me to introduce you to an alternative theory that i’ve purposefully kept hidden from you for all this time: the notion that the most significant clue, like in most of Lynch’s films, is hidden. hidden? where?! well, Henry’s window, you see! or more specifically, what’s behind the brick walls (credit goes to David Johnson for this analysis, but mine goes a bit deeper and my interpretation has alternative implications. i strongly recommend reading his essay, which in conjunction of explaining the film, offers some other interesting insights such as the way Eraserhead plays with contrasts). what happens when the bricks disappear is essentially the thing that prompts Henry to explore his own psyche through dreaming: a violent assault which he bears witness to, which occurs just outside his own window. it’s fear that kick starts the whole damn thing. it’s a brilliant observation, and while it is the key, it seems as if it’s just an underdeveloped version of a plausible interpretation. as a sentient bag of potato chips, this answer does not rest my cold, salted heart. it’s as if i, the reader, am taking the place of an inquisitive math teacher, and the student in question has provided all of the right answers but hasn’t shown the work (ok yeah that sounds egotistical as fuck but bear with me). in his much larger essay, he did technically show the work and how he reached the conclusion, and i agree with all of it, but there’s still things that don’t make sense to me on an intuitive level. the most glaring of which being the notion that the origin of Henry’s fear has been spawned by this fight alone. well, i’m getting ahead of myself. perhaps i should explain the reading in it’s entirety. you can basically consider my interpretation to be a companion piece with his.
throughout the film, we see shots of Henry’s window. we see it over and over again, we look at Henry longingly gaze at the paper brick wall all tristifical and sad. this is because dream Henry understands on an intuitive level that he’s developed a negative association with the wall, or more particularly, what happens outside of his window. this is because the attack, under this theory, has scarred Henry so intensely that Henry, on a subconscious level, within his dream, has built literal psychic blocks so he wouldn’t be reminded of the fucked up shit that he sees. the man within the planet effectively acts as the vehicle that “injects” this fear into Henry. on some level, i see the man on the planet as Henry himself. there are discernible parallels between Henry and the man on the planet’s worlds: puddles waft anent their places of refuge, their worlds are built entirely on industry and technology, the both of them fear violence (the man on the planet shivers/recoils in fear after seeing something outside of his window, Henry is barely able to look at the baby he just killed even if it was something he wanted to do, both having an inseparable connection to the spermatozoon). in a similar fashion to Lynch’s subsequent films that dabble in dreamland, the chronology of Eraserhead is fragmented and rearranged. but what separates Eraserhead from it’s successors is that the chronology is not only fragmented, but the frightening realities blend with the horrible nightmare. it is for this reason that i perceive the “true” chronology of Eraserhead to be as followed:
- Henry sees the fight outside his window.
- the man on the planet pulls the lever, and the spermatozoon is unleashed into the depths of Henry’s mind, the spermatozoon representing “fear”, or more appropriately, “fear” in it’s infancy.
- this kicks off the dream sequence where all the shit happens
- Henry kills fear and becomes happy, yadayadayada.
now, this is a gross oversimplification of the series of events that take place, but it’s basically a blueprint. let’s start from the beginning. Henry sees the fight outside his window. while this chronology places this revelation at the beginning, i see Henry’s dream as a sort of self meditative/self reflective exercise. a purging of fear, if you will. Eraserhead is a journey of self-actualization and coming to terms with your fear. so on a subconscious level, Henry KNOWS the origins of his fear. he knew what he was afraid of before it all started. the dream is just a tool for Henry to figure out how to liquidate this fear. but there’s a reason why sperm is used to represent fear, and yes it has something to do with sex, but it also has a lot to do with fear. the sperm is the absolute foundation of life. it develops and grows from the sperm to the fetus to a real human bean (yeah, i know, another oversimplification, but i am a sentient bag of ruffles potato chips, i don’t understand human anatomy!). in a similar fashion, the “sperm” of fear has the potential to grow and it eventually does. in the dream, Henry has unconsciously set up psychic blocks for himself to hide from his fear instead of simply taking it head on. this is why it takes so long for the bricks to disappear. once they do, Henry is only a few small steps away from conquering his fear.
but do not get it misconstrued, the man on the planet is not the “parent” of fear, per say. the man on the planet merely allows himself (Henry) to become fearful. he is the one who pulls the lever and releases that fear into Henry’s mind. fear’s true “parents”, under this theory, are ostensibly the two men outside fighting, which is supposedly what makes Henry fearful in the first place. all of this is probably a lot to take in and mildly confusing, but hear me out, dear reader. so we have all of this shit, right, but what about sex? while i originally shitted on the idea that the entire film is composed of sexual allusions, there’s no denying the sexual imagery, especially the parallels between the innumerable camera transitions and childbirth. most notably, we have the shot where the camera zooms into a circular bright light, which helps us transition into the beginning of the film. then, we have one of the most obvious allusions to childbirth, which involves the trembling chicken (woman in labor) which oozes some sort of dark liquid (blood), Mrs. X’s orgasmic yelp (both of those things are foreshadowing the revelation that Mary is pregnant), the vigorous pups sucking furiously on the large pupper (which establishes a prefigurative link to the forthcoming revelation that Mary is pregnant), Henry’s brain going into a pencil machine and the phallic symbol that this brain sample is manifested into, etc. however, like i said, these are not integral to the film, they’re merely symbols utilized in a much wider and rich semiotic tapestry. rather than these sexual allusions all contributing toward this narrative of Henry’s baby and his fear of fatherhood as a consequence of that child’s birth, these sexual allusions are all contributing to the birth of “fear”, which percolates and worsens in intensity within the architecture of Henry’s psyche.
but there is something to be said about sex, or rather, how the characters around Henry react to sex, how sex and fear work in tandem, and how this fear of sex could not only be applied in a wider historical context, but it also contributes to a largely unacknowledged theme of the film. david johnson, in his essay about Eraserhead, says some interesting things about how Eraserhead’s depictions of the Xs could be perceived as a larger cultural critique about how sex was perceived in the 1950s. the Xs adhere strictly to the American ideal of a familial structure, even if it’s staggeringly clear that Mr. and Mrs. X aren’t at all intimate and Henry and Mary aren’t intimate themselves. despite these ineluctable facts, Mrs. X is undeterrable in her insistence that Henry and Mary get married. these two dewy-eyed, intemerate young lovers are forced into a marriage that they’re ill-equipped for. they’re forced to look after the product of fear. and yet, the Xs know fear. pipes, which we’ll learn later is another motif heavily associated with fear, are used to pump fear itself into the household of the Xs. Bill speaks of a numbness in his arms. the grandmother is paralyzed entirely by fear. these people know fear. they live with it everyday. this is something johnson explains in his own essay as well.
it’s time for a badly time detour! now, we’ve established an understanding that the Xs are a fairly rustic bunch who adhere strongly to “wholesome American ideals” regarding sex, marriage, and the ostensible importance of the familial structure. it’s time to talk about historical context, which will lead to my largest deterrence from johnson’s reading (there are already distinct differences between his and my interpretations, but this is the largest). one of the most heavily discussed aesthetic properties of Eraserhead is it’s unyielding dystopian atmosphere, or rather, it’s bleak industrial world. when taking into account Henry’s psychological state, it’s easy to understand why an industrial world would act as an effective backdrop/mood setter for Henry’s dream. it’s desolate and dark and depressing, in the same manner that fear usually is. but there’s an unusual emphasis on pipes and industrial tools. the man on the planet pulls levers. Bill rants about the degenerative state of the piping which he apparently designed. the violence that Henry witnesses outside of his window takes places near a pipe, and the specific shot of this violence taking place is obscured by electrical wires of some sort, wedged betwixt the edges of two umbratilous buildings. on a surface level, all of these things might just be emphasizing the industrial atmosphere. but the answer behind these seemingly insignificant artistic decisions is the picture of the mushroom cloud in Henry’s room, which is tiny and practically invisible even upon numerous watches. why would Lynch keep this in the frame? this is not as insignificant as a mere coat on a nearby hanger or something. this is an image with a shitload of historical significance. it was a fucking geopolitical game changer. the horrific image of the mushroom cloud effectively acted as an existential threat for almost the entire world for nearly half a century. and that aside, the most obvious question is why anyone would go out of their way to frame a picture of a fucking mushroom cloud in the first place!
in addition to that, i kept wondering about the time in which Eraserhead was conceived. i am not suggesting that Eraserhead’s initial release date was deftly calculated on Lynch’s behalf or that the concurrence betwixt the creation of Eraserhead and the rise of western countercultural movements throughout the 60’s and 70’s was entirely volitional. what i am suggesting, however, is that the time period in which Eraserhead was created was somewhat integral to the artistic decision of setting Eraserhead in an industrial wasteland, even if this artistic decision was made by Lynch on a subconscious level. what i’m also not positing is that Lynch is trying to make any political statements with Eraserhead. my point is that i think that the violence that takes place outside of Henry’s apartment merely breaks the straw on the camel’s back for a fear that already had been ruminating in Henry’s mind. first of all, who are these two guys and where did they come from? outside of the X’s and the neighbor and the pencil sequence, we don’t ever see anybody outside. i think that after Henry breaks the psychic barriers he set up, this basically brings him back to a reality that he’s been trying so hard to stay away from. it’s basically a blend of the real and the dream world, and in the “real world”, there are other people. the thing is that this is still a dream above all, and all of these things are just symbolic representations of bigger ideas. so, we see these two guys fighting. many countercultural movements found their stride in the 60’s and 70’s, and we had a good 10 years of political convulsions of varying points of contention. not only did you have the civil rights movement, which was of course blood-ridden and lasted for a whopping 15 years, but you also had second-wave feminism, gay liberation, and most relevant, the anti-war movement, but more SPECIFICALLY is that the Cold War era was not only an era of enormous socioeconomic change, but there was this looming, perpetual existential threat of the newly developed atomic bomb. Lynch lived in Philadelphia from ’65-’70. during this period, there was an incredibly lucent and discernible decline in population. manufacturing was collapsing. crime spiked. racial tension and police brutality was endemic. as Lynch frequently said, Philadelphia, at this juncture, was in a period of utmost decadence and utter decay.
Eraserhead most definitely does not take place in Philadelphia, but Philadelphia did act as a source of inspiration for the industrial hellscape that is Eraserhead’s world. in addition to the crime, there was the city’s distinct sordidity and architectural feculance. i’m not sure if it’s my position to say if Lynch hated Philadelphia, per say. but while it was a place that was particular in its terribility in relation to Lynch, it also acted as his greatest source of inspiration. Lynch says this himself. Lynch saw beauty in Philadelphia’s decaying state. but it was terrible nonetheless. it was this malevolence that Lynch witnessed that conjoined with that nearly ubiquitous existential threat. and that picture, that prevalent yet strangely furtive image of the mushroom cloud, is the other explanation i was looking for. what i believe happened within Henry’s psyche is this looming fear of the atomic bomb, a deep-rooted fear that’d been wafting within his mind for some time. and yet, the threat of the atomic bomb was still distant. the chances of a nuclear attack were relatively “small” (hence the tiny frame). but the violence outside of Henry’s window establishes a new threat: the threat of his entire environment. the idea that there’s a threat at home, too. the two people fighting outside of his window only contributes to a fear that had been buried in the alcoves of Henry’s psyche.
another thing to consider: the man in the planet. the man in the planet, to some capacity, is an extension of Henry. perhaps he recognizes the more sinister and twisted aspects of Henry, but he’s also in part one of the many symbols that manifest and are associated with fear. after all, he is responsible for pulling the lever and unleashing the spermatozoon, which, too, represented fear, into Henry’s mind. consider the physical appearance of the man who lingers in the shack. perpetually sedent, the man’s body is contused, his skin riddled with nodules and what appears to be malignant tumors. the skin on his shoulders appears to be peeling off.
this man’s physical disfigurations share a striking resemblance with the survivors of the tragic hiroshima atomic bombings, or rather, the hibakusha, which literally translates to “explosion-affected people”.
the man in the planet’s physical disfigurations could be merely perceived as a manifestation of the ugliness of fear, but when examined from the lens of this theory, then it aligns perfectly with the “fear of nuclear holocaust” theme. furthermore, the planet in which he resides is completely barren, bereft of every fauna or vegetation. it’s a total fucking wasteland. i’m suggesting that under the mechanisms of this interpretation, it wouldn’t be preposterous to purport that the planet works in tandem with the “fear of nuclear holocaust” theory. it’s as if the man in the planet is a lone survivor on a planet which has been wiped out in its entirety as a result of the nuclear holocaust. the planet shown in the film doesn’t even really resemble the moon in weftage, shape or hue. it’s more like a hurtling meteorite than anything else. this planet bears no craters, and atomic bombs really don’t leave crators. they wipe out everything in it’s entirety. the man in the planet merely watches the barren wasteland out his broken window (it’s no coincidence that it’s broken).
and yet, this reading, too, doesn’t explain everything.
“jesus fucking christ, ruffles! how much explanation could there possibly be? how deep does it truly get? are you really telling me that i have go through another 6,000 words of interpretation in order to develop a proper understanding of a film that came out nearly 40 years ago??”
a dramatic interpretation of me trying to come up with a coherent interpretation of Eraserhead.
maybe, reader, maybe. or perhaps i’ll be able to put an end to this in a thousand words or less. who knows! at this point, my musings can probably be plausibly conceived as “reaching” or “overanalyzing”. after all, it is i who so boldly claimed in my last post that the heteroclitic nature of Lynch’s films (and their general ostensible incomprehensibility) makes Lynch’s films prone to over analyzation. but understand that the historical context and conjecture about Lynch’s own subconscious fear of Philadelphia and it’s violence and industrial hellscape that i’ve been providing are just details that help us crack the larger code–the larger “code” being a fairly basic but ubiquitous human emotion; an emotion that of an existential fear of death through nuclear holocaust. in today’s political climate where there’s been talk about an impending World War III, to me, Eraserhead still remains surprisingly fresh and staggeringly relevant. but like i said, this is not to say that Eraserhead is a political film. i think that that notion is antithetical to who Lynch is as an artist. Lynch’s films are all deeply personal and achingly familiar. they’re almost childlike in their disinterest in political agendas. i’m also not saying that Lynch even had Hiroshima or Nagasaki in mind during the creation of this film. i am open to the idea that i may just be misinterpreting or over analyzing certain aspects of the film. my obsession with this linkage is Lynch’s insistence that Eraserhead is his most spiritual film. he also described it as a deeply personal one. and while i’m not so egotistical to think that i’ve “cracked the code” or understand Lynch on a personal level, my interpretation is an attempt to articulate what Lynch couldn’t, or at least, what he’s been unwilling to articulate in a public light. it’s an attempt to seek a deeper understanding of Lynch’s connection to this film. whether or not i succeeded is up to you. anyway, onward with the analysis!
so, we’ve established that Henry’s fear, while born from the fight outside his house, had already been previously lingering from a significantly irradicated, diminutive fear of the lingering possibility of nuclear holocaust. but while i believe this to be true, i also believe that there is another dimension to Henry’s fear. remember, all of this shit is taking place within Henry’s dream. so while Henry subconsciously externalizes his fear, manifesting it into the baby and spermatozoons, these things are all just puzzle pieces of a larger psychic tapestry. these are all just things within Henry’s mind. they are a part of him. fear, like the wall, ends up just becoming a psychic block for Henry. fear is time-consuming. it derides and ridicules you. it feeds off of you. it destroys your ability to feel any joy. it renders you incapable of loving. it’s hideous. Henry and Mary are both subjected to fear and are torn apart by it, but the baby is just a surface level explanation for Henry and Mary’s inevitable dissention. but the baby is just a mere manifestation of fear. it only exists in this “dreamworld”–Henry manifesting abstract and intangible ideas into palpable entities.
i keep thinking about the scene where Mary continually pushes Henry off the bed, her anathematic thrashing and incessant ostensibly unconscious attacks directed towards Henry. this is obviously a clever visual metaphor for how the two have grown apart, but i think that there is a subtextual significance to this brief scene, a code within a much larger code waiting to be broken. we’ve established that spermatozoons represent fear. with this in mind, we can basically say that Mary is producing fear. but why is she pushing Henry away? i believe that this is a sort of psychic assault that Henry’s subconscious orchestrates against itself–a sort of self-loathing/self-destructive gesture. Mary knows fear wafts here, and Mary knows that Henry is the cause. in the most literal sense, if Henry hadn’t impregnated her, the baby wouldn’t be there to begin with. in a subtextual sense, Mary is trying to remove the fear from within her, and the only way she would be able to do that is by distancing herself from Henry. it’s after this scene that Mary disappears entirely. Mary has rid herself of her own fear, the fear that Henry was so adept at propagating (Henry’s predilection for fear doesn’t necessarily mean that we wanted to propagate fear. he simply couldn’t help himself, for the fear was so intense, undying. we see Henry try to destroy fear, but to no avail.)
then, we go into the “In Heaven, Everything is Fine” sequence. it’s a dream. bliss is propinquitious, right within an arm’s length, but Henry is still incapable of reaching it. the dream becomes a nightmare. in one of the film’s most perplexing sequences, Henry’s head is decapitated and replaced by a vermicular organism which shares a striking resemblance to the baby. david suggests that this represents Henry’s fear that “sex will lead to death”. however, i posit that this actually signals Henry’s complete subsumption by fear. it’s fear itself that Henry fears. Henry’s inability to perform sexually is just a symptom of a much more noxious ailment. the trunk of the tree bleeds in the same manner as the chicken from the beginning of the film. this tautophonical “blood” motif returns, showing up previously in the dinner scene where Henry’s nose began bleeding and the blood from the baby. blood, in contrast to the white liquid, bears a negative connotation: fear. in david’s analysis, the tree is associated with Henry’s moral compass, and the prescence of the tree in earlier sequences operates in concurrence with the electricity which surrounds Henry. whether or not the bulbs are lit depends on what Henry is thinking about at the time, a lit bulb appearing in brief moments of happiness, and an unlit bulb punctuating the film’s emotional lows. in a seemingly insignificant scene where Mary attempts to feed the baby, we see Henry is somewhat delighted by this, even if it were for a minute amount of time. it’s a tiny, feckless smile, but a smile nonetheless. since the brick wall is blocking the window, the only lighting to speak of is the light bulbs. the room is fully lit in this sequence, unlike a large chunk of the film. after this, we get the pencil machine factory sequence, where the title of the film is ostensibly derived. it’s for this reason that this scene is absolutely essential to understanding the duality of Henry’s psyche; the pencil and the eraser, the pencil being a tool for creation (take note of the phallic symbology) and the eraser an instrument of destruction. Henry wants to love, but is paralyzed by fear. a literal printer, indeed–creator of fear near the beginning, destroyer of fear by the end.
we then get the scene with the girl who lives across the hallway. she and Henry make love, the both of them descending into a pool of white (this white liquid bespeaking subtextual bliss). for a while, it works out, but it simply dissolves into darkness. she sees the planet. she becomes aware of this darkness. i believe that the girl’s discontentment with Henry and fear of the planet stems from a starkly literal interpretation: Henry is an ineffectual lover/romantic partner due to his fear; his fear most likely being born from Henry’s lack of confidence in himself. Henry fears that this romantic relationship will be just like the last, that he’ll push everyone away due to his fear. i believe less in the cynical possibility that none of Henry’s romantic partners were interested in helping Henry out of his pit of fear, and more in the prospect that Henry developed so callous an exterior that he was unwilling to simply embrace bliss (which he learns to do by the film’s conclusion). we see later on that the girl across the hall simply moves on, and the way she perceives Henry changes. rather than Henry, she sees the baby’s head, or rather, Henry’s fear. here, we see Henry’s mind battling itself (the same thing occurs to Diane in Mulholland Drive).
it’s this realization–the realization that fear is destroying any opportunity Henry may have had for happiness–that prompts Henry to finally kill the baby, or “fear”, rather. Henry is not consciously aware that he’s killing “fear”. he is simply driven by his instinctual desire to eliminate his self-imposed fear. Lynch believes that all humans know negativity on an intuitive level, and we are all predisposed to do everything in our power to eliminate this aforesaid negativity. dream Henry probably doesn’t understand why he killed the baby beyond the fact that he recognizes it as a malevolent force on an instinctual level; he only has a surface level understanding. the screen becomes white. the music swells. The Lady In The Radiator appears before Henry. the two embrace. the film is over.
well, that turned out to take a lot longer than i expected. i could’ve gone the easy route and explained all my points in about five sentences or less, but that’s the lame way of talking about cinema. there are two modes of thought you can enjoy Lynch’s films on: the visceral, purely emotional reaction level, and the analytical, symbology-explicating level. it works either way. the beauty of Lynch’s films come not only from the “WTF?” factor of them all, but their multivocality and their ability to incite deep contemplation on their “meaning”. the interpretation that i’ve come up with is personally the most satisfying. rather than coming strictly from my mind, it’s a symbiosis of all the interpretations that i’ve come across (this is not to say there are no original ideas here, there are plenty, or at least there are concepts and connections that i formulated independently). the fact that it took me a week to write this in a way that i was happy with just shows the enormous depth and thought that went into the creation of this film, contrary to the prevalent belief that Lynch is just weird for the sake of being weird. trust me, there are more mother fuckers out there who actually think that then you’d think.
Up Next: The Elephant Man!