Eraserhead: A Retrospective

When asked about the idea of accessibility in cinema, acclaimed Danish director Lars Von Trier once said:

“Our generation, as well as the younger ones, has had phenomenal training in the reading of images […] Today we see films around the clock. If you showed a modern television report to somebody from [the past], they would be totally unable to comprehend what they saw”.

By this reasoning, the ‘inaccessible’ in cinema is a constantly shifting target, held at the whims of an increasingly savvy viewing public. The audience’s viewing comprehension will catch up, Von Trier reasons. You just have to place trust in them until they get there.

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Looking back, the history of cinema has seen a marked increase in the amount of trust placed in audiences. Whereas 1925’s Battleship Potemkin was once considered transgressionary in allowing its viewer to interpret a ‘third thing’ by displaying disparate images in sequence (an effect inescapable in modern cinema), now films like Primer (which bases the crux of its plot on a realistic model of quantum physics) can be appreciated without the expectation of coherence at all, often times—as in the case of the films of Christopher Nolan—prominently in the public eye.

As trust in the audience has grown, so have the possibilities of the medium, giving way to works which place increasing emphases on the method of their telling to create a theme and a sense of place. Cinema is now a complex and multi-faceted thing. What began as a means of documenting hard-to-replicate visual curious, like Edison’s infamous 1894 Boxing Cats, is now able to tell stories with increasing spiritual and philosophical relevance, all because they can trust in their viewership to comprehend and explore larger concepts; an effect that only grows as time passes, and newer generations of filmmakers approach cameras for the first time.

I think this is why—given the immense amount of trust it places in its audience—David Lynch’s seminal 1977 debut Eraserhead has remained such a mainstay in cult movie circles. Lynch’s ‘dream of dark and troubling things’ (as the director himself puts it) is a film that requires an extensive amount of trust from both viewer and director, and rewards them for it in kind.

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A feature-length experiment, Eraserhead peeks into the life of Henry Spencer, a pitiable man in a pitiable apartment living a pitiable existence, who is suddenly given charge of a baby: an alien, snake-like creature bound in cloth that won’t stop crying. All the while, he is visited by visions of a woman in his radiator, who shows him obscure symbols and visions, not too distinct from the surreal happenings of his day-to-day life, in which miniature cooked chickens dance, and friends and neighbours speak in cryptic shorthand.

Shot in black and white, scored by an industrial drone, and delivered at a deliberately slow, dream-like pace, Eraserhead is often described within heavy quotation marks as a “difficult” film. It is the prototypical arthouse film, so dependent on the individual elements of its production that a plot summary only serves to confuse things. It is a film that can only be understood by the act of watching, and in trusting that its difficulty ultimately serves some purpose.

Eraserhead places trust in its viewers to find something humorous, something meaningful; something worthwhile in its world. I think it speaks to the film’s triumphs that generations of filmgoers have expressed gratitude for the gesture.

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This ‘Do It Yourself’ approach to film interpretation can have its drawbacks. A film like Zack Snyder’s widely derided Sucker Punch, or The Matrix Revolutions, demonstrates what happens when a director asks their audience to find something meaningful in their work only to be met with indifference, if not disdain. Surreal images and confusing plotlines don’t always pay off, doubly so when they seem to be little more than an excuse for the creator’s hastily-prepared idea salad.

One of the most interesting things about modern filmmaking is that the concept of trust seems to have changed hands. In the last fifteen years, ideas like Roland Barthe’s ‘death of the author’—which reasons that audiences have more of a role in the act of creation than once thought—have grown increasingly popular both inside and outside of academic spaces (doubly so with the growth of fan-fiction), and as a result general audiences have begun to take a more active stance in matters of interpretation.

As creators have placed more trust in the audience, the audience has inversely lost trust in creators. This effect is demonstrated any time a modern television show presents an elaborate mystery: for example, thousands of people only half-watched J.J. Abrams’ Lost because they believed that its ponderous, highly interpretive plot wouldn’t be worthwhile. Even Lynch’s own television series Twin Peaks would meet a similar fate in the 1990s. Now, with unfettered access to films and TV shows, “difficult” mysteries are a dime-a-dozen. Audiences need a clear reason to care lest they lose interest altogether.

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This is one of Eraserhead’s greatest strengths: Lynch’s approach to creation has a tendency to make the audience care. In the years since the film was released, David Lynch’s surreal works have all exhibited a common feature: despite having no clear meaning, they are far from meaningless. Eraserhead marks the beginning (at least, in the medium of feature-length film) of Lynch’s experiments in creating meaningful images.

There’s an internal logic to Lynch’s debut that is easily appreciable, if not quite as easily understood. Recurring images of sperm-like creatures (not least Henry’s baby itself) combine with a distinct and consistent visual style (one that would be adapted throughout Lynch’s oeuvre, but which almost always gave precedence to unflattering close-ups of human faces) to give the film a confidence that many other ‘Do It Yourself’ interpretive films lack.

Eraserhead is slow and vague, sure, but it’s also a remarkably powerful experience. To this day, the grinding horror of Henry Spencer’s life is tangible; the cracked-walls-and-cornflakes ennui of his newfound fatherhood is etched into the every scene. Lynch’s direction and sound design are, appropriate to Spencer’s malformed child, completely alien even to modern eyes and ears.

The film’s extended opening in particular, in which a mysterious, godlike figure pulls the levers that ostensibly ‘give birth’ to the rest of the film, is a web of overwhelming visual and audio stimuli. Presented with no dialogue, a perpetual bass hum and bearing only a figurative relevance to the rest of the film, it’s a sequence that simultaneously evokes ideas of fate, sex, birth, and death; dread, wonder, and horror, without ever fully showing its hand. Although it may not have any one clear message to impart, it’s a bold, aesthetically dense, and emotionally rich introduction to an experience which only follows suit.

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It’s for this reason that Lynch is inseparable from the word ‘surreal’. Finding meaning in obtuse images, and by extension, trusting the audience to be able to, has always been surreal art’s calling card. Consider the classic avant garde surrealism of Luis Buñuel, for example, or Maya Deren’s retroactively lauded Meshes of the Afternoon (of which Lynch is an admitted fan), both of which utilise obtuse, yet heavily-loaded images to inspire reactions in their audience.

Where Lynch departed from ‘classical’ surrealism was in intent: whereas something like Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s work on surreal mainstay Un Chien Andalou was combative, intending to disrupt the sensibilities of bourgeoisie art critics of the time (in many regards the ethos of surrealism in the early 20th Century), Lynch’s Eraserhead lacked such an explicit purpose.

In the realm of feature-length film, Eraserhead was an anomaly, lacking the political and revolutionary bent traditional of surreal art. It didn’t seem to have been created as a reaction to anything, nor did it come with a manifesto or notes to assist the audience’s viewing, Lynch’s vision placed trust in its audience to find enrichment without clear motivation.

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Critic Joel Bocko argues that Eraserhead remains watchable because there’s surety to Lynch’s approach to the abstract. He posits:

“The confidence of Lynch’s endeavour stems from his discovery, early in Eraserhead’s production, of Transcendental Meditation. That practice and system of beliefs would charge all of his work with the certainty that there is a hidden order beneath the perplexing surface”.

In essence, Lynch’s belief that the chaos of the abstract may not be as chaotic as it seems gives the film authenticity. It is sincere enough in its meaninglessness that the audience is compelled to find meaning.

Lynch has written and talked extensively about the effect that Transcendental Meditation has had on his life. One of the most observable is the way in which it has allowed him to trust his intuition in creating powerful images. His spiritual belief in a ‘unified field’ of creativity (what is best described as the subconscious) in particular has given him the unabashed enthusiasm to bring his dreams to life on screen, whether they make sense or not, and trust that the power of seeing the subconscious recreated so vividly will bring about a response in the audience.

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In this regard, Eraserhead marks the point at which the filmmaking industry’s trust in the audience plateaued. Surreal cinema as popularised by Buñuel and Dali may not have always been easy viewing, but it had always led its viewer to some sort of political or philosophical conclusion: there had always been some degree of affect buried in the obscure, even if it was contingent on the author’s insisting as much. Eraserhead on the other hand is impersonal and largely without affect. It is the tension between this lack of meaning and the spiritual confidence of Lynch’s direction that has granted the film its longevity.

It’s also easy to argue that this is why Lynch has always remained aloof when it comes to interpretations of his films. There are a few popular theories surrounding Eraserhead, all of which he’s cautious to comment on. Many latch onto the fact that Lynch’s daughter, director and author Jennifer Lynch, was born close to the film’s release, and consider Henry Spencer’s child a manifestation of the director’s fear of parenthood. Others note that the film’s proximity to Lynch’s own move to Philadelphia, not to mention the film’s focus on industry and bleak urban lives, gives the film a rather damning perspective on city life.

Regardless of the effect that Lynch’s personal circumstances had on his work, it almost doesn’t matter; any viewing remains a personal experience.  Eraserhead is such an obliquely told film that it is impossible to genuinely engage with it on another’s terms and stay awake to tell the tale. Looking at Eraserhead alongside Lynch’s life is an interesting academic exercise, but ultimately betrays the quirks that have made it so beloved.

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Eraserhead is such a popular cult film because it has consistently rewarded the trust of its audience. It has managed to defy explanation for so long, in spite of the fact that its genuine portrayal of dream-like states and the subconscious seems so convincing. Whether appreciated as an abstract body-horror, a treatise on parenthood or a more complex experiment in form, Eraserhead hasn’t been constrained by the politics and trends of one man, one movement, or one time, and remains open to anyone willing to give it their time.

Although it doesn’t directly touch upon issues of belief or being, it is an intrinsically spiritual film, contingent on the faith of its viewer, its creator, and the strength of the emotions invoked by its subconscious dreamscapes. Ultimately, if Lynch’s surreal nightmare has one lesson to impart, it’s that no matter how ‘inaccessible’ or ‘difficult’ films become, as long as they portray the visions of another authentically, the audience will catch up and find a way to comprehend them all the same.