Friday, June 24, 2016

Eraserhead: Oh, I Don't Know Much Of Anything

Henry Spencer...trapped in a hell of his own design

Written & Directed by: David Lynch

Original Release Date: March 19, 1977

Thoughts on Eraserhead

While I'm actually old enough (sigh) to remember when David Lynch's “Eraserhead” was new, I didn't really discover his work until a little later in life. I'd read various articles and pieces on “Eraserhead”, back when no one really had any idea who Lynch was or what he was about. “Sci-fi”, “horror”, “midnight movie fare”, even in those days no one could resist trying to pigeonhole it. I watched it when it was first released on DVD and my initial reaction was, of course, “what the hell was that?”. Like with much of Lynch's work, however, certain details reveal themselves upon repeated viewings, thus I took another trip through Henry Spencer's dark and twisted reality just to see what my impression was all these years later.

 Knowing a bit more now regarding David Lynch than I knew during my first watch, it quickly became apparent that “Eraserhead” is definitely an autobiographical film, at least in a metaphorical sense. In fact, I was quite surprised by how very David-like Jack Nance's Henry is. In my opinion his mannerisms, his speech and even his walk brings Lynch to mind. Leave it to Jack Nance to channel David Lynch, huh? He's such a wonderfully odd actor and very sorely missed.

David Lynch and Jack Nance...twin sons of different mothers?
So what is Eraserhead about? I've read many reviews and opinion pieces about how the film is based on Lynch's own experiences as a young struggling artist and newly-minted father living in a grim urban American city, in his case, Philadelphia. Obviously anyone can see these themes running through the film; however in my opinion there's something far more broad and all-encompassing going on as well. 

Henry's "Tree Of Life"...barren, bleeding out & dying

The Pencil Works...conformity factory? Organized religion? Psychiatry? You'll have to ask Mr. Lynch.
Henry is trapped in a hell of his own making and it's cost him his soul. The artificial constructs of conformity, relationships and expectations have stripped him of everything meaningful and left him baffled, confused and troubled. His real identity, his own soul, has been replaced with a different entity, one he's forced to nurture and care for even though he finds no reward or fulfillment through it. His life is shrouded in darkness, cold, ugly, harsh darkness. Henry tries to hold onto the last pitiful remnants of his own soul, his own being, but that slips away as well. He tries to find fulfillment by going through the motions and even through a sexual encounter with his seductive neighbor, but all it accomplishes is sinking him even deeper into his own morass of confusion, doubt and self-loathing. The entity (aka The Baby) is still there, demanding attention and care, mocking him as he tries to do what's expected of him. Henry isn't really Henry, he's part of this entity and it's a part of him as well, a part of him that's been reduced to the point of being a mere prop in his own life. 

It meant nothing, Henry
Finally Henry faces this entity he's created and strips it down to reveal its true ugliness, which prompts him to kill it. He finally faces the horror of what's he's created in all its grotesque, vile reality. Only after he faces “the ugly truth” does he find “heaven” and light. And then the film abruptly ends.

This is who you have become, "Eraserhead"
Now I suppose some could see this movie as some sort of religious allegory, or perhaps the tortured soul of a young artist having great difficulty properly expressing and realizing his ideas while also struggling mightily with the pressures of a relationship, fatherhood and urban life. Or maybe it's something of a morality play about conformity, or a cautionary tale about relationships. I could really reach and say it's a scathing indictment of conformist capitalist culture and “selling out” one's artistic vision and personal integrity as well as a harsh look at how much we're willing to sacrifice in the name of love and sex, relationships and society's “expectations” in general. Ask a hundred Lynch fans and you'd get a hundred different answers.

The "ugly truth" = the path to enlightenment and bliss
Now speaking for myself, if I had to attempt to distill it all down and be really glib about it, I'd say “Eraserhead” is the story of a man who can't escape his own personal hell until he drags his own demons into the light and excises them himself. Only the truth finally sets Henry free and that truth is grotesque, painful and scary. Until he has the courage to face it in all its horror he'll never find true bliss. Obviously that's a rather simplistic synopsis and I'm sure that bigger fans of the film than I could spend days in the comment section shredding my silly personal analysis.

But having seen most of Lynch's films and TV work, that's what I got out of “Eraserhead”. As obtuse as it seemed when I first watched it (and the first time around the imagery and the pace can be unnerving) I was actually a little surprised at how “linear” and straight-forward (relatively speaking) it was. As with a lot of his work, sometimes it's not so much about “what's happening?” as it is about "why" it's happening. It definitely helps to have a little Lynch background going into “Eraserhead”, it's not too surprising that few knew what to make of it or Lynch when it was first released.

Another aspect that really jumps out is how many familiar Lynchian themes “Eraserhead” contains. Someone “lost” in a strange or surreal situation, a circular pool into which people disappear, trees (frequently in the background), oddly disquieting musical interludes featuring vaguely late-fifties-early sixties-ish pop music, archaic technology, the chevron floor of Henry's lobby, characters exhibiting strange tics and mannerisms and of course a mysterious femme fatale. Even back then the stylistic elements of what Lynch was trying to express were in place, the man has a vision and that vision is a specific one even in spite of the ambiguity he cloaks it in.

All in all it was a lot of fun to take a fresh-eyed look at a Lynch film that often seems to be somewhat dismissed as being a weird oddity. In my opinion, Lynch is often accused of being “weird for the sake of weird” and although he can indeed create some pretty weird imagery, his films resonate with his take on “the human condition”, for lack of a better way to describe it. He's tackling universal themes and truths in his films, he just takes a unique approach in doing so. 

Hope you enjoyed my relatively quick take! To read more of my work, check out my writing on ----> Son of Stuck Funky.

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