Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Eraserhead: A Casual Analysis

ERASERHEAD: A Casual Analysis

I believe it was after high school when I decided to start reading classic books that I had never been assigned to read.  To this day, Moby Dick is one of my favorite books, most likely because I read it without having someone tell me what it was really about.  To tell you the truth, without taking an hour to really dig deep and remember all I can, I couldn't tell you a whole lot about what symbolized what in that book.  When I think of it, though, I can picture the Pequod in choppy seas, an immense, white glossy mass plunging into the water ahead of her, and Captain Ahab at her helm with a look in his eyes so steely you'd be afraid he would rust in all the salt spray.  I think of the poison in his resolve to seek vengeance and the grandeur and pain and discomfort and beauty of life at sea in the 1800's, and even the cetology of the time and the mechanics of whaling.   Who needs a college professor to describe what one should take away from a book like that?
A good story entertains you, a better one teaches you, and the best kind lingers with you in the way a deceased loved one does.  You find yourself thinking about it, questioning it at random points in your day perhaps weeks or months after you experience it.  The stories that can accomplish this are few compared to the amount of stories we read, see, and hear each day.  Most are trash.  Every now and then one comes along, though, that stops you in your tracks and makes you pay more attention to it, whether you want to or not.  One of those stories is the 1977 film Eraserhead.  I present here my analysis of this eccentric movie. 

Full disclosure: I am not a film critic.  This is only my interpretation of what I took from the film.  I could be completely off base with everything I understand to be true about this movie.  Mr. David Lynch might curse me for being so dense as to perceive his movie the way I have.  But this is my interpretation, people.  Go get your own.

There are some movies that you watch and think to yourself: What the hell did I just watch? Eraserhead is actually not one of these to me.  I have no doubt that if I sat my dad or my brothers and sister down to watch this movie they would definitely be asking that question, but right from the start something settled in my mind as I watched a rocky planet floating in space before a scatter of stars and a malevolent looking man pulling switches as sparks spurted with an electric hiss at their base: this movie was a riddle.  More to the point, a riddle that didn't have any one good answer.  It was the type of movie that, while a certain percentage made no sense to me, I felt the deeper meaning slowly slink  its way into my subconscious.  The imagery was poetic in a disturbing way, and while the basic plot is moderately easy to follow, it is evident from the opening frames that there is a sea of subtext swirling beneath. 

As mentioned before, the movie starts off with a planet, or some rocky heavenly body suspended in a blanket of stars while our main character Henry's permanently confused face is superimposed over it.  Henry opens his mouth and, well, something falls out.  This thing looks to be living tissue, or tissue that was at least once living and is composed of a bulbous, wrinkled "head"  and a long twisted tail.  I got the distinct impression that this thing resembled a sperm cell.  It cuts from this to a house with a huge hole in the roof.  To me, this may symbolize the coming destruction of the world Henry is used to.  We later learn that Mary, his girlfriend, had become pregnant with what I can only describe as a "deformed" child  (more on that later).  I think this rocky sphere floating in the sky is not a planet but a meteor, and it has impacted Henry's home.  This may be too easy for symbolism, but I get the feeling this meteor and its impact on the house is a metaphor for the unexpected pregnancy and the imminent emotional and social damage it will bring to Henry's timid world. 

This world where Henry lives is gritty.  Shadows and light are constantly at battle in the  black and white cinematography, and shadows usually win.  The setting is industrial in nature.  When Henry is outside walking, there are the sounds of steam hissing or trains rolling over tracks or the whir and squeak of heavy machinery.  The living quarters for any of the characters is bleak at best.  Mary's family lives in a tiny apartment with an invalid old woman and a dog that has just given birth to a large litter of puppies.  Henry's apartment Isn't much more than a bed, a desk, and a shelf or two.  Beside the bed is a radiator that plays quite a critical role for Henry.  At times he sees a "Lady in the Radiator" as she's credited.  She appears on a lit stage, her face deformed with oversized cheeks.  I believe she is a daydream to Henry, sort of a comfort zone his mind goes to when at his apartment.  This is further validated to me in that the radiator is the bringer of warmth, and warmth means comfort. 

Early in the movie, Henry goes to Mary's house to have dinner with Mary and her parents.  This scene is intriguing.  The whole thing is uncomfortable.  At one point, Mary's father asked Henry to carve the chicken, and when Henry begins to cut into the bird blood starts spurting from it.  I haven't exactly figured the bleeding chicken out yet.  I wondered as I watched if anyone else at the table sees the chicken bleeding as Henry is trying to carve it.  If they do they don't seem to mind, at least not at first.  The whole scene seems to show a sort of disgust for the mundane features of life: going to dinner with the parents, carving the chicken, listening to the mind-numbing story Mary's father tells about his injured arm.  This is also when we hear of the imminent arrival.  With the insistence of Mary's mother and Mary herself, Henry agrees to marry her. 

The marriage begins with these rocky terms, and once the movie cuts from that uncomfortable dinner to Mary caring for her newborn, we see that happier times are not ahead.  The newborn is not recognizable as a human baby.  In fact, the face is almost reminiscent of a horse fetus with no ears, or perhaps an alien.  It's body is wrapped in gauze, and the sole purpose of this thing's existence is to issue an incessant cry that is tinny and grating to the extreme.  Think baby's cry mixed with the whine of an injured cat, over and over again.  It cries so much that Mary begins to be resentful of the baby-thing, and of Henry as well.  During a stormy night she finally has enough of the thing's cries, and leaves for her mother's.  Henry is left to care for the newborn by himself, and he is obviously not prepared to do this.  He suspects the baby is sickly and takes it's temperature.  When everything seems normal he turns his back, opens the door, and begins to leave.  The thing begins shrieking.  He turns and sees that, from the time he stood up and opened the door, the baby became covered in boils.  He then sits down and cares for the creature, all while staring into the distance, an expression of extreme boredom on his face.  The baby, meanwhile, is once again at peace.   This creates the very real feeling that this thing is in need of constant care.  For Henry to take his eyes off it for just a moment is to risk harm to the baby-thing.

The main theme of the movie seems to show itself here.  I gathered that the movie is really commenting on parenting, family life, and the banality of it all.  It paints a dark picture of the uncertainty and frustrations of parenthood.  How are these two people supposed to care for this newborn creature?  It is so fragile that it is covered in bandages, and can only whimper and whine for food.  It's mere existence seems to be torture to the couple.  Once Henry is left alone with it, his only respite is fantasizing about the lady in the radiator. 

The fantasy, I believe, is a sexual one and perhaps even masturbatory, like a wet dream.  As she dances slowly across the stage more of the things Henry had earlier expelled from his mouth drop around her.  She steps on them one at a time, and white ooze squirts out of them onto the stage floor.  She giggles as she does this, and after she has stepped on a few the scene cuts to Henry waking up in bed in his dismal apartment.  Mary is lying beside him, twisting uncomfortably in bed and bumping against Henry's back.  He is being pushed further to one side of the bed.  He is confined, and you can't help but get the impression he is trapped.  He finds  these giant sperm-like things from his dream beneath his covers and, disgusted, throws them away from him.  This speaks again to the misery and despair of the human condition, especially in this desolate world. Not even the sex dream is enjoyable, and whatever pleasure he does get from it is ripped away when he awakens to the dwindling confines of his side of the bed.  In frustration, he keeps grumbling "Move over!" and shoving her to the other side of the bed. 

Mary disappears from his bedroom in the following scene, and one could assume some days have passed.   There is a knock at his door, and deep echoing hum fills the soundscape.  Henry answers the door to find the neighbor, whom we've seen before earlier in the film.  She is a beautiful woman, and speaks in a slow, seductive tone when she tells Henry she has locked her keys in her apartment and needs a place to sleep for the night.  Another common issue in relationships rears its head: adultery.  The scene moves to Henry and his neighbor having sex in a small pool of milky liquid that has inexplicably formed in the center of Henry's bed.  Like many scenes in the movie, we are seeing what Henry is experiencing through the filter of his own subconscious.  They sink into the milk, the neighbor pulling him down beneath the surface.  Immediately we see another asteroid-like rock and the neighbor presumably leaving, being withdrawn into the darkness with an uncomfortable look on her face.  The radiator lady appears and I assume Henry is asleep and dreaming.  She sings "In heaven, everything is fine.  In heaven, everything is fine..."  Henry is asleep, satisfied for the moment.

However, the dream lingers as Henry steps onto the stage with the radiator lady.  She disappears, and we are treated to a surreal and disturbing nightmare.  Among other seemingly random occurrences Henry's head seems to be pushed off from within by a long cylindrical object that is not unlike a penis in shape.  The penis-like head remover seems to be a manifestation of guilt, giving literal imagery to the term "thinking with the wrong head."  From his neck, the deformed baby's head sprouts forth, whining uncontrollably.  The baby's whines are louder and more shrill than ever, and the fact that the baby's head replaces Henry's is symbolic of Henry's obligation to put the baby before himself.

In true dream fashion, the head falls through a pool of blood and lands in the street where a young boy picks it up and sells it to a pencil manufacturer, who drills a sample from Henry's brain and uses it in his pencil making machine.  The core sample is formed into erasers for the pencils in this conveyor belt.  The machine operator tests the eraser, and confirms that the materials - Henry's brain - is "okay."  Then he sweeps the brain remnants from the desk with the flick of his hand.  This, to me, is Henry's attempt to accept what he has done.  As odd and elaborate and as probably steeped in symbolism  as the dream is, I believe it is really about Henry's guilt and his attempt to erase what he's done from his memory.  Again, the pencil machine operator  reinforces it to him it in its simplest terms: "It's okay."  Then he brushes the shavings aside, scattering them to the winds.  Henry's mind has been cleared.

When he wakes up the next morning, he goes to his neighbor's door and knocks.  Mary has seemingly gone for good, he is alone, and perhaps he now sees this as a new opportunity to be with someone.  No answer.  The baby-thing lets out a raspy giggle at Henry's misfortune.  This baby seems malevolent from the start, intent on ruining the lives of Henry and Mary.  When he hears the neighbor returning, he rushes to the door only to find that she is with another man in the hall, and Henry is left alone with his baby.  The neighbor gives one final look of repulsion at Henry, and the image of him flashes to the dream version of himself with his baby's head.  She must have decided that the malformed baby is too disturbing, or at least that is how Henry perceives the situation. He's got too much baggage.

 In the end, Henry can no longer live with the malevolent creature that is destroying his life.  He cuts the bandages from the baby's body, revealing its internal organs.  He stabs at one of these organs and blood spurts forth.  Lights flicker, we see an image again of a malformed man operating switches while sparks fly about, and the dying baby's head appears so large it takes up the whole side of the room.  The guilt of killing his baby is filling his mind, physically confining him farther into a corner of his small apartment.  When the deed is done, and the thing is obviously dead, the screen goes a hazy white.  Through this fog, the lady in the radiator appears, and hugs Henry triumphantly.  Henry, still with a confused countenance, has found the comfort he has desperately needed.

As mentioned before, the main theme of the movie is one of struggle and desolation, and an ultimate hopelessness.  It deals specifically with these qualities as they relate to marriage and parenthood.  David Lynch had a young daughter at the time of the filming of this movie.  He also lived with his wife and daughter in a bad part of Philadelphia, and those difficult times are almost certainly the inspiration for the gritty industrial setting.  There is no comfort to be had in the world in which Eraserhead takes place.  You get the sense of being cornered, trapped in an unending loop of misery.  The steaming streets, the thugs attacking one another in the background, the apartment window that faces nothing but a brick wall, the dead plant jutting from a heap of dirt on Henry's night stand, the tinny whine of the baby creature, the high contrast cinematography, all serve to enhance this claustrophobic feel of dread and hopelessness.  The scenes between Henry and his wife, Mary, almost always portray the worst parts of married life.  Most people who have been in a relationship have had these same moments: The petty arguments, the spiteful glances, the guilt trips.  In this world, though, the issues seem all the more inescapable.  The only amount of contentment Henry receives is from staring at his radiator and fantasizing about a lady on a stage.  But let's face it, with the lady's grossly deformed face smiling gleefully as she prances around the stage, even that daydream is no prize.

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