‘In heaven everything is fine’ sings the lady behind the radiator but for Henry in David Lynch’s outstanding feature length debut Eraserhead life is the opposite of heaven and everything is certainly not fine.
Eraserhead follows the struggles of electric-haired Henry (Jack Nance) as he comes to terms with love, lust, marriage, parenthood and above all anxiety all from within his claustrophobic bedsit apartment in an unnamed grim dystopian industrial town.
I want to say little of this film’s plot for the sake of not wanting to ruin any of it’s many surprises to those who have never tasted it, only to say that the journey this film takes you on is quite unforgettable and very, very disturbing. If you have seen Blue Velvet or Mullholand Drive you will know all about Lynch’s dream-like way of telling a story and how you can never quite expect what is around the corner; it is both thrilling and unsettling and Eraserhead is certainly seminal in this aspect.
Analysts could talk all day about what the vast amounts of symbolism and allusions in this film but at it’s very heart this film is in essence a nightmare. Indeed I would argue that no other film portrays the true essence of a nightmare quite like Eraserhead.
So often when writers and film-makers attempt to recount true nightmares or dreams they do so through tinted eyes with crystal clear dialogue and focused plot but nightmares are never so straightforward and conveniently structured. What Lynch offers instead is a very real interpretation of a nightmare.
Nightmares showcase our subconscious and its deepest fears and anxieties but they very rarely do this in convenient ways we can interpret; they take you completely out of your comfort zone, they put you in outlandish situations that oddly seem familiar, and they make you feel powerless with your actions and very voice out of your own control.
What makes the nightmare of Eraserhead feel so real is just how everything seems so constantly disjointed and off-key and yet oddly relatable; it is a familiar unfamiliarity. For example, Henry’s fatherhood struggles stem from an extremely outlandish source but holds at it’s heart an absolutely true to life discomfort and parental fear.
The consistent drone of the apartment’s plumbing and the industrial machinery outside his window provides an uneasy soundtrack to the whole film and there is a foreboding, overpowering and ever-present tension stemming from this. Only the sweet tune of the ‘radiator’ gives us any respite from this.
Even the dialogue adds to this audio tension, conversations are disjointed and muted. Much like I see myself doing in dreams and nightmares Henry seems at odds and uneasy with his own responses and reactions. The conversation he has at the dinner table with ‘Mr X’ is a prime example of this, look at Henry’s motions and unease at the bizarre situation and hearing his own jaded speech; not to mention how the unstoppable mess he makes of the ‘food’ will be an anxiety often explored by many.
For me not only is Henry the star of the show but I feel he plays a major part of the audience as well. Sometimes he is in control of his own destiny but occasionally he is stuck helplessly alongside us on the outside looking in, anxious and paralysed. My interpretation of this is that this is Henry’s nightmare whoever ‘Henry’ is, could be me, you or maybe even Lynch himself.
As an audience we are trespassing on Henry’s subconscious and if indeed Henry represents Lynch himself then that is such an amazingly brave and humble thing to do as Henry’s subconscious certainly has some serious troubles and anxieties; but then again so do we all in one manner or another when we truly take a look inside ourselves.
Lynch has always been very cryptic about what this film represents and encourages viewers to develop their own interpretations whilst revealing next to nothing of his own. If you have never seen this film and enjoy the style of Lynch’s other work I would absolutely encourage you to go out and watch this, there is so much that can be taken from this film and I haven’t even scratched the surface with this post!
In my opinion this truly is an absolute masterpiece of the horror genre.