-Mr X, laying some pipe
As part of my Lynch series, now a pilgrimage from start to finish as I pretend to speak authoritatively on my thesis topic, I can’t help but begin at Eraserhead. David Lynch’s debut feature, which rose to infamy alongside Jodorowsky’s El Topo as part of the 1970s ‘Midnight Film’ phenomenon, still holds a powerful place in the Lynch canon. This is partly due to its unforgettable, horrific imagery, but Eraserhead holds its own against the director’s later works in terms of themes, treatment and pure atmosphere.
So let’s all have a look at the film that made Mel Brooks call David Lynch “Jimmy Stewart from Mars.” I won’t be recapping the entire film, but I will begin with a closer reading of the opening sequence:
Henry Spencer (Lynchian hero Jack Nance) begins this film as a horizontal, floating head, superimposed over a moon-sized, grainy ‘planet’. So far so good. Inside this planet, the appropriately-named Man Inside the Planet pulls a few levers and voila! Out of Henry’s mouth there issues the first of many stringlike, swimming white creatures. This intrepid little creature eventually drops into a milky crater on the side of the planet. Shortly after that, we see a tracking shot down a hairy tunnel towards a circular light. It’s impossible to get around – you’ve just witnessed sex, and the birth that sometimes ensues.
And Henry Spencer? He’s a dick. A swinging dick, for better or worse. He wanders his apocalyptic home like a chubby Charlie Chaplin, his feminine moon-shaped counterpart replaced by the unforgiving architecture of industrial Philadelphia. And Henry will be contrasted against his surroundings and fellow characters for the rest of the film, as his swinging dick-ness becomes the subject matter of Eraserhead.
To clarify, the film revolves around fathering and fatherhood, according to Lynch, to which I would add the question “What is it that the male-as-subject actually does towards fathering?” On paper, it would seem that the father (Henry) has helped in creating life, but the child he fathers with Mary X (Charlotte Stewart, who reappears as Don Davis’ wife in Twin Peaks) is an absolute monster, an animatronic prop of movie folklore, gurgling and chuckling his way into the psyche of all concerned. You can’t help feeling, alongside Henry Spencer, that his procreation was really an act of destruction.
Destruction abounds in Eraserhead. From the empty hollows of Philadelphia, to the dead trees that populate pots throughout the various interiors we see, to the tiny portrait of a mushroom cloud in Henry’s room, we are moved to see a world emptied of life, emptied of energy. Notably, by the film’s shocking, apocalyptic end, the mushroom cloud has disappeared from Henry’s wall. Even the apocalypse is swept away by the time Henry finds his scissors. Because Henry decides that his only hope for agency is to be the eraser on the hard tip of the pencil, obliterating his child (and castrating himself in the process, as the film binds the two of them together) and the world that he inhabits.
So yeah, the film has an unhappy ending, and its construction of masculinity is a little bit nihilistic. But David Lynch was an impoverished young artist with a baby on the way – how do you think he felt? Well, we know at least the dark side of what he imagined was to come. In this side of the Lynch universe, pipes don’t grow, they get driven into the earth, turning “pastures” into “hellholes.” Fortunately for his sake, Lynch was to refine and temper his approach to the subject in the three decades that followed. But Eraserhead forever sits at the heart of his (and our) own fears and dreams, and continues to resurface at points of rupture in his work. The results of this are often the most memorable.