A Portrait of the Artist as a Glum Man
Originally written for Episode 62 on Eraserhead (1977) and Freaks (1932).
Interviewer: What was Wild at Heart about David?
“Well, it’s about one hour and forty-five minutes.
~An interview with Toby Keeler, recounting a conversation with Lynch
“Believe it or not, Eraserhead is my most spiritual film.”
INT: Why? Elaborate on that, if you will.
“No… I won’t.“
~David Lynch: A BAFTA Interview
INT: Did any of the major studios call [after Eraserhead]?
“I got one call early on […] and I told them I wanted to do Ronnie Rocket. And they said, ‘What is it about?’ […] I told them that basically it was about electricity and a three-foot guy with red hair. And a few more things. They were very polite, but I never, you know, got a call back.”
INT: What is it about?
“It’s about the absurd mystery of the strange forces of existence.”
INT: What else were you doing at the time, besides writing?
“I was building sheds, and whenever you can build a shed, you’ve got it made.“
~Lynch on Lynch
Eraserhead was my Catcher in the Rye. I could relate to Henry. Most protagonists in movies seemed either too rich or beautiful, or were unrealistically heroic. Henry isn’t any of those things. He’s uncomfortable. I could relate to that. Henry seemed like what I felt like on the inside. I had gone to or started at a new school about six times before middle school. I had frequently been the new kid. My father committed suicide when I was in the fifth grade. Decades later, I’m just coming to terms with some of the effects of that. Henry is anxious, afraid, and uncomfortable around people. He’s nervous around girls. He could barely take care of himself, much less anyone around him he was responsible for, including his newborn. He did not have a mask or persona. He was a raw wound with no scab.
I’ve seen Eraserhead more than any other film. I first saw it around age twelve. I’ve owned it on dubbed VHS, two different DVD editions, and now Blu-ray. I had a bootleg t-shirt of Henry Spencer and the iconic title lettering when I was in middle school. I’ve had posters. The score. I’ve played the music live on multiple occasions, one time with a sampled version of the organ in order to replicate it as closely as possible. I have named songs after bits of dialogue.
Seeing Eraserhead was one of the earliest and strongest moments I have of feeling what people refer to as “the power of art.” It was revelatory, ecstatic, cathartic. The world and what it could be–and what art could be–altered after seeing it.
I had seen Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984), and Blue Velvet (1986). Twin Peaks was starting soon, and while I had seen stills from Eraserhead, I couldn’t find it or anyone who had a copy. My parents and I often watched movies together. In fact, my mom introduced me to The Shining (1980) before I had heard of Stephen King. That movie terrified me, but as a horror fan, I just went back to it again and again. My mom introduced me to Phantasm (1979) and David Cronenberg’s work. I watched It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) by myself in my room as a teenager, but Last House on the Left (1972) was family viewing; we made it a double feature with Eraserhead. We were talking about renting some movies and I brought up Eraserhead, because I knew my mom liked Elephant Man and Dune. We had tried for several years to get Last House, the first film by Wes Craven, because it had scared her so badly when she saw it as a teenager. As one horror fan to another, she wanted to pass that fear onto me, and I wanted it. We called video stores and found one that surprisingly had both. We drove over an hour to rent them, partially because we lived on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, which sounds fancier than the declining fishing village it was.
Star Books and Video was the largest video store I had ever seen. It was a warehouse, really, and had racks of videos so tall that they had to get a ladder out in order to get films down. It was the heyday of video rental. The porn section slowly engulfed the rest of the store until it finally closed, likely swallowed up by the internet.
We decided to watch the Craven film first. It’s a doozy, no doubt, but it wouldn’t affect me for a few years more. My main interests at the time were special effects and monsters and Last House surely has monsters, but they weren’t the ones I was looking for. Watching my choice last meant my parents would likely see about ten minutes and then fall asleep. They did, and meanwhile I had one of the most profound experiences I’ve had with film or any other art.
The lights were off. We had a large screen for the time and I sat right in front of it with a blanket around me, enveloped in it and the world of the film.
I interpreted the narrative–I’ve always seen a story in the film–differently over the years. I think my first interpretation was about the nature of sin and shame. The emblem of both was bound in the repetition of worm-like objects throughout the film: the worm creature Henry hides from his wife Mary, the baby, the snakelike objects The Lady in the Radiator steps on or the ones that Henry pulls from Mary when she’s asleep, the early image of the baby with a sperm-like body that exits Henry’s mouth. I was watching this in the throes of puberty, so it makes sense that I dealt with the film this way. Part of the horror of the film is in fertility or lack of it. Henry’s real and imagined sexual urges, the ones that caused their baby and the ones that cause him to think about and possibly to commit adultery with the woman across the hall, create the shame he has. I think I read The Lady in the Radiator as a form of grace that he goes to once he erases his shame by removing himself from all these personal affairs, including the one to his baby through its murder. I think I read it as a mercy killing, a way to remove shame, sin, and pain, in the way the eraser made of his brain, erases the mark on the paper. It wasn’t until later that I read it as a potential suicide narrative. The Lady in the Radiator as ultimate escape in obliteration.
I’ve read the film as one about the fight of good and evil or sin and innocence and I’ve reversed the place of The Man in the Planet and The Lady in the Radiator. Is she an angel stomping out the relics of sin? Or is she a demon calling Henry to annihilation? Is he a God in the Machine fighting a losing battle? Is he a demonic Hephaestus of the Underworld or subconscious? Are these just images of Henry’s psychological drives?
When I was in college, and still had the dub of the video I made that first night when I watched it for a second time, I began interpreting it as a film about an artist coming to terms with the reality of life, a possible warning for artists about commitments outside their work. My reading may have had something to do with being an art and music major, who later switched to English and philosophy. An artist’s life, particular one that is not charmed, one without professional connections or a trust fund, is difficult in America.There’s a realization that one often comes to: I will have to make a living. Most people will not care about what I write, make, or do.
Later, I thought of the artist coming to terms, or not coming to terms, with fatherly duties. This reading is certainly backed up by some of Lynch’s biography. His first child and his first divorce correspond to the making of the film. When I knew I was going to become a father, I felt confusion and anxiety not knowing what would happen and feeling a deep lack of control over my life. I will say that I did much better than Henry taking care of babies, though it was sometimes terrifying, especially when they were sick. I used the wrong butt ointment once, and had to call my wife at her job, so she could explain to me what to do. I was perplexed and scared when my children were ill. Things were rarely as bad as I imagined, but I felt horribly guilty and sometimes like a failure when I didn’t know what to do.
For better or worse, this has been the story that I’ve connected to my whole life. Now, slouching toward middle age I wonder if I will continue to have a similar connection to the movie. Will I become a version of Mr. X? I’m not quite at “Look at my knees!” but “like regular chickens” and gloating over a family dinner doesn’t seem far off. I imagine being swallowed up by dementia, maybe like the grandmother, and not being able to identify my children, but watching Henry or Mary X as if they strolled out of a family photo album. If I’m lucky, someone will hold my hands so I can stir the oatmeal or toss the salad.
I thought it would be interesting to list works that Lynch has mentioned as influential to him previous to and during the production of Eraserhead. This is by no means meant to be exhaustive. I know he had many more influences in terms of sound and music and in painting (Francis Bacon immediately comes to mind) and other visual art. I just think it’s useful to note the variety of influences on a movie that seems so singular.
The Bible (Lynch has said that a flash of inspiration for Eraserhead came from a particular sentence he read. I don’t believe he’s ever revealed it. )
“The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol
Franz Kafka, particularly The Metamorphosis (I would include The Trial, but I’ve never heard him mention it.)
Robert Henri, The Art Spirit and paintings (Maybe the source of Henry’s name? This would make sense in terms of the artist/father reading. Lynch says this was the most important book for his notions of “The Art Life.”)
Philadelphia Story (1940)
Sunset Boulevard (1950) (Was screened for cast and crew for “mood.”)
Rear Window (1954)
The Fly (1958)
The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)
Roma (1972) (Fellini, in general. 8 ½ seems an obvious influence.)
Stroszek (1977) (Herzog, in general.)
Kubrick (Lynch says he loves his films. Kubrick is said to have screened Eraserhead for friends on more than one occasion and to have referred to it on at least one occasion as “his favorite film.” The opening sequence has been compared to elements of 2001:A Space Odyssey.)
The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation
An East Indian carved statue of the Buddha: (Lynch relates an epiphanic event that occurred in a museum when he met eyes with the Buddha. The story has lasers or an all-encompassing white light. If the latter, then it corresponds to a scene in the film when Henry is able to hold The Lady in the Radiator.)