The most accurate way I can describe David Lynch’s first film, Eraserhead, is by calling it a macabre surrealist nightmare.
Knowing little about the film before first watching it, I had minor expectations. I’d heard that it was a bizarre film that seemingly broke away from having a straight-forward narrative and incorporated elements from both the surrealist genre as well as that of the body-horror genre (think David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and John Carpenter’s The Thing). Other than that, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
In a way, Eraserhead has similarities to Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), a film we screened on Jan. 15 at Artspace.
Both films, in their own ways of course, attack the audience. They both eradicate previous expectations that viewers bring with them, and work to disturb and unsettle these while simultaneously telling a narrative.
However, the narrative in Lynch’s Eraserhead is much more nonsensical than Audition, and it doesn’t tell a self-explanatory story, if any at all.
The viewer is certainly capable of deriving ideas from what is presented to them, but the important question to consider is do these ideas actually coincide with what is occurring on-screen?
How much are we projecting our own ideas onto the film and trying to make sense of what is being presented?
Eraserhead also raises the question as to whether we should try to make sense of the narrative at all.
Being a film of surrealist nature, the genre itself is a stab at this notion of “making sense,” with which mainstream Western cinema has become synonymous.
Surrealist cinema purposely challenges preconceived notions of what we are used to, not necessarily to create incomprehensibility just for the sake of it, but rather to establish that what we take for granted in our interpretations of cinema can be troublesome, and that we have become lazy, mindless viewers who are incapable of thinking for ourselves; we have become drones who flock to the theatre to see the same story retold time and time again.
We feel that after we watch films, we need to have the story concluded neatly. We must leave the theatre knowing that the characters within the fictionalized world are going to lead happy lives and all will be well once the screen turns black and the lights turns on.
In some films, the opposite occurs: the characters’ life stories are incomplete, leaving their post-film fate up to us to decide. The point is, we are always concerned with the fate of the characters in films, and with whether we’re able to know and understand what it is that they are experiencing.
The main thing to take away from Eraserhead is that it questions this idea: Why do we need to have this experience of closure?
Life isn’t always so neat and tidy in tying up its loose ends, yet we have packaged our mainstream narratives this way.
Eraserhead is by no means the only film to take this approach, nor is it the first, but it continues to shake up the status quo by challenging what we are used to and does so in a fearless manor.
Lynch is an advocate for exploring dreams and trying to use them as tools in his creative process, and his first feature is a clear representation of having done just that.
Having written, produced, edited, co-composed the score, and directed the film, Lynch played a large part in the successful creation of a horrifying atmosphere reminiscent of the unexplainable nature that occurs in the realm of dreams.
If any sense is to be made of Eraserhead, viewers have considered the film an exploration of one man’s fear of entering fatherhood.
The film begins with strange imagery that often grosses out the viewers, and at other times causes them to put pieces together in an attempt to form some rational explanation of protagonist Henry Spencer (Jack Nance)’s behaviour.
The film also explores his sexual repression and delves into his bizarre and sometimes unexplainable worldview.
Film critic Peter Bradshaw provided some ideas as to what Eraserhead might be about: “It is a dark parable about… what? Our unexamined, unacknowledged horror of our own bodies and their endless reproduction? And therefore – our horror of the future? Of the present?”
Bradshaw also comments on the importance of the sound in the film, saying, “It’s beautiful and strange, with its profoundly disturbing ambient sound design of industrial groaning, as if filmed inside some collapsing factory or gigantic dying organism.”
Shot in black-and-white to enhance the unsettling nature of the film (and having been on a low budget), Eraserhead garnered so much attention that it pushed Lynch into the Hollywood spotlight, and led him to work on bigger features such as The Elephant Man (1981), Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-91), and Mulholland Drive (2001).
Think you know what Eraserhead is about and want to share your thoughts? Haven’t seen it and want to find out what all the buzz is about?
Come join Trent Film Society for a free screening of the film on Wednesday, Feb. 5 at Artspace (between Hunter St. and Simcoe St.).
The show begins at 8pm.