Like a lot of people, my first introduction to Eraserhead (1977) was at a midnight movie on a college campus. It resonated with me in a way that it didn’t with my companions, who dismissed it as nonsense. The film is still divisive, and for every person who praises it as a masterpiece, you’re likely to find one or two who didn’t make it through the first five minutes. It’s understandable, really, considering that films like Eraserhead and its surrealist counterparts are practically a whole different medium than traditional films. Like opera, or poetry, or improvisational jazz, it requires more than just an understanding of the genre, but also an acceptance of it, in order to crack its code. It’s not a matter of elitism. It’s simply a matter of some people just don’t like this kind of stuff.
It occurs to me that the manner in which some people don’t “get” Eraserhead is similar to the way that some people don’t get silent film. I’m willing to bet that there may be a few silent film fans out there that appreciated Eraserhead when it came out because they were already used to weird films with little dialogue. For me, it was the opposite. When I first started to seriously watch silent films, part of why they appealed to me right away was because I had already come to love the world of Eraserhead so long ago.
In some ways, Lynch’s first feature film is a silent film. It’s almost a full 11 minutes before anyone speaks at all (“Are you Henry?” asks the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall). There’s only brief, intermittent dialogue thereafter, amounting to only a few minute’s worths. Jack Nance (the film’s lead, and a Lynch regular until his death in 1996) remarked in an interview that it was “a little script.” He continued: “It was only a few pages with this weird imagery and not much dialogue and this baby kind of thing.” He wasn’t being hyperbolic. The entire transcript of the Eraserhead dialogue takes up surprisingly little space (have a look). It’s easy to imagine the dialogue being presented silent film-style, on intertitle cards, without it changing very much about the film at all. You could even remove the spoken words entirely and still have something quite special (I’d argue the same with the title cards for F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927).
Eraserhead does, of course, have sound. The film’s soundtrack is as important as its visual imagery. Lynch went to unusual lengths to record just the right sounds for his film (filling bottles with microphones and putting them in a bathtub, for starters), and the results show. The atmosphere is pervaded by constant, unsettling sounds that seem alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) industrial and corporeal. The hissing sounds might be the steam releasing from a machine, but sometimes you’d swear you also detect the gurgling of saliva. It’s a disturbing effect, and a distinctly Lynchian one, that keeps the lines blurred between what is alive and what is mechanical. (Metropolis (1927), anyone?) Keep in mind, though, those silent films were never presented soundlessly, and if you’ve ever tried to watch one without music, you know that they lose their atmosphere just as much as Eraserhead does with its sound turned down.
Eraserhead’s similarities to silent films go beyond the fact that it has little dialogue or even that it’s filmed in black and white. Its whole world is within the silent film milieu. The bleak factory setting is straight out of the Depression, with trappings far older than the year the film was made: a wall telephone with a flared mouthpiece, an old phonograph (used to play Fats Waller records from the 1920s), a curtained stage straight out of vaudeville. Henry’s filthy, sparse room looks like something from Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), while the factory elements are as unsettling as those of Modern TImes (1936) From the very beginning, Eraserhead looks both bizarre and familiar. Lynch would come to reuse many of the elements from the set, so the lobby will evoke both Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge and Mulholland Drive’s Club Silencio for those who have seen his later films. But, that’s not the only reason it’s so recognizable. It’s a world we know because it’s an old one. It’s been captured on film for more than a hundred years.
Jack Nance’s Henry is a throwback as well, with a fright hairdo that resembles Harold Lloyd’s at the end of Haunted Spooks (1920) and an ill-fitting suit that’s the trademark of every silent clown. Like most of the popular silent comedians, Henry is a hapless innocent in bizarre circumstances, and he faces most of them with the stone-faced stoicism of a Buster Keaton. When his facial expression isn’t blank, it’s puzzled. Henry is part of a big, crazy world that he doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t do things so much as things happen to him. One of the first things we see Henry do is one of the oldest comedy tropes in the book, but it establishes his character in an instant: he steps in a mud puddle. We’re on very familiar turf, and we know something that is equally true for both silent comedy and surrealism. Anything can happen (and it probably will). As soon as Henry enters the warehouse, things turn dark, strange, industrial. The silent clown enters Metropolis.
Reduced to its basic plot elements, Eraserhead is a sequence of familiar ideas. While the more bizarre elements and visual effects make it difficult for some viewers to distill, there’s nothing here, story-wise that would be out of place in a classic film. Henry is a factory worker who is persuaded by his girlfriend’s parents to marry their daughter after she has a child (if that is indeed what it is). Mary has a hard time with motherhood and leaves Henry to largely care for the child on his own. Henry is seduced by a beautiful woman (the classic vamp of the silent film world) and things begin to fall apart. It’s the absurd details that make the film what it is, but those details are also part of what makes the film an echo of the films that precede it.
Take, for example, the film’s opening: a double exposure trick juxtaposes Jack Nance’s giant, sideways head with what appears to be a planet, or a moon. As we get closer, the planet/moon looks like it’s not made of rock, but something organic. It’s a rotten orange, or decaying meat. It’s possibly even alive. It’s not only a photographic trick that’s more than 100 years old, but it’s a visual that looks strikingly like something Georges Méliès would have done, or even more precisely, Segundo de Chomón.
Some of Lynch’s most grotesque elements in Eraserhead would be right at home in a de Chomón short, and both directors have a fascination with disembodied heads and decay. In one of Eraserhead’s scenes, Henry pulls sperm-like ropes from Mary’s body and flings them against the wall. One of them cavorts around in a stop-motion segment that de Chomón would have found quite familiar. A pioneer of stop-motion, he often used it to shock or disgust, as he did in Panicky Picnic (1909), wherein a wheel of cheese is cut open to reveal an interior filled with wriggling worms. Lynch’s animated, blood-filled chicken in the family dinner scene is no more absurd than de Chomón’s sequences featuring self-slicing sausages or cracked eggs with live rats inside.
The tiny theater inside Henry’s radiator is not far removed from the miniature performances that take place in de Chomón’s Metamorphoses, but Henry is not controlling the show. He is merely a voyeur. When Henry steps into the radiator, it’s a shocking moment. We’ve come to accept the woman in the radiator as part of a different world—why, it’s not even his size! Like Keaton stepping into the movie screen in Sherlock, Jr., it’s a breathtaking moment that shatters the reality we’ve come to accept, and in this case, it was a bizarre reality, to begin with. Henry has broken a fourth wall that exists inside a larger four walls. While things get pretty crazy on that stage, with Henry’s head falling off and the creepy baby, wearing his suit, my favorite moment is one that’s easy to miss.
As the giant tree (or miniature tree, as we’re inside the radiator) is wheeled onto the stage, something unusual happens. Henry looks afraid, and at first, it seems as if the big tree, an exact copy of the one on his bedside table that sits potless in a pile of dirt, is what has him in a panic. But, he looks out to the audience. As he backs away, he continues to steal nervous glances at the theatre’s audience, at us. He is acutely aware of being watched, of going from voyeur to the object of the voyeurism. The camera pans out to remind us that this is all taking place on a stage, perhaps to emphasize that it’s not taking place in the “real” outside world. It reminds me of the convention in some very early silents wherein the film would begin and end with a curtain’s rise and fall, especially in the case of thrillers, as a way of making the audience feel more at ease. (“It’s not real, folks!”)
If there’s a single silent film that Eraserhead resembles, though, it’s Un Chien Andalou, the surrealist Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali collaboration from 1929. It’s often been remarked upon, but easily dismissed because Lynch claims to not have seen it prior to making his film. Even if the similarities are unintentional, they’re relevant, as the list of oddities the films have in common is long enough that it could be a separate post, so I’ll just name a few. Both films deal with voyeurism, first depicted in each film when a violent act is seen through the window. Both contain scenes of mundane domesticity punctuated by gruesomeness. Un Chien Andalou’s most famous scene, still cited more than seventy years later as one of the most disturbing ever filmed, features a woman’s eyeball being sliced with a razor. Shock factor aside, what’s oddest about it is the fact that it seems to take place in an ordinary home, as if eyeball slicing is an ordinary event. The placing of such an unsettling act in a domestic setting is much like the disturbing aspects of the family dinner in Eraserhead.
Both films contain dismembered body parts as well as live creatures emerging from human body parts. (It’s hard to believe that the ants crawling from the hole in a hand in Un Chien Andalou didn’t inform the infested ear in Blue Velvet, so even if Lynch hadn’t seen the short film in 1977, he probably saw it before 1986). In some ways, Eraserhead is Un Chien Andalou in reverse, as the Bunuel film opens with the slicing of an organ, while Lynch’s film saves it for last. Both films contain a ray of hope at the end, or at least of finality. Eraserhead’s baby is destroyed, and Henry steps into the world of the radiator, embracing the woman who has continually sung to him that “In heaven, everything is fine.” In Un Chien Adalou, it’s the mysterious box that’s destroyed, and the protagonists frolic on the beach. The final title card of the latter film informs us that it is spring, and we see the couple unmoving, buried in the sand up to their necks. Are they dead? Is this a happy ending or not? You could ask the same questions at the end of Eraserhead.
Bunuel and Dali insisted that their film had no meaning at all, and that creating a meaningless film was their whole purpose. “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted” said Bunuel of the filming process. Lynch’s film is presumed to have some meaning, but the director has said repeatedly that no one has ever interpreted it correctly, and he’s keeping mum about what it (or any other film) really means. Is there a big difference between a film having no meaning and one whose meaning is kept in the dark? The end result is still a film with an explanation that defies consensus. Even with Bunuel and Dali’s attempt at making a meaningless film, though, it’s impossible to watch it and not begin to form a plot in your head. As humans, we see patterns and make connections between things. It’s what we do.
And perhaps it’s what I’m doing when I spot silent film influences in Eraserhead. Maybe they are intentionally there, and maybe they are not there at all. It’s funny to me that even people who claim Eraserhead “makes no sense” also describe it as disturbing, or as a nightmare. That means they’re making sense of it in some way. Something recognizable is coming through to them as fear. And that’s because Eraserhead, like the best silent comedies (or the best surrealist works), speaks to universal truths. It’s about universal human struggles. The awkward family dinner, the fear of parenthood—it’s all really very simple. Those moments that are never explained—why are there peas in the dresser drawer?—are absurd, but so are our lives, and there are just as many questions in our own that we will never answer.