The Horrible, Beautiful Asymmetry
An essay by: Witney Seibold
Andre Breton stated in his famed manifesto that surrealism was the purest form of art. He believed that surrealism was a way of pouring the artist’s mind, unadulterated, out onto the page, without the troublesome impediments of interpretation, thought, or feeling. It allows us, he stated, to see, window-like, into a human mind. Since we cannot sense other people the same way we sense ourselves, art is the best way to experience how others see the world. And surreal art is the most accurate, the straightest line, so to speak. And since art only ever utilizes the senses (the ideas take place in the mind, not in the art), filmed art seems the most efficient and complete art form for dealing with the surreal images of the mind, (seeing as it is a medium of moving images, most resembling the human eye). Try talking about that weird dream you had in any other terms. It seems paltry, doesn’t it? The ekphrasis gets in the way (Ekphrasis: the attempt to put into words a non-verbal experience. I love that word. I’ll probably use it a lot in forthcoming essays).
Luis Buñuel knew this, and his films all seem to take place in that void your mind occupies when you’re just waking up: not entirely rid of dreams, but not entirely influenced by your waking life. But it’s David Lynch’s first film “Eraserhead” (1977) that has the power to constantly strike me, to envelop me, to impress upon me artistic urgency. Its images are borne of a very pure place. And it’s utterly beautiful. I first saw this film on a crummy pan and scan video copy when I was 15. I wasn’t sure what I had just witnessed, but, for some reason, I was holistically enthralled. I wasn’t sure why I actually liked this odd dark and disturbing …thing. It wasn’t funny. It didn’t move me to tears. It wasn’t scary in the conventional sense. I think it was the first film I saw in where everyday reality is completely ignored, rules are broken, and yet it still feels right. And well-done. My obsession with trying to understand the film, and understand why I liked it, only grew in the ensuing years. I showed the film to friends in college, tried to find a VHS copy to buy. The closest I ever came was getting an actual price on the used copy that the local 20/20 Video had. The owner wanted $60 for it, a fortune for a 16-year-old, and for a while I did actually save up some money to buy it. That plan never came through, as I never had the guts to spend that much on a single videocassette. Now here I am, age 25, still not entirely sure what I like about “Eraserhead,” but with some better ideas. I now own the DVD of the film that David Lynch personally cleaned up frame by frame. It looks and sounds fantastic, and actually has a special calibration option so that your television screen will be ideally prepared. My obsession and interest in the film as strong as it ever was. This essay will try to shed some light on the film for you, but will, with hope, also shed some light on myself as well. I invariably list “Eraserhead” on my top-ten lists.
It’s tempting, while watching “Eraserhead” to put some direct meaning to it. I have read a good number of essays on the film trying to explain away the film’s oddness. A long series of essays I stumbled upon during my enthusiastic college days had a rather intriguing and very convincing argument that the film was full if Catholic images: The Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk, who was also the production designer, and would continue to be Lynch’s designer for years) at the beginning of the film manipulating levers was God. The worms extracted from Henry were his confession. The child represented both the guilt following an unwanted sexual encounter, as well as a being still dripping with Original Sin. The Lady in the Radiator was Death (“In heaven, everything is fine”). The ending was Henry’s simultaneous suicide and absolution. Death stomps out the guilt of confession, the guilt of an unwanted sex act prevents one from facing the world and frightens any other who enter your life, etc. The same essays also extensively pointed out the numerology of the film, and how 13 kept cropping up (Mary’s house is 2416. 2+4+1+6=13. Henry’s apartment is 26, which is 13 x 2. There were even timing charts indicating certain pauses which took exactly 13 seconds). For a few years, I bought these interpretations, and watching the film with these in mind helped me along the tightrope of understanding it.
Later on, I came upon an essay that linked the film to Freudian sex images. Henry’s disembodied head represented the penis, or penis envy. The tensions between all the characters were primarily sexual (why else would Mrs. X, played by Jeanne Bates, pin Henry against the wall and begin licking him?). The women were mysteries (good ol’ Freudian misogyny). The pencils were phallic symbols that had the power to erase guilty deeds. The bleeding miniature chicken represented first menstruation. The baby was a being yet unaware of sexuality, thus more powerful than Henry’s confusion, but incomplete and monstrous because of it. And, once again, for a while, I believed this interpretation as well. It helped me further along.
But with each new interpretation I read about, and each analysis enthusiastically I ate up out of sheer love for the dark weirdness of the film, I felt an odd confusion. None of them seemed to have the holistic satisfaction of an entire appreciation…
Some surrealism is indeed directly symbolic. I have Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle on my list, and those films are wrought with very specific mythologies, and have surreal images that correlate directly to very specific things. Barney uses in “Cremaster 2” (as a brief example) a rodeo to represent Gary Gilmour’s execution by the state. One is filtering out all familiar images, in such a case, in order to add poetry, and (with hope) poignancy to something that is commonplace, or already has certain stigma attached. Using surrealism “cleans” such images, washing away said stigma and preconceptions, giving us a more pure interpretation of something familiar.
Other surrealism, like much of Buñuel (“The Exterminating Angel,” or “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”), uses the surreal image not to represent anything rigidly specific, but a more ethereal set of ideas, usually political in nature. “The Exterminating Angel,” for example, is a film about a group of upper-class well-to-dos who. After a dinner party, find that they are oddly compelled to remain in the room. Days pass, and no one seems to be able to leave; revealing: the rich are trapped in their own place. Buñuel is using a bizarre premise and surreal images (sheep wander through periodically) to give somewhat controversial ideas (class awareness) a more subtle power. Not to mention a rather savvy disguise, allowing him to more openly express dissent.
But the surrealism of “Eraserhead” doesn’t really fit either of these moulds. I have done a lot of reading, and, as I say, none could give complete satisfaction; there was always something missing. David Lynch doesn’t seem to be making any political or social statements with his work. Not only do I know from interviews that he’s not the type of artist to bring current events into his work, but since “Eraserhead” takes place in no known reality, it seems to have less and less sociopolitical significance the more it uncoils. Nor does he seem to be referring to anything specific.
By applying usual direct interpretation of this film, by assigning meaning to its images or, absurdly, political significance, it seems one is cheapening the utter raw power the film has. By trying to figure out what the film represents, people have missed entirely what the film is. The truth, the purity, the fear, the horror, the raw beautiful blankness coming from the screen is far more important than any symbolic interpretation. It’s like going to see a movie, and then only commenting on how soft the theater seats were. Something is being ignored.
“Eraserhead,” instead comes from someplace deeper. Someplace darker. Someplace deep within the recesses of the human mind. David Lynch is using combinations of familiar images: an apartment, a city, dinner at the table, a stage, dancing, a radiator (In fact, they’re not only familiar, but comforting. The domesticity, the unthreatening comforts of home. Raising a family. These are all common images in the minds of many people. They represent a sort of Ultimate Goal for usual, stress usual, American life) and … something else. Henry lives in an apartment room, but there is a small dead tree on his nightstand. There is a large pile of some sort of organic matter piled up on his bureau. He has an empty jewelry case on the wall, in which he keeps a tiny squirming invertebrate creature. He lives in some sort of industrial complex, but there are only dirt grounds. The only shot of the sun in the film is photographed through some sort of grey haze, implying that even the sun cannot reach this odd otherworldly place. It’s as if the entire human-created world is slowly being eaten away from the inside (or perhaps reclaimed) by the dry and unpleasant parts of nature.
In short, thoughts of typical domestic life are being eroded by fears, nature, uncertainty, abstraction.
A note on the use of organic matter: David Lynch has always been attracted to nature. Not the idealized pastoral Nature you see on the postcards from the Sierra Club, but the dirt, the roots, the tangled messes that nature produces. The movement of ants, the aesthetic of decay. It’s all in the world, and, in its own way, it is beautiful. So, in “Eraserhead,” when we’re presented with a pile of messy roots, or even a heap of dirt, David Lynch is asking us to look at it, consider it. He seems to be challenging us to find beauty in such things. Does beauty come from the comfort of a perfectly formed flower, symmetrical, colorful, perfect, typical, quotidian? Or does beauty come from asymmetry? The dirt, the root, the way the tree twists around, the way smoke curls through the air, the way dead tree branch frantically, chaotically reach upward in all directions? There is comfort in symmetry, indeed even beauty, but the majority of the world is not symmetrical. A lot of things just don’t fit. And it’s in that asymmetry where beauty lies. There is fear in asymmetry, terror, uncertainty. No comfort. But there is a beauty in it. A beauty of a thing residing in its own comfortable shape. A pile of dirt is cavernous, textured, earthy, real. “Eraserhead” is giving us that same earth texture, combining it with human life, and giving it blankly to us, giving us the truth.
The horrible, beautiful asymmetry.
A note on the sound of “Eraserhead:” This film is not often credited has having the best sound design in the history of cinema, but it is. All the mechanical rumbling and whining was created distinctly for the film. No stock sound was used. When I was a young child, still clinging to a blankie (and my parents can attest to this), I had the habit of rising from bed in the morning, then trekking into the kitchen where I would curl up next to the running dishwasher, or running dryer only to curl up and go back to sleep. The cold, constant mechanical hum was relaxing to me. I can’t explain it; perhaps it reminded me of being in utero. “Eraserhead” is full of this noise. The empty washy hum of the machines, the hiss of the radiator. They tap into something inside of me (and I suspect others). Even if it doesn’t, however, the film’s sound is a large part of its atmosphere. It’s like being inside of a machine, pipes and machinations operating oppressively on all sides. Little attention seems to be paid to this sort of “aural tonal construction” any longer. To hear the fresh long low hums of “Eraserhead” is something unique. Combine that with its score, if one can call it that, and you have a half-remembered memory floating through the walls. Fats Waller organ music and other old time jazz is indeed on the soundtrack, but it’s never really directly played (except for a brief scene where Henry puts on a record). It seems to be coming from the neighbor’s room.
We have a baby. “They’re not even sure it is a baby,” Mary (Charlotte Stewart) cries. It’s grotesque. A wet, quivering monster. It needs care. We have a fantasy of the sexy woman who lives across the hall (Judith Anna Roberts). One who invokes fear and guilt. We have a fantasy of another woman (Lauren Near, credited only as “The Lady in the Radiator”), pretty and innocent, but with large cancerous lumps on her face, dancing and singing about Heaven. In Heaven, everything is fine.
Heaven. There’s a familiar image we can lock onto. That would make one think of the Catholic images described above. Ah, but is it?
The eraser scene is obviously the center of the film. Henry’s head, after falling through the pool of blood, lands in a street. A boy rushes it to some men in an office. They drill a cylindrical section out of the head, and feed it into a machine. The machine then begins to put erasers on the ends of pencils. A man takes a produced pencil from the machine, sharpens it, draws a line, then erases it. He turns to his colleagues, and nods. I’ve always seen it as an “it’ll be all right” sort of nod. Whatever we do, then, we have the ability in our heads to erase it. We can erase negative experiences, fears, doubts, pain, uncertainty.
Also, I’ve mentioned fear and guilt and discomfort a lot so far. How do I know? Are there any clear indicators, like dialogue or familiar associative images? No. But it feels right, yes?
The monstrous head of the grotesque infant, only glimpsed in a few flashes of light, following Henry’s fatal incision is one of the most frightening sights in film. For a long time, I thought the child represented an abstract fear and Henry, in trying to destroy it, only made it grow. He then is seen embracing the Lady in the Radiator, embracing Death, and hence committing suicide.
It does feel like death…
But, once again, I can’t rightfully explain why. I am content to bathe in the beauty of the images, the immediacy, the purity of it all. The gaze into a window and see a human mind on the other side.
Any definite interpretation is most likely your and yours alone. It’s a deeply personal film and, at the same time, it reaches into the mind of each of its viewers, inviting them to make what they need to out of it. A universal mind translator, if you will; an invitation to compare your own reaction to those images to everyone else’s. An instant compare/contrast essay showing you new images.
Werner Herzog is often quoted as saying that the world is starved for new images, and his film reflect his need to show new things. “Eraserhead” is a nourishing meal of new images.
A few words on the inception of the film: David Lynch had made a few short films at this time in his career and was currently a student at the American Film Institute. This was around 1972. His previous film included “Six Men Getting Sick,” which was a one-minute animated film reel that was projected on a sculpted screen of a few gaping human heads. The animation would show fluids collecting near the heads, then, after a bit of percolating, spewing out of the mouths. It was accompanied by a siren. A talent scout, perusing a student film exhibition, saw this and gave Lynch a grant to make a short film. The result was “The Grandmother,” a 20-minute film about a young boy who finds a bean, plants it on a pile of dirt on a bed in the upstairs bedroom, waters it, and grows his own grandmother. Another producer, impressed with “The Grandmother” asked him to pitch a full-length feature. David Lynch, to this day, claims not to remember where the idea for “Eraserhead” came from, but he remembers pitching the idea. He had a script that was about 20 pages long, which caused some confusion, but after explaining, vaguely, the nature of the project it was given the o.k. and he was awarded a good deal of money to make “Eraserhead.”
It took him five years to make. The first year, Lynch received many phone calls wondering when the film would be finished and what it was about. He never could give a good answer. He and his friends would congregate; they would paint, built, sculpt, spend a long, long time on the lighting, and then shoot a few minutes. Five years. That’s incredible. An old buddy, Jack Nance, allowed his hair to be put in a rather frightening coif for the entire length of the filming. After a while, the phone calls stopped coming, and the curiosity waned. But the money never stopped completely, and any other funding needed, Lynch would pay for out of his own pocket. The people above hi seemed to have simply forgotten about him, which gave him enormous freedom on time and complete artistic reign.
The film played at a few festivals, but was not well-received. Lynch did end up cutting a few minutes of film in a few moments of doubt, and they have yet to be restored anywhere. I only know the missing footage involves people fighting outside while digging dimes out of the dirt, and a scene where a man mildly electrocutes two women tied to his bed.
After the negative fest response, it began to play in the midnight circuit. Thanks to John Waters’ film like “Mondo Trasho,” “Female Trouble,” and “Pink Flamingos” the midnight scene was booming by this time (a litmus: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was released in 1975). John Waters, in fact, at special in-theater appearances, would boost this odd little thing he had seen at another theater. Were it not for this infamous trash guru with a funny sense of humor, people may not have seen Lynch’s triumph of surrealism. Eventually is garnered a smallish following and played in small houses at midnight for a while. One fan, however, had enough clout to get David Lynch’s career really rolling. Mel Brooks, of all people, the director of “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein” was so taken with “Eraserhead,” that he decided to finance Lynch’s next film, which would be “The Elephant Man.” (1980)
The star, Jack Nance, died in 1996 after being punched in the head in a parking lot. He died more than a day after being injured, unaware that anything was wrong. His killer was never found. It is Nance who really holds “Eraserhead” together. Somehow, he formed a performance out of not performing at all. He hunched his shoulders, walked with a tiny gait, and rarely lifted his eyes above looking straight ahead. For the most part, though, we only have a blank stare that seeps slowly in the directions of fear, hate, confusion, and, a few rare times, joy. There is a famous story told about Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon on the set of “The Apartment.” Lemmon would give a performance, and Wilder would ask for less. Each progressive take, Lemmon would give less, and still Wilder would request still less. Finally, after many takes, Lemmon threw up his arms and shouted “Jesus, Billy! What do you want? Nothing?” Wilder only smiled and hopeful smile. Jack Nance would have struck awe in the heart of Billy Wilder. He appeared in all of David Lynch’s films, save “The Elephant Man.” His last film was “Lost Highway
I’ll repeat myself here: Thoughts of typical domestic life are being eroded by fears, nature, uncertainty, abstraction. This, as I currently stand, is the best definition for “Eraserhead” I have. It will evolve over time. I don’t expect I will ever find a definite handle on this film in the conventional sense. But I will constantly be in awe of its beauty, the asymmetry, floating out towards me. The squirming Cornish game hens will always unsettle me. The half-lit rooms, the murky sounds, the rusty doors and polished floors. The mounds of dirt. The squirming worms. That wonderful close-up of Mary rubbing her eye. The monster child and its mysterious imprisoning illness. The severed head. And the erasers. Always the erasers.