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The Playboy Library: Eraserhead

The Playboy Library: Eraserhead: Jack Nance in Eraserhead

Jack Nance in Eraserhead

The movies and TV you need to watch, the music you need to hear, the books and comics you need to read, the games you need to play — The Playboy Library is an ongoing series that offers the 21st century man the pop ammunition to carry himself as a gentleman of culture. Never obvious, always essential.


Be wary of any criticism that invokes the name David Lynch. It’s a tempting comparison, to be sure: With a single word, Lynchian, readers are put in mind not only of a well-known style or sensibility, but of a whole constellation of moods and themes, of gestures and feelings. The problem is that when critics deploy this particular epithet — usually when confronted by a movie that otherwise eludes description — what they’re really looking for is a synonym for “weird”. A macabre non sequitur? An inexplicable digression? Anything nightmarish, grotesque, vaguely surreal? Well, it’s quite obvious. It must be Lynchian.

You probably have a good sense of what a David Lynch movie is like even if you’ve never seen one. The influence of his work, while perhaps misapprehended, has loomed over popular culture for decades, and it can be felt in everything from mainstream videogames to commercials on prime-time TV. (If you’ve seen a dream sequence on television or in the movies any time in the last twenty years, you’ve seen the exponents of Lynch’s peculiar imaginings at work.) The parodies prove it no less than the imitations: Lynch remains one of a handful of major American filmmakers whose style is instantly recognizable and unmistakably his own. His style is iconic down to an individual frame.

So what exactly defines a David Lynch film? Let’s begin with what we know. Lynch’s films, for the most part, don’t tell stories in the conventional sense, and, indeed, attempts to fully grasp them tend to leave audiences bewildered. Characters often appear without introduction, and may be abandoned just as quickly. Identities routinely shift, converge, duplicate, or otherwise transform. Motivations and relationships remain unclarified. Problems go unresolved. A good rule of thumb when approaching a Lynch film is that if you don’t know who somebody is or what they’re doing, you’re probably not supposed to. Vagueness, no less than an ambiguity, is part of the design.

Here is how Wikipedia strains to illuminate the beginning of 1977’s Eraserhead, Lynch’s first film:

“The Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk) is seen moving levers in his home in space, while the head of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is seen floating in the sky. A spermatozoon-like creature emerges from Spencer’s mouth, floating into the void.”

Yes, well, you can see why following this plot might be a problem. It’s worth noting here that Eraserhead, despite the moon-men and mouth-monsters promised by this introductory precis, is not a science-fiction film, and indeed affords the viewer none of that genre’s palatable satisfactions. I suppose you could safely say that Eraserhead is a film about a father, the aforementioned Henry, and his efforts to care for his newborn child. But that isn’t quite right either. With Lynch it’s required that you give yourself over to a film’s nebulous quality, to its indistinctiveness, and trust that it’s total effect will make sense in a different sort of way. Eraserhead is coherent — emotionally coherent. In other words, it’s a film less interested in telling a story than in telling you things about yourself.

It’s precisely this emotional coherence that Eraserhead shares most in common with nightmares. When we talk about dreams, we tend to talk about their content in uncertain terms: the story a dream follows, such as it is, usually defies straightforward description, which is why even the most profoundly affecting dream can be so difficult to relate to another person. They seem, in the moment, to make a certain kind of sense — a dream sense, following a dream logic. A nightmare may be inscrutable or enigmatic. But it takes hold of us anyway, because it’s animated by our anxieties and fears.

Eraserhead operates in a similar register. It may seem obscure, perhaps even at times incomprehensible, but it bristles with meaning — with the sense and logic of dreams. This can prove duly terrifying. (And it’s significant, I think, that Lynch’s scariest films are also his most abstract: it’s as if in adopting the logic of a nightmare he’s also taken on its tenor.) It might be that the best way to describe Eraserhead isn’t to gesture vaguely toward the story, but rather to describe what fear it’s seized upon, or what anxiety it’s working through; it’s truer to the film’s purpose, and to its overall tone and shape.

This is likewise true of his other films: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is about the trauma of abuse. Blue Velvet is about the evil lurking beneath the surface of middle-class decorum. Mulholland Dr. is about jealousy and desire. And Eraserhead, at least for me, is a film about fatherhood — a story of torturous paternity told from the perspective of a man who feels cornered, maybe even duped, into being a dad. Henry, the hero of the film, discovers one evening that his girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart), has given birth to a … thing. He dutifully whisks this infant monstrosity home and, after Mary summarily abandons them both, he struggles valiantly to endure its inhuman cries on his own.

This isn’t meant literally, of course: the mutated baby is a metaphorical stand-in for the terror brought about by the real thing. It doesn’t stop there: everything in the world of the film has been distorted and amplified, each thing replaced by some perverse nightmare version of itself. Eraserhead isn’t scary in many of the conventional ways, and, indeed, in the film scarcely qualifies as horror. But what makes it so affecting — what makes it so terrifying, in an unexpected but substantial way — is its nightmare-like quality of giving a voice to secret fears. The idea of bringing a child into the world and being forced to take care of it is the source of considerable anxiety. Those anxieties are unforgettably manifested here.

This, of course, is far from a comprehensive accounting: these are films of such depth, such sprawling emotion and penetrating psychology, that they can hardly be reduced to a single theme. But one of the most remarkable things about Lynch’s films is how accommodating they prove to different, even contradictory readings, and how singularly they seem speak to each viewer. Maybe what you’ll respond to in Eraserhead is the repressed sexuality, or the thwarted freedom, or its funhouse-mirror reflection of an industrialized America. Maybe you’ll respond to none of these things, or all of them. A Lynch film isn’t about anything so much as it is about something to you.


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