Thursday, 20 January 2011

Eraserhead (1977)

Fig. 1
The film poster's tagline proclaims, "Be warned: The nightmare has not gone away...", and watching the movie Eraserhead feels a lot like being in a nightmare; things that make no objective sense none the less seem to belong, and you never know quite what will happen next.
Set against a background of decayed industrial wasteland, filled with run down factories and strange hissing pipes, Henry (Jack Nance) wanders through his everyday routine with a fastidiousness that borders upon the obsessive-compulsive.  His peaceful life is broken by the discovery that his ex-girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) has had his baby.  After getting married and moving in together, Mary is driven out by the crying of the child leaving Henry to care for it alone.
However, this skeletal plot outline doesn't begin to convey the strangeness that is conjoured up by director David Lynch.  This begins with the character of Henry, with his conservative clothes and careful mannerisms contrasting with a shock of hair that suggests that he has just recieved a powerful electric shock.  As the film4 review notes, "Henry is immediately recognisable as a freakish misfit, his very appearance and physical stiffness embodying the discomfort that the film inspires in its audience - and yet Nance's performance is a masterclass in tragicomic understatement, all minutely nuanced gestures and Tati-esque humanity." (Film4)
There are plenty of signs of director David Lynch's fascination with "body horror", in particular the grotesque mutant baby that spends most of the film tightly wrapped in bandages with only it's head and neck exposed.  Alongside this is the strange "lady of the radiator" who sings and dances on a tiny stage, stamping on slimpy giant spermatazoa as she does so.
Fig. 2
In some ways, the film seems to contain more imagery than the audience can comfortably process; from the curious lunch scene where Mary X's Mother acts out an orgasm while the tiny "chicken" on the plate wriggles it's legs and spews a dark liquid over the plate, to the curious tree in a pile of dirt on top of Henry's bedside chest of draws.  As Almar Haflidason states, "This is a film so consumed with surreal imagery that there are almost limitless possibilities to read personal theories into it." (Haflidason, 2001).
The other thing to note about this film is the fact that the "story" (such as it is) is not resolved; the film ends suddenly leaving the audience unsure of what has just happened - in this respect the film is very similar to a nightmare which can only end with a sudden awakening and return to the "real" world.
It is arguable that this movie is more of an example of film as an art form, rather than mere commercial entertainment.  It is certainly hard to concieve of another medium that could convey the same mixture of deep seated discomfort and alienation; the overall effect of the bizzare imagery and the unearthly "music concrete" soundtrack is greater than the sum of any of its parts.  As Tom Huddlestone put it, "Watching ‘Eraserhead’ today, what emerges is the sheer, immersive clarity of David Lynch’s vision, the sense of a world unlike our own and yet inextricably bound to it" (Huddlestone, 1986)

List of Illustrations
Figure 1.   American Film Institute (Org) (1977) Eraserhead Theatrical Poster [Digital Image] At: (Accessed on 20/01/2011)

Figure 2.   American Film Institute (Org) (1977) Eraserhead [Film Still] At: (Accessed on 20/01/2011)

Film4 Staff Eraserhead In: [Online] At: (Accessed on 20/01/2011)

Haflidason, Almar (2001) Eraserhead [Online] At: (Accessed on 20/01/2011)

Huddlestone, Tom (1986) Eraserhead In: TimeOutLondon [Online] At: (Accessed on 20/01/2011)

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