by Jacob Shoaf
For the past five or six years, Eraserhead has been my go-to response when anyone asked what my favorite film is (and I’ve forced viewership on as many of those askers as I could). I won’t bore you with the details of my long history with the film (though feel free to ask about the French douchebag involved with my first viewing), but I do hope that I can impart at least some of the aspects of my admiration for this film to you which might enrich any subsequent viewings.
For those of you hoping that my talking about this film will finally shed light (distant screams) on what it’s “about,” then I’ll go ahead and apologize. After thirty-something viewings, I’m still not sure that I’m anywhere close to pinning down the narrative. If anything, I usually come up with a new theory every few viewings based on what I emphasized during the film (this time’s emphasis was circular shapes and characters being submerged into liquids). Feel free to theorize in the comments section.
With the exception of a planet which may or may not be within Henry Spencer and an alley which may or may not be beneath a stage in his radiator, there aren’t any open spaces in Eraserhead. Brick walls and generic industrial visages surround the characters. The closest thing to an open space in the film is the alley where Henry steps in a mud puddle. But as he’s surrounded by large buildings, this is hardly an open space. Lynch turns the industrial landscape into a nightmare world. By relegating the majority of its scenes to Henry’s apartment, he strikes something of an agoraphobic tone with the film. Once Mary and the “baby” (AKA-fetus) move in with Henry, he’s only seen outside one more time. From that point on, he hardly leaves his room. And the pressure closes in…
Particularly amazing in the film is its use of sound. Eraserhead is filled with typical urban noises one would expect from such an environment. As Henry walks to his apartment at the beginning and to the X residence for dinner, it sounds like he’s walking through a steel mill. This is a constant reminder of the industrial hell that Henry calls home. Some of the film’s sound effects are also particularly disconcerting. When Henry arrives at the X residence, he’s seated in the living room with Mrs. X and Mary. This is the only view of the room we get for about a minute, but the entire time there’s a sucking sound that’s barely audible over the industrial hum. It’s not until several lines into the scene that the source of the noise is revealed to be a dog suckling its pups. Another off-putting sound effect is heard when Henry and Mary are trying to sleep back in his apartment. There’s a shot of the window which shows the brick wall across the way. In the upper-left corner of the wall, a light is shone onto the surface. There is, of course, the omnipresent hum but it’s accompanied by distant screams as the light is put into place on the wall. When the light pauses, the screams stop. But when the light recedes, the screaming picks back up with the light’s movement. I don’t attribute any particular symbolic weight to this screaming light, but it certainly does add to the film’s already creepy tone.
In the post-dissection/giant fetus head scene, there’s a deep ambient tone that accompanies the image. In a theatrical setting, it’s the equivalent of the bass at a concert being felt in your organs. The film’s drone sounds like it’s made up of a discordant organ tone, some more industrial hum, and the diegetic sounds of the scene (namely the rapidly shifting location of the giant baby head and the light bulb blowing). It is loud and low creating a deeply unsettlingly feeling which would go well in just about any of the film’s contexts, but its use around the dissection scene and thereafter creates something of a transcendent yet terrifying effect. The same also goes for the film’s last shot. When The Lady in the Radiator embraces Henry (in the bright white light), it’s accompanied by what sounds like a large choir holding a beehive while their tea is slowly coming to boil. Particularly disturbing is when the film crescendos with silence. The sound builds and builds but then abruptly switches to an auditory lack as the film cuts to black. Listening to silence and staring at darkness after such opposed extremes seconds earlier is both daunting and a relief. It’s not until the credits finally come up and the muzack begins that an enormous burden is entirely lifted from the viewer allowing them to relax.
The choral sound combined with the white lighting during the embrace give the scene a heavenly feel, but the entire time there’s that undertone of the other unpleasant noises building up. This is something like a variation on the ‘seedy underbelly’ motif that regular Lynch viewers are used to. In Blue Velvet, he shoes us the Pleasantville-esque suburbia and then the camera digs into the ground to find the bugs and corruption below. In Mulholland Drive Lynch shows the bright lights of LA from afar before taking the audience into their realm and revealing the hideous things they contain. This use of the motif is slightly different in that it’s entirely auditory and that it takes place in the last shots of the film. So while the oppression of the city environ has been exposed for the entirety of the picture, these noises refer to Henry. The image may look angelic, but there’s a harshness to the soundtrack that conflicts with what’s shown.
About a year ago, I was able to see a 35mm print of Eraserhead at a midnight screening at the Kentucky Theatre. Seeing it in such an ideal manner allowed me to consider one of my Cinematic Meccas pilgrimaged to. Despite the ass who gave a yell and fist pump at the fetus’ first appearance, I still consider this to be my favorite cinematic experience. If the chance presents itself for you to see a print of the film at midnight (or anytime for that matter), I can’t implore you enough to do so.