*TLDR* - A FANTASTICAL, EXISTENTIAL MOVIE WITH A SIMPLE NARRATIVE. THE CONSISTENT MADNESS SURROUNDING THE PREMISE GARNERS A REPUTATION OF INTRIGUE, ABSTRACTION, TERROR, AND UNSOLVED SYMBOLISM. DAVID LYNCH MOVIES ARE FAMOUS FOR HAVING WEIRD AND GRIPPING PERFORMANCES, AND HIS FIRST MOVIE IS NO EXCEPTION. BE PREPARED FOR SHOCKING, CREEPY IMAGERY AND SLOW, METHODICAL PSYCHOLOGICAL HORROR.
Man, I finally get to share my thoughts on one of the most influential, loved, and creative minds in the cinema world: David Lynch. Am I his biggest fan? no. Does he make amazing movies? simply, yes.
I have my qualms about abstract symbolism and nonsensical scenes, and usually toss them aside as just "oh that's so random" cheap low brow artistry, but David Lynch has a knack for making the nonsensical have a believable purpose. His art is completely enveloped by his uncanny ability to make you care about, and be familiar with nonsense to the point that you end up creating your own vision of his work's meaning. Kind of sounds like I'm being hokey, but I'm serious. Eraserhead is a prime example of a concept that effectively bridges the gap between insanity and clarity.
Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a relatively quiet guy with an eccentric hair-do and a face of a million expressions. He lives in a dreamlike, black and white, industrial world filled with ruptured pipes, uneven ground, and unsettling empty expanses. He appears unenthused with life, notably having a window that stares directly into a brick wall. Nance receives a phone call from an old flame (Charlotte Stewart) that hasn't spoken to him in a while, asking him to come and visit. Using some extremely strange imagery and awkward delivery, it is eventually revealed that Nance's estranged girlfriend has given birth to his child. Nance claims that it's impossible, and appears to be in a state of blended apathy and frustration over this revelation, and eventually concedes to getting married and having his new wife move in with him. The nights are long as Stewart is a miserable, emotionally distant mess of a woman, and their child is not only loud and needy, but also isn't even human. Stewart comes and goes as Nance escapes into a world of fantasy, and has an affair with the woman across the hall. Nance's fantasies get more strange and violent over the course of the movie, leading up to an even more bizarre conclusion when Nance notices the woman across the hall is with another man.
Well, let's get the symbolism out of the way. This movie is filled with a plethora of abstract symbols to the point I couldn't reasonably cover them all... Planets, light, puddles, worms/sperm, sickness, dust, dead trees/wood, a radiator, and just... so much more...
I define abstract symbolism as symbols within a movie or story that have no meaning attributed to them within the same work. Usually I hate abstract symbolism, but when your entire plot is comprised of them, it goes from frustrating nonsense to... the whole point.
I think it works extremely well. The strange and bizarre world, and even more eccentric encounters and characters turns the symbolism you don't identify with into just another kooky and interesting segue instead of something vital and important you feel like you missed out on. Above this however, is a notion that I picked up, where most of the symbols seem to represent general emotions such as anxiety, hope, and pain, that can be easily extrapolated into many observable themes like "life and death", "complacency", and where most people will probably end up on their first watch "fathering a child".
That assumption comes with the narrative these symbols follow. A man is left to raise an alien looking newborn (oh boy, do we ever come back to this), with his unwanted and uninterested wife. Most of the symbols you will see can arguably fit into the plot as a genuine accessory to the main narrative which under any interpretation of the film, is still really good to have... I think the fact that this movie works on a surface level at all is an incredible feat of patience and methodology, considering all the insane elements. The world feels believable and consistent, so all the weird stuff just comes off as normal, or at their absolute worst, fitting to the theme of fatherhood on an abstract level.
I have made so many people in my life watch this movie, and I love hearing everyone's interpretations... You can disagree on it, but you always learn something about perspective, and even might recognize their logic as valid, even if you prefer another vision. My personal favourite interpretation was a friend who said to me, "I think it's about war" and he started talking about all these symbols I never even thought about, cause I just accepted them as scenery, like all the steam and pipes, and a picture of a mushroom cloud, and the nuclear family, and I was floored by the creativity of the observer... and that is what makes Eraserhead's symbolism stand out to me... because at the end of the day, it's an interesting tale of fatherhood in an industrial wasteland, and there's no misdirection or abstraction about that. it's cut and dry far as I can tell, but it's everything else that's up for debate. Individual pieces of scenery, and character quirks, can all represent something meaningful or be simple and effective world-building, establishing shots of consistent items and behaviors.
Beyond that, it's important to mention when this movie was made. Why it's important is because there is a single practical effect that was made before 1977 that is so horrifyingly realistic that even today, it's an absolute hellish nightmare of a thing to behold. This movie has the most well developed prop for an alien baby I have ever seen... Nothing compares. Any amount of computer generated wizardry wouldn't have the presence and genuinely horrifying texture a real object has in front of a camera lens, and the Eraserhead baby is easily the most terrifying thing I've seen on a movie screen. I have no idea how the actors were able to stomach looking at it. It is insanely realistic looking, and the fact that these characters can look at it and make me feel like they think "it's just a minor deformation" is a testament to acting ability. To this day, I look for seams and fishing line, and whatever I can to help me process the visuals as fake, but it's still far too disturbing of a prop, and is way too organic looking for the time.
To say this movie is impressive is one thing on a technical level, but on an emotional level, I still think it's extremely competent. It's a dour drama film. It's a bleak sci-fi movie. It's a tragic horror movie. It's a fluid work of art that morphs into so many things. Each watch is a new journey, and the experience, whether on a surface level, or drawing new conclusions of the symbols and meaning of the film activates a new center of your mind for exploration. Again, sounds hokey, but hear me out. The last time I watched it, for this review, I had a new perspective on the movie, and I've probably seen Eraserhead about forty or so times now. I looked at it as a more pure sci-fi horror film where the baby isn't Nance's and it's an alien-esque parasite feeding off of the attention and emotion of it's hosts, re-establishing the symbolism of the planets, among other things. I'm not saying it's the correct interpretation, in fact, I definitely don't think so as it's not even artistically satisfying, but the fact that it worked so well and being so foreign from a traditional look at symbolism and inquiry just made me appreciate the movie for the amount of movies it's turned into over the years, prodding me to come back and think of something else I could pull from it.
Is the movie for everyone? no.
If you lack imagination. If you want something easy and digestible. If you can't stand artsy fartsy. If you hate symbolism. If you detest horror and creepy things... Then MAYBE don't watch it... But even then if you have any inkling of curiosity, give it a try. I think this movie arouses such a level of intrigue that you really have to give it a shot... The worst thing that will happen is that you don't like it... and that's okay. It's less than 90 minutes of your time. relatively short for your typical arthouse concept exploration film.
Thank you so much for reading, and as always, this has been The Shelf signing off with another recommendation. I hope to see you next week, for a new review.