Sex and the Screen--Eraserhead (Part 1) by Stephanie Michael Paquette
Welcome to Sex and the Screen, one woman’s unusual thoughts on television, film & pop culture as they pertain to sensuality and sexuality, the macabre and unworldly, the beautiful and the damned. I am your host, Stephanie Michael Paquette – First of Her Name, Mother of Cats, Sultana of Swing, Breaker of Wind, Seltzer Succubus, LoCUTEus of Shemp.
Oozing chickens, relentless screeching, floating spermatozoon creatures stomped by a woman with fat cheeks dancing underneath a radiator; these images are iconic to David Lynch’s first feature-length film, Eraserhead (1977). Initially Eraserhead was not well received by critics and audiences. It became a cult classic amongst other “Midnight Movies” in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
The narrative follows Henry Spencer, an employee at an eraser factory who is inexplicably on vacation, as he faces the anxieties and repercussions of unplanned fatherhood. Henry receives a phone call from a girlfriend, Mary X., inviting him to her family’s dinner. Henry shares a bizarre, unnerving dinner with Mary, her mother and father, Mr. and Mrs. X, and her grandmother. During this nightmarish meal, Henry learns that Mary has had his child, who is at the hospital. Succumbing to the pressures of Mary, her family and his conscience, Henry agrees to marry her and invites her to move into his small apartment. The child turns out to be a gruesome, lizard-like creature that incessantly wails and has an array of health problems, most notably pustules that burst on the skin.
The film delves deeper into the macabre and surreal, mirroring the crippling and sinking journey of the protagonist. The earsplitting and harrowing industrial sounds become longer, louder. Pointedly, these sounds couple with Henry’s navigation of his own desires, juxtaposed with the needs of his offspring and expectations of society, as represented by the characters in the film. The visionary style of David Lynch’s Eraserhead lends itself to horror, fantasy and mystery genres and is often classified as such. It could be labeled simply as a man having strange nightmare. However, could the text be read differently? Or more fully?
The term melodrama is of Greek origin and translates to “drama with music”, which could be interpreted in melodramatic cinema more simply as “films with feeling”. Melodrama typically highlights the journey of characters through stereotypes, forsaking character development to convey an overall theme or notion. Melodramas tend to focus on issues that pertain to emotion and the heart, such as family dynamics, and coping with societal pressures and prejudices (Martin and Shingler 10-11), etc. Moreover, melodrama focuses on female passivity and heroines against an oppressive, invasive patriarchy. Using this argument, one can see how many cinematic genres, such as horror, invoke melodramatic tropes. They share similar qualities, like their overindulgence and the ability to create a mimicked response from the audience. Linda Williams shares in her article “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” that “melodrama can encompass a broad range of films marked by ‘lapses’ in realism, by ‘excesses’ of spectacle and displays of primal, even infantile emotions, and by narratives that seem circular and repetitive.” (Williams 3)
In Eraserhead, Lynch subverts the dichotomy of power as masculine and passivity as female by showing the audience Henry’s experience at the hands of female power.
By fully analyzing Eraserhead’s themes as they pertain to the family and the home, female sexuality as seen through the lens of the main character, and dissecting the anxiety as experienced by the male protagonist, one can clearly see how this film can be read as a melodramatic text.
In this three part piece, we will explore how Lynch subverts the dichotomy of power as masculine and passivity as female by showing the audience Henry’s experience at the hands of females, specifically through sexuality. Additionally, we will explore the stylistic choices as they pertain to sound, imagery, setting, and character portrayal and how they display melodramatic tropes through exaggeration and artful repetition.
Next week we will pick up on Part 2 where we begin to explore Lynch's discomforting portrayal of the family and home life--an iconic scene any fan of the film will remember.
Prepare yourself for the mini oozing chickens and lots of sperm imagery!