Sex and the Screen--Eraserhead (Part 2) by Stephanie Michael Paquette
Picking up where we left off, my cinephiles, we will delve more into David Lynch's Eraserhead. By looking at specific scenes and themes, perhaps you will begin to see the melodramatic overtones of this film and be able to make sense of one of the most enigmatic films of the 20th century.
Getting into the Text; Exploring the Home and the Family
A scene very important to our discussion comes after the famous opening images of Eraserhead. After we see Henry’s head floating through space amongst cosmic spermatozoa and a severely disfigured man manipulating mysterious levers, we are transported to a desolate, industrial, deteriorating town in which we find Henry taking a lonely walk. Once at his apartment--decorated with a rug foreshadowing the famous zig-zagged floor of Lynch's later work on Twin Peaks--he receives a cryptic phone call from a woman the viewer assumes (and later confirms) as a love interest inviting him to her parents’ home. However, the scene in question that will be examined fully comes after these moments and involves something all families and friends do, which is share dinner. This scene is nevertheless a destabilization of what one assumes a communal, common dinner is. The parents are not warm and welcoming, but act in disturbing, sexual, and erratic manners. The food when cut does not simply fall into slices, but begins to move and ooze liquid. The salad is not caringly tossed by a matriarch in the kitchen, but is mixed by the grandmother as she motionlessly smokes a cigarette and her hands are moved and manipulated from behind, by her daughter holding salad tongs.
The dinner scene is pivotal to the my argument that this film serves of this film as a melodrama as in that it introduces the family and the protagonist’s conflict. Specifically, this inner and outer struggle centers on Henry being informed that he has a child with Mary and the countless repercussions childbearing and child-rearing breed. These themes are echoed through the style Lynch uses to conjure stereotypical family images. Regarding style, the set and costuming most closely resemble a dark interpretation of the 1950’s, with classically cut dresses worn by females, simple suit clothes worn by Henry, and floral curtains adorning the walls. The kitchen and living room are basic representations of the iconic image they conjure as concepts, despite the drabness of the colors and the sparseness of the rooms. Purportedly, the drabness of these familial quarters introduces and enforces the notion that this is a subversion of family life. Given the introductory scene with space and its otherworldly imagery, one might even assume Eraserhead was taking place in another world entirely and perhaps it is. Nothing used in this scene, nor the film, however, is of the period it was made (the late 1970s) nor of the future. The audience is forced to imagine the home, a place of comfort, as a place of fear.
When the dinner commences, the father asks Henry to carve and serve the small birds. In traditional familial roles, the father would do this without question but Henry is asked as he is the guest. The father explains that his left hand has become useless and no longer works. This odd encounter is coupled with the audible, carnal outbursts of the mother and the fitful cries from the daughter. The grandmother does not come to the dinner table, but one assumes she is still in the kitchen, smoking another cigarette put into her mouth by her daughter and lit as it was previously. The sexual overtones are overwhelming for the senses, much like the emotional melodrama. In classic melodrama, a glance at an unattainable love object is often used to suggest the protagonist’s emotional repression, and may induces tears from the viewer. This scene is a subversion, the emotions and actions do not incite tears nor fear, but discomfort and dread. Regarding Henry, he is now forced to imagine and accept his life with a child that he did not ask nor wish for. The rest of his life and his desires and wishes are unattainable, much like unrequited yearning and love.
When Mary and the child move into Henry’s small apartment, the notion of home continues to be a place of dread and not retreat from the outside world or comfort. This apartment is a stark contrast to the home they were just in as there are no separate spaces, but there is a single claustrophobic room that the three characters must share. There is no nursery for the child and, but rather it is kept in a small blanket on the kitchen table, which is also located in the couple’s bedroom. An area that should be comforting is oppressive claustrophobic. There is no space for Henry or Mary to escape the child’s incessant wails. They are trapped.
Female Sexuality through Henry’s Lens
Henry interacts with three main female characters in Eraserhead, Mary, The Girl Next Door, and the Lady in the Radiator. These interactions reveal different aspects of Henry in regard to his mental state and the plot of the film.
Before her strange, brief pregnancy and subsequent birth, Henry had not seen Mary. They were not intimate companions, but more casual in nature. When he receives the phone call from Mary to attend dinner with her family, he appears surprised. Her behavior around Henry is erratic and visibly disturbs him, making him seem afraid and anxious. Ultimately Mary is unable to face the realities of raising her child. This is demonstrated through her incessant crying, anxiety, and screaming, often forcing Henry to care for the child. and She leaves him alone with their offspring, fleeing to her parents and shirking her maternal duties. Her choice to return home, to girlhood, removes Henry’s choice and forces him to be the sole, paternal caregiver.
Purportedly, Mary represents anxiety and obligation in this narrative. The anxiety that Mary represents is demonstrated through her nightmarish offspring, produced in less than six months, and after a casual dating and sexual relationship with Henry. Moreover, the fact that Mary leaves the child with Henry is paramount. Male anxiety as it pertains to the possibility of offspring each time there is sexual intercourse and the spilling of seed, is at the crux of Henry’s existential dilemma. In this narrative, the care for the child is moved from the mother to the father and ultimately, Henry is unable to deal with the responsibility.
The “Girl Next Door” is a neighbor in Henry’s apartment building, who is voluptuous in appearance, wearing makeup and tight-fitting clothing. She is seen at the beginning of the film, when she lets Henry know that he received a call from Mary and throughout the film. His expressions in their encounters illustrate his attraction to her, which is also shown through the way the camera focuses on different parts of her body. Her appearance starkly contrasts the other two females, Mary who is dressed in a more conservative 50’s style dress and the Lady in the Radiator who will be discussed below.
Henry is unable to pursue “The Girl Next Door”, even after Mary leaves him to return to her parents. They attempt to have sexual intercourse, but are interrupted due to his child’s interference, who is still laying in the makeshift crib on the table. She represents temptation and pure sexuality, which is ultimately unattainable for Henry. This harkens back to the idea of the unattainable and the responsibility of fatherhood removing sexual freedom and expression. He is stifled by his offspring, unable to fulfill his own desire and the needs of the child. Yet, sexual intercourse is the precipice of his plight. Henry is unable to separate his desire from the fact that all sexual intercourse can result in the potential of unwanted offspring. The child’s crying from the table breaks this inability to ignore the purpose and outcome of intercourse, bringing him back to the reality he lives in. This moment also brings to light the uncertainties that come with sexual intercourse, specifically some children come out as monsters.
The “Lady in the Radiator” is Henry’s dream, tucked away behind his noisy radiator. She is a stark contrast to the other two females, as she is somewhat overweight and has large chubby cheeks. Her hair is curled into a bob and she wears a party dress, reminiscent of a vaudeville performance. The Lady in the Radiator, despite her strange appearance, is jovial and cheerful. This woman sings to Henry, stating that, “In Heaven, everything is fine”. She miles and soothes him while she dances slowly and with odd, dreamlike movement as spermatozoon creatures fall from the ceiling. She is a fantasy object that comforts Henry and his anxieties of fatherhood, by literally stomping sperm-like creatures as they fall on the stage where she performs - each stomp an abortion.
Only this fantasy object, who is tucked away behind his radiator and fittingly within himself, can bring him comfort. Is it because she is not real? She is a strange creature, not of his world, that confronts his fears of fatherhood and destroys the spermatozoon creatures that fall from the ceiling as she sings. She smiles as she stomps them, reveling in it. Henry’s relation to the Woman in the Radiator is innocent and unconsummated. They revel in each other’s company. Is this the only way a man and woman can coexist, without the pressures of sexual intercourse and its consequences?
Stay tuned - next post will bring my concluding thoughts on Eraserhead. I know you're dying to find out what all of this means... I mean, who can make sense of a monster child with bursting pustules and a sad character like Henry? Only this bish.