Sex and the Screen--Eraserhead (Part 3) by Stephanie Michael Paquette
Regarding Henry is not just a shitty, melodramatic Harrison Ford film. The rest of this piece, aside from the conclusion, is regarding Henry. It is his experience in Eraserhead in which it all hangs in the balance.
Erasers, Fear, and Male Anxiety
Henry’s repression is key to understanding the text as a melodrama. Specifically, he is constantly hiding things, therefore containing them within himself. Such examples include; in his apartment; the plants he keeps inside of his dresser, underneath his bed; the brick window, and most notably the Woman in the Radiator. The film focuses on these objects and makes one wonder why Henry does this. The brick wall closes him into his claustrophobic apartment, hiding him from the outside as opposed to letting light in. The plants he keeps, which should be exposed to light and left to grow and thrive, are hidden inside of his dresser, and looks otherworldly, with odd foliage that is pointed. The hiding of these objects and acting in a manner that contradicts established practice is a symptom of Henry’s repression. Henry hides the Lady in the Radiator, his source of comfort, behind a radiator.
Henry makes erasers for a living. His hair is arguably shaped like an eraser. His efforts therefore lie in trying to erase that which makes him uncomfortable, which he seeks to repress, what society has pushed onto him. Henry represses that which he is unable to deal with and understand, conveying the idea that the world he lives in does not allow him to exist as his true self, unfettered by pressures of fatherhood.
“It is even a baby?” Mary asks her mother when they first discuss the child. This baby, this creature forces Henry to marry her, something he would not have done at that time or possibly ever. This baby also drives Mary away, leaving him alone with the repercussions of his sexual act. He is unable to pursue extramarital relationship with “Girl Next Door” and she leaves because she cannot handle the gruesome, sickly creature that cries. The creature cannot be comforted and its illnesses, including severe fever and boils, are relentless. Unable to deal with the pressures of fatherhood, in the climax of the film, Henry stabs and kills “baby”, the driving force of his anxiety.
Henry’s passivity is also a key theme in this film, contrasted by the females he encounters. Classically in melodrama, females are passive and males as dominating within a patriarchal society. Lynch subverts this notion within Eraserhead by showing how the female characters affect Henry, as described previously, and the child. A key example of this passivity is when Mary asks Henry if he wouldn’t mind marrying her. Henry responds by saying, “Well…no”. This simple, passive agreement to marry Mary correlates with thee film’s begins beginning and ends ending with a vision of Henry’s face, blankly staring, floating through space. His passivity and inability to change the conflict he is placed in is strengthened by this image. We also see a man maneuvering switches and levers as Henry’s blank expression as his head is floating through space. This maneuvering of switches amidst Henry’s face, floating through space, illustrates an idea that Henry is not in control of his own mind and ergo his fate. He is subject to the will of this faceless man, pulling switches, manipulating the course and trajectory of Henry’s life.
Melodrama as a mode is about the conveying of emotion through exaggeration in acting, sound, and setting. Melodrama often seeks to portray issues that happen within the home and the heart. Eraserhead may not be traditionally read as a melodramatic text. Throughout its evolution, melodrama has been defined as a genre of excess, displaying exaggerated, emotive narratives in drama and film. It is notion that feeling is often interpreted as not purely positive in connotation, meaning sensitivity or affection, but the act of feeling itself, whether it also includes experiences of terror or excitement, elation, fear, or ecstasy. Instead of focusing on affection and happy endings, Eraserhead implores the darkest recesses of the emotional gambit, inducing fear and the desire for ecstasy. Using this argument, one can see how many cinematic genres, such as horror, implore involve melodramatic tropes. They are similar in 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)
Once again, the audience is left with Henry’s head, floating through space, not knowing where his life will go after these harrowing events. The audience does not receive a happy conclusion, like many melodramas before, but a sense of doubt. Will Henry can achieve his desires? Will he overcome the events that had preceded the ending? Did the climax of the film, Henry’s killing his offspring, produce a new Henry, full of capability?
Eraserhead is profoundly melodramatic. Instead of focusing on female plight under an oppressive patriarchy, we are shown the emotional consequences repercussions of an oppressive female presence against man’s fear of his desire of female sexuality and its possibility to produce offspring. This film as shown through the frame tale of Henry’s head floating through space is a formation of this film as a surreal nightmare. The nightmare deals with what can happen during a casual sexual encounter and that the spilling of seed can result in unwanted, even terrifying, pregnancy. This is demonstrated in a sensational way in that the child is not even a child, but is rather a premature, ghoulish creature. By reading this text melodramatically, one can see that it more than a nightmare strikingly illustrated on screen. It is a vivid portrayal of the potency of woman’s ability to carry and have children juxtaposed against man’s impotence to control his desire and the outcome of sexual intercourse. The commentary on family, as shown through Mary’s family and the small family created by Mary and Henry, is a destabilization of the conceived idea. The nuclear unit is not always a place security, but can also harbor and breed dread and anxiety.
Stay tuned, cinephiles, for my next piece... and I promise not to be quite so academic.
Eraserhead. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Jack Nance and Charlotte Stewart. The Criterion Collection, 1977. DVD.
Mercer, John, and Shingler, Martin. Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility. London: Wallflower, 2004. Print.
Williams, Linda. "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess." Film Quarterly 44.4 (1991): 2-13.