You’re going to hate me for saying this, but Eraserhead is relatively straightforward.
The common mistake is to focus on the strange, the surreal, the curveballs. Without a reading, a film such as this becomes an experience – unsettling and novel – but nothing more. What I’m proposing is that, in Lynch’s debut, what’s more to the point is its familiarity.
Taking as a starting point the ambiguity of where and when the film is set, it is the familiarity of the mise en scene (developing in stages as we follow Henry) that is surprising. Is this Earth, post-nuclear devastation á la Threads? Or is it all the perverse escapism of a C. C. Baxter? Regardless, reminiscence is an active factor as Lynch (as editor) allows plenty of time for the eye to wander across Henry’s walls and floor. The furniture is completely normal – ‘normal’ being a societal construct of course – but decayed. The suburban dream of the 50s turned nightmare.
This extends to social convention. We are bonded to Henry by our outsider status as he dines with the family of a former flame. “So I just cut them up like regular chickens?”, he asks, and the camera cuts to the peculiar micro-chickens in obsessive close up. The emotional logic of the scene is unbroken. When Mary’s mother asks Henry what he does and he awkwardly answers that he’s on vacation (which brings into question why he’s always wearing a suit), the timing of the girl’s reaction isn’t at all the bizarreness of her fit.
The family theme is carried forward as Henry discovers he’s a father. Thrust into marriage (convention!), life with his sweetheart doesn’t match up to the dream. Literally finding himself without space, he is haunted by the screams of his mutant child – “They’re still not sure it is a baby!” exclaimed Mary, hilariously. Yet such is our paternal/maternal instinct, and this is what Lynch is counting on, we are drawn to the creature as both helpless child and diseased abomination.
What we are seeing consistently through the surreal technique and seeming non-sequiturs is a dismantling of the naturalised. A culture obsessed with family, for instance, as a result of policy, is to its hallucinating protagonist freakish, though he finds little comfort in alternative fantasies of lust. It is a mighty task to separate this protagonist from a construct of Lynch himself, who has said:
I look at the world and I see absurdity all around me. People do strange things constantly, to the point that, for the most part, we manage not to see it.
Making his expressionist debut, the young director found these absurdities ugly.