David Lynch’s 1976 Eraserhead is in many ways the most striking of all visions of American decline and of the fall from the grace of the 1950’s. The world Henry inhabits in Eraserhead is an urban, industrial hell, dominated by huge machines and flooded with their noise, the streets are filled with rubbish, populated by marauding gangs and packs of wild dogs, all shot in stark and shadowy black and white. The film re-uses visual tropes of the 1930’s from expressionism and surrealism to render the contemporary city a nightmarish zone of unchecked violence and incomprehensible, inhuman forces. In a sense Eraserhead is true to the horrors of urban poverty in a way that realist film can’t quite capture, the way the world looks for a sensitive, semi-literate, deeply awkward kid with no money and a baby to look after when he’s barely discovered sex. Cruel, dark, overwhelming.
Black and white.
There is a later, comic-book re-appropriation of these tropes (Dark City etc) but Eraserhead is characterized by raw, comfortless dread. The film’s central character, Henry, is an autistic man-child, an innocent abroad in a shattered world. Naïve about sex and the reproductive function, permanently confused and confounded, at a loss as to how to respond, repulsed and deeply estranged, the world of Eraserhead makes no sense to Henry. There is a repeated focus on his confused, anxious face as he is presented with another bizarre and disruptive aspect of his world. In this sense Henry is there as the viewers' proxy: his surroundings are horrific and unsettling and Henry recognizes them as such, this world is not normal: this is not, for example, some fantasy Kingdom populated by magical creatures where different natural laws or customs apply, it is fundamentally wrong, and as viewers we identify with Henry. We are also puzzled and disturbed by the grotesquery of Henry’s world.
It should be said here that Lynch is just as dependent on the cheap reaction shot to set up an audience response as Spielberg. Indeed it’s key to both their techniques and Laura Dern has the distinction of being the only actress who has got to do both, The Spielberg Wonder Face, eyes wide and lips trembling as the character respond in childlike awe to some as yet unrevealed off- camera amazement (spotting the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park), the Face of Fearful Childlike Incomprehension at the Lynchian Freaky Shit (almost all of Inland Empire).
One of the ways in which Eraserhead achieves its effect of a purgatorial, fallen world is by pushing the signifiers of the Nineteen Fifties into an expressionistic frame. The soundtrack captures something of the film’s sense of a history gone wrong, of a brighter past smothered under layers of grime and distortion, snatches of Fats Waller and Chubby Checker rendered spectral by an overlay of abrasive, industrial noise and the remorseless crying of the “baby”.
The conservatism of Henry’s dress, his sweaty, Fifties’ buttoned-upness, his too small suit, the Capraesque characters, Mary X, her parents, the workshop where they make pencil rubbers out of Henry’s head along with the interiors of Mary’s house, the workshop, Henry’s flat, the Lady in the radiator’s clothes and hairstyle: all are Fifties in their stylization. One of the film’s fundamental tensions, one of the ways in which it achieves it’s nightmarishness, a sense that the world is out of joint, is by sinking these scraps of the Fifties into the distorted framing and shadowy lighting of expressionist film. In that sense Eraserhead is postmodern, just as Lynch’s later work is: a part of the effect depends on the juxtaposition of/containment and entrapment of one set of signifiers by another (and our recognition of them, conscious of otherwise). This struggle between the Thirties and the Fifties gives us the Lynchian vision of the Seventies.
This is one of the ways in which the viewer is coaxed into naturalizing the 50’s, it is the buried, idealized substrata of social life from which Henry, as the “normal” consciousness, the conservative consciousness of the 1950’s has been exiled. The Fifties return in American film in the 70s with American Graffiti and Happy Days and its numerous spin-offs on T.V., reaching a peak of popularity with the musical Grease (a film to which Lynch’s later work owes a great deal). The title Happy Days says it all (as does that of the later "The Wonder Years”): a pre-lapsarian world of domestic comforts, family values and the rule of law. With Eraserhead we might imagine that somehow a gawky innocent like Potsy or Ritchie has been somehow transplanted into one of the tougher neighbourhoods in 70s' Detroit. Happy Days will also shadow Lynch’s later works, all the way up to the dismally forced cod-surrealism of the sitcom sequences in Inland Empire.
I’d argue that across three films there’s an emergence of 1950’s: Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart in some ways form a trilogy: Henry’s journey’s out of the purgatory of the 70’s and into a full and final reconciliation with himself at the end of the last of those three films in 1990. They may represent a dramatic descent for certain viewers but for Henry it’s a case of Paradise Regained.
Eraserhead is immersive, a post-apocalypse movie, and there’s a certain separating out across the three films in terms of the characters’ relationship to and within the film’s worlds. To put it another way, Henry scurries through his world, Jeffery strolls and Sailor struts. In Eraserhead Henry is completely lost, adrift and the only release or escape is into some third space, the realm of fantasy, a cosmic, heavenly non-place with the Lady in the Radiator. As Wayne has brilliantly articulated it here, Blue Velvet emphasises an urban/suburban split (the suburbs return with a vengeance the 80’s too) and Jeffery moves between the two. In Blue Velvet Potsy has his world restored to him, a world of intelligible division and relations. Jeffery is a little too hip for one world, the suburbs to which, chastened, having got it out-of his system with a bit of S and M sexual tourism, he eventually returns, seemingly non-traumatized for having witnessed and committed murder. Indeed as Wayne points out the really disquieting moment in Blue Velvet is Dorothy breaching the barrier between worlds. The traffic from Suburban to Urban is supposed to be one way.
If Jeffery is Henry fortified by the restoration of a world in which he has some purchase, and which allows him to augment himself further with a partial engagement in the worlds of sex and violence, then Sailor is one step further along and the culmination of this trajectory. Sailor has something Jeffery can only aspire to, Cool. If Jeffery is Potsy/Ritchie then Sailor is the Fonz: which is also to say that he is Elvis. It’s also legitimate to speculate that Sailor equals the hybridization of Frank and Jeffery just as Lula equals the hybridization of Sandy and Dorothy (though we’ll come to this in a moment)
Of all the deaths of the Seventies, symbolic or otherwise the greatest and least acceptable is the death of Elvis: Elvis who symbolized the rise of America, its newness, it’s vigour. Elvis and rock and roll, the diner, the Cadillac, the endless highway. Elvis at the end, bloated and drug addicted in 1977 is a reiteration of the awful waning of American power. Elvis must be recaptured, reinvented. Young Elvis is that perfect synthesis of wholesomeness and carnality, a domesticator of dark and disruptive forces, the symbol of that point before the rot set in, before it all went too far into free love, rebellion, feminism, generational conflict. Elvis is the figure of stability, balance and containment that the Eighties’ yearns for. This is what Sailor offers and what Po-mo offers, containment and diffusion of the disruptive negativity of the 60’s and 70s, allowing America to dream untroubled dreams again. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you know somewhere deep down, irrespective of your structural role, that no matter how Wild At Heart you are, you are basically Pure of Heart. A rock and roll balladeer.
It should be quickly pointed out here that of course that neither Jeffery nor Sailor, in a supreme echo of the Fifties, lose their innocence, the 1950’s is perhaps the point of maximal geo-political adventurism and domination by the States, (which has been partly rolled back by the bad old Seventies and is then pursued more aggressively again through the neo-liberal period up to the present date) and is also the homegrown Golden Age. “The moment where America lost its innocence” is a trope repeatedly deployed across the country’s history, neo-liberalism and po-mo offer a way to return the country to innocence, but returning to innocence simply means the need/capacity for denial and repression is uppermost. This is partly because po-mo says yes, enjoy your racism, sexism, class hatred, violence and privilege because by enjoying them ironically they can not corrode your essential purity of soul, your essential goodness. As such what’s “liberating” about “playful” “ironic” post-modernism is exactly the degree to which it provides a barrier to screen out real antagonisms and conflicts, this is what allows times to appear to be magical, heaven sent, ordained by god, “Wonder years”, political ignorance, willed or otherwise. Both Jeffery and Sailor's essential innocence is manifested in goofiness and schmaltz. The more extreme the violence the more extreme the kitsch needed to counterbalance it.
Lady in the radiator-Sandy-Lula
In both Eraserhead and Blue Velvet there is a tempting whore (dark, foreign) and a saving angel (blonde) In Eraserhead she is pure and sexless, crushing the sperm that fall from the ceiling of her cave with a childlike simper and offering Henry an ecstatic, non physical form of orgasmic transport in the film's fairytale ending. They touch and the screen is suffused with bright white light, this is echoed of course later by Sandy’s dream of the robins in Blue Velvet in which they bring a blinding white light of love. In Eraserhead the whore lives just across the corridor and drowns Henry in pool of terrifying feminine liquidity, whereas Blue Velvet’s whore is located at a safe distance and though a bit scary at first eventually proves to be a reliably needy and masochistic sop to the male ego. The Lady in the Radiator is located in another dimension, a world within the world, that represents the imagination, whereas Sandy, in Blue Velvet is just a round the corner.
Lula may well then be that perfect carnal-innocent combination of Dorothy and Sandy. Interestingly of course the names of the two characters seem most immediately sourced from The Wizard of Oz and Grease both of which feed directly into Wild at Heart. In some ways Wild At Heart plays out as a long coda to Blue Velvet, and a reappraisal of the final sequence of Grease in which good Sandra Dee (“lousy with virginity”) transforms into Bad Sandy, complete with make up and leather trousers. Equally we might compare the final ascent in the magical car at the end of Grease with the sequence of Sailor singing Love me Tender to Lula on top of the car against a vast, bright blue sky as Wild At Heart ends.
In Eraserhead’s final sequence Henry is rescued by the magic of the Lady in the radiator, in Blue Velvet there is a kind of knowing balance struck, both Sandy and Jeffery understand the message of the robin eating the bug, in Wild at Heart Lula simpers and writhes in delight at Sailor’s Karaoke Elvis. He now is the purveyor of magic, the bringer of salvation, the one who believes in true love. Eraserhead’s escape is abstract, inward, Wild at Heart’s is the triumph of the Fifties restored.