Why Surrealism Matters Part One: Eraserhead, By Christian Thomey
Updated: Oct 23, 2021
To better follow the contents of this review, I recommend watching Eraserhead . The film is available on HBO Max
“Style over substance!” That’s a phrase I hear a lot from people when they describe surrealist films, like Eraserhead, Pink Floyd: The Wall, or Hausa. A common belief of surrealism in film is that it gives the director an excuse to flaunt their style, rather than present a coherent plot or characters, which creates a confusing and unengaging mess. This belief couldn’t be further from the truth.
Surrealism is an art form that explores the abstraction of the subconscious in depth. In other words, think of surrealism like a dream. It creates an unconscious reality that bases itself on several of our conscious experiences. Although the contents of a dream don’t always make sense at face value, elements that form a dream come from a real place. Others might not comprehend the dreams which hold the most meaning for ourselves.
Now, imagine meticulously transferring the ambiguous structure and maddening feel of a dream into a film to perfectly capture the experience of a nightmare. That’s exactly what David Lynch accomplished in 1977 with his debut feature, Eraserhead.
I knew going into the film that Lynch is a genius of absurdity, but I didn't know the kind of weird I was going to get. Unlike my first experience with Lynch’s work—2017’s What Did Jack Do?—Eraserhead was conceived from the mind of a much younger David Lynch. I wondered how extreme he would take the film and why it cemented his reputation as a master of weird.
After watching Eraserhead, I determined the labels “insane” and “nonsensical” would be an understatement. Every scene transition in this film arises so unnaturally, yet they feel very natural. The editing reflects that feeling. I found myself in one place, then in another with no explanation or indication that time had passed. However, it flowed so seamlessly, like a vivid dream of someone in a deep sleep.
The film follows Henry Spencer, who views himself as the upright man reacting to the insanity of everyone around him. His eraser-style haircut and arms that barely move when he walks convey a man who resembles a #2 pencil. Furthermore, he maintains a bland and timid expression throughout the film. His underdeveloped character allows him to act as a vessel for the audience to project itself onto, so it can witness the insanity of his world first-hand.
Throughout the film, he doesn’t participate in the insanity, like Mrs. X orgasming at the dinner table or the Monroe lady dancing side to side in a radiator. Instead, he reacts to it. Henry’s experiences convey surrealism through blurred reality and fantasy.
The amount of dialogue adds to the absurdity of the film. Dialogue provides context for the scenes, but it doesn’t explore the characters in any meaningful way. Most scenes focus on the visual aspects, rather than auditory ones.
What Eraserhead lacks in dialogue, it makes up for with the atmosphere. The black and white noir cinematography works to the film's advantage to further convey the mad and dreamlike world Henry inhabits. The cinematography elevates the surreal visual storytelling through the use of heavy shadows, complemented with lighting contrast.
At the end of the film, when Henry takes the scissors to the baby, the darkness of the room silhouettes him, while light strategically draws attention to the baby. This not only creates a visual contrast between the two subjects, but it also conveys a morally gray sub-text. As repulsive as the baby appears, and as much trouble as it caused Henry, it’s still an innocent child. Henry, on the other hand, is driven to murder after he grappled with his circumstances throughout the film. The inner darkness he had suppressed is finally exposed.
This film relies on special effects — practical and claymation — despite it’s down-to-earth plot. The lizard baby exemplifies the use of practical effects. The puppetry of the baby effectively conveys the horror of it, but as an effect, it doesn’t hold up. However, the use of makeup on the baby’s sores when it gets sick still repulses viewers. The sudden appearance of the sores add to their fear factor. One second the baby looks healthy, and in the next, it looks unrecognizable as it struggles to breathe. The lizard baby works so effectively because practical effects are meant to be grounded in reality. The horror of the baby is not in its reptilian appearance but rather in the realistic makeup of the sores. It is an abomination that looks like it came from the real world. It, therefore, stands out from the other effects in the film.
Clay and stop motion animation are used, as well, mainly on the snakes and slugs provided by the naked, burnt man. They are used as a transitional tool to connect two unrelated scenes. Henry lies in his bed when he sees an animated slug slithering along an asteroid. The slug starts screaming, and the camera zooms in on the slug’s mouth to reveal a disfigured woman singing. Moreover, unlike the practical effects that ground the film in reality, the animation pushes further into the psychological. Animation doesn’t have to limit itself to the logic of the real world, but it’s used as a way to help understand it.
Practical and animated effects work together to create an environment where the characters question what it’s real and what’s in their minds. No matter the conclusion, the audience understands the characters are going mad.
Eraserhead explores the troubles within a world that Henry and viewers can’t comprehend. Surrealism shows the vulnerability of the characters and encourages understanding of their point of view. As Henry loses touch with reality and the situation worsens, the visuals become more abstract. I respect and enjoy this film, although it defies genre. David Lynch introduced a cinematic style that had never been achieved before or since.
Part two will analyze how Pink Floyd: The Wall uses surrealism to explore the individual.