Sensor Scan: Eraserhead


Here's another entry I know I'm likely out of my league on, but we're doing it because we really don't have a choice. David Lynch has been cited as a primary influence on an extremely significant creative figure for...not the period of Star Trek we're about to enter, but the one right after that, and continuing on to 2005. And since 1977's Eraserhead was Lynch's motion picture debut and widely considered to be the best demonstration of his perspective, we need to take a look at it for the future's sake.

Since context and influence is the name of the game today, I won't beat around the bush and come right out and say the person I'm talking about is Brannon Braga. Braga is, suffice to say, a controversial figure within Star Trek, and definitely a misunderstood one. Along with Rick Berman, he is almost universally blamed for killing the franchise off in 2005 and his reputation in Star Trek fandom tends to hover between “Public Enemy Number One” and “Satan”. This in spite of the fact Berman helped shepherd Star Trek through what is typically seen to be its Golden Age and Braga helmed what was, at least for a time, the consensus fan-favourite Star Trek series, Star Trek Voyager, and co-wrote the consensus second-best Star Trek movie, Star Trek First Contact. We'll deal with Berman another day, and, in regards to Braga, while it's true he has a number of fumbles and missteps to his name, and in some cases quite egregious ones, he's also someone whose positionality is frequently badly misread, and putting him into some kind of intellectual tradition will prove supremely helpful down the road.

Which brings us to David Lynch. What strikes me about Lynch is that he's a filmmaker who is on the one hand regarded for his surreal, disturbing and frequently confusing style of cinematography, yet is also someone who wears his influences very obviously on his sleeve and is quite upfront about his positionality. This, to me, renders reading his work somewhat trivial. There are two major aspects of Lynch's life that seem to crop up over and over again throughout his work: One, he has a major interest in dreams, and in particular the subconscious side of dreaming. However conversely, Lynch also seems to believe the only way to truly comprehend this is to be awake to engage with it, and Lynch seems to believe quite strongly in the ability of filmmaking to convey this kind of dreamscape, such as in this quote:

"Waking dreams are the ones that are important, the ones that come when I'm quietly sitting in a chair, letting my mind wander. When you sleep, you don't control your dream. I like to dive into a dream world that I've made or discovered; a world I choose ...”

So, it's not actual dreams he's interested in, but daydreams. This is actually a pretty significant distinction to make, because, at least judging from this, it means that Lynch is probably unfamiliar with the concept of lucid dreaming, because, a lucid dreamer actually can control her dreams when she's asleep. That's the whole point-To understand the environment of a dream and the interaction between the dreamer and the dream and use that to attain an enhanced state of consciousness. Right away, this means Lynch is primarily invested in the more material and psychological aspects of dreaming as opposed to what other truths those aspects can reveal to us, and this also means we're probably not going to get something like “Practice in Waking” from him.

Lynch and his biographers, most notably Greg Olson, have also pointed out on numerous occasions the jarring culture shock Lynch felt upon moving from his childhood home in isolated rural northern Montana to gang violence-riddled Philadelphia when he went to study painting and filmmaking at the Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts. This, along with Lynch's reoccurring fascination with industry (which is something else that his childhood upbringing makes somewhat easy to understand, coming from someone who's had similar experiences) handily explains the dingy, heavy industrial imagery that permeates Eraserhead. Another thing this explains is the confused, everyman nature of Henry Spencer himself: Everything in Eraserhead happens *to* him and the film, when you get right down to it, is essentially about his confused reactions to the grotesque and violent world he finds himself in. There's an almost childlike quality to Spencer; it feels very much as if he's a small boy in an adult's body not fully understanding the adult sensations and situations he's experiencing. Eraserhead is the Limbo of cinema.

This also segues into my main complaint against Eraserhead, which is, by virtue of it being this kind of story to begin with, and in spite of all the lurid imagery and symbolism it plays with elsewhere, it very much takes a masculine main character and makes him the centre of the narrative universe. This means it has some sexism baggage simply through inheritance, and that's before you look at the actual story. Eraserhead is seen to be fairly transparently autobiographical, as Lynch's daughter Jennifer was born with clubbed feet that needed corrective surgery. Considering Henry Spencer's child is a grotesque, deformed monster that nobody is even sure is really human and who he eventually kills...uh, I'll let you figure out on your own why that's maybe problematic. Then there's the fact that all the women in the movie are manifestations of the surreal nightmare world and are all some manner of crazy, unpredictable, neglectful and dangerous, and it kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth by the end of it.

Lynch also credits Franz Kafka as a primary influence, and it's with him where this intellectual tradition we're trying to build starts to become a bit clearer. Kafka, in spite of his similarly grotesque imagery, is fundamentally a writer who we can peg as a pioneer of existentialism, and this becomes the key as I see it. Existentialism is a word that's bandied around a lot, typically as a facile (and inaccurate) synonym for “philosophy”, or, to be more precise, “navel-gazing”. In reality, existentialism as a philosophy is somewhat similar to nihilism: It's a belief that the universe is a fundamentally illogical, absurd and meaningless place and a system of thought in place to help people deal with that. Like David Lynch, the general attitude is to react with utter confusion and bewilderment, though Søren Kierkegaard was of the belief that each individual granted their own meaning by living life “sincerely”. Where this would differ from nihilism is that while both philosophies grant to inherent absurdity of the universe, nihilism is basically an act of surrender, considering all of life to be hopeless, purposeless and valueless in the face of such a truth.

Lynch is rather easy to place into this tradition, but where this brings us back to Brannon Braga is that the later writer is a self-avowed passionate atheist, and has gone on record claiming Star Trek is a kind of atheist philosophy, religion or worldview (I'll once again leave it up to you all to guess how I feel about that statement). Either way, it's not too much of an intellectual leap from existentialism, especially of the individualist kind that Kierkegaard espoused, to the common atheist conception of hedonism that because there's nothing else then the chance accumulation of molecules that allows our lives, we ought to make the most of what little time we have to live our lives to the fullest and any real sense of values and meaning we ascribe to an inherently meaningless universe we do on an individual basis ourselves (though the extent to which different atheists hold this and to which extremes they take it varies from person to person). So in sum, what we would expect existentialist Star Trek inspired by David Lynch and channeled through Brannon Braga to look like would probably be some kind of psychological body horror dealing with a conception of the subconscious that's more materialistic than not, possibly featuring some kind of small child's (read small boy's) perspective very firmly rooted in secular humanism.

One other thing looking at Eraserhead in the context of Star Trek allows us to do is examine the role of B-movies to its history. This is important, because the next two major iterations of Star Trek we're going to be looking at belong very firmly to the B-movie tradition, and while it's best to save the full ramifications of this for the entries themselves, it's worth taking some time now to refresh ourselves a bit on what the genre tends to represent and what it allows filmmakers to do. Traditionally, B-movies would have significantly smaller budgets than films on the A side of the reel, and attracted a considerably smaller and more niche, yet also more loyal, following. Well, some of them did at any rate: The age of the drive-in double feature is a pretty big exception I can think of off the top of my head, but there are probably others-I'm not a film historian. This means that B-movies can be simultaneously far more experimental and far more shlocky: The genre is a safe haven for both the art house crowd and the Roger Corman set.

Eraserhead plays both sides of the B-movie coin. It's flagrantly auteur and experimental to be sure, but it's also, thanks to its cramped budget, amazingly cheap-looking. Not to mention the fact its gruesome and grotesque imagery and subject matter is something that was never going to attract a wide mainstream audience, putting it squarely in the same camp as the goriest slasher horror movies. This is a very similar line to the one Star Trek is soon going to start walking, between respectable avant-garde cinema that wants very hard to be taken seriously and completely gratuitous, over-the-top midnight movie shmaltz. And it's a duality that Star Trek never quite manages to escape, even during the period of its life when it's explicitly trying to do top-of-the-line science fiction cinema for television on a weekly basis. Most importantly, it's the reaction of the next generation of Trekkers to this fact that will be especially worth taking note of.


Daru 6 years, 7 months ago

Now I am sad that no on (apart from me until now) has thought to comment on this essay, and it has been pretty remiss of me to not do so, but here's some thoughts.

First, to quote Jack Graham on the Alien post: "The original movie - which belongs to that select group of films which have permanently rented space inside my head - is so rich, strange, perverse, individual and weird (even almost Weird with a capital W) that it remains permanently apart from all the others."

These words for me could equally apply to Eraserhead. I don't know any other film like it, or another director for that matter. I am so glad that you covered this film, along with Alien, Close Encounters and Blade Runner - which are right up there in my psyche's permanent movie rental.

It's not that this film is an easy watch, it isn't. Is this Lynch's best film? I don't think so. But there is something visceral and so odd about the feeling of this movie that it reached inside of me when I first watched it. I trained first as an artist and that is the sensibility I feel this film with, and that is what i think it's about - feelings, made into image.

Like Lynch I had a pretty sheltered and rosy childhood, and also like him I got fascinated through art about the feelings that lay under the surface of culture and family. That is what I think this film is exploring, the imagined and half felt pain at the heart of the family magnified into disturbing images. I do agree that it comes across in a pretty unsubtle and narcissistic way. The film can feel like a teenager fumbling about as it goes for the most lurid pictures, but I suppose that was the nature of the exploration, looking at unsubtle and narcissistic emotions.

I could have a lot more to say, I'll put a cap on this as it feels like an essay could pour out. Again, I don't think that there are many films like this, and maybe in the end that's for the better.

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Josh Marsfelder 6 years, 7 months ago

Thanks a lot for your comment! I'm glad I've been able to give a chance to take a new look at your mental movie collection: It's purely unintentional, I assure you, but it's cool how the post schedule seems to have lined up that way!

I think you did a wonderful job putting your feelings about this movie into words. I feel like if there's an essay to write, it should be written, for yourself if for nobody else. I know writing helps clarify my thoughts for me, but I guess that can be a good thing and a bad thing.

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Daru 6 years, 7 months ago

Cheers Josh! It did blow me away how your schedule touched on favourites of mine. Thanks for the positive comments about my thoughts. If and when I have the time I certainly will put fingers to keyboardI know I have some ideas to explore that are coming through for some fictional/autobiographical work and interestingly an essay on Eraserhead might not be out of place in it... And yes as you say, writing certainly can clarify thoughts, or also how we position ourselves with viewing aspects of lives.

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