I should preface this essay/blog post/article (delete as applicable) by saying that some of the things I discuss are NOT confirmed by David Lynch or anyone close to him. Some ideas and theories are simply my own or influenced by the hours I seem to spend on YouTube currently. It’s also worth saying, though seems obvious, SPOILERS!
My recent odyssey with David Lynch started with a videogame. It was in a review of Kentucky Route Zero on Eurogamer, where editor Oli Welsh described the game as “Lynchian”. It had been a long while since I last watched Twin Peaks, so I used this nudge as the inspiration to dive back in from the beginning. The result was a week of every episode of the show (even the dodgy ones from season two) and the film, Fire Walk with Me. But it didn’t end there, I realised it had been much longer since I last watched Lynch’s back catalogue of films, too. Off I trundled to HMV to invest in new copies of the films and the odyssey continued.
I first consumed Lynch’s work when I was much younger and, while I was entertained, I was never quite able to grasp the themes of his work or appreciate the nuance in the more surreal aspects of his directorial decisions. Eraserhead, for example, was just a fucked up odd film for me. It was an artsy movie whose message completely passed me by. Mulholland Drive was a gripping terror, but it stood alone as a thriller for me. It’s only now that I can see the wood for the trees (Douglas Fir, obviously) and want to take a deep dive into his work as a whole. So, where to start? Well, let’s take a look at that directorial feature film debut, Eraserhead.
IN HEAVEN, EVERYTHING IS FINE
Anyone who has seen Eraserhead will have a very distinct opinion on it. Shot in black and white, Jack Nance plays Henry, a seemingly ordinary man who works in a printing factory. He’s dating Mary who happened to recently give birth to their child – it looks a bit like a naked mole rat. Many believe the film to symbolise the pressures of becoming a parent – the baby screams for most of the scenes, urging the parents to feed it constantly, tearing them from sleep and pushing them apart. It’s perhaps the most ‘Lynchian’ film of all, bursting with symbols, metaphors and surreal dead ends. Yes, there are clearly story beats which nod to the difficulty of parenting, but I believe that to understand it, we need to look to Twin Peaks and also understand exactly what drives Lynch to create.
Throughout many writings and interviews Lynch has discussed his fascination with balance, particularly that balance between light and dark. He examined this most closely in Twin Peaks with the ongoing battle between BOB – the darkness of institutionalised violence – and Laura/Dale, who symbolise the quest for happiness, delight and love. (For more on this, it’s well worth watching this break down of Twin Peaks). This is bolstered by the locations of the Black Lodge and the White Lodge. It’s in the Black Lodge where BOB is controlled, and Dale is eventually trapped and I believe this is where Eraserhead takes place.
Yep, there has always been a theory that Lynch, much like the writer Stephen King, links all his work together in one universe. In fact, Mulholland Drive was originally a story for Audrey to take on after the success of Peaks and it was confirmed that the events of Lost Highway are set in the same time and place of Twin Peaks. But it’s only after you watch Season Three of the show that we can see that Eraserhead’s Henry is stuck in the Black Lodge.
The film opens with Henry opening his mouth and a worm-like creature escaping into the world. This is reminiscent of the ‘Mother’ scene in Peaks S3 episode 8, where a humanoid figure spews forth a long worm-like trail giving birth to BOB. And if we look in Henry’s room, we can see three other major clues to the connection. The floor is the same as the one in the Black Lodge, Henry has a photo of a nuclear explosion on his wall – which Lynch showed in the same episode and believes is the birth of normalised violence, plus the tree next to Henry’s bed appears in the opening episode of season three taking the place of ‘The Little Man’. The tree, in Peaks, is the new form of the left arm of Mike who controls the evil – BOB. Still with me?
So, if this matches up, then Henry is stuck in the Black Lodge and the tree/arm is controlling the evils of Henry’s world. In many instances, Henry is hypnotically distracted by the radiator in his room where we see, another world exists. It’s here we see a lady on a traditional theatre stage, which also appears in Episode 8, albeit there it’s more extravagant and features the ‘giant’. But where are the red curtains? I hear you say. Well, the film being in black and white makes that hard to read, but we could, if we really stretched, suggest that each town has their own version of the lodges. In Twin Peaks the lodge had the curtains and statues, here in Henry’s world it was his bedroom where he always seems trapped. So, balance.
Let’s say the baby represents darkness, fear and danger. On its own there is no balance and it throws life off-kilter – his wife leaves, there is no sleep and confusion/paranoia reigns. It’s about halfway into the film when Henry sees the ‘Lady in the Radiator’ who dances, singing for him and smiles sweetly, crushing the worms of fear underfoot. She is the light. Literally, the bulges on her cheeks are pure white, like the headlights on a car lighting up the road and when she appears a light emanates from the radiator. This creates balance. However, as viewers know, Henry ends up killing the baby. Why? Because he believes it’s his way of escaping the fear and letting in the light/the lady. He believes that by killing the baby and taking away the fear and darkness, he will enter the White Lodge where the lady is and live happily. Of course, we know this just creates imbalance again.
Lynch has gone on record to say that Eraserhead is his most spiritual film. When pressed on this during an interview at the BFI – “Can you explain why?”, he simply replied “No” he laughs and follows with “we don’t talk about the baby”. Lynch believes and always has, that the viewer should decide what is happening within his art. Of course, Lynch is still a storyteller, but he is first and foremost an artist.
When Lynch was a teenager, he spent most of his hours after school tucked away inside studios with easels, canvasses and paint. He still paints today, and his work always comes from “a zero point” or “an ocean of pure love, compassion and peace” which he achieves through meditation. Lynch is a ‘stream of conscious’ creator. In the documentary ‘Lynch’, which was shot over the two years he made Inland Empire, he is often seen expressing frustration of not knowing what is happening in a scene, because the ‘ocean’ hasn’t told him yet. (Peaks fans, this ocean is also in season three).
You can’t get more spiritual than the balance of light and dark and the desire for love, compassion and peace, right? He was also influenced externally as he reveals in the same documentary that while shooting Eraserhead he was reading the Bible and, whether you follow a religion or not, you can’t get more spiritual than the Bible.
This is all my own thoughts from watching the film and when thinking like this, seeing the connections to Twin Peaks and the lodges, the film takes on a new life. There’s much more in the film to unpack – the pipes, the bleeding chickens, the Woman Across the Hall, Mary birthing the worms in her sleep – but those are best left to others. For me, the crux of this film is about fear and that can be interpreted however the viewer sees fit. Some believe it’s a fear of the outside world – Henry always looks more uneasy outside of his apartment. Others think that the fear of watching over a fragile child is the central point. You could even postulate that there’s a fear of libido, because as soon as the Woman Across the Hall stays the night with Henry (she’s locked out) they have sex and he gives in to lust.
But how does this link to Lynch’s sophomore project, The Elephant Man?
It seems pretty obvious, no? Kind of. On the surface, The Elephant Man – probably the most critically acclaimed Lynch work aside from Mulholland Drive, it was nominated for eight Oscars – should be about that balance. We see the darkness of life – the manipulation of people, assault, fear of the unknown and the power of money. We also see light – in the love of Merrick by those around him, his eventual acceptance in society and his final peace. But there isn’t a balance – the film, a bit like Eraserhead, ends with death/transcendence. The love for Merrick by the end doesn’t really outweigh his years of abuse. At least not in the way Lynch works. This is where the audience comes in. It’s up to us to create the balance here.
Lynch wrote The Elephant Man with Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren, however it wasn’t obviously an original story. It’s of course based on the real life of John (later to be discovered, Joseph) Merrick and the original screenplay, before Lynch signed on, was based off the writings of Frederick Treaves, Merrick’s doctor. The story is already there, Lynch couldn’t place in his surreal symbols or steer the viewer by story, he had to use his direction.
Shot, once again, entirely in black and white, Lynch utilised light and dark literally. If you watch the film with this balance in mind, you’ll see that during the darkest moments of Merrick’s life the surroundings are darkened – grimy Victorian brickwork, soot, smoke and steam, mud floors and grubby clothes. When Lynch wanted to show light, he did just that. He placed Merrick in brightly lit rooms, used white clothing and showed John’s skin which was milky white from lack of sun. To hammer this home, when Merrick is first approached by the Night Porter (played by Michael Elphick), it’s prefaced by a nurse turning the gas lamps off, reducing the light in the hospital. When Merrick is eventually taken back to the ‘freak show’ by Bytes, he is shown to the crowd practically naked. His white skin surrounded by grime and darkness. The light is being smothered.
By the end of the film, when John has been accepted, his room is richer, a mixture of shadows and light from a fire and various sconces. But, as we know, John dies – taking his own life by laying down “as normal people do” in a bed of white linen. He leaves us to the light, but the darkness won all his life. Does that create balance? This is up to the viewer, not Lynch. It’s hard to truly analyse this film as with Lynch’s other works.
In another comparison to Twin Peaks and Eraserhead, we see the moment of pure joy for John Merrick takes the form of a theatre stage. Traditional, draped in curtains (which may indeed have been red). I think we can assume that Lynch believes the stage is where we can escape fear and darkness – bathed in light, with entertainment taking us away. It’s where ideas are born, especially before the age of television and cinema. Henry, John Merrick and even Dale Cooper are all linked by theatre being the stage for ideas, which are developed in the ‘ocean’ – explored further in that episode of Twin Peaks.
When I was younger, I was scared by this film. Or, should I say, I was scared of the depiction of Merrick. I was a part of the problem, a part of the darkness. I feared the unknown, which did a disservice to Merrick as a human being. We have just been witnessing the torture of a soul, we’ve paid money to watch the freak, to watch the violence and his death. Lynch forces the audience to raise the same questions as Doctor Treaves, “Am I a good man? Or a bad man? That’s all…”
Why balance? We’ll take a brief break from the films here to look at Lynch and his creative process. As I mentioned above, Lynch gets his ideas from the “Ocean” which he sees as a zero point. It’s not a literal ocean, but a never-ending sea of peace which creates a blankness for him to explore ideas. This is done through Transcendental meditation, which he has practiced for over 30 years. In fact, he states he has never missed a day and he often urges his crews to meditate too. His practice of meditating creates the ideas, which are then realised on screen.
Meditation is a large proponent of Buddhism and Hinduism and this style of meditation was developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. These two religions also share a view of balance, peace and compassion with a view that living this way leads to enlightenment, which, is the zero point of being. It’s a pure blank slate which gives way to liberty, toleration, creativity and peace. But only by accepting darkness for what it is and attempting to balance it with your own light, can we create this balance.
What’s next? Dune and Blue Velvet. Two very different films, but two which also look at the idea of balance among many other concepts.