...just your typical coming-of-age flick?
October 05, 2011

just your typical coming-of-age story?

Every now and then, you encounter a movie that really changes your perspective on things.

Maybe a Michael Moore movie changed your perspective about politics and society, or maybe a movie like The Evil Dead changed your perspective about low-budget, independent art. And then, there is an even rarer kind of film - the kind that fundamentally changes the way you view your entire outlook on life.

For me, David Lynch's 1977 film Eraserhead is definitely that kind of rare cinematic experience. The first time I saw it, I felt as if I had just witnessed some sort of grand revelation about the nature of being and the universe. . .which is pretty funny, because just about everybody I talk to that his seen it has no earthly idea what the movie is SUPPOSED to be about.

For a lot of people, not only is Eraserhead an incomprehensibly weird film, it is pretty much the definition of avant garde cinema. Apparently, it is the kind of movie you either get or you do not - and if you are in the latter camp, odds are, it s a movie you are going to utterly despise.

Heck, even among the people that actually like it, most of the people I speak to really do not know how to interpret the thing. They just see it as a bunch of really cool, really dark, and really weird things happening - basically, a post-modern horror flick rebelling against society, commercialism and who knows what else by just being kooky.

Apparently, there really is not a grand narrative - a central meaning, if you will - behind the movie. This conception, of course, is something that I TOTALLY disagree with.

Despite the movie's reputation, I pretty much got it right from the start. As it turns out, Eraserhead is not just a juxtaposition of weird imagery and crazy dialogue, it is actually, if you can believe it. . .your basic, typical, by-the-numbers coming-of-age story, really no different than The Graduate or The Catcher in the Rye. At the end of the day, I think Eraserhead has more in common with The Sandlot and Stand By Me than it does The Elephant Man or Dune. . .and I have the indisputable proof to back up my claim.

Don't believe me? Well, how about we re-watch the film, and note a couple of scenes that parallel the whole experience of becoming a young adult we have seen in so many standard coming-of-age flicks?

OK, so visually, it is a tad different than most coming-of-age movies, but thematically, it really is not exploring anything that James Joyce or Federico Fellini already hasn't. Alien babies and meteorite people or not, Eraserhead, at its core, is basically about one thing, and one thing only - the trials and tribulations of growing up. In fact, I think you would have a hard time finding a more thorough primer on young adulthood in cinema, as we will soon discover. . .


Seven Indispensable Life Lessons about Growing Up from David Lynch


Most of the time, you are going to feel as if you are just traveling aimlessly about

From the very first scene in Eraserhead, we get a sense of isolation, despair, and waywardness. I suppose one could say that mass confusion is a recurring element of the entire movie, and that is probably a viable take on the film. That said, why is the movie so confounding, and hard to interpret? Just why is the main character ambling about the wasteland, seemingly without a care in the world? And hey, why is the world of Eraserhead so grim and grimy to begin with?

Well, that's because early adulthood is confounding, hard to interpret and a lot of times, so dark and dank that you really do not WANT to dwell upon the world around you. The rumor has it that David Lynch came up with the idea for the movie while working in Philadelphia in his early 20s, which to me, is gigantic-mega-huge sign number one that Eraserhead has something to do with saying adios to adolescence and hola to young adulthood.

So what are you doing form the ages of 18-24? Well, not a whole lot, really, because you have to understand a.) who you are and b.) what the world around you actually is before you can have a firm sense of how you want to interact with your given environment. That means that instead of engaging in meaningful activity and building strong, long-term social ties, you are just traveling from point A to point B, following iron-tight schedules (be it from work or school), and not really paying attention to what s around you because a.) you do not know WHAT to make of it and b.) let's face it, a lot of the stuff we witness in day to day life is so depressing and unnerving that we basically FORCE ourselves to not think about certain aspects of our daily lives.

Much like the main character in Eraserhead, us young adults know where we think we need to be, but at the exact same time, we are unquestionably lost in the gigantic, unfathomably huge world around us. That leads to the question of whether or not we are moving ahead or just in circles, which is not only a massive component of the Eraserhead storyline, but pretty much a universal quandary all twenty-somethings have to ask at one point or another.


Meeting the parents will ALWAYS be a scarring experience

OK, so adulthood has a lot of negatives (having to work, doing lots of studying, bills, taxes, car insurance, so on and so forth) but on the plus side, it does have its obvious pros. Now that you are a somewhat independent adult, you are free to commingle with as many people as you want, and that means even if you were a complete loser in high school, you ought to get at least one or two pity dates in college. But even in the positives, there are negatives to be found, and alike most astute coming of age tales, Eraserhead zeroes in on just such a striking negative-within-a-positive.

During one scene, Henry visits his girlfriend s parents for dinner - whom proceed to berate him with tales about injuries sustained on-the-job several decades ago and feed him miniature, bloody chickens before accusing him of getting their daughter knocked up with a mutant lizard baby. On the surface, this seems to be surreal plot structuring just for the sake of surreal plot structuring, but once you get out there in the real world. . .this is actually a pretty authentic take on one of Western societies most nerve-wrecking traditions.

Sure, sure, your girlfriend's parent may not try to jam tiny poultry down your throat hole or show you their grisly knee injuries while dinner cooks, but that is not to say that you WONT experience almost-equal oddities in your early adult dating years.

Being told to get baptized by an angry father. Having the mother of your date hit you up for money so she can go buy ointment cream (leading you to wonder if THAT is what you will be waking up next to a good thirty years down the line.) Getting flashed by a fifty year old, and having a grown man threaten to toss a rake through your windshield - all these are peculiarities that await you, because by gum, they all happened to me. Eraserhead is one of the few movies I have seen that really nails that weirdness of dating and having to deal with your parents' generation in the process. . .at the end of the day, Lynch's take on American courtship really is not as baseless as it would appear at first glance.


Get ready for existential thoughts en masse

The very first image we see in Eraserhead is that of a mysterious man inside a comet, fiddling with knobs and switches as the meteorite flies through what we assume to be space.

At one point, Henry has a dream(?) where a woman with massive cheeks sings the line in heaven, everything is fine over an over again will stomping on sperm monsters. A little bit later on, Henry has another fantasy(?) in which his head is ripped off and processed into a pencil (thus giving the film its namesake, in case you never figured that out on your own.)

Clearly, Eraserhead is the kind of movie that requires abstract thought on behalf of the viewer, and for those that take the time to analyze the film in a less linear mindset, you ultimately realize that the film is about finding meaning in more ways than just one.

Eraserhead began life as this really weird movie about adultery, which slowly morphed into the all time cult classic we know today. The momentum shift in the film s production, the urban legend says, is that one afternoon, Lynch flipped to a random passage in the bible, and that line influenced him so much that he decided to go full-steam-ahead with the movie s new direction. Lynch - being the enigma that he is - said that he would never publicly reveal which passage he came across, but if I had to fathom, it would be James 1:18 - a double minded man is unstable in all his ways.. Like I said, I could be wrong, but if I had to make an educated guess, that would be my bet.
And so, Eraserhead is a very spiritual film - spiritual being the exact term Lynch uses to describe his work. One could say that Eraserhead is a metaphor for a man facing a religious crisis, having no idea whether or not god (possibly represented by the man in the comet?) exists and wields influence over his own life. Perhaps the film could be an allegorical tale about an atheist, facing incredible pressure in his day to day life, wanting to confide in religion once again as a quick fix to his earthly problems (the intended meaning of in heaven, everything is fine, perhaps?) Or maybe, just maybe, Eraserhead is about responding to the myriad crises we all face in daily life, and just trying to find something, ANYTHING that has a real semblance of value to us? Interpreting Eraserhead is almost analogous to the existential dilemma we face as human beings in genereal: is there really a point to any of this?


Forget the Boogeyman: your new worst nightmare is getting your girlfriend knocked up

As a kid, you really do not have all that much to worry about (at least as far as duties and responsibilities are concerned, anyway), so a lot of times, you just MAKE UP things to be afraid of. The monster under the bed, the demon in the closet, the tree that wants to eat you, etc. However, as you become an adult, your fears mutate from being worries of the supernatural variety to being worries of the EXTREMELY natural variety: out go bad dreams about Jason and Sasquatch, and in come nightmares about losing your job, failing an exam, not having enough money to pay rent, and the absolute UNFATHOMABLE for all twenty-something males. . .getting the GF preggers.

OK, so I am being somewhat sexist here, as I am pretty sure that getting knocked up is a gigantic fear for a lot of female twenty-somethings, too. That said, as a free-roaming male, the mere thought that you could be responsible for bringing another human being into this world is enough to make even the most stoic of young adults shiver like a sheered sheep.

Apparently, this something that David Lynch likewise experienced, since the gist of Eraserhead is pretty much about that very fear. Of course, Lynch being Lynch, he decides to up the ante by making the baby something completely inhuman, thus exemplifying the main character s inability to view the fruits of his loins as something he wants in his life.

To this day, Lynch refuses to tell people what exactly he used to make the baby in Eraserhead. The Wikipedia entry insinuates that it was crafted out of a cow fetus, but I had a friend that told me that it was probably a golf club instead. . .which, when you really think about it, is kind of believable. No matter what the thing is, however, the viewer is not primed into seeing the baby as anything even remotely human OR desirable, which is exactly what guys my age think about the prospect of being fathers as a whole. Perhaps to Lynch (and a whole lot of other guys, too), the child represents the death of ones dreams as an adult, the definitive end to ones wants and desires as a member of culture. Without spoiling the ending, it is pretty much APPARENT that fatherhood is something Henry wants no part of, as he totally ignores the child's cries, even when it comes down with what looks like smallpox.

Is Henry a bad father, or is he justified in abandoning something no human being should be beholden to? Think carefully, because your answer here is ultimately your answer about child-rearing in general. . .


If you are not careful, your job WILL become you

There is a downright tremendous scene in Eraserhead in which the main character, Henry, has a vision of being decapitated and turned into a number two pencil. To literal minded viewers, it is just a weird and freaky assed scene, but for those of us that actually understand SUBTEXT, we know exactly what kind of point Lynch is trying to make here.

Did you ever notice how the movie - which details all of these major, life-changing events for a working class 20-something - occurs on his vacation? The viewer has reason to believe that if Henry just would have stayed at work, none of the kooky stuff that transpires in the film would have likely happened - which is precisely what I believe Lynch is warning us about.

When Henry is turned into an eraser (and then promptly given to a middle-class looking father and son - a super subtle jab on wealth inequity and class structure in the United States?), he has quite literally turned into his job. Apparently, Lynch feels as if us youngsters have a tendency to base our defining traits and characteristics on what we do as a profession, thus indenturing ourselves to a certain employer. Per Lynch, perhaps, in our search for understanding and meaning as twenty year old kids, we may unwisely select our job (even if it is a low-paying, less-than-fulfilling one) as our calling, and as a result. . .we end up doing a grand total of NOTHING in our lives. It seems to me that Lynch is making the argument that being complacent with one's employment is a dangerous, dangerous thing. . .you know, the sort of thing that could result in you getting robbed (or is it rubbed?) of the future you so desperately want to lead.


Yeah, those hormones will DEFINITELY get you in trouble at some point

Although I really would not call Lynch an advocate of temperance or abstinence by ANY stretch, it seems to me that he IS advising us youngsters to use gumption - and if need be, physical restraint - to keep from making impulsive decisions that could SERIOUSLY jeopardize our long term life goals.

Obviously, the mutant baby is one such example of the merits of keeping your libido under control, but what about the scene where Henry cheats on his girlfriend (whose namesake - Mary X - may in fact be symbolic of our tendency to drift from romantic liaison to liaison) with the aptly named Beautiful Young Woman Across The Hall?

Even though Henry is already in deep dookie (you would think siring a mutated chicken nugget monster would be ENOUGH to keep you away from unprotected nookie), he decides to give into his instinctual urges and make love to the mysterious woman anyway. . .resulting in him literally sinking into an abyss within the mattress for his efforts.

Long story short, Lynch is basically telling you the same thing your eighth grade health instructor taught you. . .only replace Chlamydia with committing infanticide and getting sucked into a heating vent and its pretty much the same lecture you received way back when. Heck, even if you AREN'T seeing the film as a parable for coming down with some weird STD, the movie serves as a reminder that instant gratification oft leads into long-term damage for those that elect to live by such from-the-seat-of-their-pants decisions. Believe it or not, at some point, you will end up meeting and starting a relationship with a girl you genuinely care about, and inevitably, you WILL get tempted into besmirching her trust by doing something impulsive and reckless with another girl. Now, is it really WORTH risking such a relationship on a hormone-fueled whim? Well the next time you even CONSIDER cheating on your true and faithful girlfriend, just remember how well things worked out for old Henry here. . .


Adulthood doesn't begin until YOU decide to take some responsibility

Alike most great independent films, the story behind the filming of Eraserhead is every bit as entertaining and awe-inspiring as the movie itself. The feature film - which was funded by an American Film Institute endowment - took Lynch FIVE years to finish. . .and if you think THAT'S dedication to the project, note that lead actor Jack Nance kept that iconic bouffant haircut for the duration of the filming!

If there's a lesson behind Eraserhead - its production or the film itself - it is that adulthood really does not begin until we want it to. That means accepting the bruises, the lumps, the setbacks and making sacrifice after sacrifice to gain true independence as a human being. At the end of the day, being an adult simply means being responsible for your own predicament - if you become a successful banker, its your own doing, and if you end playing a kazoo on the subway for pocket change, it's equally your doing.

To succeed, at pretty much ANYTHING, you have to have dedication and a sense of responsibility. Being free really does not mean being able to do whatever you want as much as it means being able to accept the consequences of the things you do. Ultimately, all of the crazy, outlandish and downright horrific things that happen to Henry throughout the movie occur because of his own doings. Adulthood, as Lynch seems to suggest here, is so unbelievably frightening BECAUSE we are naturally afraid of being responsible for our own lives.

I have always considered the Lady in the Radiator song to be indicative of our homesickness as young adults. In heaven, everything is fine the cherubic woman sings over and over: to me, that scene represents the lack of responsibility we experienced as children and teenagers, and that as young adults, in our most pressing of times, we want to go back to having our parents make all our decisions for us.

At the end of the day - and I firmly believe that this is the fundamental question that Eraserhead makes us ask - is whether or not we really want our own lives. Do we want to be responsible for our own actions, and in charge of fulfilling our own dreams, or do we want to defer our lives to someone or something else? Now THAT is something we all encounter in our twenties - even if it does not necessarily entail fathering seahorse-faced mutant toddlers and being serenaded by deformed beauty pageant entrants.

It is almost IMPOSSIBLE for me to comprehend that Eraserhead is a 35 year old film. Although a lot of movies are promoted and considered all time cult classics, I think that Eraserhead is one of the few universally-recognized ones that stands out as a truly timeless piece of independent art - hell, there had to have been some people out there that thought the same, since the movie was added to the National Film Registry several years ago.

If you have not seen the film, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD IN THIS WORLD, SEE IT. And for those of you that have seen it, I would encourage you to give it another viewing with the seven life lessons listed above in mind as you watch it. It may just give you a new perspective on not only the movie, but life in general - and I would love to hear from readers that scoop out different interpretations than the ones I have listed.

Eraserhead is not just required Halloween viewing, it is pretty much required viewing for anyone that loves film and studying the human mind. That, and it touches upon perhaps the most unviersal, yet unstated of fears: nothing is scarier than growing up, and Eraserhead positively NAILS the terror that accompanies the awe of becoming an adult better than just about any form of art I have yet seen.

James Swift is a freelance writer and author of two books, How I Survived Three Years at a Two-Year Community College: A Junior Memoir of Epic Proportions and Mascara Contra Mascara: A Tale of Two Masks. Follow him on Twitter at JSwiftMedia, or subscribe to his YouTube channel at
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