Sunday, 29 March 2009

Excerpt. The heterogeneity of the sound-image in Eraserhead

Sometimes ideas come into my mind that make me crazy.
David Lynch

In Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977) sound often accompanies changes in shot so that it thereby seems to provide the principle of editing shots or assembling them into segmented sound-images. ‘They are like image tensors, isolating the shots from one another even as they join them, drawing out the time of each shot in relation to its two boundaries, constituted by the two cuts confining the segment’ (Michel Chion). These sound-images are comprised of heterogeneous elements that are linked together in chains in relations of similarity and difference. There are linked chains of images that are segmented together along with a chain of sounds that are related to each other but not necessarily the images. The chains of images and sounds follow their own logic even as they are cemented together in sound-image segments. The images present the theme of psychosis while the sounds provide them with the consistency that, in the absence of language, would otherwise be missing.

The opening shots of Eraserhead in which Henry’s head floats above a planet, becoming briefly superimposed over it, establish the link between the head or mind and the alien planet that it creates, constitutes and occupies. It is a commonplace to say that psychotics live on ‘their own planet’ because they conventionally do not experience the same sense of shared reality as everyone else. At the same time, the title has not only brought into conjunction two disparate ideas, the head and the eraser, but also thereby the associated idea of the erasure of the head (and indeed the sign), the rubbing-out or loss of identity. ‘The psychotic’s ego ... is fragile’ and can shatter like the planet in Eraserhead when confronting the trauma that precipitates the psychotic break. Clearly this trauma is the onset of fatherhood (a common cause according to Lacan) something that is of course represented in the narrative, such as it is, but more powerfully conveyed in the horrifying images of childbirth and its hideous progeny.

The first series of images, the planet-head-eraser assemblage that seems to be linked together according to metaphorical relations of similarity – the planet is a head that with its distinctive haircut looks like an eraser – gives rise to a second series to which it is metonymically related. The idea of an alien planet naturally suggests aliens, an idea also conjured by the strange spirit-form that floats out of Henry’s mouth. Henry gives up the ghost but in the shape of an in-human ‘cord’ that seems to conjoin a spermatozoa with the umbilical cord that its successful fertilization produces in its germination of a baby. Not only are spermatozoa a kind of alien substance that is part and not part of a body, since Roswell in the 1950s generic aliens have taken the oval-headed smooth-bodied shape that suggests both a sperm and a foetus. It is also, of course, the shape of Henry and Mary X’s ‘baby’ that is comprised of just a head and a torso wrapped in bandages.

The metaphorical assemblage planet-head-eraser is therefore subordinated to the logic of metonymy concerning the trauma of childbirth that articulates the chain. The head fails to function as a paternal metaphor that might arrest the chain. Detached from the body, it becomes just one object among others. The severed head in Eraserhead functions a little like the enucleated eye in Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye (1982) in relation to the egg and the testicle, on the one hand, and the tears, yolk, sperm and urine on the other, all of which are placed into an erotic circuit of metonymy. ‘Using metonymical interchange’ writes Barthes, ‘Bataille drains a metaphor’ and abolishes it. Consequently, ‘the world becomes blurred; properties are no longer separate ... and the whole of Story of the Eye signifies in the manner of a vibration that always gives the same sound’ (Barthes).

In the absence of a paternal metaphor, the organizing principle of Eraserhead is sound, the continuum of which is given consistency through the resonance of the pipe. From the hiss and throb of steam pipes and boilers to the melodious tones of Fats Waller’s pipe organ, the pipe is the primary industrial object that resonates throughout the soundtrack. Furthermore, the paternal function as it is represented in both its failure and its insistence in the movie is bound up with pipes. While Mr. X., the only father (apart, perhaps, from Henry himself) represented in the film, has no name (no name-of-the-father), he has a function: he is a plumber. Both the symbolic burden and failure of paternal law is demonstrated by Mr. X when he passes on to Henry the role of carving the meat (usually undertaken in any case by his wife). Passed on to Henry (‘Do you carve these like regular chickens?’), the action of the knife produces a nightmarish scene of blood gushing through the legs of the chicken, waggling in the air as if in a disastrous birth or miscarriage. At the end of the scene, the father’s fixed grin indicates that he has sunk into a catatonic state itself suggesting genetic psychosis.

‘We are born in sound’, as they say, and Lynch’s superfield of ambient machine-pipe yet watery noise (steam, rushing water, whirlpools, storms) is neither diegetic nor non-diegetic. It constitutes the whole milieu which is both the social reality of the film and Henry’s psychic reality, the sound increasing and abating in intensity depending on the perplexity, anxiety and emotional turmoil of the central character. And indeed of the audience in so far as they identify with his predicament or are drawn into his world. We are enveloped by an amniotic, womb-like world that is as claustrophobic as it is nurturing. The ambient sound of Eraserhead is like a (psychic) body within a body and at significant moments the sound alternates between low frequency bass notes of the circulation of blood and the high intensity hissing of the nervous system, the latter especially at moments of anxiety associated with the spermcords or the proximity of the Lady in the Radiator. At their most intense, the sound of steam/hissing is joined by an incredibly high organ note for example when Henry is cutting open the baby’s bandages or when he is moving to touch the Lady in the Radiator. This hamster-like woman appears to conjure-up the maternal object of Henry’s childhood eroticism. She is first perceived in a rare moment of reverie when he is lying on the bed listening to the sounds of his wife feeding their baby. He begins to hallucinate and perceive the little stage and the tiny Lady upon it between the radiator pipes. We hear Fats Waller’s pipe organ again, though it is not clear whether the music is playing on the gramophone or in his head.

Music, as a ‘cut’ in noise, involves the repression of the noise that would engulf everything in its indifferent intensity. Ironically, this is again initiated when Fats Waller’s music seems to suggest to Henry the solution of killing the baby with the scissors. It plays as he lies on his bed picking at the blanket as the baby laughs at him in the corner. The baby is clearly Henry’s alter ego, his double, something that is confirmed when he imagines that the beautiful woman next doors sees him with the baby’s head, his own having already been erased through being turned into erasers. Locked within the intensity of the imaginary register, any faint symbolic power associated with Fats Waller gives way to the intense rush of ambient noise as Henry cuts open the baby’s bandages, repeating his attempt at carving the chickens, with an even more spectacular result in the production of bodily excess. With the murder of the baby that is effectively a self-murder or suicide, Henry confronts the void that was always there, his fragile ego-planet explodes, the imaginary persona pulling his levers loses control and the sound-image fuses in blinding white noise as he embraces ‘the dream of incestuous fusion’ (Chion) in the form of the Lady in the Radiator and goes to heaven. Where everything is fine.

Of course Henry actually kills himself by sticking his fingers into the electrical socket, hence the horripilation and halo. Electricity is evil.

From: ‘The Heterogeneity of the Sound-Image in David Lynch’s neuracinema’ forthcoming in François-Xavier Gleyzon (ed), David Lynch. Literaria Pragensia