David Lynch’s first feature film, Eraserhead, is considered by many to be his strangest, due to its dark industrial imagery and dissonant sound design. This essay examines the function of audible noise in Eraserhead within the context of 1970s deindustrialization and argues that noise is a key but overlooked element of the film’s overall aesthetic design—an homage to the sounds and imagery of a fading and faded industrialized United States. Listening closely firmly establishes this impression: The sound design contributes substantially to the film’s synchretic surrealism, and its ambiguity through multilayered mechanical sound highlights listeners’ interpretive practices, particularly in comparison to most films’ use of a soundtrack to dictate rather narrowly an audience’s emotional response. Gaps between what audiences hear and what they see in Eraserhead create a void strongly suggestive of loss and longing—an impression Lynch, though often reticent about his work, has indicated in many interviews over the decades. Though many studies address the fact of the film’s innovative sound design, few examine it closely in relation to its narrative and visual elements within any sort of historical context or within Lynch’s deeply idiosyncratic aesthetic sensibility. In so doing, this essay not only highlights Lynch’s remarkably consistent aesthetic but also stresses why and how Eraserhead’s sound design is an outlier, opening up, as it does, the expressive possibilities in an unconventionally noisy soundtrack.
“Beautiful, If You See It the Right Way”: David Lynch and Eraserhead’s Aural Tableau of Industrial America
Leah Toth is an assistant professor of English at St. Norbert College, where she specializes in modern literature, film, and sound studies. She is also a musician who has toured internationally and currently records experimental music under the name amelia courthouse and runs a boutique record label called Footfalls Records.
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Leah Toth; “Beautiful, If You See It the Right Way”: David Lynch and Eraserhead’s Aural Tableau of Industrial America. Resonance 1 March 2021; 2 (1): 52–65. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/res.2021.2.1.52
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