“For in truth I was looking at a collection of ancient machines that had no meaning: all syntax, no semantics. I was claiming I saw a meaning in it. But this meaning had no reality, outside of my mind. I had brought it into the hall with me, carrying it in my head, and now I was playing games with semantics by pasting it onto these iron monuments.”
— Neal Stephenson, Anathem
The Lady in the Radiator is the heroine of Eraserhead. That’s right: the heroine. I’ve been thinking about this since 2010, when I began my first serious attempt to get inside the artistic process that led to Eraserhead. I have read no interpretation that comes close to giving her proper place in David Lynch’s mythic meta-dreamscape. What follows is my attempt to explore at least some of the thematic aspects of Eraserhead, especially as they pertain to The Lady in the Radiator.
But let’s not start with her. Let’s start with the film and work backward toward her role. Let’s start at the beginning. Let’s start with Henry’s O face. If this expression, beginning at 3:53 in the Criterion edition and ending at 4:20 isn’t the first critical moment of the film, I don’t know what would be. It is this comically underplayed gesture – somewhere between an orgasmic “oh” and the more cerebral parallel, the “oh” of realization or of inspiration – that sets the rest of the action of the film into motion: At 3:53 Henry (Jack Nance) opens his mouth. Then, at 4:01, The Man in the Planet (Jack Fisk) involuntarily jerks his hand, as if in reaction to Henry’s expression. At 4:06 the “spermatozoa” issues from Henry’s mouth and comes to rest, floating horizontally beside Henry’s equally horizontal head. It is not until 4:28 that we see The Man in the Planet slowly begin to stir from his reverie. Eventually he turns his head toward the levers, twitches once again at 4:39, and reaches for the first lever at 4:50.
From this, I think it is clear that The Man in the Planet is not a god, as some interpretations suggest. This scene suggests a more directly drawn metaphor for natural processes. The Man in the Planet does not act to cause the events of the film. Henry acts by issuing the sperm which floats quietly beside him, pausing for a moment in a surrealist family portrait, before natural processes take over. Only then do the deterministic forces of the universe, as embodied by The Man in the Planet, seize control and send the sperm to its destiny, first swimming away from Henry’s head (lever 1 at 4:50), then approaching the radiant, womblike puddle (lever 2 at 5:03), at last dropping with a frothy splash into the puddle (lever 3 at 5:14) punctuated by the sound of steam building up to the shrill scream of pressure releasing through a whistle at 5:29.
The first appearance of the sound of rushing steam at this exact moment is emblematic. Steam is the force which carries this film forward. It is the non-corporeal agent of The Man in the Planet, actively flowing through the pipes of deterministic destiny.
In order to more fully understand a film that is essentially Lynch’s graduate thesis, I think it is fair to compare themes developed here with the broader themes that emerge from the body of Lynch’s early work. In addition, this analyst plans to take totally unfair advantage of his personal knowledge of the physical landscapes Lynch inhabited in Philadelphia, where he has repeatedly stated the germ of this tale was born.
Let’s begin by comparing The Man in the Planet with another powerful, deformed character: Baron Vladimir Harkonnen from Lynch’s 1984 film of Frank Herbert’s Dune. In a 1985 interview with Herman Weigel (http://www.davidlynch.de/tiplynchtrans.html) Lynch expounds: “Just take the Baron for example… To me, he`s like a steel mill. He`s got power, great and simple power like a steel mill. Not like a modern factory, but like big steel rivets in a steel tower. That`s my favorite thing…”
The image below should show the reader how this description relates to the landscapes in Philadelphia’s Callowhill District, where Lynch lived in 1966. On the left, we see a promotional shot of the Harkonnen character. On the right we see literal rivets in a literal steel tower, as embodied by the Willow Street Steam Plant which stands four blocks from Lynch’s first Philadelphia home.
Harkonnen is the “force behind the story” in Dune. Without his evil machinations, the Paul Atreides character would never experience the pressure necessary to find his destiny. The same is true for Eraserhead. In Eraserhead, The Man in the Planet is the “force behind the story.” The narrative parallels are clear. The physical parallels are even clearer. Including the rivets.
Both characters represent the darker side of destiny. In Lynch’s thematic parlance, they are the dumb, mechanistic aspect of existence, whether driven by the “ancient machines” of physics or biology.
By equating these characters to one another – and by equating them both with the image of an actual steam-generation plant that was very likely directly responsible for many of the literal steam sounds surrounding Lynch in Philadelphia, sounds which Lynch and sound designer Alan Splet faithfully translated to Eraserhead – we begin to see the steam itself as the agency of The Man in the Planet. The steam that deeply permeates the soundtrack of this world is the “power, great and simple,” the sense of deterministic destiny that drives the story after the birth of Henry’s “alchemical child.”
Make no mistake: deterministic destiny does not imply the lack of free will, here. Choice is key in this film. However, having chosen to act, often the machineries of nature take over and lead us to conclusions that are seemingly unrelated to our original moments of “Oh!” Once the alchemical child of your will and inspiration leaves your mouth, it is yours to control no more.
We can borrow a phrase from Lynch’s Philadelphia neighbor, Edgar Allen Poe, to label this section of the film as “A Dream within a Dream.” As many other analysts have pointed out, Lynch has arranged this entire production to highlight the dreamlike qualities of cinema. Some sections, however, are far more dreamlike than others, including these first six minutes and twenty-five seconds. As our point of view zooms up and out through the hole/puddle at the end of this sequence, we are born into Henry’s waking world.
The exact look of this waking world very strongly resembles the Callowhill District in Philadelphia, PA, where Lynch lived in 1966. Since Lynch has referred to Eraserhead as his “Philadelphia Story” this is not a surprising comparison. Henry walks through a landscape that anybody familiar with this section of Philadelphia will instantly recognize, despite the fact Lynch shot the film elsewhere (There is even a direct reference to the above mentioned Willow Street Steam Plant.) In truth, the real architecture in Callowhill is just a bit more sinister than the sites in Las Angeles Lynch chooses for proxies.
One of the first things we meet, as we watch Henry stagger across the blasted industrial landscape he calls home, is yet another puddle. Of course, the shape of this puddle exactly matches the womblike dream puddle that welcomed Henry’s seed. This time Henry splashes thoughtlessly through the crater, showing only annoyance and dismay at its very presence.
It is very tempting to read the beginnings of a misogynistic theme into this moment. This is an especially easy conclusion to draw when the scene precedes encounters with four less than admirable women, all of whom seem to represent real human characters and not pure archetypes like The Man in the Planet. Beautiful Girl across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts) stares at Henry like a starving child outside a shop window while she relays the message that Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) has invited him to dinner with her family. Wailing Mary X herself, along with her glossolaliac, neck molesting mother (Jeanne Bates) and catatonic, smoking grandmother (Jean Lange) all seem trapped family women, who have given away their lives for their children. The litter of noisily suckling puppies in their home only serves to underscore the accursed fecundity that dominates the X household as totally as the omnipresent sound of steam. The horrific menstruating roast chicken sequence hardly seems necessary to bring this point home.
Fortunately, the loquacious Bill X (Allen Joseph) in this scene mollifies the misogyny a bit, simply by presenting an equally trapped male figure. He rants, “Oh. Printing’s your business? Plumbing’s mine. For 30 years now. I’ve watched this neighborhood change from pastures to the hell-hole it is now! … I put every damn pipe in this neighborhood. People think that pipes grow in their homes. But they sure as hell don’t! Look at my knees! Look at my knees!”
If the steam is the underlying motive force here, Bill X’S plumbing is deeply enmeshed in its service. Pipes have taken his youth, his knees, and his good left arm. When he’s not frozen in a maniacal grin, he swerves wildly between kind sympathy with Henry’s predicament and screeching resentment of his own. He is the only literally human male character in the film other than Henry. He is no more admirable than the equally human, equally fallible women.
In fact, nobody in this film possesses much of a compass. They are all hopelessly lost in an urban wilderness. They all seem to struggle helplessly with their burdens, whether parenting, sexual fidelity, or both. Mary X’s frustration with – and ultimate abandonment of – her deformed child is no more shocking than Henry dreaming of relations with The Beautiful Girl across the Hall, whether we are to believe this relationship consummated literally or only in a dream.
But, once again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before any of this happens, we are introduced to Henry and Mary and the child attempting to make a family together in Henry’s tiny apartment. At 35:35, Henry gets his first look inside the apartment’s radiator, and notices the tiny stage in there. It’s just a tantalizing glimpse, at this point, but it’s Henry’s first clue that there might be something more than just steam and pipes ruling the world… that maybe there is something else expressed through this rough medium. Soon he loses Mary, and endures his lone vigil watching over his wheezing, pockmarked child.
Only after he collapses in exhaustion does the radiator reclaim his attention, this time opening to show its inner mysteries. From her tiny, secret proscenium embedded in the heart of the very vehicle of the steam itself, The Lady in the Radiator seems to gleefully welcome Henry while happily crushing the oversized sperms that rain down from the fly loft, all to the tune of Digah’s Stomp on the pipe organ. If the sperms represent Henry’s sins, as others have suggested, they mean less than nothing to The Lady in the Radiator. If we accept a slightly more moderate posture – that the sperms are the deterministic outcomes of actions over which Henry has little voluntary control – her destruction of them makes even more sense. She is a sprite that lives within the steam, not a creature of the steam. She is Goddess personified. Ultimately, she will be revealed as Redemption.
When Henry seemingly awakes from this dream of Redemption, he thinks Mary has returned, and is bruxing loudly while taking up most of the bed. After his encounter with The Lady, Henry suddenly has a new power: He can now retrieve his seeds from Mary’s body. He regrets soiling her, and now he can do something about that!
I detect an echo of this moment years later when, in Blue Velvet, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) tells Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper): “I have a part of you with me. You put your disease in me. It helps me. It makes me strong.” Later she tells Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) the same thing. Jeffrey clearly regrets this momentary indiscretion, even before the naked, disoriented Vallens leeringly delivers the same news to Jeffrey’s paramour, Sandy Williams (Laura Dern).
This is also a good moment to once again use themes that arise in later Lynch films to throw light on Eraserhead. Blue Velvet – in my opinion Lynch’s clearest and most accessible film – is a perfect candidate for this approach. It’s fairly easy to draw very rough parallels between characters in each film:
|Henry Spencer||Jeffrey Beaumont|
|The Man in the Planet||Frank Booth|
|The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall||Dorothy Vallens|
|Mary X||Sandy Williams|
Even though Henry may have “put his disease” in both women in Eraserhead, the dynamic between Vallens and Williams is clearly similar to the dynamic between The Beautiful Girl across the Hall and Mary, only drawn by a more mature, more worldly, more experienced filmmaker. Mary X and Sandy Williams represent attraction to the light, the clear, and the comfortingly mundane. The Beautiful Girl across the Hall and Vallens represent attraction to the shadow, in a totally Jungian sense.
This is not an absolute, though. It is true that Vallens’ darker nature deeply occupies her, making her vulnerable to people like Frank Booth. She is not, herself, evil. She makes that very clear, telling Jeffrey: “I’m not crazy. I know the difference between right and wrong!” Correspondingly, Williams is just as excited by Jeffrey’s “investigations” as he is, even though she doesn’t initially understand the depths his explorations have taken him to. In Eraserhead, The Beautiful Girl across the Hall is nowhere near as clearly drawn as Vallens. Mary X, however is much more a dynamic balance than Sandy Williams: she tries her very best to follow the drearily mundane path her mother – and her grandmother before her – likely followed. In her first scenes in Henry’s apartment, we can see her struggling to force herself to love her child. She pretends to smile happily down on it, as if “fake it ‘till you make it” can eventually substitute for a mother’s love. …but she just cannot find love in her heart for this creature. These are the places where the easy conclusions of misogyny break down: these women are clearly complex, deeply flawed individuals, just like Henry and Bill X. Just like all humans, everywhere. They represent nothing more and nothing less.
Of course, Henry’s chance to “cleanse” Mary X is probably just another dream. If it is, it is a dream of forgiveness: Henry could easily imagine Mary as somebody who led him into a trap and then abandoned him there. Instead he dreams of owning his “disease” and freeing Mary from it. The fact that he discovers this ability in himself right after his first encounter with The Lady in the Radiator cannot be a coincidence.
It is ambiguous whether Henry is awake after this sequence, when he opens his front door on The Beautiful Girl across the Hall hovering in the darkness outside. With a simple, “where’s your wife,” The Beautiful Girl across the Hall makes Henry realize Mary is actually still gone. He dissembles, “she must have gone back to her parents again, I’m not sure,” all the while attempting to hide his child. Whether this scene is entirely a dream or not, it quickly becomes dreamlike, with the lovers slowly slipping deeper and deeper into a liquid bed, until only The Beautiful Girl across the Hall’s hair remains.
I cannot help but equate this moment with the moment in Blue Velvet when Jeffrey succumbs to Vallens’ cajoling and hits her. The hallucinatory images and sounds that follow that moment have exactly the same tone as the next Eraserhead sequence when The Beautiful Girl across the Hall seems to notice Henry’s child: The waters part and The Beautiful Girl across the Hall briefly comes face to face with the planet before backing off in revulsion, replaced by the second critical moment of the film: The Lady in the Radiator singing In Heaven.
Everything is fine
Everything is fine
Everything is fine
You got your good thing
And I’ve got mine
She clasps her hands in excitement, perhaps over the hope that Henry will soon be joining her. In fact, he timidly joins her on stage as soon as she finishes. He inspects the boards, perhaps checking for sperms, before looking directly at her. She opens her hands and offers him something unseen before being transfigured into brilliant light and vanishing. Henry pensively awaits her return. Instead he is briefly faced by The Man in the Planet. All I can say about the scene that follows is: “Just look at the Francis Bacon painting, below. Just look at it!!”
Seriously, the meta-dream completely fragments at this point, perhaps never to return to the same level of “reality” again. The barren tree, left floating in the background throughout the film, is suddenly featured onstage with Henry. Henry literally loses his head while the tree bleeds all over the stage floor. Henry’s raw neck metamorphoses into a copy of the child. The decapitated head drops through the floor, landing in a more realistic looking industrial wasteland.
In other words, Henry suffers a complete breakdown at this point. His dreams have taken over, and he cannot trust his senses anymore. The particularly interesting thing is this breakdown almost seems a result of his experience with The Lady in the Radiator. From her attitude just before she vanishes, she is offering him a gift. This fevered dream is that gift: She is somehow showing him something about the underlying nature of reality.
The comedy routine that follows would almost seem realistic by comparison to the previous moments, if we weren’t documenting the process of making pencil erasers out of our protagonist’s brain matter. Once again, Lynch has faithfully captured the tone of Philadelphia’s Callowhill District. Earlier, this tone seemed to represent his version of “reality” in this film. Here, at least two dream levels down from that reality, perhaps it represents underlying reality, instead?
It’s interesting to see the pencil-making machine installed in the X family dining room. Perhaps this was just economical re-use of a set here – or perhaps this is Lynch trying to underscore the message that Henry is still dreaming by borrowing distorted images of his waking life. I would also like to point out the modes of dress during this sequence: these are not characters that Lynch would have seen in Callowhill in 1966. They seem to represent industrialists and industrial workers from an earlier era when Callowhill was far more active and vibrant than Lynch ever saw. I’m almost tempted to imagine the entrepreneur in this sequence is intended to evoke Hymen L. Lipman, the Philadelphia inventor who patented the first pencil with an attached eraser in 1858. It’s very compelling to imagine Lynch putting this in as a subtle Philadelphia in joke. There’s no evidence supporting this theory, though. Lipman never manufactured pencils in the Callowhill district, or anywhere else. He sold his patent for $100,000 to Joseph Reckendorfer, who was unable to defend it against Faber, who were already manufacturing pencils with erasers. Despite the fact that mentioning Faber in this context makes one imagine this is exactly the sort of thing an art student in Philadelphia might find amusing, the idea remains nothing more than an interesting aside.
Nonetheless, critical moment from this segment appears at the ending, when shreds of pencil eraser blow into the air, where they glisten mysteriously against a dark background to the sound of wind in the distance.
It is highly doubtful that Lynch had read any Joseph Campbell before filming Eraserhead. Nonetheless, by his own admission, he very clearly experienced some shockingly powerful transformations while he was in Philadelphia, perhaps bordering on shamanic journey. In his own words:
- “All the buildings [in Philadelphia] were black, soot-covered, very pure, very filthy… it had a beautiful mood.” (https://www.vice.com/read/david-lynch-in-philly-a-city-he-hated)
- “The fear, insanity, corruption, filth, despair, violence in the air was so beautiful to me. It gave me a lot of ideas… and a certain way of seeing things.” (https://www.vice.com/read/david-lynch-in-philly-a-city-he-hated)
- “I never had what I consider an original idea until I was in Philadelphia.” (http://www.courierpostonline.com/story/life/2014/10/19/david-lynch-philadelphia-percolating/17548145/)
- “It all started for me in Philadelphia because it’s old enough, and it’s got enough things in the air to really work on itself. It’s decaying but it’s fantastically beautiful, filled with violence, hate and filth.” (http://www.thecityofabsurdity.com/quotecollection/philly.html)
- “It was fear, but it was so strong, and so magical, like a magnet, that your imagination was always sparking in Philadelphia…I just have to think of Philadelphia now, and I get ideas, I hear the wind, and I’m off into the darkness somewhere.” (http://www.thecityofabsurdity.com/quotecollection/philly.html)
Out of all this grows a tale of a young man who experiences a symbolic dismemberment: a mythic tale of virtual death and rebirth featuring a deformed, possibly daemonic, completely helpless alchemical child and its brilliantly incompetent father surrounded by a mysterious milieu of powerful, horrific figures.
I am not claiming the need for Lynch to have read Campbell to understand shamanic journey. Shamanism comes to those individuals who almost fall off the world, and manage to find their way back:
- “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, 30).
- “Shamanic constructions of identity are also illustrated in a universal feature of shamanic development, the death-and-rebirth experience. Shamanic development includes a crisis involving attacks by spirits that lead to the experience of death and dismemberment, followed by a reconstruction of the victim’s body with the addition of spirit allies and powers.” (Mariko Namba Walter, Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, Volume 1, 193)
At any rate, once the eraser shreds clear, we see Henry, whole and alone, back in bed in his apartment. The sounds of steam resume, and now we are as close to the real world as this film will allow us to get. Henry lies back in his bed and, for a moment, seems almost peaceful. His features slowly emerge from the shadow of his own arm. He shakes his head vigorously, as if coming to true wakefulness. The light and Henry’s posture suggest waking to a new morning after a particularly restful night. After he rises and dresses he contemplates his empty bed: Mary is still gone. Perhaps The Beautiful Girl across the Hall has never really been there. He stares thoughtfully into the distance while we see sunlight on the bricks outside his window. It is a brief moment of hope.
This moment quickly passes. Shortly, all is dark again and Henry watches out his window while two men struggle with one another beside another of the iconic puddles. The child lies quietly while Henry goes out to knock on the door across the hall. Getting no response there, Henry returns to his apartment, only to find the baby making noises that sound suspiciously like evil sniggering at Henry’s expense. Henry sulkily lies in his bed, to petulantly listen to more sniggering sounds. The radiator is cold, dark, and silent while other stimuli in the apartment each claim Henry’s attention in turn: the cupboard, the buzzing lamp, music in the hallway.
Eventually Henry very purposefully dresses and leaves the apartment, only to see The Beautiful Girl across the Hall entering her own apartment, accompanied by a clearly drunken older man who is caressing her bare back. She stares directly at Henry, and again we see Henry with the child’s head instead of his own. The real Henry slams the door to escape her gaze but peers through the keyhole long enough to see the door across the hall closing.
This cuts off Henry’s last visible avenue of escape. Not only has Mary rejected him and his child, The Beautiful Girl across the Hall has also rejected the child within him. At this moment Henry is truly alone with his own trinity of demons.
After crouching beside the door for a few moments, finally fully understanding the completeness of his isolation, Henry stands and marches over to the dresser, where he retrieves a pair of scissors. It is at last time to come to terms with the mystery of this child. (“Mother, they’re still not sure it is a baby!” as Mary X told us early in the film.) Whatever this deformed thing represents, it is clearly not a human baby. In fact, nobody who wasn’t present on the Eraserhead set is sure how Lynch managed the effect for this particular monster. This glistening, whining, wheezing, sniggering, long-necked, bulbous-headed, swaddled bundle of… something really defies a proper description. Swaddling isn’t even the proper word. The child is wrapped, mummy-like, in gauze bandages from its reptilian neck down. This mysterious creature is third member of the trinity that is driving Henry’s decaying state of mind.
Now that we have acknowledged the trinity of Man, Child, and Lady, it is interesting to compare the members to the astrological modalities of cardinal, fixed, and mutable. While I severely doubt Lynch had exactly this paradigm in mind while he was constructing Eraserhead, the comparison still throws light on the film. According to Wikipedia:
- “The word “cardinal” originates from the Latin word for “hinge,” since they each mark the turning point of a temperate season. They were called moveable by traditional astrologers because, as Bonatti says, the “air” changes when the Sun enters each of these signs, bringing a change of season.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardinal_sign_(astrology) )
- “In astrology, fixed signs are associated with stabilization, determination, depth and persistence. On the other hand, they are also inflexible, rigid, stubborn, opinionated and single-minded.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fixed_sign)
- “In astrology, mutable signs are associated with adaptability, extroversion, an analytical but sympathetic mindset and versatility. These signs mediate change and change their modes of expression frequently in order to meet this end, and they are often described as being diplomatic and assisting others through transitions.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutable_sign)
In this light:
|The Man in the Planet||Cardinal||Provides the “hinge” around which the film turns. He generates the steam that powers the entire world Henry inhabits. His reaction to Henry’s creative impulse is the season change the film documents. In Eraserhead, this figure also symbolizes the lower self, where animal urges live.|
|The Child||Fixed||There is nothing in human experience more persistent, inflexible, rigid, and stubborn than a baby. In this case the child is what is trapping Henry in place in his apartment for most of the film. In Eraserhead, this figure also symbolizes the middle self, the self that lives in this world and preoccupies itself with what Buddhism calls, “the 10,000 things.”|
|The Lady in the Radiator||Mutable||Clearly Henry needs to change something to get out of the trap he is in. The Lady in the Radiator displays exactly the kind of sympathetic mindset he needs, coupled with the gift of the shamanic journey. With her inspiration, Henry can change his mode of expression to see himself clearly enough to break free. In Eraserhead, this figure also symbolizes the upper self, where higher aspirations live.|
Throughout the film Mary and Henry have fed the child and treated it when it seemed ill. There has been no sign of elimination. The mysterious wrap has remained in place. Now we become certain even Henry doesn’t know what lies beyond the gauze as he trepidatiously snips through it while the child wails. The gauze spreads like a pair of insect wings slowly unfolding for the first time to expose the rest of the child is nothing more than a pair of bulbous internal organs.
Twice, now, we have seen Henry’s head replaced by the child’s head. We all know that the child is an aspect of Henry himself. At least, it is the stubborn, fixed part of himself that is still somehow at home in this wasteland. At this point in the film the attentive audience member is already chanting “kill your darlings” right along with Arthur Quiller-Couch. That’s exactly what Henry does, spearing one of the testicle-like organs with his scissors, resulting in a spray of fluid and blood followed by a massive, foamy discharge. Henry flees to the corner of his room. The electricity goes wild, causing the lamp to flash and spark. The child’s neck extends, leaving the head suspended in midair four feet away from the growing mound of foam that is engulfing its body. The child’s head suddenly seems enormous and threatening, as if it will now swallow Henry whole. The light goes out, and we see the child’s head replaced by the planet. For the first time we notice the planet has a distinct egg shape. It ruptures at the tip, revealing a hollow interior.
We see Henry’s head, silhouetted against shreds of pencil eraser blown into the air, glistening mysteriously against the dark background. Henry experiences some inner recognition as he faces the open egg of the planet. Filled with fear, he seems pulled into the darkness within, only to see The Man in the Planet struggling with the levers inside. The Man in the Planet seems to lose his struggle. Henry has chosen to reject his lower and middle selves, clinging to higher aspiration, instead. While this seems like death, every sufficiently terrifying adaptation can seem like death, at first. Instead of death, however the world fills with brilliance, and The Lady in the Radiator appears to rescue Henry, welcoming him home in a joyful embrace.
One clear echo of this embrace is the final moment in Blue Velvet, when Dorothy Vallens is reunited with her son. Of course, in Vallens’ case, the moment is soured by the realization that she is still captivated by her shadow. At the end of their reunion the music turns back to Vallens’ theme before the fade to black: If Blue Velvet were a slasher film and not, to borrow a phrase from author Roger Zelazny, “a philosophical romance, shot through with elements of horror and morbidity,” Little Donny (Jon Jon Snipes) would have risen up in a sequel to terrify Lumberton once again.
A clearer parallel would be the last moments in Elephant Man, when John Merrick (John Hurt) meets his mother (Phoebe Nicholls) in the stars, with her speech: “Never. Oh, never. Nothing will die. The stream flows, the wind blows, the cloud fleets, the heart beats. Nothing will die.”
The event that illuminates this resolution the best, however, is a story from Lynch’s time in Philadelphia, as reported by Philadelphia Inquirer Movie Critic Steven Rea in 2014:
In 1967, Lynch and Peggy Reavey were married. In April 1968, they had a daughter, Jennifer (who grew up to be a filmmaker and TV director). They moved into a brick trinity on Aspen Street.
Lynch had left the academy. “The realization came that being a father and being married, I needed to get a job,” he says. “I remember the day before I went to work, I was sawing wood, and I was almost crying – I loved sawing wood. I was sawing a 1-by-3 pine, and I was thinking my freedom was gone, and tomorrow I go into lockup.”
But lockup wasn’t so bad.
Lynch got a job with his friend, the gallerist Rodger LaPelle, making prints of drawings by LaPelle’s wife, Christine McGinnis, in the couple’s carriage house in Germantown.
“They supported themselves on Christine’s animal prints,” Lynch says. “I’d print alongside Dorothy McGinnis, Christine’s mother – we called her Flash – and Flash turned me on to The Edge of Night and Another World. . . . We’d watch TV and print.”
Thus, another piece of his Philadelphia experience was socked away for later use: the loping cadences of soap opera, reworked in Twin Peaks.
It is quite interesting to note that, among a collection of widely varied animal images, a surprising number of Christine McGinnis’s prints represent owls.
Additionally, Dorothy “Flash” McGinnis went on to perform in Lynch’s short The Grandmother, which attracted a grant from the American Film Institute (AFI), leading directly to Lynch’s time at the AFI Conservatory, where he made Eraserhead. So a moment of seeming total disaster was transformed into an opportunity for personal rebirth. Was Dorothy McGinnis the real Lady in the Radiator?