Having just watched Eraserhead
format, allow me to say that it looked absolutely stunning
. Prior to this, I had only seen David Lynch's
-- which was, in turn, copied off of a laserdisc
! For a lot of the scenes in the VHS version, it's just too dark
to make out a lot of scenery
details, but the DVD takes care of all that, and so I saw all sorts of things this time around that I absolutely was not aware of the first dozen
or so times. Nothing major, but enough to give me a better appreciation of the film as a work of art
Forget about the art, though; what does it mean? Well, obviously, the film is about a man who impregnated a woman and is trying to decide if abortion is the best route for her to go. Of course, it's also obvious that the film is about a couple trying to make it through the arduous first couple of months of their relationship. And, lastly, it is soooo totally obviously an autobiographical piece about David Lynch and his art. In addition to all that, there are metaphors, microcosms inside of microcosms, a lady in a radiator, and a petrified cat. (Note that all the "obvious"es here are typed jokingly.)
In the prologue to the film, we see Henry Spencer (Jack (or John) Nance) looking in the direction of the camera, seeming to float in the air, situated horizontally instead of vertically. As he's hovering, he's superimposed over this black planet. Soon, we travel inside the planet and see some scarred person (Jack Fisk) looking out the window, with a bunch of levers to his left. Cut back to Henry, this time with a kind of long, gooey thing superimposed over the length of his body, with the head of the gooey thing in the same spot as Henry's head. Cut back to the scarred gentleman, and he pulls one of the levers; when this happens, the gooey thing exits Henry, travelling upward (actually, to the right) and seemingly out of Henry's head. The scarred guy pulls a couple more levers, and the gooey thing lands in a puddle. There's a close-up on the puddle, then a fade to black, and then the camera moves through the blackness into a circle of light. As the circle expands, we see Henry in front of some huge concrete structure (an overpass or a bridge of some sort, perhaps).
Before continuing with the story proper (that first bit having been more of an introduction or a prologue than part of the actual story), though, let's talk some about that prologue. It is during this scene, I think, that he impregnates Mary X (Charlotte Stewart). First of all, he's horizontal. Yeah, in actuality, he was probably just standing upright and then Lynch turned the camera, but the end result is that Henry is horizontal throughout this prologue. Secondly, the long, gooey thing kinda looks like some Lynchian version of a sperm. Third, Henry emits the sperm (albeit from the wrong end) when the scarred man in the black planet pulls a lever. I think that the black planet is supposed to represent Henry's head/mind, and the scarred man is supposed to represent Henry's consciousness/intellect/id/whatever. So, when the scarred guy pulls a lever, Henry acts. Since the sperm was emitted from Henry right after the scarred guy pulled a lever, the sperm emission must have been some sort of action -- an orgasm, for example. The fourt point of my supposition that the prologue is Henry's impregnation of Mary X is the pool of water in which the sperm lands, which I take to represent one of Mary X's eggs, or Mary X's reproductive system/organs in general.
This prologue does for us what all good prologues are supposed to do: it sets the scene, so that we have a good idea of what is going on when the story actually begins. In this case, the scene is that Henry Spencer has knocked up some girl, and the story actually begins with the shot of Henry looking back over his shoulder, with that bridge/overpass/whatever looming over him.
The next several scenes do for us what the beginning of all stories are supposed to do: establish a setting. Henry weaves his way through various industrial playgrounds, climbing hills, walking around pipes, sauntering down deserted streets, and so on. One of the very important things he does while he's traversing this industrial wasteland, though, is to accidentally step into a puddle. Remember that I said earlier what the puddle represented, and then, later on, remember that I'm telling you right now that Henry's stepping into the puddle is foreshadowing an event that happens after the film has ended.
Before he can get into his apartment, the beautiful woman across the hall (Judith Anna Roberts) comes out of her apartment to tell him that a girl named Mary has called. Mary, it turns out, has invited Henry over to dinner to meet her parents. Henry thanks her and goes inside, putting down his grocery bag (though who knows what's in it?), putting on some soft music, taking off one of his shoes, and drying his sock ("goof geeks" out there will note that he dries his left sock, even though he stepped in the puddle with his right foot) on the radiator. He kinda-sorta loses himself in contemplation of the radiator, which is something we will see him do later on. He snaps himself out of his reverie, though, looks out his window (the view being a brick wall), and then heads over to his dresser.
The dresser, I think, represents his body, just as the black planet represents his head. The middle drawer is filled with pudding and peas (this is an outtake I read about; in the actual extant version of the film, we don't know what's in any drawer but the top), thus representing his stomach; there's a huge pile of hair (actual hair!) on the top of the dresser, thus representing his hair; and the very top drawer is full of miscellaneous bric-a-brac, including a picture (memory/thought) of Mary, thus representing his head/mind. So, when Henry goes to his dresser drawer, takes out a picture of Mary, and looks at it, it's not as if he needs to look at this picture in order to remember who she is or what she looks like. Instead, the action is meant to represent his thinking about her; it's just a more interesting way to convey thought than to have him lie in bed and look off into space, leaving us to infer that he is thinking about Mary.
After he's looked at Mary for a while, he goes over to her house, both to meet the folks and to eat supper. I am of the opinion that this scene at the X's house (Mary's last name is X) is a microcosm of Henry's relationship with Mary, spanning the time between their first meeting or date and his impregnation of her. Yes, even though Lynch has already covered the fact that Henry impregnated a girl, he goes over it again.
First of all, when Henry's sitting in the living room, visiting with Mary and her mother (Jeanne Bates), things are very awkward, there's a lot of silence, and they all seem very uncomfortable. I suggest that things are like this because they would have been like that the first time Henry and Mary met or went out. After that, Bill X (Allen Joseph) tells a story about his arm. In some way, Bill injured his arm, and doctors told him that he would never be able to use it again. But he massaged it every day for a half-hour, and eventually it got better. Similarly, the doctors may have told Henry and Mary that the child they had would never survive, or would grow up hideously deformed, or something, and that they shouldn't expect much from it. But Henry and Mary being the troopers that they are, they took the baby in and did everything they could to make sure it turned out okay, just like Bill's arm turned out okay (if slightly messed up). When Bill had finished his story, Henry carves the man-made chicken, causing it to bleed. This should fairly obviously represent Henry's deflowering of Mary X. (I know, I know -- sex should come before childbirth and child rearing, but in this "microcosm" Bill talks about raising the child before Henry even gets around to doing Mary. All I can say is, this is Lynch.) Mary's mother's reaction to this deflowering is interesting to me. First, she seems to be rather enjoying herself, moaning in what could be construed as pleasure, before suddenly appearing to get nauseous and running into the kitchen to either escape the scene or throw up. If we think of Henry's carving of the chicken as his having sex with Mary, and if we think of Mary's mother's reactions as being those of Mary during that sex, it would seem like an orgasm (moaning with pleasure) has led to morning sickness (nausea and vomiting), which is of course a signal of pregnancy.
After that dinner scene (in other words, after Henry has gotten Mary pregnant), Henry learns from Mary's mother that a child was born, that he and Mary are to be married, and that he and Mary are to raise the child. The scene in the X's hallway is an interesting one, in that Mrs. X and Henry are on one side of a big, cylindrical, elbow-shaped black pipe, while Mary is cut off from them, isolated on the other side. She is on the right, in the corner, with nothing underneath her or behind her. And in front of her and above her is the pipe. I couldn't say what this says or means, but it's a really great shot, directorially and cinematographically. The film then cuts from that news to a shot in Henry's apartment of Mary X trying, without much success, to feed the baby, while Henry is going downstairs to check the mail.
Before moving on to the next scene, though, I think I should point out that it is entirely possible -- in fact, it is my belief -- that the scene in the X's house did not actually take place, nor do (m)any of the upcoming scenes. It seems relatively plausible, I think, that the entire movie is one man's (or one couple's) thought process about what to do when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. Eraserhead, then, may very well exist only in the mind of ol' Eraserhead himself, Henry Spencer. The prologue that we watched was the sex act itself; the dinner party was his own way of flashing back through his and Mary's relationship up until that point, and the hideously deformed fetus-looking baby is the result (if Henry chooses to make this fantasy a pessimistic one, as he clearly does) of the unwanted pregnancy he is currently thinking about. At this point in his thought process, he's just thinking to himself, "My God, what if this baby turns out to be more than we can handle?" I don't think he has thought about abortion yet, and you'll find out why soon.
Anyway, yeah, Mary is trying to feed the baby, but she's getting really fed up; in the meantime, Henry has gone downstairs to check the mail, and discovers that there's some kind of box in his mailbox. He takes the box outside, and, opening it up, finds ... some sort of little crescent-shaped (possibly fetus-shaped) piece of flesh (in reality, probably just Play-Doh), or something. My opinion is that this little piece of flesh (as I'll call it from here on out, for lack of any better descriptors) is the physical manifestation of his thought, "Abortion." He wasn't thinking about abortion before, but once this little piece of flesh finds its way into his life, he thinks about abortion constantly. And yet, he's ashamed that he thought of it, because when he comes back to the apartment he tells Mary that there was no mail; in other words, he didn't tell her what he was thinking about. And that night, when they go to bed, he hides the piece of flesh away in a cupboard, so that Mary won't know it exists.
Some time passes, and Mary finds that she's all but unable to take care of the baby. She hasn't slept in quite some time, the baby obviously doesn't like to eat, and all it ever does it cry, cry, cry. In a fit of exhaustion, she leaves, but not before wrenching a suitcase out from underneath their bed. This is just David Lynch having his way with the audience, I believe. The audience is all thinking to themselves, "Oh, my God, what kind of existential crisis is she going through, as she's down on the ground, staring at her husband through the 'prison bars' at the foot of the bed? What could this mean??" And then, of course, the suitcase had just gotten stuck underneath the bed, and all she was trying to do was get it free. I don't know how it fits in with the abortion schema, though, just like the pipe scene....
After that, we see Henry trying to take care of the baby, as Mary had told him to. This is where he starts (analogously) rubbing his arm for thirty minutes every day, trying to make it okay again. He tries to find love in his heart for this thing, sitting next to it, feeding it, and so forth. But the baby doesn't make it easy on Henry; any time he tries to leave, the baby starts crying like crazy. Of course, that Henry doesn't leave despite the crying shows how hard he's trying to love the baby. For the time being, he has locked the thought of abortion away in a cupboard, and is trying to think positively about what it would be like to heap his love onto a creature he helped to create.
I think it is worth mentioning, at this point, that the deformed baby both resembles a fetus (in a late stage of pregnancy, maybe?) and a little monster (which children are often called by their stressed-out caretakers). Henry, in all of his contemplation, never loses sight of either of these representations he has created in his head -- it is as if, while he's thinking about this "little monster," the fact that it also looks like a fetus reminds him that, in reality, right this second, it is still a fetus, so he still has time to abort. On the other hand, when he sees it as a fetus, he also can't shake the feeling that it is just a helpless, dependent living being that needs him. But neither characterization leaves his thoughts for a moment.
Anyway, when the baby turns out to be sick, Henry cares for it even more, doing anything he can to make sure it's feeling better or okay. It sure does cry a lot, though. In fact, we see him open up his cupboard during the worst of the baby's sickness, checking in on his little piece of flesh. After some more sitting down with the baby, Henry goes to lie down, and starts to concentrate on the radiator. After a while, the camera zooms into the radiator, and we see a stage. On the stage is the lady in the radiator. The lady in the radiator (Laurel Near) is there to take Henry's mind off of things. She offers warmth, safety, security, a kind of nothingness. The child is sick, so he's feeling bad; at the same time, though, he doesn't want to think about abortion, because he's trying to keep this fantasy as positive as he can. So, rather than deal with it, he escapes into the radiator, where the lady in the radiator dances around, stomping on (solving) his problems.
The next thing we see is Henry and Mary sleeping together, Henry way, way, way over on his side of the bed, Mary crowding him, sweaty, moving about frantically, and rubbing her eye. He's obviously very uncomfortable, and things get even worse when he finds more long, gooey things (similar to those in the prologue) in his bed. What with the baby being so sick and crying, and with Mary's making him uncomfortable, and with all those sperms he's finding in the bed, he finally says, "I've had it!" He begins to consider the abortion. After all, more long, gooey things could very well lead to more monstrous fetus-like children. He really thinks about the idea for the first time, playing with it, moving it around in his mind, giving it a chance to grow. (Verily, the little piece of clay crawls around and actually does get bigger.)
Then the abortion idea seems to swallow the camera, and from this -- and the next few minutes -- I believe we are to infer that the idea has won Henry over. After the camera has moved into (literally) the little piece of flesh, Henry considers that the abortion is done with, and so he starts to think about what life would be like without the hideously deformed baby. What happens is, he scores with the beautiful woman across the hall. The only problem is, he can't seem to get the baby completely off his mind (remember, this entire thing is going on in Henry's mind). So, even when he and the beautiful woman across the hall are alone together, the baby keeps creeping back into the picture by crying. Henry wants to fantasize about the beautiful woman across the hall, but he really can't stop thinking about the baby, even after he has seemingly decided that abortion (symbolized by the little piece of flesh swallowing the camera) is the best way to go. The baby is pervading his thoughts to such an extent, in fact, that even the beautiful woman across the hall, who is just a part of his fantasy and should theoretically be at his command, notices the baby and is horrified by it.
Then we see the lady in the radiator again. Henry, disappointed in the way his fantasy has turned out for him, decided to once again stop thinking about the situation, and just listen to the lady in the radiator sing. When she is done singing, though, and just as Henry is about to take her hand and accept the nothingness she offers, she disappears, and is replaced by the scarred gentleman from inside the black planet. In doing this, Henry seems to be forcing himself to make a decision. "You can't run away from this problem; you have to face it," the scarred dude is saying to Henry.
After this, a tree growing out of a rock (the tree growing out of a rock has a brother in the leaf-less tree growing out of a clump of dirt that sits on the nightstand in Henry's bedroom) rolls out from behind a curtain. Then, Henry's head pops off. Then, the tree starts bleeding. Then, Henry's neck cavity is filled by the head of the hideously deformed baby. Then, Henry's head, which is resting in a pool of blood (from the rock out of which the tree is growing), falls through the floor. Cut to a head dropping from out of the sky, falling on the concrete, and splitting open. A little boy runs by, picked up the head, and carries it into some store.
Okay, what was all that? I honestly don't know. As far as I can make out, it might be Henry's own self-destructive way of attaining the nothingness. If his own consciousness (the scarred guy) won't let him attain the nothingness that the lady in the radiator is offering, then maybe he's trying to forge his own special brand of nothingness, by decapitating himself and completely exiting the situation. Whereas before almost the entire movie had taken place in Henry's apartment, and 99.99% of the movie had taken place indoors, suddenly Henry's head finds itself outside, on the sidewalk, where it's actually moderately bright.
I believe it is also the case, though, that, in this scene, and in Henry's apartment, the trees represent, for Henry, the baby Henry and Mary may or may not have. Naturally, trees cannot grow out of rocks; and the trees that do emerge from this rock, and from the clump of dirt on a nightstand, are not very healthy. Similarly, a child cannot grow up to be mentally or physically healthy in the kind of sterile environment in which Henry and Mary live. By showing the trees growing (improbably, remember) out of rocks and clumps of dirt on a nightstand, we see Henry wondering whether he will have the ability to raise and support his child properly, which is of course a common concern among first-time parents-to-be.
At this point, Henry is up against a catch-22: if he and Mary decide to keep the baby, the environment in which they live would not be able to support it, and the baby would die; on the other hand, if he and Mary decide to abort the baby, it will never have been given a chance to live. Either way, the rock (or the roots of the tree, which are in the rock) is going to have to bleed.
So, rather than deal with the paradox of the catch-22, he loses his head and escapes to the outside world.
Where the boy actually takes the head, it turns out, is some kind of factory. A balding guy drills into Henry's head, fills up a tube with something, and plugs that tube into a hole in a machine. Then he starts the machine, and we see these long, cylindrical things start moving by in assembly-line fashion. They go in as pencils, and they come out as pencils with erasers on them. Quite literaly, Henry Spencer has become an eraser-head (and you thought it just had to do with his funky hairdo!). Why an eraser? Well, he doesn't want to think, he's trying to erase the memory of the things that had happened, etc. Maybe he's been ashamed this entire time of contemplating abortion.
(It has been suggested by a friend that this factory scene indicates Henry's putting his idea to have the abortion into motion. The pencils without erasers represent Henry as a being who can create (impregnate), but not destroy (abort). When the erasers get put onto the pencils, they are suddenly endowed with the power of eradication (abortion).)
The next thing we see is Henry waking up, indicating that it might all have been a dream (or a dream within a dream). He goes to knock on the door of the beautiful woman across the hall, but she's not home. When he gets back to his place, the baby starts laughing at him. So he lies back down to think about some things, hears faint strains of the music that accompanies the lady in the radiator, gets laughed at some more by his baby, and then hears something outside that might be the beautiful woman across the hall. When he checks, it is her, and she's with a guy. She acts horrified, and soon we see why: when we look at Henry from the beautiful woman across the hall's point of view, we see Henry's body underneath the head of the baby. She's with a gentleman caller, which of course upsets Henry greatly.
He closes the door, sinks to the floor, and decides that the time has come to be rid of the child. There is just no way (as evidenced by the previous scene) that he can live a "normal" life with a child. Going to the top drawer of his dresser (his mind) to obtain a pair of scissors, he comes back and cuts the baby in half (sorta; more or less). After Henry punctures the baby's lung, everything starts going crazy. The baby starts exploding and spitting up blood, the lights flicker, sparks are shooting from the outlets, Henry imagines that there's a gigantic version of the hideously deformed fetus-looking baby floating around his room.
And then, suddenly, nothing. The light bulb that was flickering goes out, and we cut to a shot of the black planet. After a second or two, it explodes. We also see Henry standing in front of a black backdrop, eraser shavings floating around his head. The planet continues to blow up, and we continue to see Henry standing there, shivering. We move to the interior of the black planet, where the scarred man is trying to return the levers to their original positions, but is failing. Sparks are flying, and he's trying to move those levers, but ... what's done is done.
When Henry decided to go ahead and abort the baby (since it's at the end of the movie, it would seem that abortion is his final decision), his world/head/mind exploded. He must have immediately known it wasn't the right thing to do, when everything started going berserk. After all, no matter how hideous or deformed or fetal the baby is, it is still something that he created, that he lent his DNA to. The baby is a part of him, so when he decided to kill it a part of his world explodes, too.
So, it would seem that Henry (perhaps unwisely) chose abortion. I want you now to recall what I said about how Henry's stepping into the puddle is foreshadowing. Well, if the puddle represents the sperm/egg union (and I think it does, given the prologue), then Henry's stepping into it would indicate that he is going to destroy that union. Even though things went terribly awry as soon as he made the decision to abort, meaning that Henry probably wishes he had not made that particular decision, the scarred guy's inability to reverse the levers shows that he and Mary probably went through with the abortion, anyway.
And in the end, his world having fallen apart, after having made what he sees to be a bad decision, Henry Spencer just gives up. He embraces the lady in the radiator against a white backdrop, willingly accepting the easy nothingness she offers him.
There's one interpretation
. It might also be true that the baby symbolizes a couple's relationship, especially in the early stages of development. And maybe the little piece of flesh symbolizes Henry's wish to get out of the relationship. And maybe all those thoughts about how great it would be if they could only get rid of the baby (the dream sequence with the beautiful woman across the hall) were actually Henry pining for the single life. And maybe his cutting the baby in half means that they ended up splitting up. After all, he only cut it in half after the beautiful woman across the hall saw how ugly he was (symbolized by Henry's taking on the head of the hideously deformed baby) in the relationship.
Then again, maybe it's an autobiographical statement about David Lynch and his art. Maybe he was afraid of what would happen to him if he went to Hollywood, and that pencil factory scene was the embodiment of his fears. Namely, they would take all of his great ideas, plug them into some formula, and churn out a movie indistinguishable from a thousand others. The guy working at the business end of the factory did seem like he could be some sort of big-time studio mogul, or something.
Then again, it might be about all those three things, and a million others.
By the way, the petrified cat can only be seen on the DVD version, and even then only during the menu sequence; it is not a part of the film, or any of the special features.