In Heaven, Everything Is Fine: David Lynch's Eraserhead
Most of David Lynch’s other works offer viewers a casual surface narrative, an accessible A-to-B-to-C plot that tells a story in which his flourishes deepen and challenge the audience to delve into, if they so choose.
Eraserhead is not one of those works. The dark depths of its main character’s psyche and circumstances are all the audience has to work with, and the film is far better for it. There is little surface level to the film, and that challenge is exactly what draws the viewer in so strongly.
In Eraserhead, Henry (Jack Nance, in his first of several appearances in Lynch projects) works as a printer with a girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart). The opening credits hint at with imagery what we soon find out as the film opens—Henry and Mary had sex. We then find out through a pitch blackly comedic sequence involving manmade chickens that orgasm when cut open, a catatonic grandma who tosses salad in the kitchen, a litter of puppies nursing desperately, and a sternly probing parental figure in Mary’s mother, that Mary has been pregnant and given birth. To what, exactly, is frankly debatable. The birthed fetus is said to be premature and deformed, but in appearance more resembles a de-nested baby bird.
There is little dialogue in the film, as Henry goes about his life trying to care for the baby in his apartment all but dumbstruck. Mary leaves him to tend to the child on his own, declaring that she’s running home to her parents’ house. Henry manages to nurse the bird-baby back to health, but his own sexual repression and guilt cause horrible nightmares wherein he fantasizes about being free of fatherhood. In his desperation, he does something horrible, and his world literally falls apart around him.
That’s about as succinct a synopsis as can be provided for Eraserhead, and even that is leaving some things out. The film in execution is saturated from end to end in imagery and detail that echoes Henry’s repression, guilt and personal feelings of being penned in by his own responsibilities. That the film manages to do so with so few lines of dialogue is a breathtaking exercise in demonstrating themes in visual rather than exposition. That it also sets Henry up explicitly as a man of words (a printer), who is rendered almost entirely speechless by his circumstances, only further sells the dark mood and sadness in his life.
And that world is indeed quite dark and dour—what little light there is outside of his window is often obscured and blocked out, playing in time with the darkest moments taking place within.