“I just cut them up like regular chickens?”
By Rebecca Kirk
While David Lynch’s 1977 film “Eraserhead” is not entirely about food, a single scene near the beginning of the film which focuses on the preparation and consumption of food serves to highlight the theme of self-doubt and inadequacy as a parent, which is prevalent throughout the movie.
In the dinner scene, the protagonist, Henry, is introduced to his girlfriend Mary’s family, although it is clear that they have not met or communicated for a period of some time. He endures resentful silence on the part of her mother, inexplicable weeping from Mary, and a discordant cheerful nonchalance from her father. The dinner comes to a head as the father introduces the main course, tiny chickens which he has prepared and claims are “manmade.” A previous injury has rendered his arms numb, so usually he entrusts the carving of meats to his daughter for safety’s sake, thus subverting the traditional gender roles of the American household. On this particular night, however, he chooses to ask Henry to carve the chickens instead.
Henry expresses nervousness as he prepares to carve the chickens, asking “I just cut them up… like regular chickens?” When he attempts to do so, a dark, blood-like liquid begins to pour from the body cavity and the tiny manmade chicken moves its limbs as though they are arms and legs. This disturbs the mother and her daughter, but the father simply grins at Henry, unperturbed, and lets an uncomfortable amount of time pass before asking “So, what do you know?” Later in the evening it is revealed that Mary has given birth to Henry’s child, although it is premature and very deformed.
The still I have chosen from “Eraserhead” captures a moment of transfer, the power as man of the house passing from Mary’s father to Henry. The dining room is stark and dimly lit, a characteristic of the entire film, although both of the men are seated in front of blocks of relative brightness. Their gazes are masked from the audience, but the chicken is kept at center stage as Henry pauses in his attempt to carve the chicken, looking to the more experienced but now-emasculated older man for advice on how his duty should be performed. The chicken itself is tiny, and its shape evokes that of the deformed baby that will take on a central role in the rest of the film, which culminates in Henry’s decision to kill the baby, as he can no longer endure his own inability to care for it. The implements used to carve the chicken are huge and necessarily clumsy-looking when compared to the tiny, helpless body on the white plate. The people themselves are also ludicrously large in comparison to the meat on the plate, and they loom over it like surgeons, so it becomes farcical that Henry, who appears so competent in his clean black suit, should need advice from the father, whose plumber’s uniform appears much more tired and ill-equipped to the task of butchering a chicken, or raising a child. Perhaps it is due to his poor choice in role model that Henry fails as a parent later in the film.
Taken as a whole, the scene is a rather frightening comment on the nature of food and the family. As the only father figure in the movie, Mary’s father is a frightening forewarning of what Henry’s life will become. He cannot fulfill his traditional role due to his injury, and because this flawed man is the only person Henry can turn to for advice, it is not surprising that Henry is unable to safely care for his child in the end. The relationship between the parents is also defined in the dinner, as the wife controls the father at one point by chasing him from the room when she feels he has spoken enough. Thus Henry’s “coming of age” through his chicken carving is an unnatural, stilted one that will define his strained relationship with Mary as they attempt and fail to live together for the sake of their monster baby.
Also reflecting back to this scene throughout the movie is the insecurity that Henry faces as a parent. He is not certain on how to treat a chicken so much smaller than normal, just as he cannot understand how to deal with his child, which is different from adults in size and other babies because it is deformed. Even after seeking advice on the proper carving of the chicken, he is alarmed and disturbed as it begins to writhe and gush blood on the plate, and it is clear that his attempt to carve it has backfired. This scene parallels the end scene, in which Henry is disturbed by the constant crying of his infant to the point at which he decides it is extremely sick and tries to care for it as best he can. He chooses to remove its bandages, beneath which he has not seen, but these turn out to have been holding its body together for the entirety of the film and once they are removed, the baby dies. In the end, he is disturbed by ts constant discomfort rather than concerned for its well-being, and finds himself unable to care for it, at times even hating it.
It is important to point at that, while the miniature chickens are likened to the body of the baby and seem to be a natural jumping-off point for a discussion of cannibalism, they are never actually consumed by the characters. Thus any discussion about cannibalism as incorporating the essence of the dead into the living does not have a place here, but it is a good platform for the idea of Henry’s difficulty in viewing the child as a human. Indeed, because the chickens are manmade and unnatural, the child to which they are likened is also somehow not only placed on the same level as an animal in Henry’s eyes, but is perhaps even one more step removed from the natural bonds of familial affection which should exist between parent and child.
Thus the meaning of the dinner scene in Eraserhead, much of which is summed up in the provided still image, reflects themes that surface again and again throughout the film. The darker side of family life and the subversion of traditional roles, along with the fear, uncertainty, and failure that accompany parenting, make the scene as well as the film a dark but meaningful work.