Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Elephant Man. (1980) David Lynch

Having had some fun recently in giving a contemporary reflection on a couple of landmark, classic monster movies, I felt my quest for the perfect Black and White February would be insufficient should it thematically end there. For now, I need to continue in this rich black and white tradition, a tradition which feels like it's not satisfied with one, lonesome monster. But I can't stay stuck in the thirties forever. Nor can I, for my own sanity, only burrow into "Creature Features." The time is right, so it seems, for me to go back to some films I've already seen; I'll start by digging into the monstrous and surrealist mind of David Lynch.

So here's a movie I saw as a child but haven't seen in thirty years. I first saw The Elephant Man with my mom and dad in a theater setting when I was ten. While I'd be lying if I said I could quote the family discussion that followed, I do remember that the film sparked a good deal of conversation around the house. Perhaps mom and dad saw the good reviews and the PG rating and thought it'd be good to take me. I wonder, when they took me, if they regretted their decision.

But I'm glad they did. I haven't revisited the film in three decades, but it has clearly stood out in my mind. One wonders if a memory might stand out because you were only a certain age and not ready for a particular event -- but in this case, I don't think so. I'm thinking very hard here, trying to delve into the deep corridors of my film mind, but I'm thinking this might have been the first serious "film lover's film" I'd ever seen. I know for a fact it was my first experience with Lynch.

The film really stands up to the test of time. It's quite remarkable, an amazing achievement in Story, although I'd have to research its historicity to know how well it stands up story-wise there. But it is lovingly rendered, and feels like a dramatic enactment of what history might have been; it at least feels like a factual approach.

It's a very quiet film where heavy use of space, sometimes intense space, and sound that can only be described as Lynchian (think: Eraserhead), exceeds the notion that a black and white or an aged film are somehow lesser than a new release. As a biopic or a melodrama, and perhaps somewhat as an art film, The Elephant Man still surpasses most films released on a given weekend.

It may be that I just saw Frankenstein, but one aspect it shares with The Elephant Man stands out. I noted in my recent blogging that the creature most often referred to as "The Monster" in Frankenstein isn't really the monster in the story after all. I was a bit hesitant about this, not knowing if I sounded out of place, but my understanding of the greatest monster in the film is that of mob mentality, a group of people running wild, a witch hunt with lit torches and barking dogs on a scent in the woods -- a people chasing only the fear of what they can't understand, and chasing the end result of an experiment gone wrong rather than the creator responsible for the many deaths. I think it is a fair reading, and I'm sticking with it for now -- especially in light of the human brutality that is monstrous in The Elephant Man.

Here we have John Merrick, whose mother at four months pregnant was trampled by an elephant, producing every kind of deformity one could think possible on a child at birth. We find Mr. Merrick in the beginning of the film in a Freak Show at the local carnival, being gazed at by paying onlookers. They are horrified, scared to death at his physical appearance, some sickened to the point of tears or even screaming in sheer terror and running away. This indecency alone would be enough to give a picture of the man's torment. But he was also locked up in the dark, beaten with a rod, and barely fed.

We don't know what drew Dr.Treves (a young and handsome Anthony Hopkins) to see the deformed young man in the first place. We know he went, even sneaking in the back to get a view that was different than other paying customers. The suggestion about him sneaking in is that he wants to see the young man for reasons that are out of the ordinary -- perhaps from a medical perspective, perhaps from a human perspective, but he's apparently not there to be an average horrified onlooker.

It takes Treves more than one attempt, but when he finally obtains a private showing, the tears immediately well in his eyes. It seems the human does trump the medical need to see, and it works on him rather quickly.

The bulk of the film is about Merrick's sickness, his trip to the hospital, Treves and others that provide care for him there, and the continual abuse of a man that can't seem to escape it, even in what should be the safe setting of his room in the hospital.

When he first arrives at the hospital, Merrick wears a bag over his head for the trip. The bag is a physical barrier between his face and public reaction to it. The man doesn't need more humiliation in his life. But how does the same bag emotionally alter Merrick? In "The Scarlet Letter," for example, a woman wears an "A" to publicly shame her, a physical sign for anyone to see her sin. Though Merrick has done nothing wrong, his life is viewed like the woman who wears that badge of shame. His shame has nothing to do with any deed or misdeed, rather it's public perception based solely on his physical appearance. If people could get past his appearance they'd find a caring spirit -- a warm, loving man with a golden, tender heart. The bag over Merrick's head functions as an emotionally protective device for his heart. It is, after all, a heart shattered by mass social destruction. The bag is less for the public and more for himself.

The bag has to come off at a certain point, though, especially when Merrick is seen and observed by hospital staff. There are still a few outlandish reactions, even in this setting -- one nurse bringing breakfast lets out an enormous shriek when seeing his face for the first time -- but overall, as time progresses, the staff know Merrick for more than the outward, for more than what the press starts writing about daily in the papers.

Eventually we get to scenes that are the core of the heartfelt story: Merrick, invited to tea with Treves and his wife at their upscale home across town; a visit from a local, well-known actress in the theater, who brings a gift of a classic novel, as well as the gift of kindness, lighting up the interior of his room; and Merrick himself, isolated in his new room but happy, creating a model of a cathedral he sees outside his window, and reminding himself of better days by glancing at a picture of his mom, propped up by his bed.

The kindness in the room is interrupted, of course, by strangers who will take advantage of any new thing they can profit from. But at a certain point it's the kindness that triumphs in The Elephant Man. It's what we remember when later thinking about the film, and in the story itself it even bleeds from a few doctors and nurses in a medical setting back to the midgets and freaks who find him residing with them once again. It is their kindness that saves him this time, showing an escalation of good that is happening in his life.

The thing that sets The Elephant Man apart from a film like Frankenstein, where it is all too easy to believe in nothing but the saddest aspects of humanity, is the continual kindness in scenes like this, which make us want to believe in a better humanity than just the kind that will look on Merrick with cruelty. One of the scenes that touched me most, and made me most want to believe in mankind, was a scene in which an entire booked theater came to standing applause for Merrick, as if recognizing one of the hardest lives that's been lived and admiring his will for not only survival, but for remaining a gentleman amidst all this cruelty. Still, the cynical side of me wondered if there were people in the theater audience, standing in applause, who were also present at the carnival paying money to see the freak show. There's good and bad in all of us, often there's a mix found at any one time.

Finally, speaking of "Freak Show," for some it may be hard to wrap the brain around the fact that this is a David Lynch experience -- the man responsible for Blue Velvet, Inland Empire and other disturbances along the way. It may be hard to understand that Lynch is involved when I describe the film's heart of flesh, or the kindness or belief in mankind I've talked about. While Lynch is known more for his avant-garde, bordering on dangerous filmmaking style, there is definite evidence of his presence in The Elephant Man, with his fingerprints all over the unorthodox feel of the opening and closing stanzas, relayed in highly stylized montages reminiscent of the opening and closing scenes of Eraserhead. Merrick himself is also somewhat reminiscent of the deformed baby at the center of Eraserhead, at least in the way the thing is depicted. But the grotesque nature of that creature seems to make him more revolting -- for a reason, which I will argue tomorrow when I blog about my reaction to that film -- whereas the grotesque nature of Merrick in The Elephant Man eventually invites us to see through the deformity, to the core of his gentle nature. Lynch is able to achieve different end effects from creations that are stylized quite similarly -- the mark of a genius in his field.


  1. "Here we have John Merrick, whose mother at four months pregnant was trampled by an elephant, producing every kind of deformity one could think possible on a child at birth."

    It remains questionable as to whether or not Lynch and co. intended for the audience to believe that Merrick's deformities were the result of an elephant trampling his mother, or to take that sequence as something more abstract. I've always seen it as something more thematic and symbolic than narrative.

    Anyway, splendid film, and the only film guaranteed to have me sobbing by the end.

  2. You may be right about that. It's a little less abstract than a typical Lynch overall, so I guess I gave the narrative a benefit of the doubt without even recognizing that. I haven't even Wiki'd this one yet -- the film gripped so hard that I simply whipped off a Filmsweep Reaction.

    Still need to check out the history of Merrick, and while Wikipedia is no "end all" for that, it might still be a good place to start.

  3. Also - the film makes a jump from the opening scenes where he's locked away in a carnival freak show. I guess we never learn anything about his mom, though Merrick refers to her often (is it fantasy? is it reality? Are the pictures even really his mom?)

    Opening with the carnival kind of leads one to believe that the elephants at a similar atmosphere like the circus could have been the cause for the trampling.

  4. Well, in real life, Merrick's deformity came from disease, and so I took that knowledge into the film. I don't have any real knowledge of what Lynch intended, but given the weirdness of that sequence compared to the straightness of the rest of the movie, I figured it was something more abstract (kinda like the final moments with the stars).

    As you research, you'll find that Lynch's film isn't a faithful representation of history. Doesn't make it any less great, as far as I'm concerned, though.

  5. Ryan, the only film "guaranteed" to have you sobbing. Just curious, is it a particular scene? Like I said, the one that got to me was during the standing ovation, which might not be the typical "cry scene" in the film.

  6. Moments that make me cry:

    When Merrick speaks for the first time in the film and quotes scripture.

    When Merrick tells the woman that she reminds him of his mother.

    When Merrick's home is invaded by the hooligans.

    When Merrick lies down for the last time, wishing to sleep like a normal person.

    Man, practically that whole movie is a cry-fest.

  7. You might laugh at me, but your tears over The Elephant Man are similar to my recent experience with The King's Speech. At least we're the grown men who can admit it. :)


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