Skip to main content

I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I... am... a man!

The Elephant Man
(1980)

(SPOILERS) It seems to be the current curse of the fledgling talented director that a much-feted indie debut leads to wooing by Hollywood and subsequent, if not dissipation, then diluting of talent, as distinctiveness and individuality are drained away and homogenised. Four decades ago, David Lynch was someone who took exactly that path, transiting from one of the all-time cult movies to the most darling of respected genres, the period piece. And then he went and made a hugely-budgeted sci-fi blockbuster. Clearly, it was career curtains for the one-time auteur. I won’t come on to Dune just yet, but The Elephant Man, his sophomore film, is an unassailable classic, and manages to get right in approach, tone and storytelling what so many period movies get wrong.


Which is mostly that it isn’t starchy. Or at least, most obviously. It has starchy characters, observing societal norms, but the filmmaking is neither rigid nor perfunctory. Not for Lynch the staid virtue that would make Merchant Ivory Oscar mainstays in the latter part of the decade. And yet, Lynch’s film also troubled the Academy for big prize consideration. Indeed, whenever he strays outside of his hyper-weird, preferred narrative constructs (see also The Straight Story) awards tend to come calling (and even occasionally when he’s just being full-on weird: Mulholland Drive). The other such period romp of the decade, unbound by such obvious convention, that springs to mind is Amadeus. But where that film revelled in its clash of excess and restraint, paralleling Mozart with a modern rock star, it also shares a distinct characteristic with Lynch’s picture; a palpable, sustained emotional pulse that cuts through the costumes and drapes. Amadeus’ is found in Salieri’s disgust and jealousy of the famous composer, whereas The Elephant Man’s is revealed through John Merrick’s unearthly sanctity and purity of spirit.


It’s the kind of centre that in any other hands would surely veer towards the horrifically sentimental and maudlin. I note some have accused it of same, but I would suggest they fail to distinguish between the sentimentalised and the genuinely emotive; I don’t see the excess and indulgence here that goes with the former. One wonders if they would have preferred a clinical analysis of the case, whereby empathising with Merrick is thrown out of the window in favour of cold, distanced observation. Surely it is as Pauline Kael argued in her review, that it “doesn’t stray from the Victorian framework (Lynch) constructs; nothing is interpreted… and so nothing is sentimentalized in a modern manner”. Another director might have been so wrapped up in eulogising the man and his burden that the heart of the piece was lost, but for all his ability to mimic such emotional displays for absurdist purposes in other movies, The Elephant Man finds Lynch working entirely in the service of his subject, rather than distancing himself or unleashing his bag of eccentric tricks.


There are moments of strangeness, and that sound design is as industrial and oppressive (well not as oppressive) as it was in Eraserhead, and the black and white visuals (courtesy of Freddie Francis) retain something of the toxic, suffocating hellhole of urban degradation of his first movie, but Lynch so clearly feels for his protagonist (as opposed to indulging him) that the result is a rarity, a film from the director where the sympathetic response is first and foremost, and the distancing from the characters is absent (for all its unadorned virtues, The Straight Story is also fairly remote). Lynch even uses Samuel Barber during Merrick’s final moments to profoundly moving effect, his effective suicide a point of poignant release that makes Oliver Stone’s later appropriation seem merely crass.


Hurt’s Merrick is profoundly affecting, gentle, delicate, suffering (and Hurt suffered for his art, having to work alternate days due to the encumbrance of the prosthetics). Frederick Treves (Hopkins), in introducing us to this character and world, is the audience identification figure, however, even though the compassion displayed in the moment he lays eyes on Merrick (the single tear), showing that he is genuine, lapses into remote scientific inquiry whereby he presents the man before his peers of the Royal Society, a subject to be scrutinised.


As such, we’re invited to assess the picture’s most complex character, aware before anyone in the film itself identifies that his devotion towards his career leads to a lack of consideration for the man within “the monster” (whom he refers to as “perverted, degraded, insidious” in form); he receives much consequent acclaim, and even when he wrings his hands in guilt (“Am I a good man, or am I a bad man?”) it is that of the man who would likely make the same mistake again.


It’s a superb performance from Hopkins, moderating a mix of reserve, hesitancy, moral rectitude and tunnel-vision blinkeredness that’s as human a counterpoint to Merrick’s unreal inner beauty as one could conceive. It takes Gielgud’s Carr-Gomm, whom we initially expect to be a force of stern rebuke, to show the insights Treves lacks, through the latter’s assumption that his scientific understanding extends to the realm of the emotional and spiritual. Carr-Gomm corrects Treves when he says he believes he can imagine the kind of life Merrick has suffered (“I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone can”). Gielgud’s is as good as any performance the actor gave in his last few decades (and let’s face it, many of his films during that era were not so distinguished).


Good performances too from Wendy Hiller as the initially dismissive then staunchly protective hospital matron Mothershead and an early appearance from Dexter Fletcher as Bytes’ lad. Freddie Jones’ Bytes and Michael Elphick’s Night Porter are cartoon villains of the most garish order; one might argue such a depiction is beneath the picture (particularly since Tom Norman, on whom Bytes is based, was apparently a decent man who treated Merrick well, in contrast to the monster of Treves’ memoirs – although, an earlier sideshow owner did treat him badly it seems), and a sequence in which Mothershead bashes the Night Porter on the head seems to have strayed in from a Carry On. Nevertheless, while the episodes of cruelty at the hospital are also inventions, if one were to stick to the facts of most true life stories they’d make highly unsatisfying movies dramatically. The emotional substance of Merrick’s treatment is believable, and that’s really why it carries such power.


As such, the fairground escape from France is perhaps a little too close to a fantastic rendering found in a Disney fairy-tale, yet it also carries undeniable weight, culminating as it does in the Merrick’s stirring assertion of his worth beyond the currency of his surface appearance (“I am not an animal!”).


As the Time Out review by Tom Milne noted, the picture leaves (intentional) question marks concerning the inner Merrick’s feelings, notably potential sexual stirrings in response to the attentions of his admirers, from the touch of a beautiful woman (Hannah Gordon as Treves’ wife) to the recitals with another (Anne Bancroft’s stage darling); this being a man whose one notable area of non-deformity is his genitalia. But this is entirely germane to a character who ventures no opinion unless asked, who is even assumed by the compassionate doctor to be an imbecile until he offers evidence otherwise.


And what of the pervasively Lynchian in the picture? We see his attention to extreme close-ups, pushing against the macro world that divides reality, and the queasy fairground imaginings of the fate of Merrick’s mother trampled by elephants (based on the myth propagated by Bytes). It’s suggestive of an imprinting of a reality from beyond, the framing echoing that of Eraserhead’s external forces impacting on our world. And then again, in the final moments, as Merrick passes to the infinite (the angel that is his vision of his mother, quoting Tennyson’s Nothing will Die, subsumes the demonic elephants). There’s also the attention to body horror, besides Merrick himself, in Treves’ operation on a burn victim, something you can see previously in his short The Amputee and subsequently in Dune’s pustulating depravity of Baron Harkonnen.


The Elephant Man was nominated for eight Oscars, including Picture, director and actor, winning none; the lack of make-up recognition led to the introduction of a specific category the following year. For my money, the movie should have swept the board (Ordinary People is a decent movie, but not Best Picture-worthy, unless you have Driving Miss Daisy as a yardstick, while Raging Bull may be the oft-cited stolen but is massively over-regarded). Apparently Mel Brooks, who produced, responded to Paramount execs’ requests for removal of the framing device with “We are involved in a business venture. We screened the film for you to bring you up to date as to the status of that venture. Do not misconstrue this as our soliciting the input of raging primitives”. Which, I think, told them. Adjusted for inflation, this is the director’s most profitable film.


Kael, in her essay, referred to The Elephant Man having the power and some of the dream logic of a silent film. That’s certainly the way one feels departing its spaces. There’s a sense that, no matter what the attentions or intentions, Merrick cannot be treated with true evenness until he was left the real world. His initial salvation through the enlightenment of science is just another form of (refined) freak show, and Lynch retains this idea through his time as a célèbre of the social elite; far from sentimentalising, this environment and its illusion of dignity is shot through with an undercurrent of inevitability and pessimism. A figure such as Merrick, too rarefied to persist for long, can only persevere there a while, a beacon of the of the unquenchable spirit in the prevailing darkness.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.

A ship is the finest nursery in the world.

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) (SPOILERS) An odd one, this, as if Disney were remaking The Swiss Family Robinson for adults. One might perhaps have imagined the Mouse House producing it during their “Dark Disney” phase. But even then, toned down. After all, kids kidnapped by pirates sounds like an evergreen premise for boy’s own adventuring (more girl’s own here). The reality of Alexander Mackendrick’s film is decidedly antithetical to that; there’s a lingering feeling, despite A High Wind in Jamaica ’s pirates largely observing their distance, that things could turn rather nasty (and indeed, if Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel  had been followed to the letter, they would have more explicitly). 

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

Duffy. That old tangerine hipster.

Duffy (1968) (SPOILERS) It’s appropriate that James Coburn’s title character is repeatedly referred to as an old hipster in Robert Parrish’s movie, as that seemed to be precisely the niche Coburn was carving out for himself in the mid to late 60s, no sooner had Our Man Flint made him a star. He could be found partaking in jaundiced commentary on sexual liberation in Candy, falling headlong into counter culture in The President’s Analyst , and leading it in Duffy . He might have been two decades older than its primary adherents, but he was, to repeat an oft-used phrase here, very groovy. If only Duffy were too.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

Just wait. They’ll start listing side effects like the credits at the end of a movie.

Contagion  (2011) (SPOILERS) The plandemic saw Contagion ’s stock soar, which isn’t something that happens too often to a Steven Soderbergh movie. His ostensibly liberal outlook has hitherto found him on the side of the little people (class action suits) and interrogating the drugs trade while scrupulously avoiding institutional connivance (unless it’s Mexican institutional connivance). More recently, The Laundromat ’s Panama Papers puff piece fell fall flat on its face in attempting broad, knowing satire (in some respects, this is curious, as The Informant! is one of Soderbergh’s better-judged films, perhaps because it makes no bones about its maker’s indifference towards its characters). There’s no dilution involved with Contagion , however. It amounts to a bare-faced propaganda piece, serving to emphasise that the indie-minded director is Hollywood establishment through and through. This is a picture that can comfortably sit alongside any given Tinseltown handwringing over the Wa