Friday, June 21, 2013

The Elephant Man (1980)

USA, 124 minutes
Director: David Lynch
Writers: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch, Frederick Treves, Ashley Montagu
Photography: Freddie Francis
Music: John Morris
Editor: Anne V. Coates
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones, Wendy Hiller, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon

It's possible The Elephant Man is over-packed with intriguing sideline elements that obscure how good it is. It's based on a true story. That's always trouble. It's a key milestone in the career of David Lynch and his tormented relationship with Hollywood—his first mainstream and arguably breakthrough movie (with Mel Brooks quietly pulling the strings in the background to make it happen). It's photographed in black and white at a time when that seemed to particularly signal a certain level of artistic pretension (or ambition). And its lead player, John Hurt, is utterly (and somewhat ludicrously) obscured by pounds of makeup. It was popular too—earning eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and even spawning a minor controversy when makeup artist Christopher Tucker was overlooked (with the result that the following year there was a new Oscar category: Best Makeup and Hairstyling).

I was actually a little surprised by how much it impressed me again. I saw it when it was new but somehow had not since. It's sincere in a way that reminds one how sincere David Lynch is, at bottom, once past his petulance and passive-aggressive misgivings about operating within the Hollywood system, including their trained-in audience expectations. It could be that The Elephant Man even captures the moment before Lynch became unalterably jaded. I think there's probably a better case for that happening with Twin Peaks, but The Elephant Man is flawed in ways that feel a little like studio oversight and compromised screenplay decisions. At the same time, those decisions are also the foundation for what makes this movie capable of soaring to its greatest high points.

As a monster movie, which is what it is first and primarily, The Elephant Man is capable of powerful moments, genuine shocks, and a reliable miasma of the queasy. It owes much to the aesthetics of the horror films of the 1930s, in turn rooted in the strictures of Victorian era morality and central European fascinations with the lives of gypsies. It looks most explicitly to both Freaks and Frankenstein (and is not unmindful of Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast), effectively mixing up the elements of grotesque carny life and the monster movie pure. Based on real events (even then a risky basis for anything in a movie because it is always an implicit promise of things that will be hard to believe), it doesn't properly clue us in to the realities of its particular monster, John Merrick, the "Elephant Man" (John Hurt), until very nearly the halfway point.

It is an early case of Lynch going to his beautiful extremes. It is, in fact, an extraordinarily beautiful picture, on many levels. The photography is luminous, high-contrast black and white with deep shadows and detail in every frame, warm and glowing. More than that, the narrative feels its way inexorably to fairy tale conclusions that somehow convince, because the sources for despair in this picture are so equally convincing. Thus, the theater is redemptive, civilization constantly affirmed, and love conquers all—a beautiful 19th-century wet dream.

From the hideous being whose appearance gives us early chills and thrills, whose deformities are dryly cataloged in a presentation by Merrick's Victorian champion, Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins)—" ... varying fibrous tumors that cover 90% of the body ... congenital skull exostosis, extensive pappillomatous growth, pendulous masses in connection with the skin," etc.—Merrick evolves into an exquisitely sensitive gentleman of society, that rare thing, a truly civilized man. And it is not only believable, it is achieved at speeds unimaginable, effectively transformed within the space of a single powerful scene, a tea with Dr. Treves and his wife Anne (Hannah Gordon).

It is a tremendously powerful scene, but also the point where the story begins to stray into elements that strain credulity—an abusive night watchman with easy access to Merrick, and some things that develop from that. They are hard to believe but they are also necessary because they create the tension of the raised stakes so effectively. So one goes along with them for the sake of getting on with it. Paradoxically, it becomes easier to take as more or less harmless fantasy, even as these events may actually be the historical facts, and even though there is a profoundly humanizing "message" driving them (indeed, this could be argued as David Lynch's most blatant message picture, though it's open to debate).

A transcendent night at the theater, which caps off this picture in style, unifies everything at a stroke, and the objective is achieved. It is practically a clinic, and certainly a masterpiece. Within the space of two hours, a monster is created and then thoroughly humanized in front of our eyes. As we come to know John Merrick, his monstrosity, his "monsterness," disappears almost entirely. The sight of him is always hideous but we somehow come to not notice. The performances that surround him, Anthony Hopkins and Hannah Gordon and especially Anne Bancroft as a kind of angel of the theater simply rub the edges of the repulsion away with warmth and love, until the repulsion is gone. It is remarkable and powerful, a skillful blending of '30s horror and Disney impulse all at once, with absolutely top-rate magic at the end. Sublime.

Top 10 of 1980
I have to say I am struck by how out of step I am with several main lines of film appreciation for what somehow feels like a landmark year for movies. Why do I think it's a landmark year? Even its biggest achievements, the ones I'm just not getting (see below), seem to me more on the order of consolidationist works rather than breakthroughs or innovations. Exile on Main St. rather than Out of Our Heads. It also seems like the last time we really had a big year at the movies. That has to be the nostalgia talking, right? I'm sure there have been equally or more significant years since and I just don't see them clearly. And I probably don't see 1980 clearly either. But I know one thing: Airplane! is funny.
1. The Elephant Man
2. Berlin Alexanderplatz
3. Airplane!
4. Atlantic City
5. Ordinary People
6. Return of the Secaucus 7
7. Dressed to Kill
8. The Stunt Man
9. The Shining
10. Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears

Didn't like so much: The Blues Brothers, The Empire Strikes Back, Kagemusha, Melvin and Howard, Raging Bull

Gaps: The Big Red One, Cannibal Holocaust, Coal Miner's Daughter, Cruising, The Great Santini


  1. This is a wonderfully written review, one of your best. For some reason, I hadn't really thought of the film in the monster-movie context, although it seems so obvious now that you mention it: not just the themes, but the visual motifs, the sets, the lighting - and obviously the makeup. I've heard that Lynch didn't actually want to wait so long to reveal Merrick in full, but like you I think it works wonderfully in the film. In essence, what happens to John Merrick over the course of the two-hour The Elephant Man is what happens to Laura Palmer over the course of two seasons of Twin Peaks and the prequel film (and, if you want to be expansive, throw in David's daughter's diary spin-off, which provided her own voice for the first time). He, like she, goes from object to subject, and our gaze goes from a distant sympathy/lurid curiosity to genuine empathy.

    I have a review of The Elephant Man going up in a week, as part of a career-long David Lynch retrospective piece, but tomorrow I'm actually posting a video essay which provides links between The Elephant Man and Fire Walk With Me, as well as Lynch's other works leading up to the '92 film. Essentially I see The Elephant Man as both an outlier in Lynch's early career, indicative of his early work, and a harbinger of things to come. It's an outlier because it makes (gradually, over the course of the film, shifting our focus from Treves) a freakish outsider its protagonist whereas most of the early films have the most "normal", straightforwardly heroic character as the star. It's indicative of his other early films because, like them, it has a certain gorgeous formal coldness which would start to wash away about halfway through Twin Peaks, and also like them, it very much trusts in conventional authority figures - it's fundamentally conservative in certain ways. And it's a microcosm for the reason I already mentioned with Laura Palmer - Lynch's body of work shifts gradually from a focus on protective and/or noble heroes facing outside darkness to weak, fragile individuals battling darkness within and without. There's no evil within Merrick per se - he's as much a pure innocent as Lynch ever depicted - but there is a definite psychological darkness and in a way it's almost a pity that so much of the evil/darkness is located in conventional villains.

    Which, incidentally, is something the screenplay invented; the real Merrick (Joseph, not John, apparently) was not abused by a carnival huckster - he was full partners with him and was treated fairly. He was taken advantage of by a European showman on a separate occasion, but I believe the harm was financial rather than physical. That the film treats the situation rather more simplistically than was the case is both a flaw and a strength - a flaw because, as you note, the story becomes less convincing, but a strength because it bolsters the central arc, our journey from our identification with Treves to our identification with Merrick, and Merrick's journey into self-realization and empowerment, albeit through death.

  2. Thanks Joel, looking forward to reading your piece!