Until Straight Story (1999), I never got David Lynch. I remember myself proclaiming: “Lynch CAN make a good movie, but he just doesn’t want to.” After watching that one, and I hope to write my thoughts on it soon, I watched The Elephant Man (1980), and I once again had the same thought. It took me a while to get him, but Lynch is like Picasso – he really can paint a classical photorealistic picture, but this is dull and boring in the world full of such works.
The Elephant Man is a historical drama about Joseph Merrick (here called John), a deformed man living in 19th century London. The film features John Hurt as John Merrick, Anthony Hopkins as a surgeon Frederick Treves, and Anne Bancroft as his wife. David Lynch later described Hurt as simply the greatest actor in the world. Hurt would arrive on the set at 5 AM so that the make-up crew could spend seven to eight hours applying the makeup, and two hours removing it after the shooting. The film was nominated for all major Academy awards, and after industry professionals were appalled because the Academy had not honored the film’s makeup, they sent a protest letter, and the Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling was created the following year.
In the film, doctor Treves takes John from a freakshow to a hospital. John is seen as retarded at first, but Treves soon finds out that he knows how to read, but after being treated so badly by society, he became soft-spoken and a lone wolf. Merrick soon becomes an object of societal curiosity, an actress Madge Kendal visits him and introduces him to Shakespeare, and even Queen Victoria sends her daughter-in-law to visit him. People come to visit him and still treat him like a part of a menagerie. However, Merrick is soon kidnapped by his former captor, taken to Europe, and becomes a circus attraction again. He manages to escape with the help of similar freakshow colleagues. He ends up harassed in a nearby train station where he accidentally knocks out a young girl, which causes a furious mob to form ready to lynch him. Merrick is cornered and trapped once again. The society is the one that traps him every time, even though they didn’t let him in. He is chased and has nowhere to go. You expect the angry mob to kill him. You anticipate him screaming or trying to run away. Lynch shows the mob staring at us, the viewers. We’re in Merrick’s place now. The feeling of imprisonment fulfills every pore of your body. But Merrick stops and pauses. Everything that was inside him throughout these years comes raining down on each and every one of us. He screams, “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I… am… a … man!” and collapses.
I’ll stop here with the story, because such a collapse is also a picture of the moral collapse of the society. John Morris‘s soundtrack encompasses this world perfectly. The main theme chimes through the void, invoking a ride on a merry-go-round. We are constantly reminded we’re all bystanders in such tales.
The movie was produced by Mel Brooks, but his name was removed so that people would not think of the film as a comedy. He’s the one that hired Lynch to do it. There is a touch of Lynch we know and cherish. Surrealist sequences depict Merrick’s mother and her death. The film starts with the close-up on the eyes of Merrick’s mother, a part of a photo Merrick carries with him at all times. A mother’s face stares at us the way we stare at the Elephant Man. Morris’s theme is interrupted by the stomping of the elephants in the background, taking over the screen. An elephant attacks Merrick’s mother in a silent horror scene, reminiscent of Teinosuke Kinugasa‘s A Page of Madness (1926). And the elephants are not what they seem.
This film is here to make us think about all the times we just stared and watched. It is a historical drama, but also a critique of today’s society, ready to judge and act on the first impression. No monster horror movie can compete with society as a monster treating its members the way we often do. Lynch’s lighting really makes the hospital and London look like the 19th century, but the way people behave is certainly still present in modern times. The Elephant Man is a masterpiece that hasn’t aged a day.
In reality, Merrick was a very intelligent man. In 2011, it was conjectured that Merrick might have suffered from a combination of Proteus syndrome, a very rare congenital disorder identified in 1979, and neurofibromatosis, a condition where tumors grow in the nervous system. Real-life Merrick would often end his correspondence by quoting Isaac Watts, which is a fitting way to finish our story as well:
Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God.
Could I create myself anew,
I would not fail in pleasing you.
If I could reach from pole to pole,
Or grasp the ocean with a span.
I would be measured by the soul,
The mind’s the standard of the man.
Biderman, Shai & Assaf Tabeka (2011). The Monster Within: Alienation and Social Conformity in The Elephant Man. The Philosophy of David Lynch, p. 2017-224. University Press of Kentucky.
Boyd, Nolan: The Warped Mirror: The Reflection of the Ableist Stare in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Disability & Society 31(10): 1321-1332.
Graham, Peter W., and Fritz H. Oehlschlaeger (1992). ’If Only I Could Find Her’: David Lynch and Merrick’s Search for the Lost Mother. Articulating the Elephant Man, p. 135–155. Johns Hopkins University Press.