Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.2: David Lynch's The Elephant Man

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. July’s director is master surrealist David Lynch.

Grade: 94 (A)

How does one follow up a project as puzzling and idiosyncratic as Eraserhead? For a few years, David Lynch didn’t have an answer. Lynch struggled to get his still unfilmed pet project Ronnie Rocket off the ground to no avail while Eraserhead toured the midnight movie circuit. Then a job reared its head from the least likely source: legendary comic director Mel Brooks of Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles fame offered Lynch a job directing a biopic on the life of Joseph Merrick (John in the film), a man whose extreme deformity gave him the cruel, titular nickname The Elephant Man. The film was a breakthrough hit for Lynch, garnering eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor for John Hurt, Best Picture, and Lynch’s first Best Director nomination. But while it’s certainly one of the more “normal” films Lynch ever directed, it still bears the mark of its director while maintaining the status as Lynch’s most humanistic movie.

Victorian London: John Merrick (Hurt) has lived a life of cruelty. He has an enlarged skull, a useless right arm, tumors all over his body, chronic bronchitis, and great difficulty forming words with his mouth. John can only find work as a member of a traveling freakshow, where the monstrous ringleader Bytes (Freddie Jones) beats him and forces him to humiliate himself for pay. One day, Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a surgeon at … Hospital, sees Merrick in the sideshow and is moved by his plight. After first highlighting his deformity to his colleagues and then taking care of him after a severe beating from Bytes, Treves brings John in as a permanent resident of the hospital, where John has true friends and dignity for the first time in his life. But not all men and women view John as a human being, and a vicious night porter turns him into an object of mockery all over again.

The Elephant Man is noticeably more accessible than the surrealist nightmare that was Eraserhead, but that doesn’t make it a middlebrow snoozefest either. If anything, the film is far stranger than almost any other film about physical deformity or disability you’re likely to find. Lynch uses the Victorian setting to highlight the more nightmarish side of living in the time period. His depiction of an industrial nightmare in Eraserhead carries over to The Elephant Man- this is a treacherous city filled with dangerous machines, smog, creaking, and clanging. It’s a nasty, grotty looking place filled with people who have been injured by some sort of machine (as in an early surgery scene involving Treves). Lynch, still a master of sound design, uses industrial white noise to bring an uneasy feeling to the proceedings, just so we don’t get too comfortable in the moments of uplift.

Particularly frightening is an early, surreal sequence depicting John’s unconventional birth, filled with industrial noise and an elephant knocking down his mother, all to her horrifying slow motion wailing, followed by a baby crying  while a puff of smoke shows up onscreen. This is a child born in a hellish city, with extreme pollution likely having contributed to his perverted form. It’s not the only surreal sequence in the film- John has an intense nightmare filled with elephants, industry, and the years of human cruelty he has suffered. These impressionistic sequences help establish a uniquely strange and scary mood to what could have been a by-numbers Victorian moral tale. Jane Austen world this is not.

The rest of the technical details of the film are equally astonishing- the costumes and hospital sets are believable period details without being suffocating, while Freddie Francis’ astonishing cinematography feels like it could have been taken from Victorian London itself. John Morris’ score oscillates between a cruel carnival theme that taunts Merrick and the lush, often romantic pieces that highlight his humanity. Most impressive, however, is the sound and visual design of John himself. The Oscars were motivated to create a Best Make-up category after receiving criticism regarding their failure to award Christopher Tucker’s astonishing work, and rightly so. John Hurt is completely unrecognizable under the heavy prosthetics required to recreate John’s deformities. Equally impressive are the slurping sounds John makes when he speaks- after all, his mouth is deformed, and he wouldn’t speak like most people. The result is a wholly believable depiction of a deformity.

But credit must also go to Hurt’s astonishing performance as John Merrick. A lesser actor would be swallowed whole by the prosthetics and make-up, but Hurt beautifully communicates John’s intelligence, kindness, and streak of romanticism through his measured movements and dialogue readings. John has had little in the way of kindness or warmth throughout his life, and as such he’s reluctant to engage anyone in conversation. One of the best scenes in the film shows John stumbling over his words in a meeting with Treves and head doctor Mr. Carr-Gomm (the wonderful John Gielgud); he has difficulty answering any question he and Treves hadn’t prepared for, and Carr-Gomm assumes his disability extends to his mind. But when John recites the entirety of the 23rd Psalm, including bits Treves hadn’t shown him, his shyness is overcome with his soul and his need to express his own humanity.

The rest of the performers acquit themselves quite well, particularly a wonderfully restrained Hopkins. They’re part of a tale of how society responds to outcasts and strangeness. Lynch’s use of long takes highlight the discomfort most characters have viewing John, as well as John’s discomfort around others. The ostensible heroes of the film (Treves, Carr-Gomm, the head of the nurses Mrs. Mothershead) all initially react to John with little more than pity and discomfort. As they discover his humanity, however, they’re moved into compassion and eventually friendship. One particularly strong scene involves the great Anne Bancroft (producer Mel Brooks’ wife) as Madge Kendal, an actress who learns of John and shows morbid curiosity towards him. When she first meets him, she exhibits the same innate horror at his condition. But John is a man with a fierce passion for art and knowledge, and when the two recite a scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, she too is moved.

Not everyone is turned to the side of righteousness in The Elephant Man. Bytes remains a figure of intense cruelty towards John throughout, with certain extended beating sequences foreshadowing the horrifying displays of violence Lynch would return to in his masterpiece Blue Velvet. Freddie Jones’ heightened, blustery performance (another Lynch trope) casts Bytes as a monstrous ringleader to an exploitative circus. Even more horrifying is the terrifying night visits conducted by the Night Porter, who charges pub customers money to stare at John all over again. These are men who pray on human weakness (another Lynch trope), in this case as appeals to the voyeuristic side of humanity. Plenty of people don’t care about John’s condition and hardships- they just want a look at the “monster”. These night terrors are both horrifying and deeply sad, and they carry over the extraordinary mastery of tension that Lynch displayed in Eraserhead.

Yet these aren’t the only characters of questionable motivations in the film- following Madge’s example, several high society types visit John, but they’re intentions are merely to get a look at the freakshow and tell their friends that they, too, could stand to spend time with the Elephant Man. “He’s only being stared at all over again”, Mothershead opines. Even Treves’ motivations are called into question- people are frightened by what they don’t understand, but Treves’ yearning to understand John’s condition smells of opportunism at first. As he sees John’s sad social exclusion and his deep gratitude for anything resembling a normal life, he becomes less of a doctor and more of a real friend to John. After John is taken by Bytes once more, he himself wonders if he’s any better than just another exploiter.

Lynch borrows from many of the same influences he showed in Eraserhead, particularly Franz Kafka in his interest in deformity or transformation. More key to the film’s success, however, is his borrowing from the European directors of the 1950s, particularly Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Like Bergman, he’s interested in exploring the complexity of the human condition, here through the bizarre tale of one of nature’s least fortunate creatures. But if Lynch’s film is less austere than the work of Bergman, it has much to do with his love for Fellini (particularly La Strada, in this case), and his warmth and compassion for the outcasts, the “freaks”, and the bizarre.

SPOILERS: That compassion makes John’s high points more moving and his low points more grueling, particularly in the devastating finale. Throughout the whole film, John has tried to live a more normal life, and has even succeeded in finding a real home and friends. But as “Adagio for Strings” plays, John’s yearning to be normal carries over in an experiment that could also be viewed as a suicide. John wants to sleep lying down like a normal person, but the enormity of his skull will not allow him to without suffocating. Whether he’s been motivated by the cruelty of life, the possible escape of heaven, or even his own intellectual curiosity, John does sleep lying down like a normal person, and he does die. There’s a reversal of the opening birth scenes: a view of space, heavy wind, and a flashing light coupled with a portrait of John’s mother. Both Eraserhead and The Elephant Man contain an escape to a place where “everything is fine”, with both results reflecting their respective films. In the former, it was just as mystifying and frightening as the rest of the film. Here, it’s moving, humanistic, and emotionally devastating. Lynch would go on to make several other great films, but rarely would he reprise the emotional heights he found here.

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