Three-ring Passion Play
David Lynch is fast becoming one of my favorite directors. Again, I'm beyond fashionably late to the party, having only watched one-and-a-half* of his films. But catching up with classics is a sure-fire cure for the end-of-summer blahs, and right now I could use some cheering up.
You might think The Elephant Man a strange choice. The movie is far from uplifting, but it's so beautiful and weird that even through tears I was ecstatic. Only the creator of Eraserhead could come up with such a brilliant spin on Oscar-bait. Yes, it's a lush period piece about an underdog who overcomes adversity, but those ingredients are strained through the sieve of Lynch's nightmare-mind, resulting in a film that is at once profoundly moving and deeply unsettling. At the end, I wanted to give the titular character a great, big hug--and then kill myself.
Set in the late-1880s, The Elephant Man tells the story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a severely-deformed twenty-one-year-old man. His mother was trampled by an elephant in her fourth month of pregnancy, resulting in bulbous masses distorting her son's facial features, as well as spiky tumors that jut from his warped torso. The only "normal" parts of his body are his left arm and genitals. The last of nature's cruel gifts is a case of chronic bronchitis, which makes speaking and breathing difficult; Merrick has to sleep in a hunched sitting position for fear of dying in the night.
Merrick travels England as a carnival freak, the ward of a drunken bully named Bytes (Freddie Jones). During a stop in London, renowned surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) hears of the so-called "Elephant Man" and asks for a private showing. Realizing that the man is terribly sick, he pays Bytes to allow him to take Merrick to London Hospital, where his poor breathing can be treated. It's a ruse, of course, to get him away from the slop-filled, portable shack and nightly beatings--as well as to have a better look at this truly unique human being.
Treves sneaks Merrick into a private room on the isolation ward and sets him up with a hot meal and a proper bed. Over several days, the men bond over Treves' discovery that the poor creature can speak; he coaches Merrick on the right things to say when meeting the hospital's director, Carr Gomm (John Gielgud). The introduction doesn't go well. Despite good manners and an ability to parrot the first half of the 23rd Psalm, Carr Gomm sees no evidence that Merrick is anything but an unfortunate mass of low-functioning tissue that happens to be alive.
On their way to formally dismissing Merrick from the hospital, though, Carr Gomm and Treves hear him complete the biblical passage--a feat that he'd not been "trained" to do. It turns out he's well-read and well-spoken, but a life of ridicule and beatings have rendered him nearly incapable of expressing himself. Under Treves' care, Merrick learns to come out of his shell, and becomes a fascination for London's high society.
One of his new admirers is theatre star Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft), who appreciates the classic tragedy in Merrick's life story and falls platonically in love with him. She gives him a photo of herself, which he keeps on a bedside table next to the one worldly possession he's kept since birth: a small portrait of his gorgeous mother, who he believes to still be alive somewhere, but whom he's never met.
Merrick discovers a world of daytime generosity in the hospital, but after lights-out, he's subjected to a new kind of freak-show exploitation at the hands of the sadistic Night Porter (Michael Elphick)--who brings regulars from local pubs to Merrick's room, where they pummel and ridicule him. Not wanting to trouble his new hosts, Merrick doesn't mention the nightly tortures; he endures the beaten-dog role knowing that within hours he'll be in the company of people who love and respect him (a side-effect of this cruelty is that we, like Merrick, are also extremely wary of the people to whom we're introduced--especially Mrs. Kendal, whose motivations are unclear and, ultimately, surprising).
The screenplay by Lynch and co-writers Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren (working from books by Ashley Montagu and the real-life Treves--yes, this is all based on a true story) is a very conventional one whose biggest surprise is how un-surprising it is. Three things elevate the material above a Forrest-Gump-style audience-pleaser into the realm of challenging art.
The first and most obvious is the filmmaking. Lynch's stylistic choices, which are largely realized by Freddie Francis' awesome cinematography. The Elephant Man is not only filmed in black-and-white, its performances and presentation all harken back to films of the 1930s--specifically Tod Browning's Freaks. Despite the superior film stock and lighting, it's easy to forget that The Elephant man was released in 1980; indeed, the one tip of the hat to the Spielberg Era is a series of distracting J.J. Abrams-esque lens flares early on (though I doubt this was a consciously pretentious choice on Lynch's part). And while much of it falls on the gorgeous side of typical, Lynch sprinkles his picture with the oddly framed imagery of his Eraserhead-style surrealism, which helps further the idea that this is a classic movie with a distinctly modern stamp.
The second contributor to the movie's success is the performances by everyone involved. From the child street urchin (Dexter Fletcher, the grown-up version of whom you might recognize from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) to Hopkins and Hurt, there's not a bum actor in the cast. I was particularly surprised by Hopkins who, in his later career, has fallen victim to what I call Pacino/Jones Syndrome, which is characterized by once-great actors playing parodies of themselves in ninety percent of their newer films. There's not a trace of Hannibal Lecter in Treves; Hopkins is completely natural and understated, and I totally bought him as a doctor torn by the conflicting lures of fame and charity.
Lastly, we have the superb Elephant Man makeup designed by Christopher Tucker and fashioned by Beryl Lerman, Michael Morris, and Wally Schneiderman. John Hurt is completely unrecognizable beneath his latex deformities, which perfectly recreate the look of the real Merrick (I wouldn't be surprised to learn that one of the reasons Lynch shot in black-and-white was to enhance his monster's illusion). Additionally, the restrictions force Hurt to squeeze every bit of great acting he can through a half-formed mouth and eyes that struggle to form tears. If the makeup has a co-star, it's the sound design by Lynch and Alan Splet: the horrible slurping noises Merrick makes when speaking form yet another barrier to the pure-hearted soul trapped inside his bad joke of a body--just as the crazy echoes in London Hospital's halls reflect the isolation Merrick feels even when surrounded by people.
I was blown away by The Elephant Man. David Lynch has made a film that's poignant yet cool enough not to be corny. The lesson, of course, is of the "don't judge a book by its cover" variety, but he attacks it with such brutal honesty as to force the audience to consider just how deeply their own prejudices lie. Like Citizen Kane, the point here is that the truth of a situation or a person is often much more complicated and harder to see at a glance. Whether considering politics, reality television, or homeless people that we've come to think of as really bad wallpaper, these themes are as relevant today as they were in 1980 and 1880--and probably well before that. The Elephant Man is a freakish film but also a very moral and humanistic one that, I would imagine, tests the self-image of anyone who sees it.
*The half-film in question is Mulholland Drive, which I turned off about thirty minutes in. I loved what I saw, but I started watching too late in the evening and wanted to give it my full attention. Time got away from me and I had to return the DVD, but I plan to revisit the entire movie whenever it comes out on blu-ray (#lamebuttrueexplanation).