Monday Editor’s Pick: The Elephant Man (1980)

by on December 7, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon Dec 12 at 7:00, 9:30 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]


BAM tips their hat to major thespian John Hurt, who appears in their current production of Krapps Last Tape, with a “Quartet” of his work. The actor appears for an on-stage conversation Tuesday evening at 7:40, with Scandal.  

Things kick off with David Lynch’s Victorian prestige project, a leap of faith by producer and unexpected Eraserhead fan Mel Brooks who described Lynch as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars.” It earned Hurt a BAFTA and Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Says Lynch, “The actors were beyond great. I cannot say enough good things about John Hurt. What he did is just glorious. His character is so fantastic. It’s a human-being thing; your heart just goes out to him for what he went through.”  


Tom Milne for Time Out (London):

More accessible than Lynch’s enigmatically disturbing Eraserhead, The Elephant Man has much the same limpidly moving humanism as Truffaut’s L’Enfant Sauvage in describing how the unfortunate John Merrick, brutalised by a childhood in which he was hideously abused as an inhuman freak, was gradually coaxed into revealing a soul of such delicacy and refinement that he became a lion of Victorian society. But that is only half the story the film tells. The darker side, underpinned by an evocation of the steamy, smoky hell that still underlies a London facelifted by the Industrial Revolution, is crystallised by the wonderful sequence in which Merrick is persuaded by a celebrated actress to read Romeo to her Juliet. A tender, touching scene (‘Oh, Mr Merrick, you’re not an elephant man at all. No, you’re Romeo’), it nevertheless begs the question of what passions, inevitably doomed to frustration, have been roused in this presumably normally-sexed Elephant Man. Appearances are all, and like the proverbial Victorian piano, he can make the social grade only if his ruder appendages are hidden from sensitive eyes; hence what is effectively, at his time of greatest happiness, his suicide. A marvellous movie, shot in stunning black-and-white by Freddie Francis.



Vincent Canby for the New York Times:

In such a setting it’s no surprise that a kind of sad, desperate genteelness was once equated with human dignity. To be kind and polite, in such a landscape, under such circumstances, when the masses were living in such squalor, were reassuring signs of orthodoxy to a threatened London Establishment. This is one of the vividly unexpected impressions one carries away from The Elephant Man, David Lynch’s haunting new film, which uses some of the devices of the horror film, including ominous music, sudden cuts that shock, and hints of dark things to come, but it’s a very benign horror film, one in which “the creature” is the pursued instead of the pursuer.  


Unlike the play, in which the actor playing John Merrick wears no makeup, his unadorned face representing the beauty of the interior man, the audience thus being forced to imagine his hideous appearance, the movie works the other way around. John Hurt, as John Merrick, is a monster with a bulbous forehead, a Quasimodo-like mouth, one almost-obscured eye, a useless arm, and crooked torso. It’s to the credit of Christopher Tucker’s makeup and to Mr. Hurt’s extraordinary performance deep inside it, that John Merrick doesn’t look absurd, like something out of a low-budget science-fiction film.  


But what we eventually see underneath this shell is not “the study in dignity” that Ashley Montagu wrote about, but something far more poignant, a study in genteelness that somehow suppressed all rage. That is the quality that illuminates this film and makes it far more fascinating than it would be were it merely a portrait of a dignified freak. Throughout the film one longs for an explosion. That it never comes is more terrifying, I think, than John Merrick’s acceptance of the values of others is inspiring.



Jordan Ruiny for the blog Mind of a Suspicious Kind:

David Lynch’s The Elephant Man is as close to a crowd pleaser as a Lynch film can get, whichdoesn’t necessarily mean it’s a crowd pleaser. It has darkness that many filmmakers wouldn’t dare approach in their bodies of work and a story that demands attention with its impeccable layers of detail. The film is straightforward and impeccably acted but retains much of the dreamlike imagery that has infused most of Lynch’s films over his more than 35 year film career. No matter what people have said about The Elephant Man, it is a David Lynch film through and through, despite the unusual absence of a leading female figure troubled and in turmoil (a must for almost any Lynch film) or the California setting that Lynch so dearly loves to set his tales in; It is a singular masterpiece that puts the viewer in a dream-like state. It might not have the ambiguous, abstract nature of a Mulholland Drive or the mind bending non linearity of a Twin Peaks but The Elephant Man retains Lynch’s recurring themes of dreams, machinery and dark underbellies. All three of these themes are apparent throughout the film and are obsessions that have long fascinated Lynch throughout his career.  


Every once in a while Lynch will include shots of wafting Smoke that these factories produce, he also sets his camera out to get the constant ramblings of these industrial machines. The sound is upped a notch so that the audience can hear the unpleasantness of the noise. Lynch’s agenda is to make us aware of the era and the people living in it. Industrialism is portrayed in an ugly fashion, as if Lynch is telling us that it’s the fall of our hands and the rise of the machines- something Chaplin did quite so eloquently in Modern Times. It is also no coincidence that at some point in the film, Anthony Hopkins’ Doctor Treves operates on a victim of machinery, a victim that is surely one of many. John Merrick represents the anti-machinery, a man with heart and soul that wants be seen as human instead of monster. He lives in a society that has all but been taken over by industrialism and has neglected his voice as a human being in the process. As Lynch stated in 1980 “I’m flipped out over industry and factories – sounds as well as images … The Elephant Man takes place when industrialization was still starting. It was the beginning of Eraserhead’s times. I was hoping that the Victorians would have had more machinery around. There wasn’t a lot, but what they did have made a lot noise and a lot of smoke.”



Tom Hudleston for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

In some strange way, The Elephant Man has managed to become David Lynch’s most undervalued film. Lynch extensively rewrote the original screenplay, jettisoning much of the fact-based material in favour of a more emotive (and more cinematic) vision. In his hands, the film undergoes a fascinating transition over the course of its runtime: as Merrick’s life gradually detaches from grim reality into a sort of wondrous, if charmingly modest wish fulfilment and back again, shifting between waking dream and living nightmare, so the film changes from a fairly realistic, if slightly overblown melodrama to an out-and-out fairytale, complete with monsters, dwarves and giants. It can be no accident that the first half of the film is riddled with references to time and punctuality—the hour of Dr. Treves’ meeting with Bytes or Merrick’s hospital appointment are clearly noted, and backed up with repeated images of clocks, from both within and without. But as the narrative develops this certainty dissolves: weeks and even months become meaningless, the story seems to fold back on itself and then just as suddenly leap forward: Sykes-like villain Michael Elphick’s plot to exploit Merrick seems to take months in the planning, then it all happens at once. We never know how long Merrick suffers at Bytes’ hands after his second abduction, and the freaks’ escape which follows seems to be leading us ever deeper into dreamland.  

The film is a visual marvel, the flawless, time consuming precision of Eraserhead filtered through Freddie Francis’ perfectionist classical aesthetic. This is perhaps the most referential of Lynch’s films, the director wearing his influences more openly than ever before or since: the giddy theatre sequence is clearly influenced by a similar set piece in Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes, while the carnival escape recalls not only the obvious Freaks, but also the dream geography of Night Of The Hunter. Horror film iconography is employed expertly, particularly in the first third of the film before we see Merrick’s face in full: the expressionistic use of light and shadow betrays the influence of Murnau and Jacques Tourneur. Perhaps because of its relative straightforwardness and commercial appeal, The Elephant Man has proved Lynch’s most directly influential film. The film’s impact on Spielberg’s E.T. is evident: the first full revelation of the ‘monster’ is played almost identically, as is the aforementioned emotional overload in the final sequences. But Spielberg draws from Lynch’s film throughout his career, most notably in A.I., with its carnivals, fairytale elements and ‘robots are people too’ message, and most successfully in Schindler’s List, which borrows Lynch’s vibrant, starkly contrasted monochrome aesthetic. One director who seems to have spent much of his career aping The Elephant Man is Tim Burton, whose Edward Scissorhands was a successful riff on the same themes (complete with near-identical musical score), but who seems to have become so bogged down in the fairytale freak elements of the story he’s now running circles over the same old ground.


The Elephant Man, particularly in its final act, exerts an almost total hold over its audience, using a combination of image, sound and story to produce a gut reaction which is, in my experience, almost unprecedented. The scenes pile onto one another, each more devastating than the last. There are techniques on display here – for example the use of surrealist imagery and non-diegetic sound within an otherwise linear narrative, to provoke an emotional response – that remain frustratingly underutilised in modern cinema. For all its period trappings and classical narrative, The Elephant Man remains a wonderfully idiosyncratic, creatively groundbreaking film: perhaps we simply have yet to catch up to it.



John Pym for Sight & Sound:

In 1884, the ‘freak’ John Merrick was discovered in a booth in the Mile End Road by Frederick Treves, chief surgeon at the London Hospital. The Elephant Man, David Lynch`s part-fantastic, part-factual reworking of the subsequent course of Merrick`s life, accurately records that, after buying this temporary release, Treves` first act to display the grossly deformed Merrick, an incurable victim of von Recklingshausen`s disease, before another audience, the sober medical gentleman of the teaching college at which he lectured on anatomy. The film, which on one level at least may be said to proceed by the modern equivalent of a series of detailed, rather grandiose Victorian painted tableaux, carries Treves, with whom we are encouraged to identify, on a journey from shocked incomprehension (‘I pray to God he is an idiot’, Treves observes with misplaced solicitude), through pity to compassion. In keeping with the moral tone of the world so fastidiously and effectively recreated (production design: Stuart Craig), the journey is in many ways remarkably straightforward. Lynch`s key episodes – the first meeting between the nervous, well-drilles Merrick and the sceptically polite hospital governor; Merrick`s teatime visit to the Treves` home, with the drawing-room mantelpiece adorned with photographs of the absent children – appeal to the heart with no sense that they are, in these cynical times, attempting an unfashionable feat. Indeed, the film as a whole succeeds in synthesizing an old-fashioned, optimistic populism with a judiciously restrained streak of mysticism: a reflection of Lynch`s privileged leap from Eraserhead, his fist independent feature, squarely into the lap of an ‘industry’ production company. Installed in a side room at the London Hospital, Merrick slowly emerges from his body`s shell and reveals himself not so much a wild child – though his keeper, with the fictional name of ‘Bytes’, treats him as such with a mixture of indifferent cruelty and the sort of maudlin sentimentality the Victorians reserved for kitchen dogs – as a tabula rasa. Approached with kindness, for reasons which range from the plain good-heartedness of the initially fearful nurse Nora to the matron Mrs Mothershead`s sense of duty, John Merrick rapidly assumes the manners of the society he can only join by proxy; and these, because they are merely copied, slowly turn into a grotesque and perhaps, in the American director`s view, ironically accurate parody.  


The Elephant Man, filmed in black and white in the Panavision format, its tones reflecting a false certainty, holds up to judgment, in particular, two aspects of Victorian England. The notion, embroidered throughout, that industrial and medical progress will one day cure the world`s ills is given the lie most effectively in an early, deliberately emblematic scene: Treves and a colleague are operating in primitively insanitary conditions on the victim of an industrial accident. ‘We are seeing more and more of these accidents,’ Treves says. Quite so, but if our knowledge of hygiene has improved, our control of our machines – and the film accents energy- and effluent-producing machines – has in sense diminished. Secondly, the representation of Merrick himself (played with a remarkably undemonstrative dignity by John Hurt) – with his head the size of a man`s waist, his crooked mouth, useless right arm and body covered with lavalike eruptions – provokes complex questions about the nature of voyeurism, ‘wonderment’ and ‘scientific’ observation. The society beauties and titled couples who politely visit Merrick in his tiny room are in essence, it is intimated, really no different from the tipsy, gawking hordes, led by the plausibly contemporary porter (he seems, subjectively perhaps, notably contemporary for the depth of his heartlessness), who come at night to abuse the unprotected cripple. Written by Lynch, Christopher de Vore and Eric Bergren, The Elephant Man is, however, chiefly a tale of an affliction borne, and of the growth of the sentimental – yet nevertheless moving – friendship between Merrick and Treves (Anthony Hopkins). At the end, before Merrick commits suicide knowing himself to be dying after the punishment of his recapture by Bytes, and wishing just once to lie flat in bed like an ‘ordinary’ person (an act which suffocates him), Treves acknowledges with a look that the man he had once wished to be an idiot in order that he should not comprehend the enormity of his body has in fact taught him, as an equal, the value of friendship. Charity is icy without it.



Lynch in interview with Huddleston, also for Time Out (London):

Despite its historical roots, Lynch’s take on the life of John Merrick – tortured carnival freak turned society darling – never tries to examine the facts of the man’s life, or the society in which he lived. Instead, Lynch refracts the story through the warped lens of his own obsessions: deformity and social exclusion, dreams and childhood fears, the magic of existence and the mystery of death. In doing so, he creates a unique cinematic landscape, a place in which the establishment – in the form of actors such as John Gielgud and Anthony Hopkins – rubs shoulders with the avant-garde.  


Lynch looks back on the film, his first studio picture, as a labour of love. But he says the actual production was something of a nightmare. ‘It was a very, very difficult film for me, because I was in a place where a lot of people thought I didn’t belong. I had made one feature no one had heard about, and here I am, born in Missoula, Montana, making a Victorian drama. I think a lot of people thought: Who is this nutcake? Who was I to be doing this?’ It’s extraordinary that ‘The Elephant Man’ got made at all, at least in its finished form. Having completed the oblique, deeply personal ‘Eraserhead’ in 1977, the director was fishing around for new ideas. ‘I wrote a script called “Ronnie Rocket”, but I couldn’t get anything going. I met a man named Stuart Cornfeld, who worked for Mel Brooks and had loved “Eraserhead”. One day, just on a feeling, I said, “We’re not getting anywhere with ‘Ronnie Rocket’; are there any other scripts that I might direct?” And he said, “There are four scripts. Come to Nibblers and have lunch, and I’ll tell you.” The first thing he said was “The Elephant Man”. And an explosion went off in my brain. Very strange. I said immediately, “That’s it. That’s what I want to do.” ’  


Was producer Mel Brooks not taking a huge risk, hiring this virtual unknown to direct such a big, prestige picture? ‘You know, enormous or huge aren’t big enough words. And yet, zero risk in some ways. Mel somehow related to “Eraserhead”. He saw something there that made him think: This is the guy. So I don’t know how much of a risk Mel felt he was taking.’ There are parallels between ‘The Elephant Man’ and ‘Eraserhead’, not least the sense of a thunderous industrial underworld barely buried beneath everyday existence. For Lynch, the period element was one of the screenplay’s most appealing aspects. ‘I always loved smokestack industry, and I love towns or cities that have grown up around factories. So here is Victorian England, and I don’t know this land, but I know factories, I know this is the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, so that side of it resonated with me. Then one day I’m standing in East London Hospital. A derelict hospital, but it still had beds in the wards. Thousands of pigeons, broken windows, but long, glorious hallways, fireplaces, all the details. I’m there in the hall looking into a ward and a wind entered me, and I was back in time. I knew it: 100 per cent. Victorian England. And I said: “Now I know it. No one can take it away from me.” It just came in.’



Serge Daney for Cahiers du Cinema (translated and republished by Cinema Scope:

This movie is strange in many ways. And firstly because of what David Lynch does with fear: the spectator’s fear (ours) and the characters’, including John Merrick’s (the elephant man). Thus, the first part of the film, until the arrival at the hospital, works a bit like a trap. The spectator gets used to the idea that sooner or later he will have to bear the unbearable and face the monster. A coarse cloth bag with one eye-hole is all that separates him from the horror that he guesses. The spectator has entered the film like Treves, from the angle of voyeurism. He has paid (just as Treves has) to see a freak (1): this elephant man successively exhibited and forbidden, saved and beaten up, briefly seen in a cave, “showcased” to scientists, taken in and hidden at the Royal Hospital of London. And when the spectator sees him at last, he is all the more disappointed that Lynch then pretends to play the game of the classic horror movie: night, deserted hospital corridors, clouds moving rapidly in a heavy sky, and suddenly this shot of John Merrick raised on his bed, racked by a nightmare. The spectator sees him—really—for the first time, but what he also sees is that the monster who is supposed to scare him is himself afraid. It is at this moment that Lynch frees his spectator from the trap he had first set (the “more-to-see” trap), as if Lynch was saying: you are not the one that matters, it’s him, the elephant man; it is not your fear that interests me but his; it is not your fear to be afraid that I want to manipulate but his fear to scare, his fear to see himself in the look of the other. The vertigo changes sides.  


In the course of the movie, John Merrick is the object of three gazes. Three gazes for three ages of cinema: burlesque, modern, classic. Or: the fun fair, the hospital, the theatre. There is first the gaze down below, the gaze of the low people, and Lynch’s harsh, precise gaze, without affability, on this gaze. There are bits of a carnival in the scene where Merrick is made drunk and kidnapped. In the carnival, there is no human essence to impersonate (even with the face of a monster), there are only bodies to laugh it off. Then there is the modern gaze, the doctor’s fascinated gaze (a remarkable Anthony Hopkins): respect of the other and bad conscience, morbid eroticism and epistemophilia. By looking after the elephant man, Treves saves himself: it is the humanist’s fight (à la Kurosawa). Finally, there is a third gaze. The more the elephant man is popular and celebrated, the more the ones visiting him have the time to put on a mask, a mask of politeness that conceals what they feel at his sight. They go see John Merrick to test this mask: if their fear betrayed them, they would see its reflection in Merrick’s eyes. It is in this way that the elephant-man is their mirror, not a mirror where they could see and recognize themselves but a mirror to learn how to play, how to conceal, how to lie even more. At the beginning of the movie, there was the abject promiscuity between the freak and the man showcasing him (Bytes), then Treves’ muted, ecstatic horror in the cave. At the end, it is Mrs. Kendal, the London theatre star, who decides, when reading a newspaper, to become the elephant man’s friend. In a rather uneasy scene, Anne Bancroft, as the guest star, wins her bet: not one muscle of her face twitches when she is introduced to Merrick, to whom she talks as to an old friend, going as far as kissing him. The loop has closed, Merrick can die and the movie can end. On one hand, the social mask has been entirely reconstituted; on the other hand, Merrick has at last seen in another’s gaze something totally different than the reflection of the disgust he inspires. What? He couldn’t say. He takes the height of artifice for the truth and of course he’s not wrong—since we are at the theatre.   For the elephant man cultivates two dreams: to sleep on his back and to go to the theatre. He will realize them both the same evening, just before dying. The end of the film is very moving. At the theatre, when Merrick stands up in his box to allow those who applaud him to see him, we really no longer know what is in their gaze, we don’t know what they see. Lynch has then managed to redeem one by the other, dialectically, monster and society. Albeit only at the theatre and only for one night. There won’t be another performance.


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