50 years, 50 films: The Elephant Man (1980)
We embark on a new decade with a film set in the Victorian era.
David Lynch has made 10 feature films. Of those, nearly 30 percent tell lucid narratives that collide only incidentally with surrealism: Dune, The Elephant Man and The Straight Story. But those films do still feel like anomalies. We know what we mean by a David Lynch film and it is something that rarely makes conventional sense (come to think of it, Wild at Heart might also qualify as a straight-up Lynch picture). All that noted, though based on historical records, The Elephant Man never looks (or sounds) like the work of any other director. The sound design alone is remarkable: Lynch layers interiors with the constant hissing of gas lamps, partly for verisimilitude, largely to convey a sense of menace. Freddie Francis’s lovely monochrome photography has the same mercury menace that the director summoned up for Eraserhead. The dream sequences allow in some trademark Lynchian surrealism.
Kudos must go the way of producer Mel Brooks. The story of Joseph Merrick (John in the film) — a Victorian man whose massive tumours made him a freak and a medical curiosity — had suddenly become fashionable in the late 1970s and early 1980s. David Bowie played him on stage. Several books investigated the case. Brooks was keen to get the story on film and, in a moment of extraordinary inspiration, settled on the eccentric avant-garde director of Eraserhead to helm the story. Such transformations do occasionally happen. As we speak, Steve McQueen, who started off as an austere video artist, is favourite to take the best picture Oscar with 12 Years a Slave. But the move from outsider cinema to the mainstream is still as rare now as it was in 1980.
Then again, is Eraserhead really a mainstream picture. (Is Shame? Is 12 Years a Slave?) Nobody had previously brought this degree of distance to a depiction of the Victorian era. To that point, it was all jolly gap-toothed tarts and fainting maidens in bonnets. Lynch pinned the era to the screen as a butterfly collector might pin one of his specimens to the wall: coolly, methodically, dispassionately.
But this remains a deeply moving film (one of the most moving ever made, I might argue). Much of that is down to the performances of John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins. As Dr Frederick Treves, Hopkins restrains his instinct towards create restlessness — all that staring at floor and ceiling — to deliver a sober portrayal of a man who dares to bring feeling to science. In an unseen performance to compare with Claude Rains in The Invisible Man, Hurt makes a simple man seem unimaginably loveable and courageous. It would be wrong to argue that the picture is without sentiment. Merrick seems to have no flaws whatsoever; he is practically a saint. But you would need a heart of turf — you’d need to be a complete bastard, in fact — not to feel emotion when, in the last moments, he tries to go to sleep as ordinary little boys do.
That sentiment goes to confirm comments made by Laura Dern years later when — after the disastrous Dune cast him into the wilderness — Lynch returned triumphantly with Blue Velvet. Addressing her famous speech about descending robins, Dern said that Lynch really believed in those robins. So, maybe we can’t call The Elephant Man sentimental. Perhaps the emotions are sincere. At any rate, Dickens would have approved. The death scene is every bit as touching as that of Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son. I mean the praise to be that high.
For our first film in the new decade, we also considered The Shining, The Last Metro, The Long Riders, Airplane! and (obviously) Raging Bull.