Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Elephant Man (1980) A Film by David Lynch

The Elephant Man came as a significant departure for David Lynch when it was released in 1980, being only his second feature following Eraserhead. With several big names involved - Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Hurt (who only became more widely acknowledged after the film's success), and even comedy staple Mel Brooks as the executive producer - the film stood as a big break for Lynch, an opportunity to reach a wider audience following his independently produced debut, which barely broke out from the midnight movie crowd. And although some of the recognizable abstractions of Eraserhead remain fairly intact in The Elephant Man, at heart, they only cushion what is a fairly meat-and-potatoes plot rather than working to primarily elevate the film. Furthermore, the film's story, which on the outset was a difficult sell, is actually quite in line with many "serious" Hollywood dramas, given its somewhat shrill "triumph of the human spirit" undertones. John Hurt plays John Merrick, "The Elephant Man", a man deformed at birth from a mother who was struck by an elephant. He lives miserably under the ownership of a freak-show proprietor until a doctor and anatomy professor working in London (Anthony Hopkins) discovers him and takes him under his wing in light of Merrick's chronic bronchitis. The professor, Frederick Treves, thus battles with his patient's well-being, his own conscience, and eventually the greedy underbelly of London, forever marked by Merrick's previous owner.

It's interesting to see how Lynch revisits the theme of birth deficiency in such a different situation. Whereas Henry's baby in Eraserhead arrived in a strictly lyrical, immaterial manner, Lynch gets right to work detailing Merrick's mother's backstory, underlining the film's progression as a logical one. The opening montage poses a series of fragmented images detailing the mother's incident with elephants, an episode that is horrific and enthralling and most importantly, one of the more stylized in regards to the film as a whole. Without ever showing the mother again, albeit through Merrick's allusions and his sacred framed portrait of her, Lynch has given the viewer the luxury of understanding his deformation. One of the finest moments in the film is a dream sequence which is introduced directly by a swooping camera movement over Merrick's sleeping body, which then gives way to a mosaic of nightmarish images containing back-alley industrial workers and tons of smoke. Everything, from the sound design to the more expressionistic camerawork, tells us we are viewing a dream. This is something we rarely receive in Lynch's work, that privilege to engage without constantly wondering where reality and allusion intersect.

Therefore, The Elephant Man is Lynch's pursuit of a Hollywood message drama with an intent not to devalue his skills with mise-en-scene. In several spots the film becomes academic and labored, most specifically when Treves is integrating Merrick into the hospital environment while a handful of authoritative figures struggle with the idea of taking in an incurable against the hospital's guidelines. The scenes progress with melodramatic weight as The Elephant Man transforms rapidly from a grunting monster to a kindhearted, elegant soul. Anne Bancroft makes a cameo as a notable London theatre actress who treats Merrick with compassion, and thus triggers, along with other admirers spawned by the local newspaper, an important question in Treves: has he sinned by becoming just as exploitative with Merrick as his previous owner? Lynch extends this question but does not answer it, one of the more admirable choices when placed aside some of the saccharine tendencies that film has, like giving Merrick such saintlike innocence, treating all foes not with depth but as greedy, drunken ignoramuses, and providing the overtly uplifting moments with traditional dramatic cues.

Notwithstanding these occasional narrative blunders, The Elephant Man is a work of cinematographic excellence. This is the second time I've seen the film (the first time under proper circumstances) and I remembered it as having a clunkier, more retro look than it actually does. Truth is, Freddie Francis' lighting and camera techniques are sophisticated and modern. Moreover, the film has great range of contrast rather than muted grays, which are what I remembered. With these visuals, the elongated London hospital hallways have more in common with Eraserhead's shadowy walkways than expected. Also, the relentless fog in the darker areas of London where the freak-show owner deprives Merrick makes it seem like Lynch's Philadelphia is the neighboring town. John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins do tremendous jobs in their roles, Hurt bringing out humanity from beneath a grossly deformed, tumor-laden exterior, and Hopkins sustaining an aloof but tender disposition throughout. The film is an uncommonly modest effort from Lynch that has won the hearts of audiences that have scoffed at his more personal works.

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