The Straight Story – 5 – The Elephant Man

Eraserhead (which by the way, I am very excited to see on the big screen this coming Saturday – it’s a pastime of mine to see theatrical screenings of favorite movies when they’re around) was a cultural hit upon its release even, not exactly having to wait decades for its cult phenomenon status. It had notoriously gotten midnight screenings all across the nation and even inspired the legendary Stanley Kubrick in the middle of his production of The Shining (hearsay claims that Kubrick made his cast and crew for that film watch Eraserhead to get in the right sort of mindset for his own horror story).

But how Eraserhead really kicked the career of David Lynch further into gear was by catching the attention of a man named Stuart Cornfield. Cornfield was already in the business under the wing of Mel Brooks, the notorious comedian of The Producers and Blazing Saddles fame. The 80s for Brooks, though, were in the little yet distinctive presence of darker, more serious work that he would be executive producing for his company BrooksFilms. While films like The Fly were more blatantly horror, this particular film was bordering that genre in a manner.

I mean, after all, Lynch is coming off of the success of a horror film. And it could only have been suspected that he would stick to his guns for now on his sophomore feature debut, but it’s astonishing in this case just to how much of a degree he’d stick to those guns and how well they work for themselves. But more on that in a moment…

Cornfield and Lynch began to correspond and the two of them got on quite well to the point of Cornfield offering to help Lynch produce another one of his pet screenplays, the time titled “Ronnie Rocket”. But, of course, “Ronnie Rocket” was doomed before production could even begin as Lynch trouble even describing it to potential financial backers and with humility scrapped the project. So Cornfield, insistent upon working with Lynch still, sent Lynch four separate scripts for him to consider directing and Cornfield would then go up to Brooks and ask that Lynch be allowed to helm that project.

And so after going through all four scripts and Brooks himself seeing Eraserhead and absolutely loving it, we ended up with The Elephant Man‘s production and release in 1980. The film was a commercial success and while it is arguable that The Elephant Man was Lynch’s only film to be as subdued and “normal” as most mainstream pictures, it is absolutely undeniable that it is Lynch’s first picture to enter that cinematic mainsteam. It earned the most Oscar nominations of Lynch’s career and returned a considerable interest in the true-life case of Joseph Merrick.

Interestingly, the movie refrains from referring to Merrick in the film as Joe. No, the man who has the grotesquely enlarged cranium and the tumor-like abnormalities all around his body is referred in the film wrongly as John Merrick (an unrecognizable John Hurt, both in voice and in physical appearance). Merrick was found in a freakshow in Victorian England and be-friended by Victoria Hospital surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) as Treves dedicates his life to studying Merrick’s condition. Merrick in the film has spent a considerable amount of his lifetime being exploited by the master of his freak show, Bytes (Freddie Jones). Once Treves takes responsibility for Merrick himself, Bytes is dismayed at losing one of his attractions and swears to take Merrick back eventually. This promise threatens to undo all of the man-making self-discovery Merrick gains once he actually discovers dignity and humanity in his life.

This transformation from fearful beast to man is provided by Hurt in a manner that I wouldn’t exactly call the most sympathy-grabbing performance by its own right, but considering even the simplistic and muffled expressions Hurt provides through his multi-layered make-up can tell us how Merrick feels and in turn how we are supposed to feel, I would give it at least a remarkable standing. Hopkins himself does well enough to command the scene when he needs to be the emotional anchor – namely of either fascination, sadness, or anger – and yet give the stage to Hurt when most necessary.

But that’s fine for the two lead actors to warm up the atmosphere because for the most part of the film, as a matter of fact, Lynch takes to utilizing his usual coldness and – save for the bookends of the film which hold their own dreamlike manner – sneaking in moments of bizarreness and surrealism. In fact, it’s a lot easier to attach The Elephant Man as a companion piece to Eraserhead than expected, even if Eraserhead holds ambiguity by its neck while The Elephant Man is one of Lynch’s straightest stories.

The sound design, supervised by Lynch himself, is leveled at a point that impressively attacks the audience when we need to be in shock with where we are at moments like the carnival and the opera house close to the end, jarring intrusions of air billowing in the sky, and such, yet also deliberately holding a stillness in the room when we need quieter moments of contemplation between Treves and Merrick. That’s not even to say enough about Stuart Craig’s production design for the film, which makes brick alleyways in the back of Victorian England and train depots look like the most industrial nightmare you can make out of such a time and era and touched upon by Freddie Francis’ black and white cinematography (with a lot softer lighting this time around and less contrast than his previous work on Eraserhead) and that turns the metallic and artificially monstrous character of England up to 11.

Francis’ work also, like the sound design, ends up the servant of two masters when it holds a lot more novel scene compositions like holding Merrick to share the same frame as a caged dog or providing an empty space to accompany Merrick as he attempts to get past the pain of falling asleep and so many more obvious and overt notions of the struggle to being a man that Merrick has to go through. Hell, once the movie goes full on “Angry Mob from Frankenstein” mode (a move you really would have had to have never been aware of these types of pictures to not have seen it coming), Lynch, Francis, and company just try as much as they can to make the film resemble a Universal Classic Horror film and it sort of works, but once again, it jars in the middle of the humane emotional arc.

Ah yes, and the makeup (created by Christopher Tucker after Lynch kept trying to give it a go himself). The makeup is the part I am honestly most contentious about kind of and I know that the public opinion is not that way. Hell, the makeup sort of made Oscar history by causing an outcry in how the makeup was neglected recognition by the Academy and so the Oscar for Best Makeup was invented after this. So, people like it. And I don’t think it’s flat out bad makeup.

It’s just the main thing that gets in the way of our thoughts of Merrick. Not in the grotesque manner of its creation, but in the fact that it kind of feels like one of Lynch’s own horror tales dedicated to making Merrick scary-looking rather than allowing Hurt ability to express himself through any facial means, through movement of his mouth, almost through speech even (when Hurt talks… it sounds like he’s talking through a mask, really). It makes Merrick more of a cartoon than he has to be for the sake of serving the master of Lynch’s appetite for unreal content and presentation.

Basically, Lynch is less concerned with making Merrick a fleshed out human being with his own emotional struggles and psychological pitfalls, since that heavy lifting has to be passed between Hurt, Hopkins, and the screenplay by Lynch, Christopher DeVore, and Eric Bergren. And while it paces itself along as much as it can to juggle the character arc of Merrick and the battle to keep him out of a cage, it never seems quite able to make those two factors become sides of the same problem and so there’s so much screentime we feel could be spared. The movie is by no means a complete bore, but it could have been shorter and the story could have been more carefully made to present the faults of Merrick’s life and treatment altogether without feeling like a cheat.

Still this storytelling neglect instead of atmospheric satisfaction does not detract from the engagement of Merrick’s tale, it just makes The Elephant Man seem like two separate films that interrupt each other once in a while – a horror story where the monster is the victim of the humans, and a dramatic tale of a man overcoming his unfair physical adversities in all manners. It still works. It’s still serviceable. For all these things, The Elephant Man at once stands on its own legacy as a dramatic picture yet doesn’t exactly go snug into the Lynchian canon. It is simply that sort of showcase of skillsets Lynch made that he clearly couldn’t provide previously since he was making Eraserhead instead an expressive piece of art.

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One thought on “The Straight Story – 5 – The Elephant Man

  1. Interesting review. I think The Elephant Man is flawed but ultimately very moving. It makes an interesting segue into Dune so these two films (Dune much more dramatically, of course) are the only ones in Lynch’s canon that feel a bit like he is bending his vision to suit the material (The Straight Story doesn’t feel that way to me). Your point about it feeling like two films is very well-taken. I think that The Elephant Man begins as Treves’ story but becomes John Merrick’s by the end, most firmly in the final scene. That’s the one moment where it completely and utterly feels like he is a subject vs. object. I would analogize it to how Laura Palmer is treated over the course of Twin Peaks (including the film). In the pilot she is this mysterious semi-human icon, viewed from a distance and casting light on the other characters. Finally, in Fire Walk With Me she becomes a fully-fleshed human being and the protagonist of the story. Same with John Merrick, but the process is compressed into two hours which allows less time for development.

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