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Review: The Elephant Man
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David Lynch’s second feature film, The Elephant Man (1980), is one of his finest works. In many ways, The Elephant Man is Lynch’s most conventional “Hollywood” film. (Dune too is a “Hollywood” film, but a failed one.) The cast of The Elephant Man is quite distinguished, including John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Sir John Gielgud, Dame Wendy Hiller, and Anne Bancroft. The film was produced by Mel Brooks, who left his name off so that people would not expect a comedy.

The Elephant Man was a commercial success and a critical hit. It received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. It also prompted the Academy to create a new award for makeup the next year. The Elephant Man won the British Academy Film Awards for Best Film, Best Actor (Hurt), and Production Design, as well as the French César Award for Best Foreign Film. It is routinely included in critics’ “best” lists.

Although The Elephant Man is about a hideously deformed sideshow freak, Lynch’s treatment is sentimental and compassionate, not lurid and exploitative. Indeed, The Elephant Man is wholesome, heartwarming, and quite explicitly Christian, which is surprising given that Lynch, being a longtime devotee of Transcendental Meditation, is more Hindu than Christian.

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Yet The Elephant Man is unmistakably the work of the director of Eraserhead. It is exquisitely shot in black and white by cinematographer Freddie Francis, who later worked on The Straight Story. The Elephant Man also features Lynch’s trademark surreal montages, low-tech special effects, and meticulous sound design, created with his longtime collaborator Alan Splet. Like Eraserhead, The Elephant Man treats technology as an almost demonic force and depicts urban life as hellish and alienating. Finally, the grotesque subject matter and sentimental manner of treating it are also quite Lynchian.

The story of The Elephant Man can be summarized quite briefly. Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the film) was born in England in 1862. By the age of five, he began developing abnormally and became shockingly deformed, probably due to Proteus Syndrome. Merrick’s skull became massively enlarged and distorted. His right arm became enlarged and useless, but his other arm was normal. His spine was alarmingly twisted, affecting his gait. His body was covered with wart-like growths. He also had difficulty breathing. His head was so massive that he had to sleep sitting up. If he slept normally, he would have been asphyxiated.

Unable to work, Merrick began to exhibit himself as a sideshow freak, which provided a precarious living due to police bans and dishonest carnies. In 1883, a surgeon named Frederick Treves discovered Merrick and exhibited him at a meeting of the Pathological Society of London. Merrick and Treves developed a friendship. Merrick’s plight became a cause célèbre of British high society. Championed by Queen Victoria herself, Merrick was given a permanent home at London Hospital, where he died at the age of twenty-seven. Lynch’s film takes some liberties with the story but conveys the essence.

The opening montage of The Elephant Man is pure Eraserhead. Like the opening of Eraserhead, it is an allegory of a monstrous birth. We begin with the eyes of a woman in a Victorian photograph. Later we learn this is John Merrick’s mother. We hear an ominous mechanical humming. Then we see elephants, the mother’s face overlaid. The elephants freeze then approach. We hear their lowing and trumpeting. We see a woman thrown to the ground and writhing in slow motion terror, to increasingly distorted sounds. (In Lost Highway, Lynch films the transformation of Fred Madison into Pete Dayton in a similar way.) Then we see white smoke rising against a dark backdrop. A baby cries. The sequence is based on the side-show origin myth of the Elephant Man, premised on the idea that a child’s development can be shaped by maternal experiences.

Next we see a Victorian circus. The camera focuses on a well-dressed gentleman in a top hat. This is Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Frederick Treves. Although Treves looks like the embodiment of Victorian propriety, he enters the sideshow through an exit door marked No Admittance. This transgressive gesture is repeated a few seconds later. We catch glimpses of standard freaks, such as a bearded lady. Then we meet a horrified woman being comforted by a gentleman. Treves plunges into the darkness from which they emerged.

Treves’ destination is the Elephant Man exhibit. When arrives, however, the curtain is closed. The police are shutting the exhibit down for being degrading and “monstrous.” The “proprietor,” Mr. Bytes, is a fictional composite of the carneys with whom the real Merrick worked. Brilliantly played by Freddie Jones—who was Thufir Hawat in Dune and had a cameo in Wild at Heart—Bytes is a seedy drunkard and sadist.

Treves is determined to see the Elephant Man and eventually tracks Bytes down for a private showing. In Blue Velvet, Sandy is not sure if Jeffrey is a detective or a pervert. Likewise, in The Elephant Man, we are led to wonder if Treves is a doctor or a pervert. Bytes has Treves pegged as a pervert—a fellow pervert—and leeringly intimates that they share a common secret. Later Bytes speaks to Treves practically like a pimp: “I move in the proper circles, for this type of thing . . . In fact, anything at all, if you take my meaning.”

But when Treves finally sees the Elephant Man, he does not view him with a doctor’s objective curiosity, or a pervert’s salacious leer. His face registers utter shock. Then a solitary tear appears in his eye.

Treves is still, however, a man of science—and a man of some ambition. Thus he arranges to exhibit Merrick to the Pathological Society of London.

Later, after Merrick has been severely beaten by Bytes, Treves admits him to the London Hospital. Initially, he is placed in an isolation ward near the clock tower, Lynch’s gentle homage to The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

At this point, we are thirty minutes into the film and still have not yet seen Merrick’s face. Lynch handles this slow reveal masterfully, and once we see Merrick, it takes a while before we see him up close. By taking his time, not only does Lynch build suspense, but he also fully humanizes the character before revealing the full horror of his appearance. Also, it should be noted that Hurt’s Elephant Man costume and makeup are not as grotesque as the real Joseph Merrick.

Up to this point, Merrick has said nothing either. Treves has assumed he is an imbecile. But this is not true. Eventually, he gets Merrick to speak.

Merrick’s presence is opposed by Francis Carr Gomm—the Governor of the hospital warmly portrayed by Sir John Gielgud—on the grounds that the hospital does not admit incurables. Nevertheless, Carr Gomm wishes to meet Merrick, and Treves believes that if the interview goes well, Merrick might be allowed to stay. But the conversation is quite awkward, and when Merrick repeats the same phrases in contexts where they make no sense, Carr Gomm thinks he is an imbecile who has been coached.

But when Merrick recites the 23rd Psalm, and then begins to open up, both Treves and Carr Gomm are thunderstruck. They both had hoped Merrick was an imbecile, because intelligence could only magnify his suffering. But Merrick has not just suffered greatly, he has retained his humanity. He has managed to remain a sensitive and decent human being, a beautiful soul in a hideous material prison, a theme that also harmonizes with the essentially Gnostic outlook of Eraserhead. Carr Gomm is overcome with compassion. He vows to find some way to give Merrick a safe haven. The whole sequence is immensely moving.

Carr Gomm writes a letter to the Times publicizing Merrick’s plight and asking for support, which brings Merrick to the attention of high society and low.

Queen Victoria dispatches her daughter-in-law, Alexandra, Princess of Wales to read her letter to the board of the London Hospital in support of giving Merrick permanent residency. Upon completing the letter, Alexandra looks directly at the board members and says, “I am sure you gentlemen may be counted on to do the Christian thing.” Which they do. When Carr Gomm, Treves, and the stern hospital matron Mrs. Mothershead bring Merrick the good news, he is overcome with emotion, as is any viewer who doesn’t have a severely deformed heart.

A prominent actress, Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft) wishes to meet Merrick. So do the drunkards and floozies who associate with London Hospital’s seedy night porter, Sonny Jim (a name reused by Lynch for Dougie’s little boy in Twin Peaks: The Return).

By day, Merrick receives actresses and society matrons bearing lavish gifts. These are sentimental well-meaning souls who want to marvel at a triumph of the human spirit. By night, he is assailed by raucous drunkards who pay Sonny Jim a few coins to laugh at the Elephant Man.

Mrs. Mothershead, played beautifully by Wendy Hiller, disapproves of both sets of visitors. She sacks Sonny Jim when she finds out about his shows. She also reproaches Treves for allowing the more genteel gawkers, saying that Merrick is once again a sideshow curiosity.

This prompts one of the most touching scenes in the movie. Treves has a sleepless night over the question, “Am I a good man, or am I a bad man?” Treves is a good man, and part of what makes him good is his willingness to entertain such questions. Nobody can watch The Elephant Man without admiring the Victorian middle and upper classes: their exquisite manners, their moral earnestness, and their desire to edify and beautify a nation wrecked by Blake’s “dark Satanic mills.”

Treves’ moral crisis is paired with a Lynchian montage of Merrick’s night terrors. As with the severed ear in Blue Velvet, Lynch’s camera approaches then dives into a hole, this time the eyehole in Merrick’s hood. We follow pipes to the sound of mechanical chuffing like Merrick’s labored breathing. We see men laboring in factories with machines, bringing to mind Eraserhead’s Man in the Planet, who is a Gnostic symbol of the spirit’s bondage to matter. A leering crowd emerges from the darkness, holding a mirror to Merrick’s terrified face, which is intercut with elephant parts. Then he flashes back to the beatings he has received from Bytes. Lynch is a master of putting dreams on film: prophetic dreams, wish-fulfillment dreams, and nightmares.

The contrast between good and bad men is underscored one night when Bytes slips in among the last batch of Sonny Jim’s revelers and kidnaps Merrick, taking him to a circus on the Continent. Merrick’s health is declining, however, and he cannot perform. A drunken Bytes beats him then locks him in a cage next to some angry, threatening baboons.

It is a terrifying sequence, using an odd technique that crops up in The Straight Story and Twin Peaks: The Return, in which Lynch places the camera and microphone far from the action, framing it in a vast space and forcing the viewer to strain to see and hear what is happening. It is a return to the static cameras of the early talkies, which often seem like filmed stage plays.

This circus sequence specifically brings to mind Todd Browning’s classic Freaks, where sideshow freaks band together to avenge one of their own. In The Elephant Man, however, they simply liberate Merrick from his cage and put him on a boat at Ostend to carry him back to London.

When Merrick arrives at Liverpool Station, he is harassed by urchins who want to know why his head is so big. Fleeing, he accidentally knocks over a little girl. Her mother shrieks an alarm. A large crowd pursues him. The monster is unmasked then cornered in a toilet, where he proclaims the famous lines “I am not an animal. I am a human being! I am a man! I am a man!” Then the police arrive and return Merrick to his home at London Hospital.

Merrick’s life is nearing its end. Mrs. Kendal and Princess Alexandra take him to the theatre, where he is enchanted by what appears to be a children’s fairytale pantomime. The play montage is pure Lynch, but at his most naïve and winsome, using special effects from the silent era less to depict the story than Merrick’s childlike rapture.

When Merrick returns to his room, he completes work on his model of Saint Phillip’s Cathedral, then signs it “John Merrick.” To Samuel Barber’s hauntingly melancholy Adagio for Strings, Merrick says “It is finished,” bringing to mind the words of Christ on the cross. Then Merrick looks at a picture of a sleeping child and decides to lie down to sleep like a normal person, which he knows will kill him. As he breathes his last, the camera takes our eyes to the picture of Mrs. Kendal, then the picture of his mother, then the model of the cathedral, rising with the music to focus on the cross on the highest spire. Then we see the stars, and begin to move quickly among them, shades of Dune.

Merrick’s mother begins reciting lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Nothing Will Die”:

Never, oh! never, nothing will die.
The stream flows,
The wind blows,
The cloud fleets,
The heart beats,
Nothing will die.

In the original the first line is a question, but in the movie it is a declarative statement. The poem continues “Nothing will die; All things will change.” This flatly contradicts the Christian idea of the immortality of the human soul, affirming instead the essentially pagan and naturalistic idea that all things merely change, one into another, which is also consistent with Hindu and Buddhist ideas that reincarnation is not the transmigration of consciousness from one body to another, but more akin to one flame lighting another before going out.

As she recites, the mother’s face appears beyond the stars in a halo of light, which sucks in the white smoke associated at the beginning with Merrick’s birth, then finally fills the screen. The End.

Lynch is masterful in his treatment of the grotesque, which is akin to the sublime because it both attracts and repels us. When we satisfy our curiosity, the result is horror, which is a simple biological reaction to anything unwholesome. At this point, however, there are two basic reactions to horror: mockery and compassion. As Anthony M. Ludovici argued, laughter is glorying in one’s superior fitness. Forced or nervous laughter, however, is an attempt to reassure oneself that one really is more fit. But the horror we feel is ultimately based on the recognition that misfortune can befall us all. Compassion is the recognition of this fact. Mockery is a lie and evasion, compassion an admission of the truth.

As Lynch’s career unfolded, he would take us to darker and darker places, but he always sided with the better angels of our nature.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: David Lynch, Hollywood, Movies 
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  1. A deeply moving film, thought there are two bothersome liberties taken by Lynch:

    1. Merrick’s real-life sideshow manager was Tom Norman, who was nowhere near the villainous cretin Bytes was.

    2. It’s never been established that Merrick committed suicide. Following the “discovery” of his character, he enjoyed notable improvement in his social relations and privileges. While this wouldn’t have eliminated the challenges he continued to face, it doesn’t follow that those tribulations necessarily led him to kill himself.

    This particular liberty is the fly in this film’s otherwise efficacious ointment, depicting Merrick as a hapless victim of his own despair rather than the resiliently gracious human being he most certainly was.

    • Replies: @Trevor Lynch
  2. @AnonStarter

    According to the Lynch script, by the end of the movie Merrick is dying, probably of some sort of pulmonary disorder. If he does kill himself at the end, it is not out of despair, because he is clearly very happy. Perhaps he has simply accepted the inevitable and decided to spare himself any further suffering.

    • Agree: Dr. Krieger
    • Replies: @AnonStarter
  3. For some strange reason, my Grandmother took my 2 sisters and me to see this at the local Art Theatre. I was only 7. It upset me a bit. I had obviously seen many scary monsters on the local Creature Feature shows on Staurdays, but I think I understood the difference between Merrick and them.

    Does anyone remember a network television production of The Elephant Man, wherein the actor playing Merrick wore no makeup, yet contorted his body and wore a hood that was more like curtains? It was around the same time. Am I remembering this right, or was it a dream? I could Google it but this article has made me nostalgic for the days before we could consult The Oracle on our phones.

    • Replies: @jamie b.
    , @DanG
    , @sayless
  4. I wonder if it inspired Sling Blade Runner.

  5. Back then, freaks needed sympathy and protection from scorn and ridicule. And ‘good’ people did show compassion, though one never knows if it was more about sympathy for a wretched creature or narcissism of their own virtue. The good folks deserve our respect, but there were seeds of danger that could turn cancerously into moral narcissism, and over time, it has.

    Indeed, all the white people in current Europe who hold up signs “REFUGEES WELCOME” are the perverse outgrowths of higher virtue of the Victorian Era.
    While some people simply wanted to be decent and fair with Merrick, others(like the Queen and High Society) seemed to bask in their exaggerated virtue. OH THEY CARE! But why all the attention showered on Merrick when so much of England at the time was beset with poverty, crime, and misery? Even many normal-looking people were mired in monstrous reality. And yet, it was easier to virtue-signal about the plight of some oddball freak than do something more about social problems affecting countless people. Social Darwinism for the masses but special love for the freak.
    In a way, it was an easy way for the elites to feel morally superior to the masses. As the ignorant and uneducated were less likely to feel sympathy for Merrick, the richer and better educated folks could sneer at the ‘bigots’.

    Today, we see this on a much larger scale. There are so many problems in the West, but the leaders ignore or deride so much of that and would rather prefer to play savior-of-the-world. Down-and-out white working class are ‘deplorables’ (who are ‘racist’ and ‘bigoted’) while tons of illegals who want to barge in compared to Jews fleeing the Nazis. (Does that mean their own people are like Nazis? If Guatemalans want to flee from other Guatemalans, it must mean Guatemalans themselves are the Nazis. But if they are the Nazis, why should we let them in? But then, if we say NO, we are like the Nazis. None of this makes any sense, but then, so much of current reality is a matter of ‘because Jews said so’.)

    In the crazy present, the freaks get to define the New Normal. And, for the well-educated to feel virtuous, it is no longer sufficient to feel sympathy for natural freaks. It is necessary to prostrate oneself before them who’ve been elevated to the status of arbiters of values, health, and beauty.

    How times have changed. From sympathy for the freaks to idolization of them.

    [MORE]

    And who decides what is healthy in America, physical and mental?

    This creature:


    In THE ELEPHANT MAN, a disfigured freak seeks meaning in faith in God.
    In the Current Year, we are supposed to find edification, ‘moral’ and ‘spiritual’, in the adulation of the freaks. Sodomy and cross-dressing are holier than god and jesus.

    Of course, this all began with the normalization of homos. Before the film came out, the David Bowie version of THE ELEPHANT MAN was a sensation and won lots of prizes. Me thinks the theater people were especially ecstatic because they saw the play as an allegory about homosexuality.

    https://www.davidbowie.com/blog/2020/7/29/bowies-elephant-man-debut-40-years-ago-today

    With androgynous Bowie playing the Elephant Man, how could anyone miss that? Looks more like a homo’s vision of St. Sebastian as Merrick.
    Back then, many people, even Liberals, considered homosexuality to be weird or even monstrous, and AIDS was just on the horizon to reinforce such view. So, even though homosexuals don’t look monstrous in the literal sense, they did feel that society saw them as monstrous, which is why they were so violently opposed to the film CRUISING.

    And superhero series like X-MEN fantasize about freakery = special powers.

    In a way, the Hopkins character was right to ask whether he’s a good person. Because even though he is good in the conventional sense, one can never know one’s deepest motivations. Was it really humane sympathy for the freak? Or was it the self-satisfaction in knowing that he’s unlike the rough-and-tumble mob that leered and jeered at Merrick? And is his goodness innate? Or was it the product of proper upbringing and elite education? Would he have been just as good had he been born into a poor working class family?

    One thing for sure, even virtue carries the seeds of monstrosity. The virtues of altruism and trust in the West have turned into the monstrous will to commit racial suicide as detailed by Douglas Murray. We must be careful not be bad, but beware of the good as well. Too often, what is deemed as good is what makes us FEEL GOOD about ourselves. It’s no wonder so many people who feel good about doing good today are so blind to the fact that they are really doing bad.

    Btw, Truffaut’s WILD CHILD and Herzog’s ENIGMA OF KASPER HAUSER are similar works.

  6. jamie b. says:
    @Dr. Krieger

    …the actor playing Merrick wore no makeup…

    You’re not thinking of David Bowie, are you?…

  7. Two films worth looking into.

    MAN WHO SKIED DOWN MT. EVEREST.

    Japanese man’s adventures far from home to test the limits of his endurance in search for immortality. Like the works of Mishima, ruminations on mind and body.

    INLAND SEA.

    Donald Richie’s reflection on a part of coastal Japan relatively untouched by modernity. An outsider who appreciates the insular Japan and mourns its loss.

  8. @Trevor Lynch

    Indeed, he was dying, though according to more recent evidence, Merrick appears to have died accidentally, his body being found in the afternoon, lying across his bed as if he had slipped and was attempting to get up.

    I appreciate your take on suicide, though there simply aren’t enough facts to corroborate it, particularly given the conventions of the period in which he lived.

  9. DanG says:
    @Dr. Krieger

    You are correct–in play form. David Bowie also played him on stage. I was 11, affected me deeply. My father said to me, “A study in human dignity.” So true.

  10. The railway station Merrick arrived at is Liverpool Street Station (not Liverpool Station) which is the closest main line station to the hospital he lived in. Direct express boat trains to Harwich only stopped running a few years ago!
    I think Lynch changed a few things. I seem to recall Merrick was a friend of the freak show owner. The building is still there opposite the hospital.
    His bones are stored in the hospital and they turned down an offer of $1 million for them by Michael Jackson.

  11. Could it be said that Merrick was really a deformed elephant than a deformed man?

    An elephant deformed into the semblance of a man.

    Other man-beast movies:

    Island of Dr. Moreau

    The Fly, two versions

    and of course, the Wolf Man movies.

    Man + Wolf has fascinated people the most, rather odd since man is closest to the apes. Altered States did touch on the inner ape. Perhaps wolves are fascinating as wilder and more robust dogs whereas apes(that resemble us) seem ugly because we can’t help judging them by our standards.
    Wolves are sufficiently different for us to feel this way. WOLFEN is one hell of a movie.

    Man + Elephant seems totally weird because the species are so much apart. But in India, there are gods that are half man and half elephant. Ganesh has the head of an elephant.

    And Elephant Man had a progeny.

    • Replies: @nsa
  12. Dumbo says:

    David Lynch is talented, however, he was pushed early on for some reason. Perhaps because of his interest in the strange or the grotesque.

    Mel Brooks among other Jewish producers was one of the supporters who made possible for him to make “Elephant Man” and start his career, while thousands of others with similar talent were not. As George Carlin said, it’s an exclusive club, and you ain’t in it.

    It’s a good movie, as far as I remember. But I don’t know if I would watch it again.

    Trevor seems to be unhealthily obsessed with Lynch.

    As for the obsession with freaks, mentioned by Priss Factor, it’s older than that, see “Freaks” by Todd Browning. I think we always had this double view of freaks, between pity and terror.

    What’s different today is that most freaks are not “natural”, but of choice. Transgenders, or people who mutilate their own bodies. “Freakdom” is no longer an accident of nature but has become a mode of individual expression.

    Transgender freaks in particular are heavily promoted, because the elite loves androginy and sexual perversion.

    Look at this monster who makes himself be called “Jennifer” Pritzker”. One of the richest families in the world, Jewish of course, and also those behind the Pritzker Prize, promoting ugly modern architecture.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jennifer_Pritzker

    These people are vile. While some freaks born ugly or deformed by nature are to be pitied, those who choose their own freakdom and ugliness, should not be celebrated.

    In the end, Keats was right, Beauty is Truth, and Truth, Beauty.

    If something is ugly or searches for ugliness on purpose, it’s usually because it’s a lie, or evil.

  13. @jamie b.

    No. After I read these replies to my comment, I looked it up, and it was a filmed version of the play when Philip Andrew Anglim played him.
    Thanks for the reply. I never knew that Bowie played him.
    I see that Bradley Cooper has also played him on-stage.

  14. @Dumbo

    I wonder if there’s an ‘interracial’ element to THE ELEPHANT MAN.

    The woman fantasizes about elephants(maybe in a sexual manner) and gives birth to a creature that looks half-man and half-‘elephant’. The fear of biological mixing? And what is an elephant? An African beast.

    The other David who is more fascinated with the problems of racial mixing is David Cronenberg, who is Jewish.

    In RABID, the physical encounter between a blonde ‘Aryan’ woman and a semitic-looking Jewish scientist leads to an outbreak of horrific epidemic.

    VIDEODROME is about inter-fusion between man and machine.

    THE FLY is a Jewgro movie. A Jewish scientist’s DNA gets mixed with that of Superfly and he turned into a powerful hyper-sexual Negro-like Jew. The jerk publisher who competes for the woman also exhibits the problems of racial mixing. He looks Aryan but makes many Freudian poses. He looks like a cross between Jung and Freud, and of course, Cronenberg later made DANGEROUS METHOD, about the intellectual and spiritual clash between the Aryan spirit and Jewish soul represented through Jung and Freud(and other Jews).

    And in EASTERN PROMISES, the old man says Naomi Watts’ kid died because she carried an interracial brood.

    • Replies: @Dumbo
    , @SunBakedSuburb
  15. jamie b. says:
    @Dumbo

    If something is ugly or searches for ugliness on purpose, it’s usually because it’s a lie, or evil.

    Rather obviously, scientific and medical progress would have been greatly retarded without an interest in the grotesque. And it seems clear to me that the same applies to art as well.

  16. Perhaps, the surest sign that Treves is a good man is he questions his own goodness. It’d be nice if the current crop of PC tards had an ounce of comparable doubt about their virtue.

    But how does the average white prog think?

    “I totally suck because I’m white, and I’m totally good because I know I totally suck.”

    It’s extreme narcissism founded on extreme masochism.

  17. @Dumbo

    In the end, Keats was right, Beauty is Truth, and Truth, Beauty.

    If something is ugly or searches for ugliness on purpose, it’s usually because it’s a lie, or evil.

    Beauty is a kind of truth, the rare kind with capital T. It’s like gold has special Value whereas the lesser metals just have value. Because beauty is rare, it is a kind of Truth in and of itself. It crystallizes what nature and mankind yearns for and rarely achieves. But this kind of Truth isn’t a moral truth. Rather, it is Truth as an Ideal. After all, a beautiful woman or a handsome man can be an utterly vapid creatures. A man or woman with an exceptionally beautiful voice can be foul of character.

    So, when we speak of beauty as truth, we are speaking of ideals.

    In contrast, when we say ‘truth is beauty’, that is a philosophical or moral statement. Truth is often dark, depressing, ugly, and gross. Science says man wasn’t created by the divine hands of God but evolved from brutish apes. Still, if it’s true, it is precious in adding to the sum total of human knowledge. If ‘beauty is truth’ is about ideals, ‘truth is beauty’ is about what is real.

    I do agree with you that the problem isn’t ugliness per se but wallowing in it for some pathological or sicko reason. I don’t mind artists like Dostoevsky or Lynch delving into the dark and sick, but I feel contempt for people like Eli Roth who wallow in trash. Tarantino at his worst also loves to roll around in garbage. It’s like there’s a difference between a doctor who has to cut open a body to remove a cancer and a demento who tortures animals for some sick pleasure. I can’t stand stuff like ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW or anything by John Waters who once made Divine eat dog poo.

  18. “David Lynch is talented, however, he was pushed early on for some reason. Perhaps because of his interest in the strange or the grotesque.

    “Mel Brooks among other Jewish producers was one of the supporters who made possible for him to make “Elephant Man” and start his career, while thousands of others with similar talent were not. As George Carlin said, it’s an exclusive club, and you ain’t in it.”

    As far as I recall, how Mel Brooks became interested in David Lynch was that none other than Stanley Kubrick had seen “Eraserhead” and was deeply impressed with the young, unknown Lynch. Kubrick was able to obtain a copy of the film and arranged for Brooks to see it in Kubrick’s private home theatre. Brooks, too, was impressed by the young Lynch, and decided to give the unknown director the shot of a lifetime, which Lynch made the most of. And the rest is (mostly dark) cinematic history.

    I think Brooks (and Kubrick) simply had a good eye for talent. Nothing “Tribal” involved, just good judgement by both Kubrick and Brooks giving a gifted and very lucky young man the break of a lifetime. And Lynch made the most of it, giving the world a cinematic gem.

    I had first seen Eraserhead at a midnight showing at the Nuart Theatre in Santa Monica (with the movie being described in the Nuart advert as “A dream of dark and troubling things”) and was likewise blown away. Thus, when I learned that Lynch was the director of Brooksfilms’, “The Elephant Man”, and having already read a number of accounts of the life of Merrick (one of which I still have: a book entitled, “Very Special People”), I took my then girlfriend to see it as soon as it opened. We both were moved to tears by the account Lynch gave.

    It is clear that our own Mr Lynch was likewise moved by what is to my mind a truly wonderful movie on many levels.

    Great movie, great review (as usual.)

  19. Baraka, pictorialism at its finest.

    • Replies: @jamie b.
  20. Dumbo says:
    @Priss Factor

    Yes.

    H. P. Lovecraft was also horrified by miscegenation, many of his stories are about monsters who in one way or another are the result of miscegenation and/or endogamy.

    Cronenberg is all about sex, and mixing.

    But I don’t see this so much in Lynch.

    • Replies: @SunBakedSuburb
  21. @Priss Factor

    “VIDEODROME is about inter-fusion between man and machine”

    aka transhumanism. The most interesting of David Cronenberg’s films depict humans mutating into something else. I’m not a fan of the body-horror genre though I do make an exception for Cronenberg because he takes it to a higher level rather than dwelling on guts on gore. Although if you’re looking for gore his films won’t disappoint.

  22. @Dumbo

    “But I don’t see this so much in Lynch.”

    David Lynch is a metaphysician. He sees female sexuality as a dark paradise and views horror through a spiritual lens. David Cronenberg’s body-horror is cold and atheistic.

  23. jamie b. says:
    @Priss Factor

    I liked Koyaanisqatsi more. The Lisa Gerard stuff in Baraka was great, but mostly the music was limp new-age droning. Koyaanisqatsi‘s Glass score was much better.

    I also saw no merit in the way mass rituals were depicted. Dressing up in silly costumes and jumping around isn’t something that deserves reverence or awe. At least no more so than a baseball game, or the construction of a skyscraper. Koyaanisqatsi was more objective.

  24. @jamie b.

    Thank you for posting this. I see it has already brought back memories for another reader.

    Trying to figure out Bowie, from a retrospective viewpoint, is like peeling an onion – there is always another layer.

    I wonder if the way Bowie uses the cane in these scenes influenced how Hugh Laurie portrayed Dr. Greg House’s use of a cane in that TV series.

  25. @Dumbo

    You’re unhealithy obsessed with trannies and Jews. You miss the entire point of the movie, and our author’s review.

    This is really a shame. You should be heartened and uplifted by both.

    David Lynch is not searching for ugliness in this movie. He is obviously searching for the divine which is hiding out in the open for anyone willing to percieve it. The ugliness he displays is channelled through characters who could just as easily be you and me.

    • Replies: @Dumbo
  26. I watched THE ELEPHANT MAN long ago and didn’t think much of it. Watching it again, it is clearly far from David Lynch’s best though still head-and-shoulders above most ‘serious’ movies. One wonders why Mel Brooks chose Lynch. Did he think Lynch, the creator of ERASERHEAD, would do a humorless version of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, because some of the film comes across that way. It being a Mel Brooks production, Anne Bancroft was slipped into the unconvincing role of a famous British actress, but there are bigger problems.

    One stems from the projection of Lynch’s own universe onto material that has only passing similarities with his obsessions. The story of Joseph or ‘John’ Merrick is one of physical, indeed all too visible, horror. It is also a morality tale premised on humanism and Christian sentiments. While Lynch’s universe is not without moral meaning or spiritual dimensions, Lynch doesn’t to morality tale very well. It’s too simple and square for his sensibilities. The ‘square’ quality in Lynch’s works tend to be squared. Square and queer intersect in his best works, making it all very ‘squeer’.

    THE ERASERHEAD suffers from the same problem that befell Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS and other works where friction between competing conceptions led to clutter than spark. It happens when the original material and the auteur’s take are so much at odds. Stanislaw Lem’s SOLARIS is a philosophical novel about the limits of intellect and imagination in face of something that confounds our sense of time and space. To this, Tarkovsky added the thing about the Russian Soul and familial sentiments. Much of the film is impressive but Lem’s intellectualism and Tarkovsky’s iconography fail to fuse. It’s like a chemistry experiment gone wrong. But then, there’s little to indicate Tarkovsky had much interest in Lem’s foundation and instead just poured his own material over it. It’s like someone given the recipe and ingredients for Polish cooking but making a Russian dish with them. In some ways, SOLARIS is more problematic(though also more impressive) than THE ELEPHANT MAN because, whereas Lynch stuck with the basic material and only added ‘Lynchian’ touches, Tarkovsky wholly transformed SOLARIS in its trajectory and meaning. Instead of dry, it is wet. If Lem’s novel is about staring into the vast unknown and resigning to its mystery, Tarkovsky’s film is essentially about homesickness and the pull of Mother Earth. In the end, the man seems hardly interested in the planet of Solaris, and furthermore, his melancholia is about his ambition as astronaut over his duty as son(as his father will die without him at the deathbed).

    THE SHINING is an interesting case. Stanley Kubrick apparently had little interest in Stephen King’s novel, which was used merely as base material for his own ideas, and yet, it not only works but far surpasses the original material. It seems he understood the potential inherent in the basic scenario more than King did himself. But then, Kubrick-and-King wasn’t exactly like Tarkovsky-and-Lem. The former is like giant and midget whereas the latter is like giant and giant. A giant could more easily step over a midget than a giant over a giant. Also, Kubrick’s broadmindedness allowed for playfulness(and masterly creative footwork) whereas Tarkovsky could become mired in the muck with his heavy boots.

    While Lynch’s touches in THE ELEPHANT MAN are immediately recognizable(and surely of interest to Lynch fans), they are out-of-place because Lynch imposed his unique inner-space onto a world that plays by a different set of rules. STRAIGHT STORY works better because Lynch made it more about the old man’s journey than his own vision, and if ‘Lynchian’ touches are to be found, they are around the curve than right in front. But, the man who made THE ELEPHANT MAN was younger, less experienced, and perhaps over-eager. As he’d made his name as a cult film-maker, he surely had ambitions to break into the industry and gain real success. On the one hand, he had to be ‘conventional’ to reach a mass audience, but he also wanted to retain what made him unique and different. He wanted to buy in but didn’t want to sell out. THE ELEPHANT MAN is both success and failure in this regard. It does appear as a unique directorial work, and it resonated with critics and audiences. But, one can’t help feeling the basic material was too straight for Lynch’s imagination and Lynch was too weird for the simple morality tale. It’s like a tale of two movies, both the best of movies and worst of movies.

    While it’s true Lynch’s cinema has hardly been a stranger to the ugly, grotesque, and disgusting, the deformities tend to reside in or originate from psychological and bio-psychological(where matter energizes into the mind) space. Despite the rotting dead bodies and the violence, the real horror in TWIN PEAKS is about inner demons. It’s about distortions and contortions within the mind and soul that make Lynch’s films so strange and dream-like.
    In contrast, THE ELEPHANT MAN is about a man whose deformities could be spotted from a mile away. He’s so ugly he wears a bag over his head wherever he goes. Also, as far as we can tell, he is all sweet soul inside. Also, the good characters are obviously so(as they look it), whereas the bad characters are just as easily identifiable. (Consider the convoluted multi-layered moral/spiritual dilemmas in TWIN PEAKS.) This hardly makes for a Lynchian tale, and THE ELEPHANT MAN has the touches but not the handiwork of the real Lynch. More problematically, the touches seem out of place.

    If Mel Brooks thought Lynch made a natural fit for John Merrick’s story on the strength of ERASERHEAD, he totally didn’t get the film. As in a dream, the unreal becomes the real and ‘normal’ in ERASERHEAD. True strangeness derives from how the unreal or abnormal can seem real or normal, or vice versa. The hideous baby in ERASERHEAD is unsettling because it isn’t human but assumed to be one, or the product of human pairing. Now, if the world of ERASERHEAD were totally fantastical, it wouldn’t be strange because we could just suspend our disbelief and take it as fantasy. But the film is situated somewhere between grimy realism and warped surrealism. It has the logic and feel of dreams where the unreal is accepted as part of the mundane.

    THE ELEPHANT MAN is wholly different. It’s about a man with obvious deformities. As such, he’s ugly and grotesque but never strange… unlike the baby and other oddball things in ERASERHEAD that are presented as normative within its closed space. Also, the notion of Merrick as ugly on the outside but beautiful on the inside is rather trite, though also timeless, I suppose. The two cliches of moral physiognomy has been (1) the good look good and bad look bad and (2) good look bad and bad look good. Though opposites, both are premised on formulas, as with CINDERELLA and THE UGLY DUCKLING.
    In contrast, consider how evil slithers through the beautiful and the ugly alike in the world of TWIN PEAKS. Or consider the physiognomic instability in MULHOLLAND DR. In contrast, THE ELEPHANT MAN is about a very ugly man who is beautiful inside and the rest of the characters look and act good OR look and act bad. David Lynch was too good for this. The result is someone skilled in calculus assigned to simple mathematics.

    [MORE]

    THE ELEPHANT MAN is two movies, and they don’t mesh well. It begins as a clinical drama about a doctor and his patient. As it turns out, the dynamics goes from medical to moral. The doctor cannot do anything to treat, let alone cure, the Merrick’s deformities. Thus, the doctor is as useless as any of us. However, he can lend moral support and, furthermore, realizes that Merrick is less diseased than many people who, though looking human, don’t act human. On some level, Treves feels that he is the patient vis-a-vis Merrick as the doctor, that of souls than bodies.
    Of course, there’s another question. Did Merrick’s ugliness have something to do with his goodness? Leered at, ridiculed, and abused, was Merrick compelled by personal agonies to be good? Is his goodness innate or the product of experience? Granted, ugly and victimized people can be wicked, and handsome affluent people can be good(like Dr. Treves), but Merrick’s physical condition surely molded his soul. Perhaps, two kinds of people are most inclined to be good or ‘good'(as its meaning has changed so much over the years): Those with proper upbringing and privilege to be educated and respectable, like Dr. Treves, and those who were denied freedom and tyrannized into submission, like Merrick. Treves has the means and even the ‘luxury’ to be good. In contrast, Merrick had no chance to be ‘bad’ as his entire life was about forced obedience and silent suffering. (The exaggerated sympathy for blacks-as-slaves confuses black suffering with black virtue. Blacks-as-slaves had no choice but to be ‘good’, which is not the same as being innately good.) Merrick was trained and kept like an animal. The two groups of ‘good’ people represent polarities, one where a person has the wherewithal to be decent and be rewarded for it and another where a person has no freedom but to obey and submit, i.e. ‘be meek before the master’. In contrast, the ‘bad’ is more likely to be found among people who are free but only enough to get by. Most of their freedom is expended on making ends meet. Thus, their freedom has less means to grow nobler, and they’re more likely to be self-centered and cynical, like the two louts in THE ELEPHANT MAN: the freak show operator and the security guard.

    This dynamics plays out in current configuration of the virtue-signaling elites, the deplorables, and the wretched of the earth. As far as Western PC is concerned, the white elites are good(or at least better) people because they got higher education, rub shoulders with respectable members of society, and enjoy the luxury of being virtuous(or making a show of it); and the wretched of the earth, especially blacks and would-be-migrants from the Third World, are good people because, having been crushed and tyrannized by history, their struggle is one of elementary bread and justice(or so PC likes to believe). The noble-minded elites and the long-suffering victims.
    In between are said to be the worst kind of people, usually working-class and lower-middle-class white types who, though free, lack the intelligence & the means to attain fancy education, don’t hang with the right kind of people, and haven’t the luxury to be generous as they’re so focused on making ends meet. So, even though Treves is a good man whereas the two worst men, the freak show operator and security guard, are indeed pretty bad, the moral dynamics of the film does betray a certain class snobbery; indeed, the film indicates that some of the puritanism of current PC has its roots in the Victorian Era.
    After all, despite all the misery among the working classes, it seems the elites in the film are more concerned about a one-in-a-ten-million rare freak to hang their cloak of virtue on. What an easy way for the snobs to feel superior to the rabble. And it’s no wonder Mel Brooks the Jew was drawn to the story. Jews like him feel nothing for the white majority. They don’t care that the Sackler Family peddled drugs that killed off countless whites. No, by emphasizing the freak(as a stand-in for the outsider-minority) as the paragon of victimized virtue, the film diminishes the hardships of millions of toiling workers in favor of a lone freak who becomes a virtue-trophy among the elites.

    If the clinical drama between Treves and Merrick is pretty solid(much like in THE WILD CHILD by Francois Truffaut) and if Merrick as a social phenomenon — freak of nature worthy of mockery for lumpen gawkers but victim of fate worthy of sympathy for the well-heeled elites — is interesting(though could have been delved further), the crowd-pleasing narrative of Merrick being forcibly returned to the freak show and then rescued by a band of sympathetic freaks seems to be totally made up, especially as it’s loaded with the familiar tropes. One more danger and one more escape to spice up Merrick’s life. It’s almost right out of PINOCCHIO. It works for what it is but undermines with high suspense and drama the steady and somber tone of the rest of the film, though it does culminate in an eloquent scene about Merrick being a man and not an animal. But was that outcry meant ironically? After all, an animal, dog or donkey, would have been less hostile to Merrick than many of his fellow human beings were. Indeed, the donkey is the most sympathetic character in AU HASARD BALTHASAR that might have influenced THE ELEPHANT MAN, which in turn, might have been an influence on A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE.

    Perhaps, the writers thought the film needed some dramatic uplift, and what better way than to have Merrick kidnapped, abused, and then returned to a relative state of grace? But that very approach mimics the dual purpose that Merrick served in his lifetime: Sensationalism for the masses, edification for the elites. On the one hand, THE ELEPHANT MAN wants to be a serious art film, but it can’t help throwing a bone to the masses with trite dramatic cliches.

    Lynch’s treatment is sentimental and compassionate, not lurid and exploitative.

    It would have been better as cold-and-compassionate. The sentimentality cheapens it a bit.

    the grotesque subject matter and sentimental manner of treating it are also quite Lynchian.

    Not quite. Even though Lynch understands sentiment which is to be found in his works, there’s usually a sense of irony or layers of dissonance between the recognizably shopworn emotions and the troubled gaze. He doesn’t mock it or deny its value but observes as a zoologist might another species. Lynch has been like a zoologist of humans through the prism of dreams and fantasies. In contrast, the sentimentality of THE ELEPHANT MAN is worn on its sleeve and therefore isn’t really Lynchian. Lynch veiled too much of his artistic self to convey more-or-less a straight story laden unfortunately with some Hollywood cliches.

    In a way, Lynch held back his authentic self but didn’t adjust to professionalism with much conviction. Too much in the film is perfunctory and merely scratches the surface. It lacks the probing quality of Ingmar Bergman in, say, SAWDUST AND TINSEL. Despite moments of reflection, we are left to take too much of the characters and conflicts at their face value. It is Lynch’s most theater-like work, but the classic use of actors and dialogue was never Lynch’s forte. He’s been one of the most uniquely cinematic directors whose best works have no counterparts in other art-forms. Despite some Lynchian touches(most of which are irrelevant to the material), the result could have been done just as well or even better by Sidney Lumet or Sydney Pollack.

    Other works worthy of comparison with THE ELEPHANT MAN:

    MASK by Peter Bogdanovich
    MANHUNTER by Michael Mann
    THE THING by John Carpenter
    AWAKENINGS by Penny Marshall

  27. MEH 0910 says:
    @jamie b.

    SCTV Pledge Week

    [MORE]

    https://tv.avclub.com/sctv-pledge-week-1798204690

    The show’s b-story concerns the plight of Dave Thomas’ The Elephant Man, a hooded, mysterious creature who enters the SCTV studios as part of a tour led by Catherine O’Hara’s chatty tour guide and becomes the victim of an angry mob out for his thick, leathery hide. In desperation he enters a room with Candy’s Dr. Tongue and Levy’s Woody Tobias Jr., where they mistake him for The Fly and lurch hypnotically at him 3-D style. Candy and Levy’s b-movie ghouls lurching at the camera: another recurring gag that never gets old.

  28. nsa says:
    @Priss Factor

    “Man + wolf has fascinated people the most….”
    More than fascinated. Cro Magnon man, predecessor to the modern Caucasian, formed a symbiotic bond with the wolf with respect to hunting and survival some 25,000 to 50,000 years ago. A wolf pack could run down and corner a mammoth, a mastodon, a cave bear, a saber tooth tiger but could not bring the beast down without risking death or severe injury. However, the cro magnon could eventually catch up to a cornered beast and complete the kill with spears. Wolves were particularly useful to the Cro Magnon for surviving various calamities….ice ages, game shortages, etc. It is even thought that Cro Magnon man with his partially domesticated wolf pals hunted the Neanderthal to extinction in Europe. So it is no wonder the wolf is firmly imbedded in the human imagination. And it should be noted that the Neanderthal was no dummy as depicted in various artist’s renditions and literature. The Neanderthal’s skull capacity was some 20% larger than modern man, indicating the Neanderthal was probably quite intelligent….but still no match for the Cro Magnon and his wolf buddies. Using dog packs to hunt bear and cougar was outlawed in this state in 1996. Those who have witnessed or taken part in these pack dog hunts (murders, really) have a first hand understanding of the lethal efficiency of early man hunting with his partially domesticated wolf pals.

    • Replies: @Priss Factor
  29. Dumbo says:
    @TorontoTraveller

    My comment was not a criticism of the movie, which I liked (although I saw it a long time ago). It was about modern obsession with ugliness and self-created freaks. Read again.

  30. sayless says:
    @Dr. Krieger

    “The Elephant Man,” a play by Bernard Pomerance. No connection to Lynch’s movie. I remember watching the telecast of it in the early 1980s.

    Pomerance cautioned that no actor with a history of back problems should attempt the role.

  31. @nsa

    More than fascinated. Cro Magnon man, predecessor to the modern Caucasian, formed a symbiotic bond with the wolf with respect to hunting and survival some 25,000 to 50,000 years ago.

    True, but mankind had a long complex relationship with the horse, but there hasn’t been many man-horse stories. There was Mr. Ed that talked, but the horse in the human imagination remains the horse, and mankind doesn’t fuse with the horse.
    But the idea of the WOLFMAN has the wolf and man becoming one. Perhaps, the fascination with the wolf has something to do with the dog. The dog is domesticated and more a part of the human world than the natural world(though there are wild dogs, like the dingo). So, when man sees the dog, he seems the triumph of civilization and order. In contrast, the wolf is very dog-like yet wild, free, stronger, and dangerous. The wolf contra the dog is analogous to savage contra the civilized man. Wolf is the savage spirit repressed within the dog, and the savage is the wild spirit repressed within civilized man.

    In ancient cultures, there was much imagination about the fusion of man and cow. Greek mythology has the Minotaur, and the Persians revered the bull/cow and had god-beasts that looked half man and half bovine.

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