The Elephant Man

1980 movie

Rating: 17/20

Plot: Victorian doctor Frederick Treves stumbles across the titular attraction while strolling through a freak show. He makes an arrangement with the elephant man's slimy owner to borrow him for science. He shows off his find in front of a bunch of other scientists, but as he spends more and more time with the freak, he realizes that there's a John Merrick inside, a intelligent and sophisticated man who desires, feels, and deserves dignity.

The memory of watching this, for whatever reason, with my father when I was a kid has always stuck with me. When Merrick was finally unveiled, the image was shocking. It still is. I couldn't believe what my young eyes were seeing on the screen. As an adult, I think this movie is extraordinarily depressing, almost too depressing. As a visual essay on the true nature of man, it's just so pessimistic. A lot of that is probably the result of Lynch's typically cold style. It's actually his second warmest movie and his first "straight" story, but the camera is so often detached from these characters, the audience often being forced to look at Merrick from a distance. Maybe that's the point. I do wonder (now, not while watching) how much of that detachment is intentional, an attempt by the filmmaker put the audience into a situation where we're in the exact same position as the people who used or leered at the real Merrick. There are a lot of uncomfortable scenes in this story, times when you almost want to leave the room so that the elephant man can have some privacy. A lot of this movie is very cold, clinical. An exception is the scene where the doctor first sees Merrick, and the camera slowly zooms to the point where just Anthony Hopkins' face fills the screen just at the time a single tear moves down his cheek. Of course, the next part of the story is Treves moving Merrick from the side show to the laboratory stage, really just another side show, so it's not easy to pin down the doctor at all. This movie came right after Eraserhead, and although The Elephant Man seems like Sleepless in Seattle compared to Lynch's first work, you still have some pretty strange moments. It's difficult to figure out what's going down in the first scene, but it certainly seems like it's showing an elephant raping a woman, and the harsh textures, fuzzy and wobbly camera work, and grating music wouldn't exactly make the typical moviegoer feel like reaching into the popcorn bucket. The opening scene was definitely creepy enough to turn Jen off the film. As with Eraserhead, Lynch shows off an ability to create these amazing textures and moods with nothing more than images. I've never been to Victorian London (yet!), but I like the murky, sickly, melancholy one that Lynch creates for these characters to inhabit. What atmosphere! And the first shot of Merrick's distorted image is striking enough, but the shots of him covered (like in the above poster) stuck with me just as much. Gorgeous black and white cinematography here. Anthony Hopkins is quietly good as the torn Treves, and John Hurt's performance, although hidden beneath tons of make-up, is exceptionally touching. They'll get the most credit, of course, but Anne Bancroft and especially John Gielgud are also great. This is one of those movies that holds a mirror up to society. Unfortunately, humans kind of suck.

Special Note: R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) is in this which reminds me that David Lynch, according to David Lynch, turned down the chance to direct Return of the Jedi. That would have made the second time Lynch worked with Kenny Baker. And looking up Kenny Baker, I see that he played a character named Bruce Foreskin in something called Boobs in the Woods. So it's good to see that his career is going well.

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