Blog Directory CineVerse: "I am a human being"

"I am a human being"

Sunday, February 18, 2018

David Lynch's "The Elephant Man" is a moving and visually memorable movie set during a turning point in man's history--a time when the English monarchy was becoming more symbolic and less political, an era when the Industrial Revolution and the machine age were gaining momentum, a time when ignorance and superstition was giving way to science and intellectual thought. This simple story of a doctor's compassion for and faith in a man cursed by disfigurement and shamed by society still resonates with viewers and packs a strong emotional punch. Much was discussed about this film at our recent CineVerse meeting, including the following:

  • It was directed by David Lynch, a filmmaker known for strange, surrealistic visions and twisted narratives that can be difficult to follow. By contrast, this narrative is straightforward, linear and mainstream. 
  • It was filmed in black and white. Arguably, that was the right decision, imbuing it with a period piece authenticity and antique sheen. What the year of this release is 1980, a time when black and white was certainly out of fashion and a commercial liability that would likely hurt box office appeal. 
  • The movie has a life-affirming, positive message and vibe, despite a character and subject matter that can be depressing, dark and sad. In the words of DVD Savant reviewer Glenn Erickson, “The Elephant Man has just about everything: a human story, told with remarkable sensitivity it’s a nightmare film we can all relate to, even if the leading character is a once-in-a-century freakish aberration.” 
  • It was actually produced by Mel Brooks, standing as the initial project for his newly formed Brooksfilm company. It says a lot about Brooks that he chose this story for his first foray as a producer. 
  • The sound design of the movie features a disturbing cacophony of machine noises and unnerving sounds meant to get under our skin. 
  • The film has all the trappings of a classic horror movie: high contrast lighting and dark shadows in a black-and-white universe, a physical monstrosity worthy of our sympathy like the Frankenstein monster, the gothic romanticism of Victorian England, etc. Yet, this is not a horror film – it’s a humanistic portrait of a doctor and his patient. 

  • The dark side of the Industrial Revolution and the machine age. Consider that Dr. Treves perform surgery on a man terribly mangled by a machine; the filmmakers also continually depict dark Victorian machines and men who try to wield them. 
  • The dangers of ignorance, insensitivity, intolerance, social cruelty and premature first impressions. 
  • Man’s inherent right to dignity, respect, and freedom from ridicule. 
  • Our humanity is partially defined by the way others treat and perceive us. According to blogger and essayist Norman Holland: “It is not reason, but people’s reactions to Merrick that define him and them as human – or not. It is when Treves treats him as a man, not just some weird thing to be shown to the medical society, it is when the nurses stopping terrified by him and relate to him as a patient, it is when two beautiful women speak to him kindly, it is in the finale when the theater audience admires his courage, that both Merrick and those reacting to him acquire humanity.” 
  • Trying to build a holy house—a temple of peace, grace and beauty. Merrick attempts to construct a paper cathedral, which he has to use his imagination to make and finish. The cathedral could be a wish fulfillment object that embodies his desire for a more perfect temple (body). 
  • Life is a “show”; Holland said: “The Elephant Man is one long series of (shows): 
    • Bytes shows Merrick as part of a freak show. 
    • Treves shows Merrick to “society” (medical society). 
    • Treves shows that Merrick can recite the 23rd Psalm. 
    • The night porter shows Merrick to a girl. 
    • Treves shows Merrick to his wife. 
    • Merrick shows his mother’s portrait to Mrs. Treves. 
    • Merrick shows Nurse Kathleen his model of St. Phillips’ church. 
    • Merrick is shown to the actress Mrs. Kendal. 
    • Merrick shows Mrs. Kendal his mother’s portrait. 
    • Merrick is shown to “society” (London elite). “He’s only being stared at all over again.” 
    • Treves feels guilt about his own showing of Merrick, even as he is surrounded by “shows,” i.e., objects d’art. 
    • Princess Alexandra makes an appearance and shows a letter from the Queen. 
    • Merrick is shown to the drunks from the tavern. 
    • Bytes shows Merrick in a European freak show. 
    • Merrick goes to the theater, sees a pantomime show, and is shown to the audience. 
    • Lynch “shows” us Merrick’s dying moments. 
    • One long string of “shows” by a master showman. And that final audience applauding in the theater— that includes us, doesn’t it? 
  • Mask 
  • The Miracle Worker 
  • Freaks 
  • La Strada 
  • Eraserhead 
  • Blue Velvet 
  • Wild at Heart 
  • Lost Highway 
  • The Straight Story 
  • Mulholland Drive

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