Wednesday, December 17, 2008
The Elephant Man
If most of the films of David Lynch might be described as a journey into the strangeness beneath the thin outer skin of ordinary reality, The Elephant Man essentially reverses the director's usual preoccupation: the film locates the ordinary and the human within an external skin of extraordinary surreality. The point is basically the same in either case, namely the coexistence of the prosaic with the unimaginable. Based on the famed real-life "elephant man" John Merrick, the film traces Merrick's transition from a carnival sideshow attraction to a cultured, intelligent man living in relative comfort and tranquility. John Hurt, playing Merrick beneath a thick coating of makeup and prosthetics, turns in a performance of amazing sensitivity and complexity. He is deformed, his head and body misshapen and covered in bulbous, fleshy protrusions. The sensibility at work in creating this image is obviously the same one that dreamed up the "lady in the radiator" with her swollen, protuberant cheeks for Lynch's debut Eraserhead: in these two figures of warped humanity, one entirely imaginary and the other based on a real person, Lynch's aesthetic of humanity made strange achieves its most potent early expressions.
That Hurt, his face hidden and distorted by this overpowering accumulation of makeup, still manages to be expressive and poignant is a miracle of acting. His performance, filtered through the obstructions of his disguise, mirrors Merrick's own slow emergence from within the cocoon of his appearance: both actor and character must project their inner selves through intimidating façades that threaten to suffocate them. When Merrick is initially discovered by the physician Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), he is completely submerged in his externality. He is being displayed daily at a demeaning freakshow by the abusive, exploitative Bytes (Freddie Jones), who showcases his pet freak by day and beats him by night. Merrick is, as a result, withdrawn into himself, hidden away behind his own face, which he wears as a mask: everyone assumes that he is merely an uncomprehending animal, and he does or says nothing to disabuse them of the idea. It takes Treves, who slowly begins to realize that his new patient is more conscious than he had initially suspected, to draw out Merrick's inner life. The film's narrative is about finding a human mind, a human soul, within what had previously been deemed a mere empty husk. Treves is perhaps slow to recognize the humanity of this man; when he first discovers Merrick, his instinct is to display the elephant man before an assembly of medical professionals, exchanging one type of sideshow for another. But once Treves begins treating Merrick as a human being rather than a sideshow freak or a medical example, he discovers, much to his own surprise, a fully functioning intellect within this distorted body.
Lynch, perhaps recognizing that his central character is strange enough already, plays things relatively straight here. His images are disarmingly beautiful and classical, lending an unflinching sense of reality to his outrageous hero. The direct, unpretentious quality of Lynch's imagery makes Hurt's Merrick believable as more than an accumulation of impressive makeup effects and acting tics. The physicality of this elephant man is enhanced by the way he is introduced, slowly building up to his first appearances in much the same way as the classic monster movies held back the unveiling of the creature. Merrick is variously cloaked in shadows or hidden beneath burlap masks and heavy coats; in one inventively staged sequence, the outline of his body is visible through a thin curtain as he is displayed to a group of scientists. Paradoxically, as long as Merrick is living as a spectacle, Lynch withholds his full appearance from the audience, only suggesting the contours of his deformed body at most. When people view him only as a monster or a freak, Lynch films him through the filter of the monster movie, presenting Merrick in the shadowy half-light that is characteristic of the genre. This intensifies the effect when Merrick is finally revealed without any obstructions, when he appears in shadow-free daylight; his transition into humanity and society is signaled by his emergence into the light.
The film is dotted with very recognizably Lynchian dream sequences, in which Merrick is haunted by images of his mother — whose photo he cherishes as the only reminder of her role in his life — being trampled and mauled by elephants. These dreams incorporate ghostly superimpositions and slow-motion billows of smoke, familiar markers of the Lynchian unconscious. The director's hand also shows through in the sound design, which occasionally delves, without explanation, into the underbelly of the hospital where Merrick is staying, capturing the creaks and mechanical whooshes of pipes and machinery. The film explicitly takes place on the cusp of the machine age, as indicated by an early scene where Treves performs surgery on a man injured in a factory accident. He comments that they will be seeing more and more injuries like this, and laments the heartless nature of machinery, which "cannot be reasoned with." This idea flows subtly through the entire film, never mentioned again but always present in the soundtrack's pristinely recorded machine rhythms. Merrick's warm, reasoning humanity, found in an unfamiliar and externally awkward guise, is a counterpoint to the cold but perfectly sleek inhumanity of the machine and the metal pipe. As with all of Lynch's films, The Elephant Man is an eye-opening glimpse into the strangeness — and the strange beauty — of humanity.