CHRIS: The Elephant Man (Lynch, US, 1980)

No other director has brought art and mainstream American cinema clashing together in quite the same way as David Lynch: film-maker, transcendental educationalist, coffee supplier and cartoonist. From his early shorts to his most recent digital-video film INLAND EMPIRE (2006) he has has experimented with film as a form of art, pushing the boundaries of narrative, visual style and the construction of sound into new and interesting directions.

Derek selected BLUE VELVET (1986) Lynch’s Eisenhower-infused fable of the heart of darkness hidden behind the white picket fences of middle America; Denis Hopper created one of cinema’s monsters in the form of Frank Booth – rapist, sadist, psychopath – a terrifying screen presence, who captures Jerry (Kyle MacLachlan), who is hidden in a closet watching him abuse Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), and takes him on a nightmarish ride.

A key theme of the film is voyeurism and how the looker can be tainted by what they see. Lynch is challenging the audience themselves to address uncomfortable ideas about the nature of looking and, by implication, watching films. It is a theme that he addresses in THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) to a sensitive effect.

It was one of the first films that I saw on a video rental. It was that time when they came in huge, tablet-like boxes that looked like they should have had the ten commandments written on them rather than hold a humble video tape. I was expecting it to be a horror film. I was hoping that it was a video nasty that all the kids at school were talking about. It certainly borrows the look and feel of those Universal horror films that used to be re-run on BBC2 when I came home from school, however the effect is not sensational shock or horror, its unsettling (the nightmarish effect of elephants, cross-fading into a woman wailing in distress is one of those cinematic memories that cannot be shaken off) and I was in tears of sadness at the end of it.

The version of Victorian London that he creates is one from the imagination of film-makers rather than reality – the cinematography is bathing in smoke and the sound has the thunderous rumble machinery ever present – and the story itself is more interested in the ‘concept’ of John Merrick than creating an accurate biography of the ‘real’ Elephant Man. The early section of the film is building up to be big ‘reveal’ when the true extent of Merrick’s mis-shapen appearance is shown to the audience. Lynch is constantly playing with the idea that Merrick is something to be looked at, gazed upon, and judged. Consider the repeated use of the photograph, for example,  the photograph that Merrick holds of his mother book-ends the film, seemingly contrasting her beauty with her son’s appearance and Merrick becomes fascinated by the way that polite society displays photographs as a token of their normal lives that he so desperately craves.

John Hurt gives a wonderfully under-stated performance under the make-up, with a certain, feminine grace that cannot fail to touch the coldest of hearts. There’s a moment when Merrick is reciting a scene from ROMEO AND JULIET, with the society actress Mrs Kendel (Ann Bancroft) that is so sensitive and unsettling that, watching it again, it reminded me of a similar scene in MULHOLLAND DR. (2001) where Naomi Watts’ sexually charged audition piece didn’t leave a dry seat in the house. The idea of performance and acting is a theme that Lynch expertly explores as it concerns voyeurism and role-play.

Kenny Baker, the fella inside R2 D2, makes an appearance as one of ‘acts’ owned by the mean-spirited Bytes (Freddie Jones) who allows Merrick to escape in a scene that recalls Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932), which was one of Malcolm’s choices, in a scene that is both painful and redemptive as it offers Merrick a way back to the comfort of Treves (Anthony Hopkins) who is questioning his own role as a medical researcher who is subjecting Merrick to a similar ordeal as the freak-circus owner.

I admire much of Lynch’s output, but this is the film that I can see how he applies his surrealist instinct to its most satisfying effect. This is a film that  visually throws together juxtapositions between folk science and medical science, old and new, working class and upper class and, more importantly, dreams and reality to produce an engaging and satisfying film.

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