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(played by John Hurt) 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'.
|YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN by Mel Brooks|
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).
|Andrei Tarkovsky's SOLARIS, more about earth than space.|
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.
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, Dr. Treves(played by Anthony Hopkins) 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.
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 that could turn cancerous into moral narcissism, and over time, it has.
Indeed, white people in current Europe who hold up signs “REFUGEES WELCOME” are the perverse outgrowths of conceit of higher virtue of the Victorian Era. It just went from sexual repression to thought-repression. While some people simply wanted to be decent toward 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 to do something 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 a similar dynamics on a much larger scale. There are so many problems in the West, but the ruling class and the elites ignore or deride 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 barge in are 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 say 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.
And who is to decide what is healthy in America, physical and mental?
This creature, Rachel Levine, another crazy arrogant Jewish man pretending to be a 'woman':
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, all this really took off with the normalization of homos. Before the film came out, the David Bowie stage version of THE ELEPHANT MAN was a sensation and won lots of accolades. Me thinks the prominently 'gay' theater people were especially ecstatic because they saw the play as an allegory about homosexuality.
With androgynous Bowie playing the Elephant Man, how could anyone miss that? Looks more like a homo’s vision of Merrick as St. Sebastian. Back then, many people, even Liberals, considered homosexuality to be aberrant 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 felt society saw them as monstrous, which is why they were so violently opposed to the film CRUISING by William Friedkin.
And superhero series like X-MEN fantasize about freakery = special powers.
In a way, Dr. Treves 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 motives. Was it really humane sympathy for the freak? Or was it 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 to be bad, but beware of the 'good' as well. Too often, what is deemed as good is what makes us FEEL GOOD about ourselves, and it just so happens that mass passions are molded by the mass media controlled by the Power. 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.
Given the opening scene with the elephants somehow having affected Merrick's birth, could it be suggesting that Merrick was a deformed elephant than a deformed man? An elephant deformed into the semblance of a man.
Man + Wolf has fascinated people the most, rather odd since man is closest to the apes. ALTERED STATES did touch upon the inner ape. Perhaps wolves are fascinating as wilder and more robust dogs, a sufficiently different but accessible species, whereas apes(that resemble us) seem ugly because we can’t help judging them by our standards. Indeed, they are too close for comfort. Come to think of it, we are even more likely to be repulsed by the sight of early humanoids than of apes. Closer something is to us, more we appraise and judge it by our standards. So, even though early humanoids are closer to us than snakes or crabs, they would freak us out more. Wolves are sufficiently different for us to feel this way. Btw, WOLFEN is one hell of a movie.
Man + Elephant seems totally weird because the species are so far apart. But in India, there are gods that are half man and half elephant. Ganesh has the head of an elephant.
Is 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 is hyped as 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 a horrific epidemic.
VIDEODROME is about inter-fusion between man and machine.
The remake of THE FLY is a Jewgro movie. A Jewish scientist’s DNA gets mixed with that of Superfly and he turns into a powerful hyper-sexual Negro-like Jew. The jerk publisher who competes for the woman also conveys the tensions of racial mixing. He looks Aryan but makes poses(like with a cigar) associated with the Semitic Sigmund Freud. He looks like a cross between Carl Jung and Freud, and of course, Cronenberg later made THE DANGEROUS METHOD, about the intellectual and spiritual friction 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.