The Elephant Man (Summer Film Log)

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I watched David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man (1980) last night for the first time in at least a decade (likely more than a decade). The Elephant Man is not my favorite Lynch film to rewatch, perhaps because it is his most realistic film despite its fantastic touches.

The Elephant Man is emotionally devastating, propelled by naturalistic performances unusual in Lynch’s oeuvre. Lynch teases the titular elephant man’s hideous countenance for the first fifteen or so minutes of the film, but when we finally see John Merrick (played by an unrecognizable John Hurt), we feel only pity for his circumstance and  contempt for a world that can’t accept him. Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) shares that mix of pity and contempt. Treves is the surgeon who moves Merrick from his freakshow prison to a respectable London hospital, where the young man can finally find some measure of comfort in his own skin. Away from his former handler, the sadistic Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones), young Merrick quickly becomes an aesthete, the toast of London society.

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Merrick’s hospital suite becomes an artiste’s garret, where he builds a model of a nearby cathedral and takes tea with a famous actress. However, a cruel night porter named Jim (Michael Elphick) intrudes into this peace, selling tickets to see the elephant man in his new minor paradise. While Jim’s invasions are horrifying, more subtly terrible is the notion that Dr. Treves is simply recapitulating the freakshow himself, only this time to a “higher society” — a sin that Ms. Mothershead, the ward’s head nurse, warns Treves against. She serves as the moral anchor of the film, proclaiming that care and attention—bathing, feeding, cleaning—are the truest forms of “love.”

Despite its subject matter, The Elephant Man is possibly Lynch’s most straightforward, even traditional film (this estimation includes The Straight Story (1999)). The plot is ultimately a character study of a lonely man who craves not wholesale acceptance or dramatic love but simple friendship. The emotional crux of The Elephant Man rests in Treves’ reticence to truly befriend his patient, a reticence Lynch refuses to resolve.

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We feel pity for Merrick, but as his social status swells in a surreal ironic infamy, we feel a second pity—the fame goes to his head. Hurt portrays these strange emotional swings through thick layers of makeup, aided by Lynch’s impeccable framing and Freddie Francis’ dreamy black and white cinematography. (Francis served as cinematographer on Lynch’s next film, 1984’s Dune, as well as the aforementioned The Straight Story). Lynch’s sound design is haunting, but not as proficient as later efforts—too reliant on flange and echo.

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Visually, The Elephant Man plants seeds for any number of Lynchian set pieces to come. The nightworld he creates for poor Merrick to endure repeats throughout his oeuvre, notably in Blue Velvet (1986), Lost Highway (1997) and Twin Peaks (1990-2017). Michael Elphick’s night porter Jim is particularly sinister, a proto-Frank Booth. Freddie Jones’ Mr. Bytes is a loathsome first copy of Baron Harkonnen from Dune. It’s all quite horrifying.

Lynch always tempers the dark with the light, even if we might see both in a sinister aspect. The subtle supernatural touches in The Elephant Man—halos and orbs, night spectacles, bewitched paintings—are motifs that repeat throughout his work. So much of The Elephant Man’s DNA is in Twin Peaks, and perhaps my favorite thing about watching it—aside from the rich blacks and grays and lights—was how much it evoked for me Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return—the best thing I saw on a screen last year.

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Lynch finds light life’s grotesque pageant, and this strange light is what colors The Elephant Man as such an intensely meaningful film. Merrick is more than a freak, but also more than a human—to revert to a platitude would not be true to human nature. And in the end, The Elephant Man is about human nature, or, more importantly, one real fantastic unreal human.


How I watched it: On a big TV via a streaming service, very late at night. I am indebted to the archive Film Grab as the source of the images used in this post.

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“Breughel” — Aldous Huxley

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“Breughel”

by

Aldous Huxley

from Along the Road, 1925


Most of our mistakes are fundamentally grammatical. We create our own difficulties by employing an inadequate language to describe facts. Thus, to take one example, we are constantly giving the same name to more than one thing, and more than one name to the same thing. The results, when we come to argue, are deplorable. For we are using a language which does not adequately describe the things about which we are arguing.

The word “painter” is one of those names whose indiscriminate application has led to the worst results. All those who, for whatever reason and with whatever intentions, put brushes to canvas and make pictures, are called without distinction, painters. Deceived by the uniqueness of the name, aestheticians have tried to make us believe that there is a single painter-psychology, a single function of painting, a single standard of criticism. Fashion changes and the views of art critics with it. At the present time it is fashionable to believe in form to the exclusion of subject. Young people almost swoon away with excess of aesthetic emotion before a Matisse. Two generations ago they would have been wiping their eyes before the latest Landseer. (Ah, those more than human, those positively Christ-like dogs—how they moved, what lessons they taught! There had been no religious painting like Landseer’s since Carlo Dolci died.)

These historical considerations should make us chary of believing too exclusively in any single theory of art. One kind of painting, one set of ideas are fashionable at any given moment. They are made the basis of a theory which condemns all other kinds of painting and all preceding critical theories. The process constantly repeats itself. Continue reading ““Breughel” — Aldous Huxley”

The Riddle — Emily Mae Smith

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The Riddle, 2017 by Emily Mae Smith (b. 1979)

LAWN — Joe Houston

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LAWN, 1989 by Joe Houston (b. 1962)

The Misfortunes of Silenus (Detail) — Pierro di Cosimo

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The Misfortunes of Silenus (detail), c. 1500 by Pierro di Cosimo (1462-1522)

The Peasant and the Birdnester — Pieter Bruegel the Elder

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The Peasant and the Birdnester, 1568 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569)

Bird’s Nest — Vincent van Gogh

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Bird’s Nest, 1885 by Vincent van Gogh (1843-1890)

Sometimes not so adequate | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 14th, 1850

Lenox, July 14th.–The tops of the chestnut-trees have a whitish appearance, they being, I suppose, in bloom. Red raspberries are just through the season.

Language,–human language,–after all, is but little better than the croak and cackle of fowls and other utterances of brute nature,–sometimes not so adequate.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 14th, 1850. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

The Drunkenness of Noah — Jean-Francois Millet

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The Drunkenness of Noah (sketch) by Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875)

The Misfortunes of Silenus — Pierro di Cosimo

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The Misfortunes of Silenus (detail), c. 1500 by Pierro di Cosimo (1462-1522)

Cyclops — Robin F. Williams

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Cyclops, 2011 by Robin F. Williams (b. 1984)

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“The Girl” — William Carlos Williams

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Blood Bath — Elizabeth Glaessner

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Blood Bath, 2014 by Elizabeth Glaessner (b. 1984)

The Art Lover — Jack Levine

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The Art Lover, 1962 by Jack Levine (1915-2010)

Then would she wheedle and laugh and blarney, beginning in a rage, and ending as if she had been in jest | Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 9th, 1837

July 9th.–Went with B—- to pay a visit to the shanties of the Irish and Canadians. He says that they sell and exchange these small houses among themselves continually. They may be built in three or four days, and are valued at four or five dollars. When the turf that is piled against the walls of some of them becomes covered with grass, it makes quite a picturesque object. It was almost dusk–just candle-lighting time–when we visited them. A young Frenchwoman, with a baby in her arms, came to the door of one of them, smiling, and looking pretty and happy. Her husband, a dark, black-haired, lively little fellow, caressed the child, laughing and singing to it; and there was a red-bearded Irishman, who likewise fondled the little brat. Then we could hear them within the hut, gabbling merrily, and could see them moving about briskly in the candlelight, through the window and open door. An old Irishwoman sat in the door of another hut, under the influence of an extra dose of rum,–she being an old lady of somewhat dissipated habits. She called to B—-, and began to talk to him about her resolution not to give up her house: for it is his design to get her out of it. She is a true virago, and, though somewhat restrained by respect for him, she evinced a sturdy design to remain here through the winter, or at least for a considerable time longer. He persisting, she took her stand in the doorway of the hut, and stretched out her fist in a very Amazonian attitude. “Nobody,” quoth she, “shall drive me out of this house, till my praties are out of the ground.” Then would she wheedle and laugh and blarney, beginning in a rage, and ending as if she had been in jest. Meanwhile her husband stood by very quiet, occasionally trying to still her; but itis to be presumed, that, after our departure, they came to blows, it being a custom with the Irish husbands and wives to settle their disputes with blows; and it is said the woman often proves the better man. The different families also have battles, and occasionally the Irish fight with the Canadians. The latter, however, are much the more peaceable, never quarrelling among themselves, and seldom with their neighbors. They are frugal, and often go back to Canada with considerable sums of money. B—- has gained much influence both with the Irish and the French,–with the latter, by dint of speaking to them in their own language. He is the umpire in their disputes, and their adviser, and they look up to him as a protector and patron-friend. I have been struck to see with what careful integrity and wisdom he manages matters among them, hitherto having known him only as a free and gay young man. He appears perfectly to understand their general character, of which he gives no very flattering description. In these huts, less than twenty feet square, he tells me that upwards of twenty people have sometimes been lodged.

A description of a young lady who had formerly been insane, and now felt the approach of a new fit of madness. She had been out to ride, had exerted herself much, and had been very vivacious. On her return, she sat down in a thoughtful and despondent attitude, looking very sad, but one of the loveliest objects that ever were seen. The family spoke to her, but she made no answer, nor took the least notice; but still sat like a statue in her chair,–a statue of melancholy and beauty. At last they led her away to her chamber.

We went to meeting this forenoon. I saw nothing remarkable, unless a little girl in the next pew to us, three or four years old, who fell asleep, with her head in the lap of her maid, and looked very pretty: a picture of sleeping innocence.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for July 9th, 1837. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

Minotaur Hunt — Nicole Eisenman

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Minotaur Hunt, 1993 by Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965)

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Pier Paolo Pasolini — Nicola Verlato

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Pier Paolo Pasolini, 2014 by Nicola Verlato (b. 1965)