The Elephant Man: Is David Lynch’s 1980 drama his greatest cinematic achievement?
As of this writing, the first four episodes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks revival have run their course and those of us who have responded enthusiastically are on the edges of our seats, hungry for more. The new Twin Peaks takes everything that made the landmark original ABC series so memorable and goes even further into the ether, with the unobstructed non-network outlet (the series is a Showtime production) allowing Lynch to go as far into the odd as he wants. Here, he has almost total freedom to respect fan expectations while radically expanding and inverting that world, lapsing into the avant garde, totally liberated and with complete creative freedom. It’s mesmerizing. It’s energizing. Because out of all the elite directors who managed to infiltrate the Hollywood machine, Lynch remains one of the few that were working artists first, visionaries who developed a language all their own during a formative time and who use that singular language to make films their way, only giving cursory consideration to the suits who keep an eye on him, hoping to keep his work at least somewhat commercial.
And while seeing this new Twin Peaks standing tall as the pure, unfiltered wellspring of the Lynchian aesthetic, citing the times when Lynch has had to collaborate and enlist a more disciplined approach to his vision, yields no real criticism. I mean, the fact that Twin Peaks ever ended up on general stream network television in 1990 at all, is a marvel. It was way out there and defied what anyone wanted or expected from a prime time program. But going even further back, right back to 1980, to Lynch’s second feature film, we see what might very well be his greatest achievement, a movie that he was brought into and yet was given enough of a long creative leash to ensure that the motion picture he was hired to make, was indeed his and yet was also greater than him. A movie that likely educated the director and taught him that introducing strong human emotion into his nightmarescapes and populating the frames with the finest of performers, could result in a work that was art and product in equal measure.
That movie was 1980’s The Elephant Man, Lynch’s follow-up to his fearless, unclassifiable midnight sensation Eraserhead. And 37 years later, looking back, it’s still a bold, brave and immaculately produced motion picture that offers the best of what Lynch could do and bears early evidence of the tropes and themes that would define his subsequent works.
As the story goes, Mel Brooks, he of scatological, smart and silly comedies Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, had just started a company called Brooksfilms wherein the producer could make “real movies” while hiding in the background so as not to mislead his fan base. His partner, producer Jonathan Sanger, got his hands on first draft script called The Elephant Man, which told the loosely true story of Joseph “John” Merrick, a wildly deformed young man who was rescued from the sideshow circuit in Victorian England and who became first a case study for a prominent London doctor and then, a national celebrity. The story was dark, evocative and sharply moral and for whatever reason, Sanger — who had recently seen and swooned over Eraserhead — thought Lynch would be a good bet to bring the steam-soaked tale to life. He met with Lynch who adored the script and agreed to do the film and, after a few re-writes, the movie was put into production.
With the budget and muscle of Brooks, Sanger and Paramount Pictures behind him, Lynch was able to amass a remarkable cast of British talent, first class performers like Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir John Hurt, Sir John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft (Brooks’ wife) and Freddie Jones. But most importantly, The Elephant Man allowed Lynch to work with a man widely considered to be one of the greatest living director’s of photography, Freddie Francis, a man who had worked as both DP and director on a myriad Hammer Horror movies and British exploitation pictures, including Joan Crawford’s final film, Trog. Shooting in stark black and white to better paint a picture of the Victorian period but also give the production’s limited designs a more dream-like feel, Francis and Lynch essentially dragged Eraserhead to turn of the century England and grafted that film’s horrific, hallucinatory style to a potent story of pain and grace. Francis was never a conventional artist and with Lynch he was allowed to fully embrace his own eccentricities. I firmly believe that Francis’ influence on Lynch was an invaluable experience and heavily influenced Lynch’s sense of cinema and visual storytelling.
From the beginning of The Elephant Man, we know that we’re in that very same world first found in Eraserhead, where, after the tinkling, circus-steeped strains of John Morris’ lovely score and images of a face floating in space (a Lynch trademark), we are treated to a nightmarish, impressionist sequence where a group of slow motion-moving elephants either trample or gang-rape a screaming woman, meant to be Merrick’s mother. This is not a scene to be taken literally, but rather is a dream that metaphorically illustrates Merrick’s life of trauma and exploitation, where the love of his mother and his own upbringing have long been distorted by the scream of his carnival-barking owner (the great Freddie Jones, who is at his most despicable here). From this passage of savagery, we are thrust into the tawdry back-alleys of London where Lynch expertly juxtaposes the grime with the the kind-eyes of doctor Frederick Treves (Hopkins, who has never given a more moving performance on-screen) and from here, our tale unfolds. Hearing tales of the horrifying “Elephant Man,” Treves’ professional curiosity and interest in helping the needy, spur him to bring the unfortunate Merrick (who is brilliantly played by John Hurt, buried under Christopher Tucker’s intense prosthetic make-up) to the hospital where he works in order to study him and present him to his peers. First thinking the disfigured wretch an imbecile, Treves soon learns that Merrick is in fact a gentle, educated man who, despite the horrors he has endured is graced with a childlike sense of wonder and a hard-wired humanity and heart full of hope, instilled there by his late mother. As Treves treats Merrick, he is lauded for his work and “The Elephant Man” becomes famous. But despite the kindness and grace the unfortunate Merrick receives at the hands and hearts of his benefactors, there are blacker forces at hand that aim to drag the young man back into the cesspool.
The Elephant Man is a perfect movie and, as John Hurt once said “If you’re not moved by the time The Elephant Man is over…then you’re not someone I want to know.” I agree.
Lynch’s interest in holding frames and not giving into quick edits allows sequences of Hurt reacting to the kindness he is suddenly being shown to become almost religious experiences. We feel this man’s pain, his gratefulness, his empathy. There’s a humanity at work here that Lynch would later weave into the harsh worlds of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, real, profound emotion and sadness over just how cruel men can be to other men. The story is clear, elemental and driven by its talented cast and, again, the period is richly realized by Lynch and Francis. And when Lynch steers the imagery towards dreams, when he begins fetishizing belching smoke stacks, grinding machines and the horror and coldness of the factory, they serve to not only tie the movie into Eraserhead but also comment on the hostile, anti-human world that Merrick sadly came of age in, the one surrounds the refined, clean and kind world of Treves. The imagery is not self indulgent. It makes sense.
By the time the movie winds down, an inevitable climax of grace, surrender, sadness and hope, all played out the strains of Barber’s Addagio, you feel The Elephant Man in your bones. You feel as though you have witnessed a one-of-kind amalgam of bold artistry, history and universal human drama. Of horror and beauty in equal measure.
Lynch would bring much of what he did here to his failed adaptation of Dune, but he wasn’t ready for Dune. It was too big for him to control. Blue Velvet was more successful and yet it still suffers somewhat for its over-reliance on freakishness and kink. Still, what is Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) but a mutated version of Freddie Jones’ character in The Elephant Man? What is Bob and his followers in Twin Peaks, but a satanic riff on the human sludge that exploit and prey upon John Merrick and others like him?
The new Twin Peaks is so-far a marvel and might just be Lynch’s final opus, his magnum. But for my money, there was a kind of magic in The Elephant Man that looms the largest in his filmography. Where youth and talent and freedom of expression and education all met to make one brilliant and enduring motion picture like no other.