Thursday, July 31, 2014

Elephant Man

Elephant Man"Time hath not altered" the emotional impact this movie has on me when I watch it. The word "poignant" has grown hackneyed from overuse, but it certainly applies to this great film. Few films can equal it in terms of dramatic artistry and pitch perfect performances. There's not one maudlin note in a film that could easily have descended into bathetic melodrama in lesser hands.

Lynch was practically a neophyte at the time he directed this movie, yet to many (and to most, for that matter, save the true believers) THE ELEPHANT MAN is his magnum opus. I believe this is because of the mostly Britsh, classically trained actors that made up the cast. Hopkins and Hurt excell. Anne Bancroft (who I believe is the only American in the cast) delivers a flawless performance. Freddy Jones, as Bytes (this was before the internet, remember) is simply uncanny in his tour-de-force portrayal of arguably the vilest villain in cinema history. Who cares that the character was totally innacurate, historically? He chews up the scenery in true Grand Guignol fashion. Gielgud and Wendy Hiller are also on hand to provide levitas. One can't find a better ensemble. It's criminal that at least one of them weren't awarded an Oscar, but that's just another example of how meaningless those little gold statuettes are, more often than not.

Though this is a lot more linear than most of Lynch's movies, there is enough of the surreal on hand to keep the die hards happy. But the surrealism doesn't get in the way of the plot. Christopher de Vore and Eric Bergren, who collaborated with Lynch on the screenplay, can take some credit for that. Veteran cinematographer, Freddie Francis did perhaps the best work of his career here. The black and white images are as good as it gets. The sets are unforgettable. Victorian London has never looked so convincing on screen, yet with that nightmarish quality that defines most of the movie.

If you've never seen this movie, get your hands on a copy, soon. It couldn't be described as "weepy," by any means. But if you're not reaching for the kleenex at some stage in this marvellous film, I'd ask the Wizard for a heart, if I were you. For those of you who haven't seen it in a while, give it a re-viewing. It absolutely holds up, particularly in comparison to 1980 Best Picture, ORDINARY PEOPLE...and Best Director, Robert Redford? Hopkins didn't get nominated, but Jack Lemmon did for TRIBUTE? Anyone remember that one? Gotta go find some Maalox.


As I sit down to write this review, my experiences with it from my youth came flooding back. I first saw it as a 17 year old high-schooler at my local movie theater, late one evening. I had seen, and enjoyed, the Broadway play a few months earlier, and wanted to see how the movie compared. The play, I should say, was very moving and had a certain spareness in its production design that was very effective. I had left the theatre with a moist eye and an interest in learning more about John Merrick, The Elephant Man (who had neurofibromatosis, NOT elephantitis, as is so often attributed to him).

Anyway, when the movie concluded, the ENTIRE audience of 150 or so sat in its seats, numbed and unmoving. It was one of those experiences where you fight back your tears, because you're worried if you let go, you'll start bawling like a baby! The film was so profoundly moving to me and so artistically brilliant, that I went again the very next day, dragging reluctant friends with me. They were all stunned. I watched it AGAIN later that week.

I've watched it on video a couple of times years ago, but until I rewatched it recently on DVD, it had been nearly 10 years since I'd seen it.

The story is set in the early turn-of-the-twentieth-century London. John Merrick (John Hurt) is, for lack of a better word, enslaved as a sideshow freak. He has the most hideous growths on his bones, which give him a frightening appearance. His head is probably three times bigger than a normal human, and the shape resembles a lumpy dirigible. His limbs are mostly tangled messes. Noted physician Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) hears of this "elephant man" and is fascinated so greatly by his condition that he brings him to his hospital for study. Everyone has always assumed this man must be a mute "idiot." Turns out that Merrick is a gentle, thoughtful and almost unbearably forgiving soul. The relationship that emerges between Treves and Merrick, as well as with Merrick and virtually everyone he encounters, is at the heart of this film.

(Note of caution: The movie does not follow John Merrick's life terribly accurately...neither did the play. When I read the biography of Merrick that his doctor, Treves, wrote, I got his "true" story, which is just as moving in its own way.)

David Lynch, we all know, is a "difficult" director, at least when it comes to narrative continuity. This movie, however, is his most accessible (along with THE STRAIGHT STORY, which doesn't even feel like a Lynch movie). It tells a straightforward dancing dwarfs, no little people behind radiators, no Wizard of Oz references, etc. etc. No Laura Palmer. However, the touches he brings to it are pure Lynch, and they serve the movie profoundly.

For example, the movie takes place in the midst of the early Industrial Revolution, when science was becoming more "popular" or "glorified" by the masses. It was also a time when London was awash in factories, and all the noise and pollution they wrought. If you've seen ERASERHEAD or DUNE, you know that Lynch likes to have lots of background noises of machinery. Often, those sounds are distracting. In ELEPHANT MAN, we are constantly aware, through these sounds, that we are in a very specific time and place, where the lifeblood of society was machinery, but big, dirty, unsubtle, dangerous machinery. This, coupled with the glorious black and white cinematography, truly create a mood that is unequaled.

Also, there are some brief dream sequences in which Merrick sees his mother. She flits in and out of his dreams in a manner only Lynch can evoke. No one has ever been better at capturing on film the elusive nature of dreaming...that dreams are a crazy combination of good things and bad things happening all at once. These dreams are not a "device" but a window into Merrick's soul.

Those of us who remember when the film first came out remember the constant rehashing of the "I am not an animal, I am a human being, I am a MAN!!" line that Merrick yells out when cornered in a train station. This howl of despair is one of the most gripping moments EVER put to film. I tear-up just thinking about it.

The makeup is incredible. Having seen photos of the real Merrick, I can state that the makeup crew got it right! And the black and white helps to mask any imperfections. And underneath the makeup... John Hurt, a fabulous actor in the role of his lifetime. He brings a delicacy and gentleness to the part that has to bee seen to be believed. I guarantee you'll be moved.

Hurt is ably assisted by Anthony Hopkins in a role which calls for restraint, and he delivers, which is unusual for Hopkins, who can overact at the drop of a hat...I love him, but sometimes he can overdo it, you must admit. The rest of the cast is full of familiar British character actors, as well as a brief but incandescent appearance by Anne Bancroft. Everyone is at their very best.

Initially, the film snags the viewer because of our fascination at seeing a human being so horrifically monstrous. It holds a lurid fascination that fades into compassion and empathy. If a person as horribly mistreated by his fellow man, as well as by fate, can find beauty, forgiveness, tenderness and love flowing from him and to him...well, the film leaves you to draw your own personal conclusions.

I know that Lynch receives more ongoing accolades for his disturbing BLUE VELVET, and of course, for the groundbreaking TWIN PEAKS...but THE ELEPHANT MAN is the one I'm always drawn back to.

I simply cannot recommend this film highly enough. Moviemaking doesn't get any more heartbreaking and effective than this masterpiece.

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Despite the fact that "The Elephant Man" is about a grossly deformed man, it is truly one of the most beautiful movies ever made. Director David Lynch has peered into the souls of both the "outcasts" and those considered "normal" in our society. Lynch has never been better, and the same may also be said about actors John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins.

Would-be circus man Bytes has put The Elephant Man/John Merrick (Hurt) on display in the freak show, attempting to profit from another man's misery. Dr. Frederick Treves (Hopkins) "saves" Merrick from the evil Bytes, but what does he do with Merrick? Puts him on display in another freak show of sorts for a panel of doctors. Treves has again stripped Merrick of his dignity and tried to to profit from his misery. So who is worse? Bytes or Treves?

And this is only the first 15 minutes of the film...

What eventually saves Treves is that he actually gets to know Merrick. Behind the deformity he discovers a human being.

There are so many beautiful and touching moments in this movie: Merrick's awe at watching the play, Merrick removing the pillows from his bed so he can sleep like a normal person and, of course, Merrick trapped at the train station and shouting out "I am not an animal!"

But my favorite moment comes when Merrick's fellow "freaks" in the circus help him escape. As they put him on a ship so he can hopefully find his way back home, the dwarf (Kenny Baker) says to him "Good luck, my friend. And who needs it more than us?"

Filmed in gorgeous black and white. They don't come any better than this.

Read Best Reviews of Elephant Man Here

The Hughes Brothers' recent release FROM HELL includes a brief (and surely unexpected) appearance by one John Merrick, better known as 'the Elephant Man'. Merrick's inclusion in a movie about Jack the Ripper points up the odd connections between these two figures. Both represented extremes of degradation (moral in one case, physical in the other) that had never been seen before; both aroused horror and fascination in equal degrees; and both were major press sensations all in the same district of London at roughly the same time. Indeed, John Merrick and Jack the Ripper might even be seen as yin and yang: while the Ripper's (presumably normal) exterior masked a heart of the blackest evil, Merrick's hideous body housed one of the kindest and gentlest souls ever to grace this planet.

This beautiful soul is the focus of David Lynch's magnificent film, THE ELEPHANT MAN. Broadly speaking, the film is a true story; while a fair portion of the details are either totally fictitious or conflated from several real-life sources, the general outline of the script is true. It follows Merrick from his first encounter with Dr Frederick Treves (Hopkins), the man who helped him regain his dignity, until his death trying to "sleep like normal people" this final scene being only one of many unforgettable moments in the film.

The cast of THE ELEPHANT MAN is utterly top-notch. With only his eyes visible beneath Christopher Tucker's extraordinary makeup, John Hurt manages to give a tremendously moving performance in the title role. You won't soon forget his recitation of the 23rd Psalm, his heartbreaking teatime visit to Treves's wife (a fine cameo by Hannah Gordon), or his reading of Romeo to Anne Bancroft's Juliet (another great cameo). Anthony Hopkins once again proves himself to be among the greatest actors of our time; his performance as Treves is nicely nuanced, evincing subtle and deeply human contradictions, where a lesser actor might have portrayed a mere two-dimensional Virtuous Leading Man. John Gielgud is his usual brilliant self, Freddie Jones is excellent as the sinister yet somehow tragic Mr Bytes, and the various supporting roles are all up to the very high standard set by these leading players.

Since 1980 was the year of RAGING BULL and ORDINARY PEOPLE, it is perhaps understandable that THE ELEPHANT MAN didn't win any of the 8 Academy Awards for which it was nominated though in my opinion it is every bit as good as either of those films. What is scandalous, however, is the fact that Freddie Francis's stunning black-and-white cinematography wasn't even nominated. (Francis did pick up his second Oscar, for Edward Zwick's GLORY, a few years later.)

Lynch's direction, finally, is a revelation. This was only his second film, and he was working with some of the greatest actors living at the time, but his hand has never been surer. Not until THE STRAIGHT STORY (also, incidentally, photographed by Francis) would he again attempt so direct a presentation, but the results here are simply superb. There isn't a hollow note or an empty image in the entire film, which is more than one can say for some of Lynch's later efforts.

The DVD's picture quality is excellent, the sound likewise. Extras include the theatrical trailer, some interesting bits concerning Christopher Tucker's makeup, and a brief documentary featuring comments from Tucker, John Hurt, Freddie Francis, producer Jonathan Sanger, and (uncredited) executive producer Mel Brooks (yes, that Mel Brooks). It would have been nice to hear something from David Lynch as well, but all things considered, this is a fairly minor quibble. A great film and a great DVD pick it up today.

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I first saw this film back in 1981 at the theater when I was 12. It frightened and saddened me though I cannot say I was really traumatized by it. However, it must have made some sort of emotional impact before I have always been terrified of viewing this film in the 20-plus years that have past since then. The most disturbing aspect to me was the inhumane treatment John Merrick received. Just today I got up my courage and bought the DVD at the music store. I sat, white knuckles and all-expecting the worst. Well, I got through it. For one thing, it didn't seem as ominous this go-round. (Funny how your perceptions change as an adult). The fact that this was a period piece works to the film's benefit in that it hasn't dated at all. I am glad the producers and director agreed to use black-and-white film because it adds to the authenticity. What surprised me most was how much I had actually forgotten: the scene in the monkey cage, the fact that Anne Bancroft appeared, and more. What did always stick in my memory was what I refer to as the "raid" scene. (When the sleazy Night Porter brings his "customers" from the pub to Merrick's room, carrying John around, forcing the cheap tarts to kiss him, and then holding a mirror up to his face to purposely shock him.) Upon viewing The Elephant Man as an adult, my favorite scenes are now the most beautiful yet the saddest ones: when John meets Treeves' wife and says he never meant to be a disappointment to his mother, and the final scene as Merrick carefully takes the pillows off the bed and places them on the table. This film should be mandatory study for all North American high school students. Though even then, I am sure there would be more than a few jaded teens who would find some sort of comedy in it. Those kind are the real freaks.

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