The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)
Category: Sad movie about freaks. I don’t wish to offend here; I know there’s a far more politically correct term for people with severe physical deformities. And Lord knows I’ve seen people get in trouble for using that term. It’s just that my personal connection to this movie, which I will explain in a bit, requires me to use the word “freak” here. And really, the term “freak” isn’t always a bad thing. It's worked for James Franco, it's worked for Chic, it's worked for former Tennessee Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse. (Much like Jevon Kearse, my wingspan can be accurately described as "freakish." It's six feet, while I'm actually only five feet, eleven inches tall. This is how I averaged 3.2 blocks per game on my high school CYO basketball team.) Also, since the movie takes place in Victorian-era England (home of the Victorian freak show), it would be anachronistic for me to use any other term in this review. (I really hope there are no black people in this movie.)
We’ve had a bit of this with Simon Birch (update: FOTB Steve Isaac is still crying). Movies like this are sad because they show us that, despite the deformities, these freaks just want the same things as we do: to love, to be loved, to undergo massive facial reconstructive surgery. Usually there's a bunch of mean people who bully the freak, but by the end of the film, after we've gotten to know the freak, we come to understand that deep down (underneath the deformity, that is), he/she is the normal one, and the bullies are the real freaks, because they are freakishly mean. It’s tricky, I know. But it all makes sense when you watch ‘em. Similar films include The Man Without a Face, Mask (not to be confused with The Mask, which I suppose is also about a freak), and, of course, Freaks.
This is also another sad movie based on a true story. I hear that the film version takes some liberties with the actual story. For example, the real-life elephant man did not have tusks.
My familiarity with this issue: I told you I was freaky. The wingspan thing is the chief freakish thing I've got going for me, physically (aside from my toothpick arms and aforementioned shapely legs). Luckily, none of those things would make someone stare at me in the street and think, "look at that freak." (Hopefully.) This ability to avoid standing out in public is really underrated, and is part of the reason why we should feel bad for freaks. And celebrities. (Same thing? Satire!)
But srsly, the reason I've used the word "freak" about fifty times so far has to do with a man who is famous the world over for having a head like a f***ing orange: Karl Pilkington. (Read that Wikipedia article if you are unfamiliar with Karl, then watch this, and then listen to the various podcasts and radio shows and such that feature him.) Karl is quite obsessed with freaks – one of his greatest features on the old XFM radio show was entitled “Cheeky Freak of the Week” – and as such, The Elephant Man is his favorite film (he particularly likes the title, because “you know what you’re gonna get”). And as I’ve been obsessed with Karl for about four years now, I figure it’s about time to see it.
Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, a 19th-century Englishman afflicted with a disfiguring congenital disease. With the help of kindly Dr. Frederick Treves, Merrick attempts to regain the dignity he lost after years spent as a side-show freak.”
What I thought of the movie: Oh man. So sad. And it’s inescapably sad, too, because everything that happens in the movie is centered on John Merrick; even when he’s not onscreen, people are talking about him, reacting to him, thinking about him, etc. And the effect of this is that we are forced to consider how we might react to being around such a grotesque-looking but actually really nice guy.
Sadly, I have not seen any of the other films by this film’s director, David Lynch, in their entirety; he’s directed such important films as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive (a favorite of weirdo/FOTB Rich Martinelli), and he created the TV show Twin Peaks. But I’ve read a good amount about him and his unique and distinct style that film critics, for lack of a better term, have described as “Lynchian.” (David Foster Wallace discusses this in one of his typically mind-blowingly awesome essays, included in the book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. It's far too long and brilliant for me to try to summarize here. Extra credit reading.) This was Lynch’s second movie, and it’s one of his most conventional, but it still contains some of the overwhelming creepiness that dominates his weirder stuff (I’m basing this statement off of what I’ve read and the parts of Mulholland Drive that I’ve seen).
Obviously a movie about an “elephant man” who lives in Victorian England is gonna be creepy. But some of Lynch’s choices seem designed specifically to “get inside your head,” as Wallace wrote, and get us to confront the uncomfortable fact that, no matter how liberal or educated or kind we are, we would probably still be freaked out by John Merrick. In the scene where Frederick Treves (the surgeon who discovers, cares for and befriends Merrick) sees him for the first time, Lynch keeps the camera on Treves for an uncomfortably long time, letting the horror on his face communicate how hideous Merrick is without actually showing him. And this is the nicest guy in the movie, the one who really goes out on a limb for the freak. Even the motives of those who are kind to Merrick are called into question throughout the movie. At one point, one of the characters, lamenting the fact that so little can actually be done to help Merrick, asks himself, “Am I a good man, or am I a bad man?” Obviously it ain’t that simple.
How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: In the direct-to-video sequel to Aladdin entitled The Return of Jafar, the evil Jafar says, “After all, there are things SO much worse than death.” I was probably eight when I saw this, and I remember being both confused and TERRIFIED. What the hell kind of sentiment is that for kids to hear? Yeah let's use this cheap follow-up made to cash in on the success of Aladdin, and which doesn't even have Robin Williams as the voice of the Genie, to teach the kids about TORTURE. Well it obviously stuck with me, as I was just able to quote it nearly perfectly seventeen years later. Oof. I’m gonna watch this to stop thinking about it. (He’s got the monkeys! Let’s see the monkeys!)
But anyway. I don’t want to get into the habit of comparing the sadness level of the films I watch for this blog. (It’s why I did away with the short-lived Sad-O-Meter, which ranked films on a scale of one to ten tears.) But this movie made me think about that Jafar quote, and in turn, the movie Stepmom, and I felt I had to make this illustrative comparison: I believe that any one scene of The Elephant Man is sadder than all of Stepmom. And that’s only taking into account what happens in each, not the fact that The Elephant Man is exceptionally well-made and Stepmom is, well, not. Yes, Stepmom is about someone dying and leaving behind two children, but The Elephant Man is about a man who is alone for pretty much his entire life, ridiculed, scorned, physically abused and mentally tormented, rejected and alienated and dehumanized. That’s what Jafar was talking about. Not to demean what happens to Susan Sarandon in Stepmom, but even though she and Julia Roberts fight, they’d at least return each other’s phone calls. They don’t have phones in Victorian freak shows. (I was trying to be really profound there.)
How I felt after the movie ended: Oof. Just thinking about some of the scenes in the movie is making me upset as we speak. It’s awful, and the fact that I’m not only unable to relate to Merrick’s plight, but that I’d probably be really awkward around him at dinner parties only makes it worse. It’s just such a crushing movie, with a simple lesson that Tracy Jordan knows all too well: freaky deakies need love, too.