Monday, October 24, 2016

The Elephant Man

Year 8, Day 298 - 10/24/16 - Movie #2,476       

BEFORE: I originally had this scheduled for a few days ago, but adding those Frankenstein films at the last minute had an unexpected effect on my linking - so this got rescheduled, and now I have to link from Marlon Brando.  Simple enough, Brando was in the 1953 version of "Julius Caesar" with John Gielgud.  I should know, I watched it.  

This is a David Lynch film, and I'm approaching this with caution, because I've been burned by him before, at least three times now.  "Eraserhead" last October, and both "Mulholland Dr." and "Lost Highway" earlier this year all turned out to be maddening, confusing pieces of non-linear narrative, and they drove me bonkers.  I mean, I love the guy for "Twin Peaks", but his movies just leave me scratching my head.

THE PLOT:  A Victorian surgeon rescues a heavily disfigured man who is mistreated while scraping a living as a side-show freak. Behind his monstrous facade, there is revealed a person of intelligence and sensitivity.

AFTER: I started this Halloween chain with haunting ghosts and seductive vampires, but this second half of the month has turned out to be more about mad doctors (Frankenstein, Moreau) and their disfigured subjects (and assistants).  So this film should fit in rather nicely here, though the doctor here isn't such a mad scientist, he's much more compassionate.  Still, he struggles with the notion that his actions may not be completely good, as he puts John Merrick on display and starts to feel a bit like a sideshow barker. (And the circus sideshow has also popped up again and again this year, go figure...there's something of an echo here from "Victor Frankenstein", with the doctor finding Igor at the circus.)

But this story just sort of left me cold.  And I am sympathetic to the plight of John Merrick as a character, this horribly disfigured man, but I just don't know if his story works well as a movie.  And I wonder if Lynch had a similar crisis of conscience as Dr. Treves did - it's impossible to tell this man's story without putting him on display, and isn't the movie just an updated version of the circus sideshow?  Doesn't this exploit him again, decades after the fact?  And after the big reveal (his face is kept covered for the first 30 minutes or so of the film) what more can the movie tell us?  Really, there's just one shock when you first see what he looks like, and then after that, it's the same point, over and over.  We get it, he doesn't look normal...

And why is he called "Elephant Man"?  I don't think he looked that much like an elephant, he didn't have a trunk or even a particularly long nose, for example, or gray rough skin like an elephant's hide, so why an elephant?  If he had elephantitis in his feet I could even understand it, but as it is, it seems like there would be simpler ways to refer to him than to cite a creature that he simply does not resemble.  

I must say, this is the most linear narrative I've ever seen in a David Lynch film, except for maybe "Blue Velvet".  There's a bit at the end that seems like a little montage-y, where what's happening on screen is not exactly stated but only hinted at - but there's no tiny person living in the radiator, or any character that turns into another character inexplicably.  So that means he CAN tell a straight story when he wants to, he just chooses not to. (Ironically, after tonight "A Straight Story" is now perhaps the only major Lynch film I haven't seen yet.)  

Any black-and-white film made in the modern age seems to develop a repuation for being "arty", but whether this film deserves this classification is somewhat subjective to me.  The truth seems to be that the prosthetic make-up used on Merrick's character didn't look very realistic in color, so shooting in black and white had the effect of making it more believable.  To me, that's a clear case of putting the cart before the horse, making the whole thing appear more classy, almost by accident.

Also starring Anthony Hopkins (last seen in "A Bridge Too Far"), John Hurt (last seen in "Snowpiercer"), Anne Bancroft (last seen in "The Prisoner of Second Avenue"), Wendy Hiller, Freddie Jones (last seen in "The Count of Monte Cristo"), Michael Elphick (last seen in "Quadrophenia"), Hannah Gordon, Helen Ryan, John Standing (last seen in "Scoop"), Dexter Fletcher (last seen in "Layer Cake"), Kenny Baker (last seen in "24 Hour Party People").

RATING: 4 out of 10 tea parties

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