The Elephant Man: Excuse Me While I Go Cry Myself To Sleep

The next movie we'll be watching is David Lynch's The Elephant Man, starring John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins.  It's the story of a severely deformed man who struggles to find his place in Victorian England.  It also makes me cry like a baby.

The Elephant Man is the story of a London doctor named Dr Treves, and the relationship he develops with the severely deformed John Merrick (the eponymous Elephant Man).  Merrick has been mistreated as part of a freak show, and Treves quickly relocates him to a hospital.

It doesn't take him long to teach John to repeat phrases, but it takes a surprising amount of screen time before Merrick pulls a Good Will Hunting and we discover that he's much, much smarter than he appears.  He just has a hard time talking, because of the giant tumor on his face that messes up his mouth.

No.  This is not going to be a happy movie.  Anyone looking for light-hearted fare, the exits are to the left and right at the back of the theater.  Those of you who remain, the balconies are available for jumping off of.

Merrick becomes something of a Victorian celebrity/object of curiosity/flavor of the week as his situation becomes known and attracts members of high society.  In particular, a popular stage actress and a princess.

Unfortunately, the dude who works the night shift decides to run an after hours peep show where prostitutes and other ne'er-do-wells can sneak into Merrick's room, gawk at him, pour liquor down his throat, and...make girls kiss him?  There's something so wrong and uncomfortable about this entire state of affairs.

After a brief stint back with his old master (freak show owner) which turns out to be a supernaturally bad idea, he manages to make his way back to the hospital (which some help from his fellow "freaks"...solidarity, what what?).  When it becomes clear that he's dying.

John goes to the theatre for the first time ever, has a wonderful evening...and then comes home to commit suicide by suffocating himself with the weight of his own head.

Like I said...the balcony is available if you feel that you can no longer keep on living.

Random Musings:

  • The imagery at the beginning of the film is pretty cool, with the juxtaposition of the elephants and John Merrick's mother.  This is a fairly conventional film by Lynch's standards, but there's still bits like that where he's able to leave his artistic mark.

  • I like that this movie brings up the issue of freak shows and whether or not they're acceptable.  Most of the exhibits in these shows really had no other means of making a living, so by shutting down the freak shows to protect them, they were often denying the "freaks" their only opportunity to provide for themselves and live somewhat independently.  All of this is making me want to watch the movie Freaks right now.

One of us, one of us!

  • It's such a haunting image when he walks into the hospital with a cap, a sack over his head, and a cane.  So unbelievably sad and I'm not even 20 minutes into the film yet.

  • Love how even the doctor talks about how pathetic and disgusting he is right in front of him.  And I'm a little uncomfortable with the fact that Treves just decides that he's going to examine Merrick, without waiting to see if he's ok with it.

  • First scene where I start to lose it: when Merrick meets Mrs Treves and shows her a picture of his mother, talking about how beautiful she was.  And she bursts into tears.  Right there with you, sweetheart.

  • Is it just me, or is Mrs Robinson sort of carrying a torch for the Elephant Man?  She definitely wants to hit that hard.  But seriously, I found it so depressing that after Mrs Kendall went to see Merrick, all the high society people suddenly want to meet him.  Because it's fashionable to be able to tell people that you're BFFs with the Elephant Man.  And poor John is so innocent and desperate for affection that he doesn't realize they're treating it like a high class freak show.

  • Oh my merciful Zeus, I lose my shit when they give John the fancy dressing case and he's so overwhelmed and he just keeps repeating, "My friends".

And it makes it all the more tragic in the next scene when he's using it to spiff himself up and those ass monkeys break into his room.  It's pretty freaking sad when the Elephant Man is by far the least grotesque person in the room.  I'm sorry, these people are going to rot in hell.

  • Can someone please take the little urchins at the train station who are mean to poor John and throw them into the path of an oncoming train?  Please and thank you.  Seriously, what kind of asshole shoots spitballs at a random disable person at a train station?  More importantly, how is it that no one's ever kicked the ever-loving shit out of him?

  • "I am not an elephant!  I am not an animal!  I am a human being! I am a man!"  Jesus, at this point I straight up don't know if I have any tears left.

  • Does anyone know what show Merrick and Co went to go see at the theatre?  It's amazing the spectacle they were able to produce on stage back then, and I approve of Lynch's decision to shoot this scene so that we can always see Merrick's reaction to it.

  • I love that John chooses to surround himself with beautiful things.  He goes to the theatre, builds a lovely model of a cathedral, and considering he lives in one small room at a hospital, it's very elegantly decorated.  It's just another endearing aspect of his character, how much he appreciates beauty.

There's so many great things about this movie.  I would easily put John Hurt in my list of Top 5 Film Performances, if I ever saw the wisdom of organizing my thoughts in such a manner.  He's just heartbreaking as someone who is so gentle and kind despite having lived a shitstorm of a life.  He makes me cry just about every two minutes with how happy he is with the simplest things, whenever anyone shows him smallest kindness.

This film is a master class in the art of makeup design.  It is unbelievable what they were able to do, that they could turn such a normal looking guy like John Hurt into such a deformed individual.  It truly is a shame that at this point in time the Academy didn't recognize achievements in make up, because I can't think of a movie that deserves it more than this.

At the risk of losing my film buff cred, I normally don't have too much time for David Lynch.  I appreciate him as a filmmaker, but I wouldn't say that I really enjoy too many of his films.  Except for this one.  I think it's very well-made and a beautiful story, while still giving Lynch room to be unconventional and artistic.  Particularly in the scenes when the hoods break into Merrick's room, and all the dream sequences with elephants and his mother.

Thanks for reading, and come back for my next review!

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Elfwyn said...

I love this review and am ashamed to say I have never seen this movie. One day when I need a good cry...

Anonymous said...

Re theatre show: It was a pantomime production of "Puss in Boots" at the Drury Lane Theatre in London.

Anonymous said...

Seeing "The Elephant Man" was a long time coming for me. I would notice it on the telly schedule every blue moon or so, and make plans to watch, but something would happen every time so I would miss it in spite of my best intentions and efforts.

But in connection with each time, I would do a little more background research on the real Joseph Merrick. I finally decided that great cosmic forces wanted to make sure that when the day came, whenever it might be, that I sat down at long last to watch "The Elephant Man", it would be when I knew Mr. Merrick's story well enough to tell the true stuff apart from the dramatic license, so I would spend my tears wisely in pathos for the poor genetically scourged lamb, and not wastefully on manipulative Hollywood fabrication.

So, at last, 20 May 2014, Turner Classic Movies: The great cosmic forces evidently felt I was ready. I watched that film through such a clinical filter that I realized well into the viewing that I really hadn't but dabbed at a couple of rogue tear drops. And some of those might have been the product of my now-permanent allergies.

Then "John" Merrick received his dressing case. Knowing how the real Mr. Merrick so hoped for a dressing case, and how he cherished the one he received, and then to see his joy and gratefulness reenacted ... well, tears shot out of my eyes in all directions like I was a cartoon character!

"The Elephant Man" is one of only two films I have ever watched where I found myself wondering what characters were doing when they weren't on screen. I wished we could linger a while more in so many scenes, or linger a while in scenes that weren't even in the film. Hey -- let's make some rounds through the wards with some of the nurses! Or let's go dress shopping with Mrs. Treves! (That dress she wears to tea: WOW!) Or let's just spend a half hour with "John" while he's reading a book in his hospital flat -- I'll get one of my current reading projects and we'll just share some quiet time.

But, pinch myself, it IS just a motion picture, the characters in it are all actors, and we must at last get on with the serious business of acting in our OWN real-life stories.

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