Thursday, October 14, 2004

the elephant man

this film is troubling me. not so much for its psychological impact (isn't lynch lauded as the great weird/freaky/psychological auteur of our time?) but because i can't resist thinking it's a pretty mediocre movie. it's so very odd the way it drops away beyond that wonderful first 30 minutes i mentioned the other day. a gradual disintegration of depth, focus, power, pace, cinematographic care & narrative flair.

lynch likes it better when we can't see john merrick's face. he does the initial freakshow tension wonderfully well - the mystery of the flashback/explanatory prologue (featuring the extremely effective motif of merrick's mother screaming with the elephant; a sexual, sonic impregnation, i guess) compounded by the gorgeous 19th-century fair/freakshow & industrial settings. anthony hopkins has this first half hour all to himself, & he simply owns the screen. to kick things off, he does this brilliant swivel towards the camera - figuring himself in the role of an oddly introspective, medicinal impresario (a role he regrets later in the film). his initial examination of merrick is interesting for various reasons - the sound of merrick's breathing dominates the scene (perhaps inspired by kubrick's heavy-breathing spacemen in 2001?): this kind of concern for auditory detail is an impressive feature of the film's early stages (lynch strikes me as being a very auditory director, & rightly so; for goodness sake, so few film-makers harness what is an obvious dramatic advantage of their art - it can tap into/manipulate nearly every human sense!). the scene is interrupted by a knock at the door; merrick's breathing becomes fast-paced, intense - as viewers we have no idea what's going on inside that bag on his head (complete with extraneous black hat & a small, suggestive hole, it's a very memorable prop). hopkins ducks outside & a friend mentions that he must have "quite a find in there!". when we re-enter the examination office we get this superb shot of the room as a whole - one's eye searches around for the hidden elephant, cowering gently in a dark corner.

this scene, the scene previous (the 'private showing' of merrick by the theatrically manic owner/proprieter) & the scene following (the john merrick lecture to some kind of scientific society - hopkins's high-point) - are surely the best of the film. as an audience we still have no idea what merrick looks like - this tension jars against the very fine rendering of genteel, 19th-century men of science. it's when the bag is lifted & we first see merrick (via the effective device of the innocent, breakfast-serving nurse) that things start to fall apart. suddenly we (& lynch, it seems) care more for character study than evocative social horror. such character study entails a wave of dramatic low & high points, sad & happy points - merrick's revelatory eloquence & intelligence, his befriending of various high-society figures, counteracted by undeniably disturbing scenes of mass bullying & exhibitionism, culminating in his re-kidnapping by the owner/proprieter. this kidnapping kick-starts an extremely uneven freakshow sequence, in which merrick suddenly escapes his owner with the help of other 'freaks' & is seen traversing across 'the continent' & back to england on a ship. it's almost amateurish the way merrick's ultimate proclamation - "i am not an animal! i am a human being" - comes at the end of this poorly paced montage-sequence. it completely detracts from the character drama we're supposed to be appreciating.

which is the primary problem with this film - i'm not sure whether lynch wanted it to be a full-scale psychological horror-portrait (something he might have easily achieved had he kept up the industrial-auditory thematics of the film's early stages, & perhaps honed in on merrick's subtly-suggested sexuality), or a full-scale freak/other-being-accepted-back-into-society character drama. either way the eventual acceptance of merrick into aristocratic english society seems strange & unlikely. there are real dramatic possibilities in hopkins's self-conflict over his role as well-mannered freakshow impresario (the culmination of his guilt might've been the standing ovation (?!) merrick receives while sitting in a box at the theatre), but this theme, as well as, criminally, hopkins himself, are drowned out by our concern with merrick's plight (which reminds of a side-note i wanted to make; merrick reminds me a lot of HAL from 2001; perhaps it's the perfect politeness or something), & the concentration on certain side characters who work only as devices (amazingly, john gielgud seems to struggle through his first few scenes).

i really can't think of more appropriate subject material for a so-called psychological master than merrick's story - the ostricised, deformed but polite freak living in industrial-gothic, hostile times. the move to black & white was a step in the right direction, no doubt, & the first 30 minutes are superbly executed - but the rest of the movie just doesn't do it for me. the painful final suicide/sleep scene (complete with a very 2001-ish imagistic re-birth epilogue) is certainly sad, but pretty much anything can seem sad when backed by barber's 'adagio for strings'.


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