The Elephant Man Review
It is, of course, rude to stare. Yet we all do it, and offer all kinds of justifications for our prying eyes and boundless curiosity. Sometimes we are looking because we are concerned for the object of our gaze, sometimes we watch in order to learn from life, but mostly we can't help ourselves. Whether you call that rubbernecking or voyeurism makes little or no difference, because all we are doing is eating up a sight that excites, repels or draws us despite our best efforts at being civilised or proper.
Our need for spectacle as human beings explains the business of show, the practice of learning and the enjoyment of most art. From this appetite springs professions, careers, and great achievements which carry with them more hi-falutin explanations of their purpose, but also our desire to see and how it informs what we do powers less salubrious activity and business. The art of the pornographer and the painter are not as different as we may like to think and both are dependent on exploitation of appearance and image. This, I believe, is the purpose of David Lynch's The Elephant Man, which is as much about the purported charity of a Victorian doctor as it is about the same man's desire to make a name for himself out of the misfortune of another's appearance.
Anthony Hopkin's plays Frederick Treves in a fashion that allows the viewer to not be wholly convinced that this doctor is as selfless as he may seem. He, himself, expresses his own doubts about his motives and despite John Merrick's constant use of the words "my friend" to him, Treves always seems a little held back, observing rather than befriending. The board members of the hospital decry an "ambitious young doctor" and when the chief nurse points out that Merrick's popularity with society types amounts to him "being gawped at all over again", Treves allows this practice to continue as he thinks it "good" for his patient.
Once Merrick becomes a celebrity, the great and the good come to see him for a cup of tea in a grotesque imitation of a society dinner party. Their cups shake as they are disgusted by the close up disfigurement of their host and even the stage actress Mrs Kendall can not quite stifle her disgust at the ugliness she affects not to see. Pre and post fame, common working folk have to pay to glimpse Merrick through the carnival led by Bytes, the marvellous Freddie Jones, and the impromptu night visits of the porter played by Michael Elphick. Throughout, Merrick's image is a treasure for those who offer access to it and it is exploited by the carny, the bully and the doctor alike.
Forever separated from those who use him or stare at him, Merrick has to use his imagination to understand his lot and to dream of better things. Welcoming a kinder treatment from the world around him, Merrick still knows that he can't have a cure, romance, or friendship not based on pity. Content once to think himself apart and animal, the unfortunate man finds himself dreaming of normality and acceptance, and in seeking to imitate the everyday he meets his poetic end.
Other directors have taken on this kind of subject matter and come up with mawkish treatments and manipulation, but Lynch shows a sympathy for the freakish in the way the real world treats it. When Merrick is thrown back into the hell of a carnival, he is eventually liberated by a mixture of empathetic misfits - little people, Siamese twins and assorted carnies. But his freedom leads to humiliation in the ordinary world and his sad affirmation that "I am not an animal, I am a human being". Lynch does crank up the pathos, but he also paints a more subtle picture of a world run on exploitation and dark satanic factories, shrouded in steam and fog, with human beings often fodder for the machines. The opening montage of the elephant attack even suggests some veracity to the tall tale of Merrick's origins, and dream images return for the conclusion as the director ensures that the film isn't simply melodrama but soaked in night terrors and escapist imagery as well.
Often seen as Lynch's first proper film, i.e. one with a narrative, The Elephant Man is more easily understood than his later output but this makes it tremendously succesful and as effective a work as the director has completed. Whilst Blue Velvet may haunt you still, The Elephant Man will both stir your feelings and break your heart with the strongest and best aimed visual poetry of Lynch's career.
Things seem very similar to the previous Momentum disc and the transfer seems to be very similar to the HD-DVD which I recently saw. In terms of special features, this disc can boast interviews with the director and the star and a featurette recreating the historical truth of the real life Merrick, actually called Joseph, The Real Elephant Man. The featurette is presented by Jonathan Evans, an archivist of Royal London Hospital Museum, and he reveals that Treves actually may have changed Merrick's name to protect him as well as explaining that the film takes a few liberties with chronology and fact. The chief revelation is that Merrick sought out his career as a freak as a way to make money and that he was not such a victim as the film presents.
Hurt's interview explains how he welcomed the late reveal of his character's appearance in the film, thirty minutes in, as it was more interesting to play it behind the mask. Hurt talks about working with Lynch and his awe at working with Gielgud, and concisely and simply appreciates the film with a little humour. He tells a particular tale of keeping the cast of the head and this scaring a burglar away from his house. David Lynch is also on hand to talk about choosing to follow up his debut with someone else's script, and his fear that he was going to get fired despite Mel Brooks' appreciation of him. He marvels at the cast he collected together and explains how he nearly chose to go with a different DP on the toss of a coin, but thankfully realised he couldn't not have Freddie Francis. The booklet that came with the Momentum disc is not included here and the film's trailer completes the extras.
Back to the main feature, the overall a/v quality is strong with my chief concern being a lack of depth and sharpness to the image. The contrast is handled superbly with deep blacks, brilliant whites and plenty of room for shade in between, and this transfer is at the original aspect ratio as well. The single stereo track is rich and detailed with no hint of distortion or soundtrack noise, and it manages the luxurious score and the dialogue with fidelity and good definition. The R1 Paramount disc comes with a 5.1 mix which is not offered here.
New interviews may make this an essential purchase for Lynch completists but most buyers looking to pick up some of his work may want to take advantage of this discs presence in the forthcoming David Lynch Collection along with DVD times favourite Mulholland Drive and his most recent Inland Empire.