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Monday 10 October 2011

Quasimodo meets Dr Doolittle

The Elephant ManThe Elephant Man (Image via"The Elephant Man" was probably the first film that had me reaching for tissues. That was when I was an impressionable child and bought into the simple fairy tale melodrama being told me. Today only my own sense of dignity stops me from shedding another tear of indignation, but I will get to that later. Lynch's film is a perfect symphony of pathetic emotion. The film-maker's pedigree has generally been built on art house projects, which jerk unpredictably between surreal cleverness ("Lost Highway") and pretentious twaddle ("Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me"). Sometimes his work is under-rated - "Dune" may have been overblown, but did really deserve to fall like it did? - and sometimes it is over-rated - "Eraserhead" may be nightmarishly atmospheric for a short, but it's a meandering non-event for a full-length horror. Faith in Lynch's own grip on reality was thrown into serious doubt when he praised the egregiously bad 9/11 conspiracy theory documentary "Loose Change". It also seems to tip the argument away from Lynch being a bona fide intellectual director/writer to being more of a superficial sophisticate. "The Elephant Man" demonstrates another feature of the latter argument - middle class snobbery.

However, as a visual feast it does its job well. Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt play so well as a double act I am amazed they weren't cast together in more projects. Hopkins is in a role that seems made for him and has got to have assured his future as a heavyweight actor. It is a magnificent tour de force of what it is to be a melodramatic hero. We get a full range of convincing and masterfully expressed emotions, which are just enough to arouse the sympathies in his viewers without their igniting their ridicule. Hopkins' Treves is a man of quiet and collected countenance but with tremendous compassion. From the moment we see him gaze in stunned mournful silence at his first sight of the Elephant Man - a single tear wells and in his eye and gently trickles down - to his final outbursts of rage in defence of his tragic friend, he is the embodiment of the virtuous English gentleman. Likewise Hurt hams it up beautifully as the pitiful "John" Merrick. His slurping and mumbling delicate voice would be heard again in the desperate cries of a tortured Winston Smith in "Nineteen Eighty-Four". It evokes our sense of sympathy and pity for our fellow human being on an almost primitive level. Hurt had solidified his reputation as a player of larger-than-life enigmas in the 1970s. He was superb as the delusional and sociopathic Roman emperor, Caligula, in the "I, Claudius" TV series. However, it was the way he virtually became the eccentric and outspoken gay icon Quentin Crisp in "An English Civil Servant" that won him the role as Merrick. These two are shown to be equally as impressive in scenes apart as they are together, bouncing off the supporting cast in good style.

The film looks impressive. Inspired by Lynch's visualization in Eraserhead and concentrated through the lens of one of his favourite collaborators, 1960s Hammer Horror man, cinematographer/director Freddie Francis, Mel Brooks knew what he was after: picture book Victorian English gentry and guttersnipe rogues planted in a world of post-Industrial Revolution and urban decay. From the horrific women's fight scene in Treves' reception to the scenes of steam presses at the basement level of the hospital this is a world of machines and savagery underneath the pomp and posterity of the fashionable dinners and nights out at the theatre. This is all set to a perfectly moving soundtrack. John Morris is largely responsible for the film's actual jingling soundtrack that evokes a melancholic fairground feel. The jingles are back in film's nightmare sequence. As if to reiterate the darkness associated with the freak show establishment we get a "Carnival of Souls" style accompaniment to Treves' initial visit to Merrick's place of work complete with pipe organs. It follows on perfectly from the theme as if it were some sort of bridge in the music. However, the most memorable piece of music has to be Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings". Most people seem to remember the 1938 piece either for this film or for "Platoon" some six years later. It had already gained a huge reputation for inspiring sadness after being played on the radio at the announcement of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death and at the funeral of Albert Einstein, but these two pictures virtually adopted it as their unofficial themes. Today it is a virtual cliché of reflective sadness.
Of course, perhaps the biggest compliment in this entire picture should be paid to Christopher Tucker. His incredibly make-up work on John Hurt has to be commended. He took casts from the actual Elephant Man skeleton and comparisons with photographic evidence reveal an outstanding job. So good was Tucker's work, that the Best Make-up category had to be invented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, awarding Tucker the Oscar. It was a much needed award, as following Tucker we would see some astounding work that needed acknowledgement. Think of the inventive low budget work of Tom Savini and the masterful Rick Baker. Think "American Werewolf in London", think "The Thing", think "The Company of Wolves" and "The Howling". Before the arrival of CGI, the 1980s saw a new golden age of visual effects with creativity not seen since the wonder years of Universal and Hammer Horror.
Lynch's script was based on Sir Frederick Treves' journals, written some 30 years after the death of his most famous patient and friend, Joseph Merrick - oddly Treves calls him John Merrick and this error is repeated in the film. Treves claimed that Merrick was abused and exploited by his cruel alcoholic employer, the famous showman Tom Norman - here represented by the entirely fictitious Bytes (Freddy Jones). Treves is shown to be a great philanthropist who is touched by his first meeting with Merrick and rescues him twice from the abuses of his "owner".

It's easy to condemn circuses and sideshows. Having grown up on a travelling circus and being part of a 300 year unbroken line of performers, I have had to endure a lot from the pompous, the badly informed and the plain ignorant. For the most part, show people (circuses, fairground people and street entertainers) are a minority people and spend most of their life working hard rather than indulging in intellectual or political battles, despite winning over members of the aristocracy and celebrities at different times. In 1886 public freak shows were supposedly banned in the UK. This was, in fact, the real reason why Joseph Merrick ended up in Belgium, where his manager over there robbed him blind and left him destitute. And this was the real reason why he ended up in the care of Treves for the rest of his life. The historical evidence shows that far from being places where disabled and disfigured human beings were exploited as slaves; freak shows offered a well-paid alternative to the workhouse or begging. Before he became an exhibit Merrick hawked goods on the streets for his family, but due to his appearance and inability to speak properly this bore little fruits and he ended up in the workhouse. Working in the shops set-up by Tom Norman meant that Merrick not only had a far higher standard of living he also got to share 50% of the gate with his agent. This would not have been an inconsiderable wage for any working class person in late Victorian England. However, despite the film supposedly presenting Merrick in a dignified way - "I am not an animal, I am a human being!" he at last cries in true Hollywood fashion towards the end of the picture and it became the movie's tagline - Hurt portrays him as a child-like individual. The evidence points towards a far more industrious and capable individual, and portraying in this fashion is rather patronizing.

What Lynch's film does is to provide a convenient and rather sneering view of what high society would have liked to have happened. Treves is the champion of the establishment, saving the poor unfortunate soul from the evils of the manipulative working class showman. Merrick experiences what entertainment is really all about and loves the theatre; high art - you know the type that requires funding and patronage, and sells tickets at prices that the "great unwashed" cannot afford. Who betrays Merrick in the hospital? Is it another surgeon or doctor? Why it is that villainous cockney night porter (Michael Elphick) who secretly exploits the Elephant Man again by selling tickets to his gawping friends from the pub.

I cannot help but then cast a critical eye over a society that condemns the notion of freak shows. Today the concept of the freakshow is entrenched in any every mainstream media available. The only difference is a) the freak show was more honest about what it was selling and b) the "freaks" were generally paid a reasonable wage. Today "Britain's Got Talent" auditions are a really cheap way to pool in the laughs - often through the ridicule of unpaid individuals that could have serious undiagnosed mental or psychological problems - and to draw large numbers of viewers. What is a reality TV show, showing the extreme ends of our culture, other modern day freak show? The comparison between "Big Brother" and a Victorian freak show has been made so many times now that it is a modern cliché - the difference is the latter is darn sight less cruel. Body Building is actually the sporting evolution of the circus strong man act. Then we have beauty pageants, including whole legal industries that use children. There is the entire YouTube culture and consumer-end zero budget movies that exploit wannabe actors for no-pay on the promise of being the "fame tournament". The list goes on, but the truth is we don't need to go into abstract mutations of the freak show legacy to see that the freak show is as healthy now as it was back in 1886. From "Bizarre" magazine to TV shows like "Body Shock", people pay money to indulge their curiosity in unusually shaped members of their own species. The latter example is perhaps one of the most egregious, as it is all dressed up in hypocritical sentimental commentary and pseudo-educational speak when we all know that the show is not targeted at charitable viewers or scientific academics. The sad music and "heartfelt" reflections of the show's presenters are just there to ease our consciences - a bit like the carefully constructed and completely fictitious scenes in "The Elephant Man" where Frederick Treves questions whether or not he is exploiting his friend to advance his medical career in the same manner Bytes had done to make money. Treves gets the reassurance of his kindly wife and even Merrick who confirm what is doing is good and he need not worry. We get ours from the voices of the narrators and interviewers.

As I stated before, the production for the film is without question very high, and as a work of superficial art it is rightfully considered a classic. I am not one for shouting the political correctness argument, which I think if taken to an extreme is a form of fascism. In this vein I am sure there are plenty of African-American film fans who can appreciate the qualities of a work like "The Birth of a Nation" and hopefully there are Native Americans who can appreciate some of the work of John Wayne. However, having grown up in a circus community and being a history fan I feel that works like "The Elephant Man" have more than received the just praise they deserve. Now it is time to use this picture as portal to better examine the way a prevailing mentality views certain minorities. In its bid show courage, compassion, dignity and the human spirit - all areas that the other aforementioned classic yet offensive movies tried to show - the film reveals deep prejudices that few people in the western would have even considered to be wrong. Show people have been a part of the fabric of western society for a very long time and there is far more that our culture, heritage and industry owes to them than they realize.

David Lynch is not completely to blame for this rather prejudiced and distorted historical view of Victorian England. A lot of the problems should be laid at Brooksfilms' door. I love a lot of Mel Brooks' comedy work - he is one of the few genuine geniuses of comedy - and I admire his choice of projects both in and outside of comedy. However, as seen with the very enjoyable but also historically flawed "The Doctor and the Devils", the Freddy Francis (who worked as cinematographer on "The Elephant Man") and Brooks production collaboration rarely produces anything beyond a Hammer Horror-esque view of England. Although, due to its cast and locations we can argue it is technically a British movie, it's still seen through Hollywood eyes. Lynch's surreal nightmarish sequences are not permitted outside of dream sequences, which ensured the film would not be lost on mainstream audiences. However, it is ironic to think that the film most people consider to be least surreal of Lynch's pictures is probably the furthest removed from reality.

Note: For further references on the historical Elephant Man I urge you to read "The True History of the Elephant Man" by Michael Howell and Peter Ford and to look up the BBC4 documentary "All the Fun at the Fair", available on BBC iPlayer.
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