The Elephant Man


Today is the birthday of the brilliant film maker David Lynch (b. 1946). I was all of twelve when his first movie Eraserhead (1977) came out, and that only played the art circuits. Like most others, my introduction to Lynch came with his first mainstream success The Elephant Man (1980). I just watched it again a couple of weeks ago after not having screened it in many years. It is absolutely timeless. Based on the real life story of the exploited human curiosity Joseph Merrick (called John in this film), a man who suffered from multiple extreme deformities, for this film Lynch intelligently drew from the masterpieces of Gothic horror from the late silent through early sound eras for his aesthetic model. Shooting in grainy black and white, he evokes the gritty, industrial landscape of Victorian England where the tale is laid, but also puts you in mind of the carnivalesque nightmares of Tod Browning and James Whale. And while the film is acted realistically, there is more than a smattering of the old melodrama in this poetic fairy tale. Much like Quasimodo, Merrick is literally pushed to the wall, yelling in the film’s most quoted scene “I’m not an animal! I’m a human being!”

Cast with a hugely solid ensemble of prestige acting talent (John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Hopkins, Ann Bancroft, and John Hurt) the real star for me is the wizard behind the camera. This is a gorgeous movie to look at. As invariably happens when something I deem revolutionary comes along (especially when I was younger) I thought the film portended change and naively believed one was coming. That is, I thought we were looking at a new rebirth of black and white Gothic horror and that I might get to see many more films like this. But Lynch’s next film was the 1984 space opera Dune — a different flavor of weird altogether.

And now, the famous scene:

Don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


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