And breaking our weeks of silence, Ben and I get back at it. On the docket today David Lynch's incandescent The Elephant Man.
This film is even better than I remember. More precisely, I remembered some of the great things about it but now I notice some other great things. And I have to compliment you for educating me about cinema now. I was wise enough in 1980 to grasp the deep humanity and humanism of the story. Jesus it's based on a real person. And I was struck by the performances - which truly are stupendous, not just from the major players either, everyone is spot on - and the use of music, which I already discussed in an earlier email. What I see now, however, and what you mentioned in passing in the staffroom - but what I CAN see now since you have been sharing your film knowledge and passion with me - is how beautiful the film is AS A FILM. Yes, filming in black and white immediately sends a signal, a sign that the subject matter is profound, that the film-maker wants us to take it seriously. And yes, it also give a subliminal message to see the picture as "old," with whatever associations this may bring up for us. (Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why Chinatown is such an achievement. Polansky made us access noir in colour). But most of all, black and white is the choice of those who want us to touch reality by entering a non-reality... so we can touch reality that much more deeply. The colour of real life is abstracted away in order to show us true things in shadows and light. The Elephant Man is simply beautiful. Sometimes, just sometimes, I thought a scene should have been darker, the hospital was sometimes too bright, for example. Lynch could have gone that extra Barry Lyndon step and gone for nothing but, in this case, the gas fixtures. But I am splitting hairs. The film just blew me away, to look at it. And when he edited in certain images to raise the story to a symbolic realm, it was very moving for me. It is clear that the script and the performances are what keep the film from becoming a sappy tear-jerker. (It is a tear-jerker, but in no way sappy.) But the way it is shot and cut is also vital. I am tempted to suggest that Lynch is making a meta-statement about "appearance" as such, forcing us to grapple with our understanding of beauty, ugliness and the fact that we have an ethical responsibility to enter into this aesthetic problematic... if we are to be truly human. How can a depiction of the grotesque be so sublime? Exactly! This time Lynch goes into the perversion of people not to rattle our decadent bones but to pierce our beating hearts. A beautiful film, beautiful. The first time Hopkins sees him, the long close-up, and finally the single tear that falls...
And Dan replies:
As I have mentioned to you before, Lynch is multi-faceted. Which is not to say that he's two-faced or inconsistent, but rather that he is vast, like Whitman, and able to contain multitudes. He's depraved, yet sincere. Decadent, yet humane. Even when he's bad he cannot be ignored--just try to peel yourself away from even his most dire movies (Lost Highway.) His films stick like flypaper. One things for sure, though, and that is that Lynch is an Artist, and his artistry has never been more convincingly displayed than in this film. Elephant Man, a movie I cannot watch without weeping, is a towering accomplishment, a heartbreaking monument to human dignity, which, true to the man's elusiveness, ain't something you can say of many other Lynch films.
I don't want to retread too much of the ground that you have already covered in your review (great performance: check! a thoroughly humanistic story: check!), but I want to really zone in on one aspect of your review. On a purely aesthetic level, if there were not a word of dialogue, I am convinced that the movie, marvellous audio-visual accomplishment that it is, would still have the power to move me immensely. As a painter, Lynch knows very well the power of the image, and he has rarely put his talents to better use. As you note, Elephant Man is gorgeous. Lynch is notoriously impressionistic in his approach to filmmaking, following what he believes is the psychological truth of the story, not necessarily the realistic one. He's not like, say, Daivid Milch, and a scrupulous researcher who aims for some deeper truth through authentic recreations. And yet Elephant Man has the look and texture of an authentic document, elevated by the hand of a artist with a singular vision. The settings, staging, costumes, designs. Hell, right down to the use of the poetry of Tennyson. It's all spot on. If Charles Dickens had been a filmmaker, I can't imagine it would look much different. So, yeah, on a technical and aesthetic level, this is a remarkable accomplishment, and in many ways quite atypical of a Lynch film.
And thank you for the kind words regarding my role in educating you about the glorious medium of film. I suspect that you are self-taught in these matters cinematic, but appreciate your nod in my direction nonetheless. I do not take such compliments lightly.
Tennyson, yes, but he works in the first kiss of Romeo and Juliet no less! Tell the truth, that scene with Anne Bancroft is the litmus test for the film; I mean, it is "something out of the movies" and the fact that it does not cross that fine line and take the film into bad schmaltz demonstrates just how delicate is the director's touch.
You make a convincing point when you say that the film would still work even if all the dialogue were removed and now that you convince me of this, I believe I was groping for a kindered thesis when I attended to the use of black and white. It's not from the silent era but it feels like it could be. I suppose this is further reinfored by the historical setting, itself the immediately pre-silent period, so to speak... or not to speak...sigh.
On this feeling of oldness, you mention Dickens and I have to disagree. I think you are getting swept up by the period authenticity but the STYLE of the film has too much theatre of cruelty, even the occasionally near-surreal sensibility to adhere to Dickens, it seems to me (never having read any - ha!), it is Lynch afterall.
Speaking of which, I don't think it's an accident that The Elephant Man is Lynch that Ben likes compared to Lynch Ben is less happy about. TEM is English to the core. (How did Bancroft sneak in? Loved her.) Seriously, though, everything about it is English whereas Blue Velvet and such is a take on America and its mythology. I suspect I am on to something.
Look, guys are squeamish about compliments so I won't compliment you again except to say that it would be pretty damn difficult for me to educate myself about cinema without your good taste and generous lending policy.
Of course! The Romeo and Juliet! I'd completely forgotten. It is indeed something of a marvel how Lynch manages, time and again throughout this film, to escape descent into out and out melodrama. Imagine what this film would have been in the hands of, say, Ron Howard? Ich.
As for the near-surreal not being Dickensian, well, read some of his later works. While he was a social realist/activist, Dickens also had his moments of the most uinrealistic and terribly peculiar. There's even a character who spontaneously combusts in one of his final novels (damned if I can remember which one, though!) Still, point taken. I reckon that all of that stuff implying that an elephant raped Merrick's mom would have been a bit too much for our mutual friend CD.
As for you being on to something, well, I've always suspected that you were on something. Where it takes us to is a different matter. As for Lynch's attempts to dissect American mythology, Blue Velvet is an interesting place to start (contrasting the glossy veneer of suburban dreamland with the gritty underbelly that is the American Urban nightmare) I must lend you The Straight Story. The corn is high, and the tales are tall. It's pure middle America hokiness, but as with The Elephant Man, Lynch somehow manages to avoid shmaltz and delivers something surprisingly affecting. The central performance of Richard Farnsworth has A LOT to do with this success, but it's not the only factor.