Wednesday, November 10, 2010


The Score: 10 out of 10

David Lynch first learned and employed several innovative film techniques during the production of Eraserhead (1977) that he would later master in his second feature film The Elephant Man (1980). David Lynch took Hollywood by storm on the release of this film, receiving some of the strongest critical acclaim of his career and enjoying more success at the box office than he would with any of his other films. The Elephant Man is widely considered Lynch's most accessible film for mainstream audiences, and is considered a good starting point for most viewers interested in his work.

Freddie Jones as the Despicable Hustler Who Uses Merrick as a Freak Show Spectacle
David Lynch revealed a remarkable level of sophistication in his first major film production after what was essentially an extended student project, Eraserhead (1977). The Elephant Man (1980) would go on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editor, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design, and Actor (John Hurt under heavy prosthetic make-up in the titular role). Very few veteran directors in Hollywood achieve this kind of honor after making dozens of films over several decades, yet Lynch achieved it with, what is essentially, his first movie out of film school.
Anthony Hopkins's Subtle and Beautifully Nuanced Performance as the Compassionate Dr. Treves
Contrasts Sharply with His Later Unforgettably Over-the-Top Role as the Malevolent Dr. Lecter
The Elephant Man (1980) is a raw, compassionate film revealing the true life story of Joseph Merrick (called John Merrick in the film), a man who terribly disfigured before he was even born. The film begins late in Merrick's life, revealing how Dr. Treves took an interest in him for professional medical reasons, but eventually developed a close friendship with the physically deformed man.


When Not Performing in Freak Shows, Merrick Covers His Face in a Burlap Sack
to Avoid  Scaring Bystanders and Unintentionally Provoking Shrieks of Horror
Jonathan Sanger is a Hollywood producer and can receive spec screenplays from just about anyone. One day his babysitter handed him a screenplay written by her boyfriend. Being polite, Sanger read it and to his surprise found the screenplay to be remarkably touching. A Broadway play had already been produced regarding the true events of Merrick's life, but this screenplay would take a different approach. Sold on the project, Sanger began an arduous process to find someone who would fund the project. Every studio he shopped the screenplay to rejected it, not wanting to make a film so potentially strange and depressing.
"Audiences don't want disfigurement, they want disaster pictures!"
–Fake Quote from a Late 70's Studio Executive
The Elephant Man Revealed
However, in what has to be one of the most bizarre turns in Hollywood history, legendary comedic filmmaker Mel Brooks fell in love with the story and helped find the necessary funding to make the film. To avoid misleading audiences into thinking The Elephant Man (1980) is a comedy, Mel Brooks left his iconic name off the marketing and opening credits of the film. It would simply create too much dissonance if people thought they were walking into a classic Mel Brooks comedic farce, but were confronted instead with a drama about a disfigured man.
"This isn't nearly as funny as Blazing Saddles!"
A Potentially Incensed Audience Member
Even with the financial end of things being handled by Mel Brooks, Jonathan Sanger and partner Stuart Cornfeld would still have difficulty thinking of an appropriate director to helm the project. Sanger was acquainted with many directors in Hollywood, but not one of them seemed like an appropriate fit for the material. But as fate would have it, he had recently attended a screening of David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977), which had grown into a cult movie over the years at numerous midnight screenings across the country.
John Merrick Presented at a Conference of Medical Doctors
Visually Suggesting a More "Refined" Freak Show
Jonathan Sanger believed this young new director's style was perfectly in sync with some of the more bizarre elements inherent to the story. Sanger (according to some accounts, producing partner Stuart Cornfeld) contacted David Lynch and they met together to discuss Eraserhead as well as other projects they had in development. The meeting ended with Lynch intrigued and requesting a copy of the screenplay for The Elephant Man. Soon Lynch was on board and he wrote in some new scenes and side characters in preparation for directing the film, resulting in a surprise masterpiece that blindsided the film industry.

Dr. Treves Finds Merrick at a Carnival Freak Show
David Lynch commenced work with the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis and concluded they should shoot The Elephant Man entirely on black and white film stock, a rarity for mainstream feature films at the time and something still rarely done today. They made this decision for many reasons, including a desire to ground the film in the Victorian era, providing it with a vintage feel. The film is also presented in a more classic Hollywood style and tradition of film production. For these reasons, many people mistakenly believe The Elephant Man (1980) was made several decades earlier than when it was actually produced.
Many Viewers Assume The Elephant Man was Made in the 40's
Another reason for filming in black and white was their hope of alleviating some of the audience's shock when Merrick's physical form is revealed. What might look grotesque in color would look fascinating in black and white, making a more pleasant viewing experience without compromising the veracity of Merrick's true appearance. The black and white images of The Elephant Man are gorgeous, and to this day many people consider Freddie Francis robbed of a nomination, let alone a win, for his impressive cinematography for this film.
Dr. Treves Views John Merrick for the First Time
The filmmakers assembled together an all-star cast of classically trained British actors, including Anthony Hopkins, Sir John Gielgud, and John Hurt. David Lynch would later explain how remarkable it was for him to go to the set of his second feature film and direct world-renowned actors for the first time. He commented that it felt surreal for him, a boy scout from Missoula to go from directing a small group of friends in Philadelphia and Los Angeles to directing some of the finest actors alive abroad in England.
John Hurt Winning the BAFTA (British Oscar) for Best Actor in the Role of John Merrick
The producers were concerned that it would be difficult to find a top-notch actor to play John Merrick, since the actor would be buried under many layers of prosthetic make-up. Since actors often live and work based on their recognizability, the filmmakers prepared a lot of material to help persuade actors to take the role. John Hurt reported that the filmmakers almost seemed disappointed when he accepted the role immediately, without needing to hear the elaborate spin they had prepared. Hurt believed in the importance of the role so much, he told them he would have played the part for free if necessary.
We Can Assume Sir John Gielgud is Glad Not to Act Under Several Inches of Make-Up Effects
The filmmakers also struggled to develop adequate make-up effects to convincingly portray Merrick's real appearance. Just before production, David Lynch finally gave up on his private efforts to design it and he turned to respected British prosthetic make-up designer Christopher Tucker. Tucker explained he would need five weeks to design, prepare, and construct the make-up. Since this was much longer than the filmmakers had anticipated, they made a practical decision to limit the amount of time we see Merrick in the earlier parts of filming rather than delay production. This pragmatic solution would prove an artistic serendipity, helping to create suspense in the audience as they were gradually introduced to Merrick before seeing a full reveal of him later in the film.
Anne Bancroft Plays an Egalitarian Actress Who Visits Merrick and Shows Him Rare Compassion
At the end of the day, The Elephant Man deals with how outsiders can be treated horribly within the most civilized societies. Mel Brooks would later explain he felt a correlation between Merrick's story and the treatment Jews receive in the world, which is one reason the story appealed to him as much as it did. And Mel Brooks later explained on The Elephant Man DVD's supplemental features: "I felt I was dealing with a true artist, with David Lynch. I felt that he was as close to [understanding] the phenomenon of life and why we're here and why we have to die, as any artist I ever met."
A Dickensian Orphan Helped Look After Merrick Before Dr. Treves
Begins to Intervene in Merrick's Treatment and Care
Many respected critics argue to this day that The Elephant Man is David Lynch's greatest film. But more importantly, generations of film goers have been watching and loving this film for 30 years now. It represents the perfect marriage of directorial style with substantive storytelling, and the flourishes for which Lynch would be later criticized in his later films are either absent or feel surprisingly naturalistic and at home in The Elephant Man's world. The fact that mainstream audiences responded so positively to this film is a testament to David Lynch's mastery of his artistic craft at such a relatively young age.

The Elephant Man (1980) is available on Netflix Streaming Video, DVD, and is included in David Lynch's Lime Green Set. The UK released the film on Blu-Ray, which is exceptionally beautiful and is the source of most of this article's high definition images. Even if you have seen the movie in the past and you did not respond well to it on your first viewing, then The Elephant Man is well worth watching again when you are in the mood for a somber classic.
The Elephant Man (1980) Trailer
Next week we review David Lynch's third feature film, an amazing science fiction epic based on the best-selling novel Dune (1984). In a strange way, this film would prove to be Lynch's most controversial artistically. It failed to earn back its money at the box office and many people unfairly dismiss the film when addressing Lynch's career. But over the years, Dune has developed a cult following and has become one of David Lynch's most watched and talked about films.
Dune (1984) Theatrical Trailer
Dune (1984) is the first, and at the time of this writing, the only David Lynch film available on Blu-Ray in the United States. And we recommend watching the film in its high definition incarnation. Here Freddie Francis leaves behind him the black and white film of The Elephant Man (1980) and shows his abilities to work in epic color cinematography. And even many of this film's vocal detractors will begrudgingly confess Lynch did remarkable visual work in designing this rich fictional universe for the screen, as they earlier did with Ridley Scott's earlier Blade Runner (1982).
The theatrical cut of Dune (1984) is available with a near-pristine high definition presentation on Blu-Ray and although a version of this movie can be found on Netflix Instant Watching, at this time the video transfer is horrible, presented in an unacceptable 1.33:1 aspect ratio instead of the film's native 2.35:1. Pan and Scan is a relic of VHS transfers and is completely unacceptable for a David Lynch film. Do NOT watch Dune via Netflix Streaming Video until they fix this error. The extended edition of the film is only available on a standard definition DVD, but is still beautifully rendered and well worth watching for all the reasons we will explain in next week's article.
Dune is undeniably stunning visually, and the Blu-Ray finally does proper justice to one of the most lush productions in Hollywood history. For whatever faults you could attribute to the film, Dune remains an amazing accomplishment and next week we will make the case for its promotion from cult to mainstream hit.
Dune (1984) Fan Edit Trailer

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  1. maravillosa pelicula, maravillosa...

  2. The Elephant Man makes my heart reel in so many ways.
    A beautiful heartfelt film.

  3. I remember being completely psychologically 'caved-in' as a result of watching this film.

    I was only about 12/13 years old when I first saw it and spent the whole time trying not to breakdown in tears in front of my peers...for the entire duration. Hell, I was in real physical and emotional pain other film had that kind of affect on me, before or since. You don't watch the Elephant feel it.

    John Hurt was beyond remarkable in his role.

    I find it incredibly difficult to find any is simply a stunning work of art.

    A gem of a film and still one of David's most accessible.