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The Elephant Man (1980)

d. David Lynch

The Elephant Man, directed by David Lynch, is based on the real life story of Joseph Elephant Man Merrick. Set in the late 1800s and shot in black & white the Victorian feel is very rich through-out the film. Lynch brings the viewer into the world of Merrick and they watch as he experiences some kind of acceptance into human society. The film opens at a carnival were Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) investigates a disturbance in the Freak Show tent. The commotion is under the sign The Elephant Man, a curiosity that Treves becomes determined to see for himself. Although later he helps Merrick giving him a home and the care he needs, Treves can be Figure 1 - Film Poster seen as no different from the others who ogle him, albeit his interest was from a scientific interest. It can be said that Lynch does this to embed the question into the audiences mind is Merrick ever not in a freak show? Whether in the tent, the backroom of a shop, the hospital or the theatre, Merrick is always separated from humanity because of his deformity. Hal Erickson writes in his review Alas, even after being recognized as a man of advanced intellect, Merrick is still treated like a freak; no matter his station in life, he will forever be a prisoner of his own malformed body (Erickson, NDG). In the hospital Merrick comes out of his shell and begins to speak with all the refinement and manners of a gentleman as well has showing artistic talent. When members of high society begin to meet him it seems just like the curiosity tent again but disguised as something
Figure 2 - Merrick meets Mrs. Treves

nicer. Matron Mothershead (Wendy Hiller) speaks to Treves about it sir, you saw the expression on their faces. They didn't hide their disgust. They don't care anything about John! They only want to impress their friends! (The Elephant Man, 1980). Because Merrick himself seems only too pleased for their company makes the viewer ever angrier at their exploitation of him. Vincent Canby describes it as a very benign horror film, one in which "the creature" is the pursued instead of the pursuer (Canby, 1980). It has the essence of a horror film as the tension of the unveiling of Merrick is built much like the unveiling of a monster, however, by the time Merricks features are revealed Lynch has lured the audience to have sympathy for him and see him instead, as Canby suggests, as the victim. One scene in particular is almost unbearable to watch. The Night Porter (Michael Elphick) sells tickets to see the

Elephant Man to patrons at a pub. By this point Merricks humanity is well established to the audience so as they watch the porter and his drunken crowd torment Merrick and destroy his room the audience themselves feel helpless and speechless much as Merrick does. Canby also writes Throughout the film one longs for an explosion. That it never comes is more terrifying, I think, than John Merrick's acceptance of the values of others is inspiring (Canby, 1980). As Canbys observed the audience is desperate for Merrick to fight back and overpower his tormenters but he remains the epitome of human gentleness. Lynch perfectly captivates the audience into Merrick tragic tale and his life forever being plagued by his deformity. Brian Webster describes the film as a memorable film about human survival and a powerful commentary on human exploitation (Webster, 2004). As the film ends with Merricks final attempt to be human by lying down to sleep it feels like an inevitable result to the exploitation.

Figure 3 - Merrick sleeps.

List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Film Poster. (1980) From: The Elephant Man. Directed by: David Lynch [film poster] USA: Paramount Pictures. Figure 2. Merrick meets Mrs. Treves. (1980) From: The Elephant Man. Directed by: David Lynch [film still] USA: Paramount Pictures. Figure 3. Merrick sleeps. (1980) From: The Elephant Man. Directed by: David Lynch [film still] USA: Paramount Pictures.

The Elephant Man, (1980) Directed by David Lynch [Film] USA: Paramount Pictures Canby, V. (1980) the Elephant Man (1980) Review. In: New York Times [online] 96 Erickson, H. (No Date Given) the Elephant Man (1980) Review. In: Rotten [online] Webster, B. (2004) the Elephant Man (1980) Review. In: Apollo Guide [online]

Tis true my form is something odd, But blaming me is blaming God; Could I create myself anew I would not fail in pleasing you.

If I could reach from pole to pole Or grasp the ocean with a span, I would be measured by the soul; The mind's the standard of the man.
- Adapted by Joseph Merrick from False Greatness by Isaac Watts

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