Sunday, 16 August 2009

Discovering Classic Movies: No 1 - The Elephant Man

As my DVD collection grows at what appears to be an exponential rate, the chances of me ever being able to watch all these things – boxsets of modern TV shows, boxsets of classic TV shows, boxsets of things I’ve never seen but have heard are supposed to be good (and were cheap as chips online), new films, old films, rubbish films, tacky films. I’ve got the lot. There are also dozens and dozens of classic films, movie greats, Oscar winners, cult movies…just damned good movies. And most of them haven’t come out of their shiny boxes. Time to put that right. So a drizzly, grey and sadly fairly typical Sunday morning in Cardiff seemed like the ideal time to start working my way through the good stuff for a change, instead of some straight-to-DVD effort starring Lou Diamond Phillips and some severely bad CGI. So the plan is that Stuff (in the form of me) will be watching one great movie per week and posting some thoughts and observations on them from the perspective of someone who only caught up with ’Some Like It Hot’ ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ and ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ last year. There’s some good stuff on my shelves and I’ll be looking at movies such as ‘The Godfather’ (all three), ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘Casablanca’, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ amongst others. Oh, and ‘AvP:Requiem’ of course. Just kidding. I’ve no intention of watching ‘The Magnificent Seven’.

So let’s begin. It’s Sunday morning, The torrential stuff is in for the day. I have tea, toast, Tesco Golden Barn Corn Flakes (tastier than the best, trust me!) and several wobbling towers of DVDs. Let’s go for….’The Elephant Man’. I could do with a laugh.

I didn’t really know a lot about the life and times of Joseph Merrick beyond a few bits and pieces picked up here and there and scurrilous 1980s rumours that Michael Jackson wanted to buy his bones. Merrick, history records, lived in London (having been born in Leicester) at the tail end of the 19th century and his short life was blighted by a horribly disfiguring disease which turned him into what appeared to be a grotesque parody of humanity (a modern equivalent would be, say, Piers Morgan). In time, having tried to earn a living at a travelling freak show/circus, Merrick came to the attention of Dr Frederick Treves of the Royal London Hospital who, for reasons of his own which may not have been entirely philanthropic, took him under his wing and offered him safety, protection and as close to a normal life as a man in his circumstances could reasonably expect.

In 1980 director David Lynch, fresh from his success in the cult movie ‘Eraserhead’, found himself gravitating to an in-development script based on the life of Merrick which had come to the attention of Mel Brooks and his production company Brooksfilms. Lynch fashioned this script into an extraordinarily-powerful drama, filmed in monochrome, starring John Hurt, unrecognisable under superb prosthetic make-up and Anthony Hopkins giving pretty much a career-best performance years before Hannibal Lecter informed all his future performances and turned him into a slab of Prime Ham. ‘The Elephant Man’’s reputation precedes it and for once it'sa reputation which is more than well-deserved. It’s an enthralling story, some historical elements tweaked and adjusted for the sake of narrative clarity and while it’s paced like a stageplay it’s never less than enthralling and, apart from recounting the tragic story of a tragic man, it asks several important and uncomfortable questions about the nature of humanity and how Man is capable of appalling cruelty and wonderful acts of kindness, sometimes at the same time.

A surreal and disorientating opening sequence depicting the real-life traumatic encounter between Merrick’s pregnant mother and a berserk elephant – history records that something of this nature actually happened – gives way to the smoke and grime of 19th century London as Dr Treves visits a grubby freak show run by the even more grubby Bites (Freddie Jones), ostensibly to see the ‘elephant man’. Treves eventually gains a private audience with Bites and his ‘freak’ and, appalled by the man’s severe disfigurements, persuades Bites to allow him to take his charge to the hospital for study and to display him to his learned colleagues. From one gawping freak show to another. When it appears that the ‘elephant man’ isn’t an imbecile but an intelligent, well-read man struggling to overcome impossible adversity, Treves determines to provide Merrick (renamed John Merrick in the movie) with a better life as he introduces him into cultured society and shelters him from the staring and pointing of the common herd. But there’s easy money to be made from a freak; a sleazy hospital night porter (Michael Elphick) degrades Merrick during night-time visits from the low-life pub crowd and Bites eventually gets his hands on his cash cow and spirits him off abroad to resume his demeaning life as a sideshow attraction. In time Merrick escapes his torment and flees back to London and after a final degradation at the railway station he makes his way back to Treves and the sanctuary of the hospital where he makes peace with himself at last.

Lynch has crafted a genuine classic here. The movie is never mawkish or exploitative, sleazy or sentimental. It doesn’t sensationalise Merrick and his appearance; when he first appears he’s just there, in the ‘cell’ Bites keeps him in. There’s no big reveal, no huge build-up to his appearance (although obviously the audience is waiting to see what he actually looks like), he’s very much presented as a man more or less like any other. At first Merrick appears to be a devastated husk of a man with his stentorian breathing and shuffling, painful gait. But he has our sympathy, if not our pity. When we realise that he can speak, that he is intelligent, he appreciates fine culture, we’re almost able to forget his disfigurements and watch as he moves falteringly, but seamlessly, into a better way of living. But there’s always the sense that he’s on display, a curiosity paraded now not in front of drunks and scum but in front of high society who are, in many ways, just as uncomfortable in his presence as the hoi poloi and probably more concerned with actually seeing him than how he functions as a man. We have to question Treves’ own motives, too, at least initially. When he thinks Merrick is some mindless mute he’s happy to prod him and probe him and display him to the Society in ways not entirely dissimilar to Bites. In some ways Bites is more honest about his motives; he’s making money from Merrick and providing a roof of sorts over his head whereas Treves is looking for the approbation of his peers and the kudos afforded by discovering/exploiting a medical aberration. Treves mellows, of course, when Merrick presents himself as intelligent and not the cretin he’d assumed him to be. Is this the way the Victorians looked at each other? The lower classes were allowed to wallow in their filth, kept in their place, regarded as second or third-class citizens and only capable of being appreciated as human beings when it became apparent they had something to offer the upper classes. Have we really changed that much a century and a half later?

Technically, Lynch has worked wonders with what was presumably a fairly low budget. Victorian London has probably never been better realised on screen with its streets full of urchins and flaming braziers and raddled hags and drunks. But the film’s not so much concerned with creating Victorian London except in those scenes where it needs to subtly establish its world, half-civilised, half-uncouth. It’s in its characters and their motivations that we get the true sense of the time it’s evoking. Bites and the night porter represent the miasma of the lower classes and the more cultured, ambitious Treves is determinedly upper class with his beautiful wife (Hannah Gordon) and opulent, comfortable lifestyle. The gulf between the two is huge and yet the similarities between them are uncomfortable and self-evident.

'The Elephant Man' remains an elegant, beautiful, captivating film. In the end it's both a tragedy and a triumph - the tragedy of a man born a monster and the triumph of his struggle to escape his roots and live a peaceful existence amongst his peers. He eventually achieves a sense of normality and, according to the movie's version of the end of his life, decides that there's nothing more he really wants or needs othere than to finally lay down to sleep like a man (instead of propped up with his misshapen head resting on his knees as he'd done throughout his life). There's probably not a dry eye in the house at the end of 'The Elephant Man' because the story of Merrick's life is cruel and tough and often joyless. And yet it's curiously uplifting too because Merrick's life ends with his him finally attaining his own form of normality after a joyous night at the theatre where he is finally lauded and appreciated as a man and not a monster.

So there we go - one classic down, literally dozens - maybe even hundreds to go - and I probably couldn't have chosen a more poignant and affecting movie to start my voyage into my own personal undiscovered world of proper cinema (not that I'll be foregoing the 'Megashark vs Giant Octopus' fodder of this world, oh no) and always remember that I'll be interested to read your own observations of these classic movies as the months and the reviews roll by so feel free to leave a message if you can.


Sunshine Superman said...

From your list, can you do CASABLANCA next time? That'll give me an excuse to watch it again and comment alongside your review of it. Thanx.

Paul Mount said...

'The Magnificient Seven' is on its way and I'll be doing 'Casablanca' shortly afterwards due to public demand...well, since you asked!! :) Also coming soon: 'Blade Runner' and 'The French Connection'. I think I'm going to enjoy this!

Sunshine Superman said...

Blade Runner is on my 'To Do' list too! I've never seen any of it, and I recently treated myself to a box set with 5 different cuts of it.. which one to do first? Methinks it'll be either the Final Cut (2007) or the Directors Cut (1992) or...............

Paul Mount said...

I've seen 'Blade Runner' years and years ago and I'm not sure I've ever really appreciated it properly. I'm looking forward to settling down soon to watch it on sparkly DVD on my flash new HD TV...and I've got my eye on that 5-disc set too, if only because I like owning stuff like that!