The Elephant Man and Lynch's obsessions

David Lynch’s The Elephant Man is as close to a crowd pleaser as a Lynch film can get, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a crowd pleaser. It has darkness that many filmmakers wouldn’t dare approach in their bodies of work and a story that demands attention with its impeccable layers of detail. The film is straightforward and impeccably acted but retains much of the dreamlike imagery that has infused most of Lynch’s films over his more than 35 year film career. No matter what people have said about The Elephant Man, it is a David Lynch film through and through, despite the unusual absence of a leading female figure troubled and in turmoil (a must for almost any Lynch film) or the California setting that Lynch so dearly loves to set his tales in; It is a singular masterpiece that puts the viewer in a dream-like state. It might not have the ambiguous, abstract nature of a Mulholland Drive or the mind bending non linearity of a Twin Peaks but The Elephant Man retains Lynch’s recurring themes of dreams, machinery and dark underbellies. All three of these themes are apparent throughout the film and are obsessions that have long fascinated Lynch throughout his career.

One of the key elemnts in David Lynch’s films is the usage of dreams and a dreamlike imagery that becomes surreal, infusing his work with the kind of hypnotic allure he has become famous for. This can be seen in John Merrick’s dreams in The Elephant Man and the opening montage which poses a series of fragmented images detailing his mother's incident with elephants, an episode that is horrific, enthralling and most importantly,one of the more stylized in regards to the film as a whole. Without ever showing the mother, albeit through Merrick's allusions and his sacred framed portrait of her, Lynch has given the viewer the luxury of understanding his deformation. One of the finest moments in the film is a dream sequence which is introduced directly by a swooping camera movement over Merrick's sleeping body, which then gives way to a mosaic of nightmarish images containing back-alley industrial workers and tons of smoke.

Everything, from the sound design to the more expressionistic camerawork, tells us we are viewing a dream. This is something we rarely receive in Lynch's work, that privilege to engage without constantly wondering where reality and allusion intersect. That runs throughout the film all the way up to its shattering climax which ends with Merrick living his dream of going to the theatre (1:44’56- 1:49’09) and getting accepted by society. That very night (1:49’10-1:55’42) he goes to sleep and dies in his dreams as stars appear on screen and the haunting face of his mother is shown one last time before the images fades out. It ends being the most surreal and dream-like sequence of the entire film and a reminder that Lynch has never played by the rules but has always followed his own musings by staying true to his own thoughts and feelings.

At the end, Merrick’s mother is smiling beautifully, staring at the camera, reminding Merrick,called “John” in the film, and reminding us that nothing will die. Death is not an ending. It is a change. We have moved from a nightmare to a dream. Any other Hollywood filmmaker might have ended the film with Merrick in bed or a funeral process following right after his death but Lynch decides to end it with an ambiguous touch of artfulness, he makes the viewer travel to space and puts images on the screen that suggest an other-worldliness to his eccentric, strangely beautiful fairy tale. It wouldn’t be a Lynch film if there wasn’t a resolution as visionary and provoking as the one that ends The Elephant Man.

While Scorsese obsessed over societal violence, Hitchcock over blondes and Von Sternberg over Dietrich, Lynch’s focus and obsession was always with dreams. Agent Cooper’s dreams of the red room in Twin Peaks , the "dreamlike logic" of the narrative found in Eraserhead’s abstracts. Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway and Inland Empire’s main characters dreaming throughout the entire film, to which the audience is asked to figure out what is real and what is not. Discussing his attitude to dreams, Lynch explains to Rodley that "Waking dreams are the ones that are important, the ones that come when I'm quietly sitting in a chair, letting my mind wander. When you sleep, you don't control your dream. I like to dive into a dream world that I've made or discovered; a world I choose… [You can't really get others to experience it, but] right there is the power of cinema.”

If his consistent use of dreams in his films is a step out of realism, Lynch has always been fascinated by the real world and the real emotions that come with it. His interest in Machinery and Industrialism is apparent in much of The Elephant Man. The factories we see in the film are those existing in a Victorian London era, where industrialism has just started and taken a heavy toll on society.

Every once in a while Lynch will include shots of wafting Smoke that these factories produce, he also sets his camera out to get the constant ramblings of these industrial machines. The sound is upped a notch so that the audience can hear the unpleasantness of the noise. Lynch's agenda is to make us aware of the era and the people living in it. Industrialism is portrayed in an ugly fashion, as if Lynch is telling us that it's the fall of our hands and the rise of the machines- something Chaplin did quite so eloquently in Modern Times. It is also no coincidence that at some point in the film , Anthony Hopkins' Doctor Treves operates on a victim of machinery, a victim that is surely one of many. John Merrick represents the anti-machinery, a man with heart and soul that wants be seen as human instead of monster. He lives in a society that has all but been taken over by industrialism and has neglected his voice as a human being in the process.

Lynch was not a fan of Industrialism and is showing his audience how it was slowly taking over the world and setting its ugly face with machinery. As Lynch stated in 1980 "I'm flipped out over industry and factories – sounds as well as images ... The Elephant Man takes place when industrialization was still starting. It was the beginning of Eraserhead’s times. I was hoping that the Victorians would have had more machinery around. There wasn't a lot, but what they did have made a lot noise and a lot of smoke." It is that very noise and smoke that Lynch concentrates on in the film. With beautiful Black and White cinematography by Freddie Francis,the smoke Lynch focuses on turns into a kind of artful dread on screen, a metaphor for what Lynch calls the "dimness of industrialization" (Rodley) and why wouldn't he be right, it obscures the sun, traps humans, and spawns claustrophobia, grime, and death. Surely large industry did wonders for the comfort and well-being of humanity, but, in Lynch’s mind, the trade-off is sizable. He shows large hissing engines, boiler rooms, and damp, rusty corners. Lynch seems to be indicating that the world is simultaneously opening and closing. As implied by the Tennyson quote in the film, "nothing is dying, things are merely changing..

Lynch's focus on Industrialism in The Elephant Man is a theme that has followed him throughout his cinematic periods. Twin Peaks' opening credits start off with images of oil drills, machinery and a parkyard sawmill that becomes one of the key locations of the show & film, in The Straight Story a man goes cross country in his lawnmower to reconnect with his ill brother and in Eraserhead, industrial waste is put into good use as a married couple gets surrounded by it throughout. Eraserhead’s concept is about a man's struggle with industrialization and the evil inherent in the human condition. Our main protagonist fears his head being used to make erasers because he's constantly surrounded by these emotionless machines and feels dehumanized by the outside world. That is in essence what Lynch’s characters look for in his films, a way out of that dehumanization and a way back into their humanization. John Merrick’s journey from freak of society to celebrated human being is part of the transformation Lynch constantly looks for his characters to get out of. Mulholland Drive’s Rita tries to get out of her nightmare which has dehumanized her personality and made her switch identity with Betty. According to Leblanc and Odell “industrial growth is viewed with abject horror yet at the same time with fascination” (31). They parallel in his other films, even the seemingly most un-Lynch Lynch film The Straight Story makes reference to industrialization. But Alvin Straight's world is one where “machinery (and dehumanization) is devoid of its menacing aspect” (107)

If dehumanization and machinery collide hand in hand they can result in people rebelling against the system and looking for another way out. The dark underbellies filled with criminals and violence that populate Lynch’s films are filled with these people that are looking to get re- humanized. Lynch has a seedy eye for the darkness that is present in middle America and most notably Hollywood, Blue velvet is a perfect example of that. It is about the dark side of picture perfect suburbia and hints at a dark underbelly of an idyllic setting. In it, Frank Booth is a product of the criminal underground. His presence is menacing yet it looks like no one in that society knows about this psychopath or his gang of thugs, in Wild At Heart Sailor is threatened by numerous eccentric figures including hired gangster Marcelles in a film that Lynch has called “Love In Hell”.

In The Elephant Man, Lynch’s focus is on a society of Victorian freak show performers that reveals the cruelty and malfunctions of the scenery. Merrick’s “boss” or “slave owner” is named Bytes (Freddie Jones) a man that has taken control over Merrick’s life and treated him as such like a slave. He is from London’s lowest of underbellies, a place where money is short and greed is high. Merrick is his golden ticket and pension in life as people all across middle and lower class London pay to see Merrick’s grotesque features on display. Bytes dehumanizes Merrick by exposing him to the general public as a freak and stealing Merrick’s own life away for the sake of his own well being.

The underbelly of London is portrayed as a kind of place where there are no rules and much cruelty. The people living in this underbelly are money hungry and ready to do anything to get cash, such as what Bytes does in his treatment of Merrick. Bytes has convinced him, by years of dehumanization, to believe that he is a monster. He is the artist who makes John think that he is an animal. Bytes does not only convince John that he is an animal,but the world too. At first, John’s show is closed because the underbelly crowd could not handle John’s ugliness. At this point Merrick is sub-human.

Although the world begins to realize that he is human while in the care of Treves, when Bytes steals Merrick back and returns him to the underbelly freak show, he again creates him into a monster. The world views him as a monster again and still persecutes him for his ugliness. Their prejudice has not changed. Merrick is aided by the freaks of the underbelly circus show in an undisclosed location and escapes back into town and away from Bytes. In the subway, John bumps into a little girl and she cries. A crowd builds and chases John down. As they begin to approach, John shouts, “I am not an animal!” Although Mr. Bytes has again brought the ugliness out in John, he has failed this time to dehumanize him. John has learned that he is not an animal. It is this constant struggle between the underbelly and the societal world that Merrick is stuck against throughout the movie. As Serge Daney further explains “The underbelly has taken him down and dehumanized him, whereas the societal world has made him human and given back the voice that had been taken away from him.”

Lynch’s cinema has always been about the forgotten underbelly members of society. Going back to Frank Booth, a man that personifies evil but has been all but forgotten from society and enrages hell in the underbelly of picture perfect suburban America. The same thing can be said of Bytes in The Elephant Man, Mr. Eddy in Lost Highway, Marcelles Santos in Wild At Heart and Jacques in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. In fact The Bang Bang Bar in Twin Peaks is populated by perverts, a sex room called The Pink Room and a French Canadian owner (Jacques) that deals drugs and turns Laura into a sexual object. David Lynch’s underbellies are populated by such characters and involve drugs, kinky sex and weird Violence in the mix. They are also the backbone of what makes Lynch’s worlds so fascinating.

The fascinating part about a David Lynch film is the way he brings all three of these themes together to make something both hypnotic and incredible to dissect. Each scene is carefully planned and if frozen, each frame looks like a dreamy painting. It is then no surprise that Lynch has a background as painter and through this talent can bring out darkly dream-like images that haunt your dreams. Some of the best paintings out there conjure up dreamy thoughts and feelings that can only be expressed through paint. Think of Monet, who’s every painting had a feeling of popping into a subjective dream. The same can be said of Lynch whose obsession with them has been a major part of his work. Underbellies and Industrial settings are used as a background to the dream he is conjuring up on screen. A perfect setting considering underbellies have a mystery to them that not many people know about and a darkness that can be so overwhelming you wished you were dreaming it all ditto the industrial setting with its overwhelming smoke, empty buildings and an isolative feeling that can sometimes only come when dreaming a dream. It is In dreams that Lynch ends up blending the rest of his obsessive themes and elements and in Them dreams he will likely continue to pursue the other-worldliness that has fascinated both he and his audience for close to 4 decades.