If you were to start watching David Lynch’s ‘The Elephant Man’ midway through, without knowing what it was, you would most likely be startled by the main characters appearance; you may also be tempted to make fun of him. But if you sat down and watched the movie from the beginning, your sympathy for John Merrick, ‘The Elephant Man’, would be strong enough to deny that the former situation was ever a possibility. Lynch builds tension for a substantial amount of time before the audience is allowed to catch a glimpse of Merricks face. When we’re at the climax of anticipation, we see him. No dramatic music, no exceptional camera work, no slow motion; a simple cut to him, and there he is.
And that’s the beauty of Lynch’s work. The audience is lead through morbid curiosity at the same rate that the characters in the film are – We develop alongside them. throughout the movie we pity Merrick, respect him, then pity him again – asking ourselves throughout, ‘is he just a spectacle to me? a freak? Am I bad person?’
This question certainly isn’t bypassed easily in the movie. Are we bad people for being intrigued by Merrick? Or are we good people for showing him pity? There’s a mix of intrigue and pity with every character who first meets Merrick, and the audience certainly isn’t excluded. However, like almost every character who comes to interact with Merrick, we also learn to respect him as a human being and not look at him as just a spectacle. Nonetheless, this issue never finds close in the film, nor would it ever be closed in real life.
The Elephant Man is beautifully shot – crisp black and white, no brisk editing, the lighting is kept low-key during scenes and balanced during the daytime. The one digression from this form of film making is the distinctly Lynchian pseudo-dream sequences of original imagery that break up the film and serve as distinct mood setters for the audience. This for the most part is a fairly intimidating side note, and during these scenes we’re put directly into Merrick’s shoes— which is quite unsettling.
We watch Merrick get beaten, abused, harassed, humiliated and tormented. We feel a surge of joy when he finally stands up for himself, but by that point we have to cope with what he has already gone through. Every moment is heartbreaking.
The Elephant Man is a perfect film. It’s a film that asks you to feel sorry but rebukes you for blind pity. It’s a film about where our empathy stems from. The Elephant Man makes the audience trek through despair and asks for our hope in the end. It asks you to hate humanity but to love the humane. This movie urges you to look at a man who has absolutely nothing going for him, but inside, he’s okay.
Nikhil Polsani, 12 AICE