The 1970’s and 1980’s were a time when directors really started exploring new territory, as far as, what film could be and where it could go. While visionaries, such as, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis explored ways to expand the appeal of film across generations, and make those films exciting and adventurous, other filmmakers such as David Cronenberg and David Lynch revealed something darker, more mysterious and unexpected. Lynch’s debut, Eraserhead was so bizarre and shocking, yet artistic and innovative at the time of its release, that it caught the eye of many directors and producers in Hollywood. They were intrigued by Lynch’s potential and he was given an opportunity to direct a larger film just so they could see what he would do with it.
That decision (by Mel Brooks) paid off. The film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and it cemented Lynch as an important new voice in filmmaking. Lynch would go on to be nominated for two other best director Oscars, but The Elephant Man would always remain his most straight-forward and most appealing film to general audiences. It granted him more freedom in making decisions on the films, and television shows, he would work on in the future. The Elephant Man may not be Lynch’s best film, but his work as director here is truly impressive and worthy of the Oscar nomination.
Let’s explore the film in more detail to see how Lynch’s direction made this film a standout.
Black and White
The first thing you will notice about The Elephant Man is that it is filmed in black and white. This decision, one that we rarely see today, makes the film immediately unique. It stands out because without the distraction of color, the picture is more direct and engaging. Lynch’s decision to film in black and white also gives it a nostalgic character. The film is based on a biography of Joseph Merrick, and even though the events depicted may have been expanded on for the sake of entertainment, it nevertheless feels like it had happened in the past. The black and white transports the audience to the past, and they feel like they are witnessing the story of this man through a series of old-fashioned photographs. The black and white also helps to enhance the tone of the film. The darkness is somewhat unnerving and feels dirty, a feeling that Lynch wants the audience to experience as the story unfolds.
Depiction of Joseph Merrick
Lynch decides to not shy away from depicting the character of Joseph Merrick. The audience sees everything, but the film is never showing him off as a source of ridicule or entertainment for the sake of weirdness. There is a profound respect for the man. By not using Merrick’s condition as a source of shock and awe (except the initial reveal), Lynch makes the film a story about a man, not a condition. Lynch decides to reveal Merrick through the perspective of a doctor. As such, he is showing the man’s condition with scientific inquisitiveness rather than through judgemental gawking. The fact that Merrick doesn’t talk until partway through the film shows the audience how difficult his existence really is. We feel pity for him because of the way he is treated, not because of what he is or because he is helpless. Finally, Lynch contrasts Merrick’s existence in scenes of love and hate, which only adds fuel to the emotional fire. By showing both sides of the perspective, Lynch invites the audience to make their own conclusions.
Lynch uses background noise in many sequences to elevate the mood of the film. These ambient noises add to the thrill of experiencing the film as well as provide the audience with another avenue to explore the setting. With ambient noise, including Merrick’s own labored breathing, Lynch is adding another meaningful layer to the film. Although the noise isn’t necessarily realistic, it helps the audience comprehend what is happening. For instance, there is a sequence where a character is walking through the dirty streets, passing by curious machinery and people working. The background hum adds to this environment, cueing in on the industrial vibe that is both haunting and familiar. Later there’s the noise of a clock tower, with the constant ticking and ringing, which adds tension while counting down to an imminent finale. Finally, during the climactic train station scene, the sound of the locomotive builds continuously, drowning out everything else as terror takes over.
The Spaces In Between
While the story of Joseph Merrick is told plainly, the way that Lynch presents that story is dynamic. Although the film is a drama, it has the tension and suspense of a thriller. One aspect of the construction of the film that helps to break up the stoic moments is Lynch’s decision to use interludes at important moments in the film. These interludes break away from the scene at hand, and focus on something else that is related. One example is the clock tower. The perspective of the film pulls away from Merrick to focus on the movement of the clock and the noises it produces. This sequence only lasts a couple seconds, but is a powerful piece of imagery. Another example is the scene where Merrick sees himself in the mirror for the first time. The entire sequence is almost surreal. It leaves the audience with enough imagery and sound to understand what is happening, but doesn’t immediately show a reaction. There’s a dark swirling cloud which moves in on Merrick’s consciousness, and then a cut to another scene where an important, related topic is discussed in a more traditional manner.
Surreal Intro and Exit
Immediately the film opens with a nightmarish dream sequence that alludes to the unfortunate events that may have led to Joseph Merrick’s condition. Lynch is a master of the surreal, and a familiar follower of the weird, so it is no surprise that the film ventures towards bizarre. The studio even tried to remove these sequences from the film because they weren’t sure how audiences would respond. Typically a film needs a strong introduction to draw in the audience, and a strong outro in order to leave a powerful final message. Thankfully, the sequences remain in the film and they perform both of these tasks brilliantly. While the majority of the film plays it safe in order to pay respect to Merrick and tell his story as plainly as possible, these surreal sequences allow Lynch to express his creativity in a meaningful way. They both set the tone and complete the story in a fitting fashion.
For more about David Lynch check out Directors’ Trademarks: David Lynch
For last week’s focus on an Oscar-nominated director, check out Stanley Kubrick, Legendary Director