Tuesday 28 August 2018

The Question in Bodies #17: The Elephant Man (1980)

I don't cry.

I haven't since I was fifteen. I remember the last moment I cried, the blood I spat into a boy's face; I remember the first moment, some time later, that I decided I never would again. My body has kept that promise. I never cried at my father's death, or at the birth of my children, or when a friend died, or one Sunday afternoon when I stood outside a flat holding a bloody knife in my fingertips, wondering if I would have the strength to deal with what was inside. It's no longer a thing I do. Or can do.

There's a point, I suppose, when you've had enough. When all the things heaped upon you change you forever, and your body and identity, entirely outside of your conscious control, say, no more. No more. When you have no safe space to which you can retreat, and that continues for as long as five, six, seven years, something happens to you.

You change. You change inside. It changes who you are.

they, without knowing it, made him aware that the gulf of separation was immeasurable
Carr Gomm: Can you imagine the kind of life he must have had?
Treves: Yes. I think I can.
Carr Gomm: I don’t believe so. No one could possibly imagine it. I don’t believe any of us can.
Joseph Carey Merrick (or, possibly, Meyrick), the real life Elephant Man, died in 1890. He was 27. His head was so deformed that the simple act of lying down to sleep would asphyxiate him, and one night he lay down to sleep, and did not wake up. Sir Frederick Treves, the physician who had taken him from the freakshow, judged that he had simply wanted to feel what it was like to sleep like everyone else. But Merrick wasn't an idiot; he had in fact spent most of his life fighting that very assumption. He had of course taken his own life.

He had been a sideshow attraction since he had been a teenager, and while the narrative of Dr. Treves prevailed as the definitive account of Joseph Merrick’s life in the public understanding, at least one of the showmen who displayed Merrick insisted that in fact Treves had displayed him as ruthlessly as any showman, and that he had had significantly more dignity in the sideshow.

After Merrick died, his bones were preserved and put in a glass case, and placed on display in the London Hospital Museum, where they are shown to medical students, in order to arouse pity.

Tom Norman, one of the four men who managed the show in which Dr Treves found Merrick, wrote to the World's Fair in 1923 in defence of himself and the three other men who had worked with the Elephant Man:
The showing of Meyrick never appeared to any of us as being in any way detrimental to him–I mean painful… It is doubtless true that he never knew a parent’s affection. But I can honestly state that as far as his comfort was concerned while with us, no parent could have studied their own child more than any of all the four of us studied Joseph Meyrick.
To be uncharitable towards Norman and the others is easy enough, however. Theirs, notwithstanding the evidence that the freakshow was the only time that Joseph Merrick found respect, is not the story that posterity has embraced. And perhaps Tom Norman had a point. In his own version, Treves doesn't even get Merrick's name right.

no more capable of expression than a block of gnarled wood
David Lynch’s 1980 adaptation of The Elephant Man is one of the Great Films. It is, there's no question of this; it's a thing of beauty and sadness and weight, a film that never fails to engage me. Everything about The Elephant Man is perfect, from the cinematography and direction, to the performances, to John Morris’s score, which segues effortlessly from the na├»ve idiom of the fairground to weightier, more profound places, and back again.

David Lynch is, like David Cronenberg, a director who I feel is consistently misunderstood. Like Cronenberg, viewers label Lynch’s work as “weird” and with that label attach the assumption that the weirdness is affected, deliberate, maintain the fallacy that it’s an act.

I wonder if the Davids Lynch and Cronenberg ever feel dispirited, when clueless interviewers ask them why their films are so weird or how they get their unique perspectives. Or if they get sick of it.

The Elephant Man is, along with Dune (1984),sometimes seen as an anomaly in Lynch’s career, but really, that idea comes from a basic misunderstanding of the humanity of Lynch’s films. Even awkward films like Lost Highway (1997) and Eraserhead (1977) have at their core something humane, a compassion to them. A regard for people. Lynch is not a peddler of weirdness. Lynch, like Cronenberg, is a different quantity.He responds to the world in the way the world has made him. He is who he is. He makes films, I think, the only way he can.

such a degraded or perverted version of a human being
Merrick: I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!
The film’s Merrick (John Hurt) – John here, not Joseph, and John he is in the memoir of Frederick Treves, which informs the film – languishes in a sideshow managed by the seedy and self-serving Bytes (Freddie Jones), who sees Merrick as his property. People enter, and Bytes, having given the preamble, pulls back the curtain. The punters see the Elephant Man. We don't, not really; we see their reactions, the distress of the audience, the shocked, silent pity of Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), that reveals its sincerity with a single tear.

Treves “rescues” John, bringing him to the London Hospital. He keeps him under wraps, unveiling the Elephant Man, after a brief, factual preamble and the opening of a curtain, in his nakedness to the grandees and students of the hospital.

We hear the gasps; we do not fully see him.

The parallel between these two displays is of course obvious.

Still, the film is not a film of Joseph Merrick's life, it's an adaptation of Frederick Treves's account, and so Treves will not be a villain. And yes, it's going to take whole cloth the inaccuracies of Treves's version of the story, brief and clouded by memory as it was. And it's important to note: Joseph Merrick's life was probably almost nothing like this. This is a fiction, and it's the fiction we are to engage with here. The real Joseph Merrick is a good reference point, a context, but it's the story of the film that concerns us, what it signifies, what it means.
Mrs Mothershead: If you ask my opinion, he’s only being stared at all over again.
Later in the film, the doyens of society will come to see John in numbers, and the film's Treves will first be challenged on the fact by the stern but principled matron, Mrs Mothershead (Wendy Hiller) and later will express his own doubt that he has simply taken on Bytes’ role, a doubt that the real Treves never apparently expressed.

Roll up, roll up, come one, come all.

Of course when Treves does it, it's not the same, is it? He's doing it for science; he's wealthy and educated. Would you dare suggest that Alexandra, Princess of Wales (Helen Ryan) is a common punter? Could Mr Carr Gomm (John Gielgud) be said truly to be a freakshow manager?

Of course not. It doesn't count if you're respectable.

The night porter in the hospital (Michael Elphick) would differ; he has an eye on the main chance, and uses John Merrick in a private a freakshow of his own.

Absent from the roll of showmen, however, is David Lynch. Lynch holds back from showing John for a long time, and we are conditioned to expect that we will have our own fanfare, our own swishing back of the curtain. But no. Nora (Leslie Dunlop) cries out in dismay, since she has not been warned. And there he is, hunched in the bed, alone, afraid. And Treves apologises to him, awkwardly, haltingly. And although the deformity of John Merrick’s face renders him incapable of expression, he is so terribly human.

Immediately, the camera normalises John. He is neither fetishised nor especially treated by the framing of the film as freakish. He is a man, a lonely, damaged man who craves human affection.

The logic of the freakshow nevertheless follows John. The camera may normalise his face, but the characters in the film do not. And this matters. This is the great genius of Lynch’s film, the thing that prevents The Elephant Man from itself becoming the freakshow it portrays.

No one in The Elephant Man is any more or less than a person. Kind, callous, cruel, fallible. While the film accepts the status of a sideshow performer, at no point is their humanity ever denied.

The dwarf: Good luck, my friend. Good luck. And who needs it more than we?
The true heroes of the film are the sideshow freaks in the Belgian circus (in the film, Bytes kidnaps him from under the nose of the night porter’s exploitation; in Treves’ original account, his manager in Belgium robbed him of his savings and packed him off back to England). The wolf man, the giant, the twins and the dwarfs release him from his captivity, and send him home. They are the characters with the purest motives. The dwarf (Kenny Baker), their spokesman, deserves analysis, since his presence makes the question of exploitation more slippery.

Having Kenny Baker as a sideshow dwarf makes sense, but then over the course of his long career, how much choice did he have with regard to roles? As a person with dwarfism, Baker spent much of his career either in roles that made an issue of his height, or which hid him entirely – a Womble, that one barrel-shaped robot, one of David Bowie’s goblins. Meanwhile, John Hurt was an able-bodied actor in makeup. You're never going to find an actor who looks like the Elephant Man (we don’t even know for sure what his condition was), and while in recent years we’ve seen occasional actors with deformities appearing in film – Adam Pearson in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin (2013), for example, which I will get to writing about in this series some time – but this was not a thing you’d have seen in a film in the late 70s or early 80s.

But still, the portrayal of the freakshow is an issue of its own when someone who, in the period that this film portrays, might have really been in one appears in its cinematic representation.

I have never heard him complain
It would be reasonable to surmise that he would become a spiteful and malignant misanthrope, swollen with venom and filled with hatred of his fellow-men, or, on the other hand, that he would degenerate into a despairing melancholic on the verge of idiocy. Merrick, however, was no such being. He had passed through the fire and had come out unscathed.
– Sir Frederick Treves, The Elephant Man, and Other Reminiscences
The real Treves wrote at length on how refined and gentle John Merrick was. And truly, when treated with kindness, the filmic Merrick responds with pathetic gratitude. He grasps at the stalks of friendship offered, and openly at least seems to express joy when bestowed with human warmth. But then, this is how someone who has lived an entire life of emotional abuse reacts. What seems to be sweetness and decency is only damage: when you are acclimated, as a default, to harsh treatment, even the baseline of humane interaction becomes an occasion for demonstrative thankfulness. It’s good to be thankful for what we have, for the small mercies, but that’s not what is happening here. John Merrick, as is the case with the real Joseph, is so damaged, so inured to being bullied and abused that he reflexively placates the world.

Of course, I recognise these behaviours. I would. They are plain to me, plain as the lump of flesh on my face, recognisable by its position as a nose.

John Merrick, although normalised by the camera, although shown to us in the insistent wish that we might recognise him as a human, cannot be like the rest of the human race. And his apparent gentleness, his gratitude, the mark of the victim misidentified as a signifier of his dignity, is the sign of that.
Merrick: Would you care to see my mother?
Treves [surprised]: Your mother? Yes. Please.
[Merrick hands Anne the picture]
Anne: Oh, but she’s – Mr Merrick, she’s beautiful.
Merrick: She had – She had the face of an angel!
[Treves and Anne share an appalled glance, and hand back the photograph.]
Merrick [crumbling]: I must – I must have been a great disappointment to her.
Anne: No, Mr Merrick, no. No son as loving as you could ever be a disappointment.
Merrick: If only I could find her. So she could see me. With such lovely friends. Here, now. Perhaps she could love me as I am… I’ve tried so hard to be good.
[Anne bursts into tears]
Frederick and his wife Anne (Hannah Gordon) are lying. They are lying to be kind, but they are lying. Bad parents exist; abusive parents; abandoning ones. Of course he is a disappointment. Through no fault of his own, he was disappointing enough to be left behind.

John wants a mother. He wants a parent who can give him love.

It is a thing he can never have.
It was a favourite belief of his that his mother was beautiful. The fiction was, I am aware, one of his own making, but it was a great joy to him. His mother, lovely as she may have been, basely deserted him when he was very small, so small that his earliest clear memories were of the workhouse to which he had been taken. Worthless and inhuman as this mother was, he spoke of her with pride and even with reverence.
– Sir Frederick Treves, The Elephant Man, and Other Reminiscences
Pity is born of compassion. Kindness is important, vital, necessary, but it is born of a power relationship. Tears of pity are shed for John Merrick, and there’s a lot to be said for tears of pity, but pity, like compassion, is a thing that flows like water; it is affected entirely by gravity. It flows down, and a thing that flows down has the tendency to be a thing you can resent, even when you suffer from the inescapable compulsion to respond with extravagant gratitude.

he would have liked to have been a lover
Treves: Why didn’t you tell me you could read?
Merrick: Frightened.
Treves: Oh, I see.
Merrick: I was afraid to talk. Please forgive me.
In the film, The true horror of the Elephant Man’s condition – that he is aware, that he is conscious, that he is possessed of an inner life – is revealed when he recites the 23rd Psalm from memory. I think it’s telling that the compassion of the scientist only goes so far; and that it’s through an emotional and spiritual (there, I said it) engagement with a piece of old, old poetry that speaks to hope, that speaks to the concern and protection of a parent.

Treves makes a point when displaying John to the medical professionals at the hospital of pointing out that his genitals are of normal function and form. And what are we to make of that, to make of the way that when Mrs Kendal the actor (Anne Bancroft) comes to visit him, she and he read lines from Romeo and Juliet, or when the night porter makes the drunk women he has admitted to John’s room kiss him?

People like John don’t get to have sex. Or, perhaps more accurately, we generally assume that people like John don’t get to have sex. But John’s sexuality is present. It is a thing that is part of a human; it is part of him. Because he is human.

But he is not permitted to be human. He cries out that he is a human being, that he is a man; but who listens?

Hopefully, we at least do. We at least, viewing, feel that flow of compassion. Who cries for the Elephant Man? We do.

Well, most of us.

In the film, John sees the pantomime, in a box furnished for him by Mrs Kendal, and is enchanted; he is delighted, bubbling over with the joy of it. And then he goes home and lays down to sleep, which is fatal, but he longs to sleep like normal people, and has said as much to Dr Treves, earlier in the film.

And that's what the real Dr Treves said in his account. That he wanted to sleep like everyone else. But I can't help thinking that enchantment can do that to you. That romance, presented to one who is denied romance, might be the tipping point to make one think that perhaps it might be time to call it a day.

Either way, he couldn't live in this world. He couldn't placate it any more, and he had never been permitted to fight it.
'Tis true my form is something odd, 
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew, 
I could 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 measure of the man. 
– Joseph Carey Merrick
Look. It’s nonsensical and weird to say that I’ve always identified with John Merrick as he appears in the film, The Elephant Man, but I cannot lie, the profound discomfort I have always held with the peculiarities of my body, and the deficits of my early history, have had a terrible, transformative effect on me. I think the extremity of John Merrick’s shape makes it somehow easier to identify with him. It would be tasteless and appropriative for one of the able bodied to identify in this way with someone with a missing limb, or bound to a wheelchair, or blind, or deaf. But no one else is like the Elephant Man, especially the fictive version of him played by John Hurt, and because of that, perhaps it is possible for so many more of us to feel an affinity of some sort with him.

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