Category: Medical Dramas


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David Lynch is known for two things: mind-bending surrealism and an uncanny ability to terrify audiences through entirely unconventional means. His best films (Inland Empire, Eraserhead, Mulholland Dr.) tap into both realms through surrealistic nightmares of Freudian psycho-sexual imagery. I’ve been watching Twin Peaks lately (I’m near the beginning of Season 2), and in the episodes where Lynch has the biggest involvement, it too hits those high-notes. 1980s The Elephant Man is without question a Lynch film. His second directorial feature, it features Lynch’s sympathy with the bizarre and cast-aside. But it is also an almost uncharacteristically straight-forward exercise in Lynchean film-making. It lacks much of the surrealism that defines him as a director, and the structure of the film is remarkably simple by Lynch standards. It is also, perhaps, Lynch’s most thematically complex and emotionally rich picture so perhaps leaving the surrealistic flourishes at the door was the correct decision.

Though there is generally an over-riding theme to any given Lynch film (Blue Velvet = pulling back the curtain on suburban tranquility, Inland Empire = the borderline psychotic obsession of the best performers, Eraserhead = a Freudian nightmare of fatherhood), I also don’t think said themes are often the point of that particular Lynch work. They aren’t the reason that people obsess over his films. Lynch is a cinematic technician of the highest order and when modern directors like Gaspar Noé and others aspire to match his work (they rarely do), it is because they recognize his rightful standing as one of the great cinematic visualists. For the first time that I can remember, the visual nature of Lynch’s films takes a back seat (though trust me, it’s still there waiting in the wings) and instead The Elephant Man becomes an almost quiet mediation on cruelty and the perverse nature of voyeurism.

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The Elephant Man is a very loose adaptation of the true story of 19th century Englishman Joseph Merrick (called John in the film and played by Alien‘s John Hurt), who suffers from a truly horrific series of bodily deformities that gives him such a frightening visage that he has been exploited by the circus and dubbed “The Elephant Man.” The film begins with respected British surgeon and anatomist, Frederick Treves (Thor‘s Anthony Hopkins), arriving at the circus and finding himself intrigued by this so-called Elephant Man display which is causing enough of a stir that the police force the circus owner, Bytes (Freddie Jones), to shut down that feature in his display of “freaks.” Treves requests a private viewing where he sees John Merrick for the first time and is struck to tears by the man’s disfigured frame. Treves strikes a monetary deal with Bytes and utilizes John in a medical forum on anatomical abnormalities before returning John to Bytes, under the impression that Merrick can’t speak or understand English.

When John returns to the circus, he gets bronchitis and when Bytes realizes he can’t beat it out of John, he calls Treves back to fix his prized possession. And after an extended stay at the Royal British Hospital, Treves discovers that John is actually capable of speech and has known how to read for most of his life, a fact he’s hidden to avoid beatings from Bytes. After convincing the hospital’s governor, Carr Gomm (The Charge of the Light Brigade‘s John Gielgud), of John’s intelligence, Treves becomes John’s permanent caretaker and mentor. And, though Treves realizes he initially exploited John in a manner similar to Bytes, Treves tries to atone for his early selfishness by helping to integrate John into the upper echelons of British society and to give him a life of comfort and happiness that has constantly eluded him. But, the cruelty and wanton stares that have haunted Merrick his whole life will need more than Treves’s good intentions to disappear.

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John Hurt received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for his turn as John. For the first thirty or so minutes of the film, I actually thought that Treves was the true main character of the piece, but once John begins actually speaking, he takes his rightful place as the emotional center of the film. Though some could accuse Lynch of portraying Merrick as being inspirationally disadvantaged in a Forrest Gump-esque manner, I actually think the film is a deconstruction of that trope. John’s utilization as a “freak” that happens to be well-spoken and the hottest ticket in upper British society is treated as the exploitation it is, and one of the greatest scenes of the film is Anthony Hopkins (also in a brilliant performance) wondering if he is a good man or a bad man for what he is done. John’s circle in life isn’t complete until he’s truly accepted as a peer by these men and not some novelty for their dissection (and when that finally occurred, I was, of course, in tears).

Here’s a fun fact about The Elephant Man that you may not be aware of. The Best Makeup category at the Academy Awards was invented because of this movie. There was not a category to honor the make-up work in The Elephant Man in 1980, and only a vague special citation had been given in the citation category in the past. If you’ve seen The Elephant Man, you know how absurdly well-done John’s makeup is. I’ve seen photographs of the actual Joseph Merrick, and John Hurt is made to look practically just like him. I miss the pre-2000s days of actual physical special effects. If The Elephant Man were made today, Merrick would probably be some type of CGI creation, and it would rob him of his basic humanity. As an actual physical creation, John becomes a marvelous feat of technical wizardry that looks phenomenal 33 years later.

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That both this and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull lost to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People for Best Director and Best Picture (and to Polanski’s Tess, which is at least a great film, for Best Cinematography) has to be one of the most absurd moments in Academy history. I mentioned that this is one of Lynch’s more subtle films, but I don’t mean that as an insult. His strength as a visually arresting director are still on full display (though his usual surrealist touches are left to dream sequences that are explicitly such). The Elephant Man is shot in a beautiful black-and-white, and in general, the movie’s visual style is an homage to German expressionism of the Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau vareity as well as subtle shout-outs to the Tod Browning cult film, Freaks. Considering the look of this and Eraserhead, part of me wishes that Lynch might have stuck to black & white though his color films are just as good. The movie’s sound design is nearly as interesting as its visual direction as it turns into some nightmare of industrialization.

I’ll draw this review to a close. I want to eat lunch and watch (ironically enough perhaps) some more of season two of Twin Peaks. I didn’t have much time to dive into the thematic statements of the film. The movie is particularly effective in making the audience feel guilty for wanting to know what John looks like. You become as much of a bastard as those that hound him at the train station (which provides the film’s most famous sequence). The Elephant Man provides something that few Lynch films ever do (and this is coming from a huge fan). It provides actual emotional context. The Elephant Man is an almost overwhelmingly sad experience but not in a cheap, exploitative way. This is a David Lynch film for that aren’t generally David Lynch fans.

Final Score: A-

 

One True Thing

Every now and then, you find yourself watching a film that absolutely reeks of “award-bait”. By award-bait, I mean the kind of movie that seems to naturally find itself being discussed as a contender for a variety of industry awards, like the Oscars or the Golden Globes. Some common characteristics of award-bait movies are they’re biopics about famous figures, they’re about a handicapped person, they’re about some hot button political issue, or they represent some maudlin bit of human suffering. 1998’s One True Thing becomes an award-bait film because of the human suffering bit. However, thanks to the sincerity of the script and the emotional powerhouse performances of its leads, it manages to also be a great movie. Most award bait films try to look attractive to the voters but end up failing for being to formulaic or conventional. This film probably is formulaic and conventional, but it remains a powerful experience.

One True Thing is the chronicle of the Gulden family, although to be specific, the chronicles of Ellen Gulden (Renee Zellweger), a journalist at the New Yorker. Ellen has come home for her father’s 55th birthday. Her father, George Gulden (William Hurt), is a celebrated professor of American literature, and Ellen idolizes him. Her mother, Kate Gulden (Meryl Streep), is a housewife who is always doing creative projects around the house and the neighborhood with the local social club. Ellen resents her mother for not living the life of a modern woman. Ellen’s life is turned upside down when she discovers that her mother has cancer, and her father wants her to move back home and take care of her mother. Along the way, she discovers the brighter sides of her mother and that perhaps her father isn’t the perfect man she thought he was.

If the plot sounds like something you’ve heard a million times before, you probably have, but this film keeps enough fresh ideas and twists to keep you engaged. However, so many films of this type use tragedy, and tragedy alone, as the sole way to play on your emotions. This film succeeds so well because of how sincere it comes off. This sincerity wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the unbelievable performances of its leads, particularly Meryl Streep. As the matriarch of this family in the final stages of terminal cancer, Streep brings such life and joie de vivre to Kate Gulden. Yet, at the same time, when the script calls for it, she can portray all of the passion and anger needed as well. I mean, there’s a reason why Meryl Streep is often called one of the greatest actresses of all time and why she has more Oscar nominations than any other woman besides Katherine Hepburn (this film being one of the nominations). I don’t normally like Renee Zellweger but in this film, she was brilliant as well. Being in that situation would be absolutely terrible, and she plays  all of the resentment and bitterness and betrayal to a tee. She has great chops as a dramatic actress. It’s a shame she ruins her career with terrible romantic comedies. William Hurt was also great, as always, as well. He’s one of the most under-rated character actors in the business.

I would be a liar if I didn’t admit to the fact that I spent the last third of this film just bawling my eyes out. Watching Kate’s transformation from the bustling head of her household to a frail, withered away shell of what she used to be, it’s absolutely heart breaking. At the same time, watching this family, which beneath the facade of perfection is literally falling apart at the seams, bring itself back together was a very emotionally powerful experience. The only reason this film is going to get the score it’s getting and not an “A” is because of the anti-feminist message I got from the film, which said the successful, career-driven woman is wrong and the happy house wife is right. It’s kind of offensive for a movie that came out at the tail end of the 90’s. Other than that, this movie was wonderful, and an emotional roller-coaster. Watch it, but have some tissues ready.

Final Score: A-