Intro: Art and psychology are intrinsically linked. The best art illuminates (or attempts to) the human condition, which is, after all, at the core of psychological investigation. This linkage is perhaps best evidenced by looking at popular cinema. While film does not always offer the most insightful perspective on human psyche, it is an effective gauge of the public mindset, if for no other reason than its uncommon hold on the culture's collective imagination. For good or bad, cinema (and television) has far surpassed the popularity of all other narrative art forms. One can convincingly argue that this is partially due to the ease with which most cinema can be digested, when compared with, say, a novel. However, much of film's popularity can certainly be attributed to its overwhelming raw power. Film is a visceral medium, or to paraphrase Canadian director David Croneberg, "Film has teeth." Movies are potentially an effective instrument by which we can examine our modern psychological landscape, both personal and social, because more than any other medium, it enables us to experience life from another person's vantage point, to walk in their shoes, as it were. Queendom's Reel Psychology series will highlight some of the films that most effectively (or perhaps ineffectively) demonstrate a psychological bent.
Editor's note: The articles comprising this series are written in a decidedly informal, personalized format. In other words, they are opinions and express only the views of the writer. If you have a problem with the views expressed, please, feel free to express yours by dropping us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Released 1980. Drama/biopic directed by David Lynch
The Elephant Man is a film of uncommon tragic beauty. For this reviewer it remains one of the most devastatingly sad yet surprisingly uplifting cinematic experiences of my life. I have seen the movie over a half dozen times and to date, it has not failed to move me emotionally. Unlike other films, even great ones, where the contrivances and manipulations sometimes become increasingly transparent with each successive viewing (and therefore, less effective), The Elephant Man has never failed to involve and captivate me, even though I consider myself to be a fairly unsentimental movie-goer.
The film is loosely based on true accounts of the life of Joseph Merrick (referred to in the film as John Merrick), a hideously disfigured 19th century sideshow performer in Victorian England. As portrayed in the film, Merrick (played by John Hurt) is discovered by surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), while appearing with a travelling freak show in London. Captivated and intrigued by Merrick’s condition, Treves asks his manager, the abusive exploiter Bytes, if he may examine Merrick at the local London hospital and is granted permission after negotiating a fee. Treves conducts a thorough examination, determining that Merrick’s severe deformities are the result of a progressively worsening congenital defect. In addition to his enormous misshapen skull, distorted facial features, twisted physique and fibrous tumors that cover the entirety of his body (remarkably with the exception of his one mobile arm and intact genitalia) Merrick must also sleep sitting upright, as he will asphyxiate if he lays down. After presenting his findings (and Merrick himself) in a lecture to the somewhat horrified members of the medical establishment, the unfortunate Elephant Man is returned to his prior tormented existence of the sideshow. Upon being beaten severely by the alcoholic Bytes in a fit of rage, Merrick is eventually rescued by Treves. The remainder of the film concerns itself with Treves’ (ultimately successful) challenge to convince the administrators of the hospital to make Merrick a permanent ward in residence and his subsequent efforts to give him a semblance of a normal and fulfilling life.
The film is composed of many powerful scenes, some of great tenderness, others of unspeakable cruelty. Perhaps the most harrowing of these are the scenes involving a night porter at the hospital, who discovers he can profit by charging the local drunken riff raff to “view” the infamous Elephant Man. These regular sessions of abuse and mockery typically include forcing Merrick to consume alcohol and encouraging the local whores to kiss his grotesquely twisted mouth and to provocatively lay down with him, impervious to the fact it is causing him to asphyxiate. The viewings culminate with the porter forcing Merrick to view his own image in a dingy hand held mirror, often causing Merrick to shriek in protest, much to the delight of the depraved customers. Fortunately for Merrick, the porter’s actions come to the attention of an outraged Treves who promptly discharges him. In another segment, Merrick is kidnapped by his former caretaker, Bytes, and once again is put on display and subjected to unbearable cruelty abroad. Fearing for Merrick’s life, his fellow freaks help him escape and eventually he is returned to the safe harbor of the hospital under the watchful eye of Treves and a dedicated staff.
The remaining scenes in the film are every bit as touching as those mentioned above are disturbing. As Treves comes to befriend Merrick, and recognizes the intelligent and even poetic soul that lies beneath the monstrous visage, he does his utmost to ensure that his friend/patient spends the remainder of his life treated with dignity and experiencing some degree of pleasure. Treves introduces Merrick to the sophisticates of polite British society and we witness the former sideshow attraction delight in engaging these new curiosity- seekers in small talk, while serving tea and biscuits. Some of the most effective scenes are simple ones where Merrick is overwhelmed with emotion for having been shown common courtesies that most people take for granted, such as when he is welcomed to the home of Doctor Treves and his wife as a dinner guest, rather than a patient. Or when a famous theatre actress of the day visits him at the hospital and treats him simply as a peer rather than with the revulsion he is accustomed to receiving, particularly from women.