Archive for The Elephant Man

Byronic

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2020 by dcairns

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JY wrote to request I say something about the late Kathleen Byron, born on this day 99 years ago (what are we all going to do for the Sister Ruth centenary?).

It’s taken for granted that Michael Powell was right when he told Byron that she’d never get another role as good as Sister Ruth — and of course he was. But we should stop to note that in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, a very nearly perfectly cast film, she’s a very striking presence, and THE SMALL BACK ROOM, which I adore, would not be the same without her.

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Rank, of course, did not know what to do with her, and her later career becomes a game of spot-the-Byron, as she turns up for minute, often thankless and sometimes literally wordless roles in distinguished films like THE ELEPHANT MAN and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and altogether less celebrated works like CRAZE and NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. It can look as if she was embracing obsolescence, accepting Powell’s prophecy, but I think it’s more likely she was still hoping to prove him wrong and knew she’d better keep her hand in if there was to be any chance of landing the great role when it came by.

Maybe people were a little scared of her — not just because she’s so intimidating in BLACK NARCISSUS, but she seems to have been a formidable person in real life. Powell’s unexplained reference to her threatening him with a revolver while naked in Vol II of his autobiography appears to be a complete wish-fulfillment confabulation on his part, but they were intimate, and she wasn’t afraid to stand up to him.

My late friend Lawrie Knight, a third assistant on BN, confirmed Byron’s account of her refusing to take Powell’s direction when Sister Ruth visits Mr. Dean’s hut. She’d decided for herself that Sister Ruth was PERFECTLY SANE and she was damn well going to play it that way. Of course, most viewers still perceive Ruth as mad — her actions are a bit extreme, but unrequited love, frustration and jealousy aren’t mental illnesses, though they may have many of the same characteristics. Whatever was behind Byron’s choices, the effect on screen is incredibly powerful and convincing. Powell went off in a huff, Byron worked out the scene with David Farrar, then they showed it to their director.

“Well, it’s not what I wanted but I suppose it’s all right,” he harumphed.

To his credit, he let her do it, he cast her once more, and he gave her some of the greatest close-ups in British cinema.

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(What ARE the greatest close-up in British cinema? When Deborah Kerr looks up from the pencil in her hand and sees Ruth staring at her, that’s one. Christopher Lee coming downstairs and saying hello, that’s two. Yootha Joyce in the hairdressers in THE PUMPKIN EATER, that’s three. Hmm, they’re all quite scary. I’ll need to think of some romantic ones — I think COLONEL BLIMP offers several…)

The Elephants Men

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2019 by dcairns

We marked the passing of the great Freddie Jones by rewatching THE ELEPHANT MAN. Exploring the DVD further we found the only real extra, a trailer.

It’s pretty bad! But it see-saws between hopeless and passable-but-embarrassing. Then we found another trailer. Let me talk you through the pair of them.

TRAILER ONE (1)

This starts like a horror movie, which is awkward. A shot from the film which, in context, portrays in a perfectly sensitive way, the anxiety of Nurse Nora upon being sent to bring Mr. Merrick a meal. Here, horror movie music has been added for suspense and Dr. Treves’ dialogue (“He won’t hurt you,… he won’t hurt you… he won’t hurt you…”) has been turned into a V.O. Implication: he definitely WILL HURT you. Maybe he’ll toss you on his tusks.

Nora’s scream segues quite skillfully into a sideshow tracking shot with a narrator: “You will feel the chill of horror… but this is not a horror story.” Well, I’m glad they cleared that up. “You will feel the warmth of love… but this is not a love story.” The narrator is creepy. But this is the most successful bit, telling us what the movie ISN’T. Since it’s sui generis, a kind of nightmare about innocence, a Dickensian disease-of-the-week movie, a corporeal divine comedy, none of which are recognised film genres, alas, it makes sense to close off bad readings of what the film is, rather than thrusting forward a good one. “You will see men in hats… but this is not a cowboy story.” No, he doesn’t actually say that.

“…the story of a very real monster… who was also a very real human being.” He was a bee-yoo-tiful poysson. But he wasn’t a monster, so this attempt at telling us what the film IS about in an interesting way is pretty indefensible.

Then we get Freddie’s carnival spiel, which tells us what territory we’re REALLY in — movie trailer as come-in, as sideshow barker’s invitation. A trailer for THE ELEPHANT MAN is inevitably going to end up saying, in effect, “Come and see the elephant man.”

“Paramount had no idea how to sell it,” recalled John Hurt. One exec told him, “Well, John, a monster movie is always going to be difficult to sell.” Hurt just stared, aghast. I don’t think a film this good ought to be a hard sell, but the question of ta s te doe s come into it, which is less of an issue if you’re selling GOING APE! with Tony Danza, another Paramount pic from the same era.

Essentially, THE ELEPHANT MAN’s audience is going to come to gaup and stay to emote, and in that way can reassure themselves they’re (a) physically normal, at lea s t compared to this guy, and (b) good, caring people. The trailer has to work on Motive B, to give the audience a good excuse to buy tickets, while making it clear that the more immediately obvious Motive A will indeed be satisfied.

Because Motive A dominates, THE ELEPHANT MAN MUST NOT APPEAR IN THE TRAILER. If he did, Motive A would lose all box office power.

As Paramount didn’t know how to sell this one, and as they were, apparently, cheapskates, we now get several shots, exchanges and line readings not in Lynch’s film. This is terrific — no way these things would have survived otherwise — but they’re only here because the studio didn’t want to spend money duping negative. And so we get to hear Freddie say the lost lines, “He’s a freak. That’s how they live. We’re partners, he and I.”

We see the camera push in on Anthony Hopkins getting his first look at Merrick, but we don’t see the teardrop fall — surely, the money shot. Cinematographer Freddie Francis nicknamed his director “Lucky Lynch” because the tear fell just as the perfect closeup was achieved. But I bet that only happened once.

Then THE ELEPHANT MAN in a disconcertingly Woody Allenish font comes flying out at us. “A shattering experience,” says the VO guy, which is a fairly clever way of putting Motives A and B together in three words, and then they ruin all their good indifferent work by having Michael Elphick delivering his carnival come-on down the boozer. I mean, of the three showmen portrayed, Freddie, Tony and Mike, surely Mike is the one your 1980 audience wants LEAST to do with?

That’s the trailer on the DVD I own. There’s also THIS, on the Youtubes:

Freddie J.’s great “Life! … is full of surprises,” monologue is recut into a patchwork, but it’s a strong start anyway, and I guess they would have to reduce it (but a great trailer could have been made using mainly this scene alone). You know what? It just struck me that “Life! … is full of surprises,” is a fantastic bit of bathos. It starts dramatic and then descends into a commonplace platitude. And Freddie’s genius is both to play that crapness to the hilt, and to make it still, somehow, work.

“At first, you will want to turn away,” says voice-over guy, telling us how we’re going to react. Psychologically, he’s trying to get us past our possible resistance to seeing a film whose title character does not outwardly resemble Farrah Fawcett. Then he reassures us that we’ll want to kick Merrick in the face, which is a reason for seeing a film we can all relate to.

“Stan’ up!” yells tiny Dexter Fletcher. I like to think this is the directorial approach he used to guide Taron Egerton through ROCKET MAN. Well, it would work for the “I’m Still Standing” number.

“But if you come to know him…” Hilariously, the film does not bring this idea to life by allowing us to hear Merrick speak, but continues to show him as a placid dummy with a bag on his head.

“And perhaps for the first time, you will understand the true meaning of courage, and human dignity.” Voice-over guy is making some pretty brassy assumptions about his listeners.

“You’re not the Elephant Man at all,” says Anne Bancroft.

Seconds later, voice-over guy tells us, “…and John Hurt as the Elephant Man.” So she’s wrong. He bloody is.

Thought you could put one over on us, eh, Mr. Merrick?

THE ELEPHANT MAN stars Hannibal Lecter; Winston Smith; Mrs. Robinson; Lord Raglan; Major Barbara Undershaft; Thufir Hawat; Ken Boon; Hyzenthlay; Lilliman; Gargoyle Reggie; Sister Ruth; Maggy – Little Dorrit’s Protegee; Fidgit; Sir Anthony Mount; Jemima Shore; Gordon Cole; and Sir Elephant.

Echo Chambers

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , on June 2, 2017 by dcairns

“It’s quite difficult to get inside David’s head,” reflected editor Anne V. Coates. “And then, once you do, it’s quite a strange place.” This post looks at recurring images from Lynch’s earlier works which find their way into Twin Peaks: The Return in modified form. Some of these images are, arguably, spoilers.

I’m taking the rushing white lines on the highway and the starscapes as read, and we’ve all noticed how the evolution of the arm mirrors not just the bare sycamore trees of Glastonbury Grove but the various dead twigs sprouting from different rooms in ERASERHEAD…

Funny, around the time of LOST HIGHWAY I felt Lynch was starting to repeat himself too much, but now I welcome the recurrence of each obsession.

Headless Henry in ERASERHEAD; headless Dougie in TP. Swiftly followed by another call-back ~

It’s the planet! Where the guy with the levers lives (or, anyway, works). And there’s a lever in TP too.

I like the hand-made quality of a lot of the sets, like this kind of crappy warped bell.

Something else the new series has which we haven’t see much of since Lynch’s early animated paintings — a quality of cartoonishness in some of the timing, for instance when Cooper falls with a whoosh and CRUMP into this familiar environment ~

Maybe it’s because it’s Kyle McLachlan, but the echoes of DUNE seemed yrev, very strong here. Though in fact DUNE doesn’t really offer a shot to match this. But there is a subterranean balcony overlooking a long, narrow chamber, and there is also a kind of underground sea/water tank.

Then there’s the big purple birth-splooge as Cooper incarnates in Dougie’s place. Directly following the smoke-cloud which billows out to suggest John Merrick’s birth. Lynch said pictures of the so-called “elephant man” reminded him of the eruption of Mount St. Helens — he looked like a cloud of smoke that had solidified.

The haunting image in THE ELEPHANT MAN is accompanied by the sound of a baby’s cries, echoing in some vast cavern.

And then there’s THIS ~

The mist, the halation, and the spectral woman’s face (TP opening titles) ~

Anything else? Oh yes, Laura Dern’s motel carpet vomit in WILD AT HEART and the heap of regurgitated creamed corn Dougie leaves in a house for sale. But I’ll spare you the images if you’ll trust me on the family resemblance.