© 2010 by James Clark
It would be difficult to identify a wider gulf between film casts than that presented by the two David Lynch productions, The Elephant Man (1980) and The Straight Story (1999). In the former, we are treated to blue-chip displays by a roster of British thespian-aristocrats, including, John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Wendy Hiller and John Gielgud, each of whom constitutes an advanced clinic in tradition-buttressed sheen, in sophisticated self-possession. In the latter, there has been raked up a company largely consisting of rural American Midwestern candidates with only their day-to-day personas to offer, headed by an ailing old pro, Richard Farnsworth, pulled out of retirement and headed into suicide soon after the work was done.
Both casts, as it happens, were letter-perfect to deliver transfixing explorations of the buoying and deflating arena of home turf. Though the latter film was not written by Lynch, he has been able, by dint of expunging any trace of diversity of cultural energies, to provide as sharp and compelling a stimulus for proceeding into the unknown and unusual as he let fly with his experimentally-controlled surrealist shocker, Eraserhead. And so, by reason of, rather than in spite of, production demands that could have been fatal (this was a Disney-managed event), Lynch could, with gusto, see to unfinished business about interpersonal intent, exerting troublesome pressures in the aftermath of Lost Highway (1997). And his most fertile reference-point in this safari would be another atypically mainstream (and likewise showered with lucky stars) entry, the Mel Brooks production of The Elephant Man.
This latter, ostensibly conventional narrative, Lynch was able to juice up from out of the Surrealist understanding of Eraserhead, particularly in its tolerating the redolence of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and Bresson’s Balthazar at Risk. A mid-nineteenth-century London surgeon counts upon a uniquely deformed young man to send his career into the stratosphere. He extracts his subject from the abusive clutches of a freak show huckster, only to install him in a special suite at his hospital where the so-called “Terrible Elephant Man” comes to develop a salon attracting the “bright lights” of the city to pay homage to his stoicism and gentleness. “One of the bright lights of the English stage,” “Madge Kendal,” arrives, all aglow with the “romance” of the occasion. She hands to “John Merrick” (for that is his name) a photo of herself, which he declares to be “beautiful” and worthy of sharing a space with a photo of his lovely and deceased mother. In addition to that show of delicacy, he has begun to produce an impressive cardboard replica of the church outside his window. Madge is by now swept off her feet by such strange nobility, and wants him to know that “the theatre is the most beautiful place on earth.” He reads a passage from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, she takes up the cue, and, after tracing the lovers’ impassioned conversation, she follows the stage directions, so favorable to her heart, and kisses him upon his squashed and ruined mouth. Whereas this creature with a disconcertingly bulbous head and neck, covered by a mane of wispy hair, while subject to the savagery of his “master,” “Mr. Bytes,” and the cloddishness of his revolted and mocking audiences, recalls Balthazar, the donkey, who also serves time as a grotesque clown and object of contempt in a circus, on striking it rich courtesy of Treves, he constitutes a regal Beast in his lair, receiving not only one quickly smitten Beauty, but much of the slipstream of the House of Lords. The surprisingly dainty Merrick (a sort of consumptive Charles Laughton), assuming by the subtlest of allusions the mantle of Cocteau’s warrior Bête (who, though, would die of a broken heart, but only after being seriously transformed by Belle), comes, thereby, into the film’s widespread and measured malaise about the depth of all that appreciation. On visiting Treves and his wife at their home, Merrick swoons before an array of family photos on the mantelpiece. “Such noble faces” they have! That same night, Treves cannot sleep. He explains to his wife what has begun to torment him. “I’ve made Mr. Merrick into a sight [as did lowlife Bytes]. Why did I do it?”
Fallout of that questioning represents a species of volcanic ash, queering every motion of this (only apparently) old-fashioned melodrama. The astringent thrill of finding within themselves the bold solicitude toward Merrick’s eerie repellancy, prompting Madge Kendal to maintain, “You’re not an Elephant Man; you’re Romeo,” includes the saccharine sub-thrill of hitting pay dirt with a hoary Zeitgeist. The crusty Director of Nursing has no trouble spotting such duplicity as playing upon the seemingly adventurous theme, namely, people being “frightened by what they don’t understand,” to wit, “They only want to impress their friends.”
Her “only” claim goes too far. But, in establishing the labyrinthine problematic welling up there, Lynch activates, in the single-minded business planning of Bytes and his carnivorous associates, a series of appalling moments, giving some credibility to the less than scintillating gentility exposed so roundly by the no-nonsense presence of Wendy Hiller in the role of the nurse. While adrift on being unfastened from Merrick, “My Treasure!” Bytes does an audition of sorts at a gin mill where two crazed women do their bloody best to tear each other’s eyes out. Then the porter of the institution where Merrick begins to triumph in the adulation, rehearsing alone lubricious charms for regal friends, bursts into his sanctuary and presents him to some paying customers from the bar. A couple of besotted women are thrust into his face and upon his body (his genitals having escaped the ravages of the disease); the porter pours gin down his throat; and he comes up with a mirror to direct at his face, at which Merrick recoils and screams, to the great amusement of the mob. Here the trials of Balthazar come into sharp focus, and even moreso on Bytes’ shanghaiing him over to France for an indefinite run, and the former’s alcohol-fuelled rages culminating in Merrick’s being caged adjacent to some frightened and angry monkeys, their splenetic eyes a far cry from the calm rightness of Balthazar’s animal colleagues at the circus in Bresson’s film. But, as in the case of Balthazar, he is rescued by the goodwill of others, here other freaks and clowns (trekking through woodlands as did the donkey, wearing his sack-mask that gives him more the look of a donkey and less that of an elephant), to the tune of being bankrolled for the trip back to London. His tortures have brought him to the edge of death. Treves, Madge and the Princess of Wales dedicate a show to him. And he dies at his haven (on lily-white sheets, as compared with lily-white sheep), choosing to be supine in bed, for a last sleep that he knows will kill him due to the suffocating weight of his head at that angle.
Treves has moved from sharp-witted, ruthless opportunism—guardedly gleeful about his find of the ne plus ultra of “such a perverted and degraded vision of a man”—to smug facilitation of Merrick’s apotheosis (kicked off by discovery of the latter’s knowing by heart the Twenty-Third Psalm [“…I will fear no evil/For Thou art with me; …” and, pertaining to the Balthazar theme, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…”]), to self-doubt and, finally, self-contempt (his voice in going through the motions of the tribute night gives off a depressed dryness). Merrick’s last stand (though embellished with maudlin conjuring of his mother way up there amongst the stars and offering the lullaby, “Nothing will die,” and prefaced by tearful beholding, dressed to the nines in the Princess’ box, the cheap, infantile fluff of a “Puss and Boots” pantomime [facsimile of Belle et Bête]) is predominantly a physical event, his plan to sleep like a normal person and not upright, hunched over like a donkey, recalling his lifelong respite from beatings and humiliations when bowed in sleep, his wretched form holding forth in the night as did the baby’s in Eraserhead, attaining to a dignity putting out of order, however briefly, the ramshackle missteps. From this spectrum drawn by Merrick and Treves, the puffs of acrid caring (visually coupled by the many emanations of smoke from the rude industrial revolution all around) attain to the level of marvelment. Merrick, just off the boat-train at London and cornered in a washroom by a jeering, bloodthirsty mob, cries out, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” Those reaching out to his humanness in all its treacherous pitfalls ( a gravity represented here by the leadenness motif of the elephant and the carnage consequent to work with machinery) comprise a contrarian initiative far from mindful of its “terrible” implications (recall Merrick’s show-biz tag, “The Terrible Elephant Man”). As such, they come into view as beacons by means of which a wanderer might say (hopefully to a more sustained point than was the case with Merrick), “I am happy every hour of the day.”
There is a round-the-clock happiness in Alvin, the protagonist of The Straight Story, by virtue of an impressive universality of positive neighbors, and an equally impressive homespun rendition of the Twenty-Third Psalm. Looking into that same starry homeland occupied by Merrick’s mother, now devoid of such whimsical touches, Alvin and his mentally disabled daughter, “Rose,” are in the backyard of their Laurens, Iowa, home and take the time to be blessed by the indescribable physical beauty of a clear night sky, uncompromised by big city frazzle. “The sky is sure full of stars tonight.” Whereas The Elephant Man proceeded in seas of talk, The Straight Story has come to seas of silence. The main sea of its progression is a huge verdant swatch of farmland, villages and roadways spanning Laurens and Mount Zion (Wisconsin), touched upon by Alvin on a mission to visit his estranged brother, recently felled by a stroke.
Though Lynch takes no credit for this scenario (like The Elephant Man, dictated by its bases in fact), his directorial discretion would maximize factors like the silence and the stroke and the territory and Alvin’s family name, “Straight.” (And there is also next-door neighbor, obese couch-potato, “Dorothy,” no longer looking over the rainbow, and grazing upon an unnerving array of carbs.) And there is the bizarre vehicle of this highway entry, namely, a tractor mower pulling a scuzzy trailer. The enmity, between the brothers, having congealed for ten years, and something Alvin felt strongly about overcoming, is a rare dark (noir) feature of that corridor of uncool and yet vestigially uncanny sensibility. Near the outset of his journey, his vehicle breaks down, he hitches a ride to take him back to Laurens by flagging down a bus filled with blue–point widows headed for a religious shrine (“the Grotto”)—one remarks, “My Edward loved his riding mower”—he shoots his old mower and watches it die in flames, and is very well treated by a John Deere tractor dealer who, in an ardently quiet way—unlike Nick’s ardor in Kiss Me Deadly—vouches for the reconditioning of the replacement item, it having been his to bring up to speed. While Kiss Me Deadly’s Mike Hammer would never opt for such a nonmetropolitan mode of transport—not even if recommended by Nick, his motor-guy—Alvin, in Willie Nelson attire and grizzle (but with more symmetrical features and larger, more expressive eyes), hits the road (again) with some Country/Western bona fides to back up his interests in outer space.
Alvin’s tale traces feats of resolve in face of obstacles that would be middling for someone not legally blind, and so not able to drive a car, for someone not having to pinch pennies due to very limited (pension) income, and for someone not silently tuned to soldier on alone. But, although some vestiges of Hammer’s laconic and generous drive do obtrude here, they come to bear as auxiliary to the film’s true content, its disclosure of Alvin’s homeland Oz, a place where goodwill toward acts of loving audacity comes as a given. So although the structure of the scenario seems to point to a Disney-patented celebration of a Little Big Man, it is in fact his dovetailing with those met along the way—in tandem with joyful communion with the countryside and skies—(including a pack of off-leash doggies streaming about the main drag of his hometown) that seizes us, and elicits a line of critical reflection far from standard Disney fare—reactivating, in fact, the interpersonal tangles of The Elephant Man.
Assured that “the guts are good” on his new John Deere, Alvin’s departure is watched with admiration by the dealer. He encounters a distraught commuter who has once again run down a wild deer. She despairs, “I have to drive along here to work. Every week I plough into at least one deer! And I love deer!” Though Alvin skins and cooks the highway victim without any remorse, and installs its antlers on his trailer, he assimilates in a rough-hewn manner that gift of nature, relishing its carnal treasures in a way recalling his watching with delight, along with Rose, the piquancy of an electrical storm. Angelo Badalamenti’s plaintive, country violin motif here, constitutes one small part of a musical tapestry rolled out to match the simple poetry of Alvin’s ways. Stopping in a field near the road, enjoying some fire-roasted smoked sausages that would not have made it onto anyone’s food guide, he is visited by a teenaged girl who, earlier, looking for a ride, had looked askance at his vehicle. “Are you hungry?” he asks, with similar intentness but without the smarm that Leland had used on Laura in Fire Walk with Me “Here’s a good stick for you [for the wiener]”/ [She, referring to his trailer] “What a hunk of junk.”/”Eat your dinner, Missy.” She inquires about the length of his trip. He tells her he has been travelling most of his life; but his wife had had fourteen children, seven of whom survived. “Frances died in ’81… Are you runnin’ away? How far are you along [with your pregnancy]?” On hearing he’s bound for Wisconsin, she becomes the second Iowan to remark, “I hear that’s a real party place…My family hates me. They’ll really hate me when they find out.” He tells of Rose having her four children taken away from her due to an accident befalling one of them, and that she pines for them every day. Then he passes on a lesson he would give to his children: letting them see how easily one twig can be broken, and how solid a bundle of twigs can be. “That’s family.” This dialogue is punctuated by a rhythm of pauses, inflections of voice (hers bearing a startling resemblance to Patricia Arquette’s, in Lost Highway) and silences. She says, “Lookin’ at the stars helps me.” He offers her the trailer for the night, saying he’d be fine sleeping in the lawn chair. She declines. She helps him up from his chair (he requiring two canes). In the morning she is gone; but she has left a bound bundle of sticks.
On having his mower break down at a village where the weekend highlight is watching the volunteer firefighters put out a fire set by them at an abandoned house, by way of keeping up their useful skills, Alvin comes within a population-wide instinct for rescue and small adventures, the cogency of which solders the various preceding little triumphs, to a provocative extent. Many helping hands push the wrecked contraption to the yard of “Dan Reardon” who offers Alvin the use of the yard and garage for the lengthy stopover for repairs. Dan, being a retired John Deere agent, has not only pinpointed the damages, expressed misgivings about the vehicle’s safety on the highway and has offered to drive Alvin to Mount Zion (an offer gently refused in terms of, “You’re a kind man talkin’ to a stubborn man”); but he has approached this stranger, whose strangeness he can readily comprehend, with a muted reverence the physical nuances of which take us into the cinematic heart of the film’s reflection. There is a sequence quietly and memorably setting in relief the compelling unity of perception at issue. Dan and his wife (doing dishes) discuss driving Alvin to his brother’s, and she encourages this step, praising him for being “the kind man I married.” He tries to fondle her, she laughingly puts him off; and then there is a cut back to Alvin’s conversation (in the yard, on Dan’s portable phone) with Rose about sending his pension check, wherein he says, “I love you, Rosie.”/”I love you, Dad.” He’s invited to a bar by another townsman, where they forge an intensive link on sharing nightmares about their battle horrors as GIs during World War II. Alvin’s drinking milk (“Lot’s of men came back drinkin’ hard), and as they look out over the bar, the soundtrack replicates the span of shared history by way of a blues thread on an organ and a quiet kick forward on an electric guitar. On saying his goodbyes to Dan (he’d be leaving “real early” next morning), he takes off his ubiquitous Stetson, places it over his heart and quietly says, “I want to thank you for your kindness to a stranger.”/ “It’s been a genuine pleasure knowing you, Alvin… [Write to me sometime.”/ “I will.]” As Alvin pulls away at dawn, Dan is watching this dénouement, with contentment and sadness playing over his face. A similar expression (but at a slightly higher pitch) comes over Alvin’s brother’s face on asking, “Did you drive that thing all the way out here to see me?”/ “I did, Lyle.” (They look away to the crisp blue autumn sky, which fades to stars.) Prior to this reunion, Lynch has given the linkage motif a twist on having Alvin’s machine break down minutes from Lyle’s, having Alvin wait stoically for help, having it come in the form of a big tractor (shown attending to the problem at a distance, the conversation barely audible, like the undercut “big moment” at the end of Demy’s Young Girls of Rochefort). Alvin explains, “This thing is tired.” The newcomer asks, “Anything I can do to help? / “I don’t know. It just quit.” / “Why don’t you try her again?” The engine comes to life by reason of the “magic” in the air, the magic of encouragement.
Alvin and the pregnant girl quickly find themselves on the same wavelength, in laughingly referring to the “Cheesehead” helmets, worn by the faithful followers of the Green Bay Packers, in terms of, “Have you ever seen anything so silly?” And, on the other hand, as residents of that team’s marketing catchment, they find satisfaction in the partying, “wild” energies of that bonding zone. This would seem to be light years away from Merrick’s idea of glitter; only, notice how Cheesehead and Elephant/Donkey head merge. Notice, too, that both Alvin and Lyle lurch and shuffle and require canes, walkers, as does the other invalid. And especially notice the prominence in both films of a starlit night. Both productions reveal gifts of frisson instantly known to be “big.” Both impact with boundless charm and nagging lacunae.
Alvin and Rose sit at their window, enjoying a storm as if it were a movie. “I love a lightnin’ storm!”/ “Me, too, Dad!” Then the phone rings and a flourish of lightning is upstaged by the harsh reality of Lyle’s stroke. With a young member of a bike tour stopped for the night (they had applauded his entry to their camp), he loses a bit of his seamless delivery and declares, “I’ve seen about all that life has to dish out.” This unexpected hubris, closure, comes very close to Merrick’s ultimacy in the aura of the beatific Madge Kendal. “To know I am loved!”
Both Alvin and Merrick suffer from induction into a part of the “elephant” they probe, which leaves them overly content they’ve covered the whole beast. The lives of both do proffer substantive encouragement for their best shot (for the “lift” playfully touched upon by Alvin’s equipping himself with a “grabber” for lifting objects [like firewood] off the ground), which proves to be unlike any shot explicitly revered. How transportable, these two films ask, are those (shallow?) reservoirs of goodwill, in moving forward from safe trenches into a historical territory of deadly enmity? “I fought in the trenches in World War II. Why should I be ascared of an Iowa cornfield?”