A college essay on David Lynch and David Cronenberg –
. . And vice versa
Both David Lynch’s Elephant Man and David Cronenberg’s Dead Zone deserved inclusion in this course spanning the two Director’s careers. These early works are both essential to taking a look at the span of either filmmakers career. Each of these ‘more Hollywood’ films came after large independent success, but unlike other Directors, Cronenberg and Lynch did not sacrifice style for budget. Dead Zone and Elephant Man are turning points in both these filmmakers careers. Both men held on to methods they had used effectively in the past. More importantly it is clear to see the important elements that they build on remarkably in the future. A further look at these two films and their Director’s will demonstrate their chronological significance.
Some may argue that the foray of a Director into the world of Hollywood is a recipe for disaster, that the filmmaker will forget their roots. In the case of David Lynch this could not be further from the truth. Eraserhead, when thought of in the context of 1977,gives the impression that Lynch was way too ‘out there’ to become a formidable Hollywood force. The Elephant Man reinforces the proof that Lynch is out there thematically but also displays that Hollywood is the only town for a director like him.
What Lynch’s first Hollywood experience did for him was to show all the ins and outs of the Hollywood industry. When your picture is nominated for eight Academy Awards surely you come to see all aspects of said industry. The most important thing that The Elephant Man taught David Lynch was the ‘correct’ way of doing things. He adhered to the clean-cut narrative structure, worked with the best actors and fulfilled his audience’s expectations. By learning how to do this so early in his career it enabled David Lynch to purposefully go the other direction whenever he pleases. The Elephant Man is necessary viewing material if one wishes to understand how Lynch achieved the dissolution of narrative in Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, or how actors always illicit such excellent performances under his guidance, like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.
David Lynch has always been a director with a special sort of sensibility towards the world of sound. The Elephant Man picks up in the aural spectrum where Eraserhead left off. In this film mechanistic and vacuous noises invade the world of Victorian England. Each open space in this film is given a haunting aura, much like the stairs of Dorothy’s apartment building in Blue Velvet. Vacuous sound in the corridors of the hospital adds Lynch’s strangeness and also creates an air of ambiguity around the progressing plot and Merrick’s future. One of the most notable re-occuring sounds from Elephant Man is the grating screams from the title sequence which are not discernible between the cries of a woman or the piercing roars of a disgruntled elephant.
Bodily abjection ties in wonderfully with the audio of this film. Merrick’s labored breathing is more so in the beginning, before his face is seen, then anywhere else. This is because Lynch was well aware that this would make his audience desire to know why Merrick breathes like that and force their imaginations to fantasize what lies beneath the cloth shielding John’s face. The severe degree of Merrick’s deformity is truly heard with the slurping he cannot help when speaking. This slurping makes John very difficult to understand throughout points in the film due to the constriction his deformity places upon his mouth.
“Sense is not the point: the responses are the point,” as Stanley Kauffmann says of another Academy Award nominated picture by Lynch, Mullholland Drive (McGowan, 195). This is true for many of the most shocking scenarios in the cinema of David Lynch. This statement most suitably fits the decision to hide John Merrick’s face from the camera for the first portion of The Elephant Man. Lynch wishes to trip up our senses, as seen in movies such as Lost Highway. He succeeds with this in The Elephant Man by showing the horrified reactions of various people upon first seeing Mr. Merrick. Use of this technique shocks the audience more once John’s face is finally revealed. Our world of fantasy is built-up as we see others viewing Merrick without any basis for an audience member to form an actual opinion. We drool with desire as the wait for Merrick’s face draws on.
An interesting stylistic decision can be seen when Frederick Treves first places Merrick on display to his colleagues during a lecture one day. The doctors sit frozen in awe at their first glimpse of John. This is not an unexpected reaction, however, these men are not merely sitting still. Something is amiss in the plastic and unflinching manner with which Lynch chooses to portray these reactions.These bewildered looks from Treves’ associates serve to show the stale nature that these reactions have taken on throughout their repetition during all the years of Merrick’s life. Similarities to this idea can be seen even as recently as the film Inland Empire. In Inland Empire Lynch combines long pauses in dialogue with various distortions of the lens to achieve this same effect.
The Dead Zone is interesting because it was only the second time in David Cronenberg’s career that he did not write the script. Despite this challenge, Cronenberg created a significantly signature piece. A focus on less gore and more psychological elements is really what sets The Dead Zone apart and warrants it’s study in the class room.
One reason that The Dead Zone requires inclusion into this course is the way in which it complements the work of David Lynch through the notions of fantasy and desire. Johnny Smith runs from his fantasy and desire by not staying at his girlfriend’s place the night of his accident. Like so many other Cronenberg protagonists a simple mistake ultimately leads to Johnny’s downfall. Typically, the main characters in this director’s cinema meet their end by ceaselessly and selfishly desiring more. Max Renn of Videodrome refuses to stop until he has the edgiest network on television, what he finds is a little edgier then even he could possibly want. Seth Brundle of The Fly rushes his experiment in his desire to impress Veronica, converting him into the hideous ‘Brundle-Fly.’ The Dead Zone is unique in that Johnny wants nothing but less throughout the picture. Even with this modesty Johnny spirals downward in typical Cronenberg fashion.
Many other instances of the significance of fantasy and desire within The Dead Zone also appear. This film perfectly depicts the failure of fantasy and desire, even when these urges are fulfilled. Johnny informs Dr. Sam Weizak that his mother is still alive. Dr. Weizak is under the impression that his mother was killed saving his life from the Nazis. Sam’s desire to have a mother forces him to pick up the phone and dial the house Johnny told him she would be at. When his mother actually does come to the telephone Sam cannot speak with her. Coming to know his mother now would destroy Weizak’s fantasy image of her. She would become ordinary and not the hero who sacrificed herself for her son.
Another example of the failure of fantasy and desire is evident in the press conference Johnny reluctantly gives about his new powers of second sight. One reporter decides to be bold and asks Johnny to perform a reading upon him before the television audience. After grasping the reporters hand Johnny sees that the man’s sister killed herself. The reporter desires to know why she did such a terrible thing but cannot handle the truth, demanding that Smith remove his hand. Knowing why his sister killed herself would break down the reporter’s fantasy image of his sibling and he just cannot face the truth.
Fantasy becomes the real in The Dead Zone as seen with Johnny’s visions. This is seen when Smith is teleported to the time and place of any circumstance he induces a vision of.
There is no doubt that Johnny is actually at the places he claims to be. As viewers we have the privilege of seeing and knowing he is not lying. Once again though we see a similarity between Cronenberg and Lynch here. Lynch typically portrays the opposite of an idyllic fantasy as also seen here in The Dead Zone. If this were a standard Hollywood picture Johnny’s second sight would be seen as a gift. This could not be further from the truth in The Dead Zone. Even the implication by Sheriff Bannerman that John’s psychic abilities are a ‘blessing’ infuriates Johnny. Instead, when these fantasy images overtake Smith it leaves him feeling like he is “dying on the inside.”
Desire becomes a sobering thought in The Dead Zone as well. The things that Johnny wants after awaking from his coma should be simple but time has forsaken him. After losing Sarah, Johnny just wants to be left alone to wallow. A passing moment in the Weizak clinic perfectly displays how the impediment to John’s desire has changed it entirely. Johnny recalls a somber line from Sleepy Hollow, the story his elementary school class was reading right before the accident, about Ichabod Crane. He utters, “Since he was a bachelor, and in nobody’s debt no one troubled their head about him.” Sarah asks John if this is what he is afraid of, to which he replies, “No, that’s what I want.”
The downfall of Johnny Smith is drenched in fantasy and desire. The day that Sarah and her son Denny come to visit Johnny fulfills both individual’s desire to sleep with one another. Afterwards, Sarah makes sure to inform John that this was a one time thing but her declaration is not taken entirely seriously by Smith. Since his desires have been fulfilled, despite the great odds against them, Johnny now fantasizes about a continued affair with Sarah. This desire is obliterated with the realization that Sarah was all too serious on the day that she arrives at John’s home with her husband to campaign for senatorial hopeful Greg Stillson. With his fantasies and desires ruined Johnny must now create new ones. His new fantasy is the hope that he can be more then a successful crime fighter, he wants to be a martyr.
The basis for the necessary inclusion of these two films in the course is their similarities to both other works by their creator and the other’s creator. No two films that we watched in class embody why The Elephant Man and Dead Zone deserved inclusion more then Blue Velvet and Videodrome. Blue Velvet makes perfect sense for the time it was made. It has a very distinct Hollywood quality to it but it also hearkens back to the oddity that is Eraserhead. The concept of bodily abjection drives this plot, as it also does Elephant Man. Jeffrey Beaumont’s father faces a massive stroke in the films first few moments. This absence of a father figure leaves Jeffrey lacking guidance and ultimately sees him fall in with the likes of Dorothy and Frank Booth. Facial deformities also find their way into both stories; In Blue Velvet the severed ear Jeffrey finds serves as an opening to the danger that lies ahead. The transition from the extreme plot of Videodrome into the straightforward story that is The Dead Zone is significant in the study of Cronenberg’s career. In Videodrome Max Renn sees his desire bring about his downfall, just as Johnny’s desire for Sarah brings about his. Fantasy is a chilling horror in both of these films; Johnny has visions, while Max has hallucinations. The importance of The Elephant Man and The Dead Zone could be debated all day for these reasons. It is just too bad there was not enough time to watch these and every other film in these two men’s catalogs.