After watching The Elephant Man, Eraserhead, and David Lynch’s short films, all for the first time and in short succession, what’s most striking is the seamlessness of Lynch’s evolution from art school animator to studio hire. It’s almost impossible to imagine a more ideal scenario for the young filmmaker. After laboring for the better part of a decade on The Grandmother and Eraserhead, two highly original, intimate, and still-shockingly strange films, Lynch had the remarkable good fortune of being championed by Jonathan Sanger and Mel Brooks (of all people), who invited him to direct The Elephant Man, a relatively traditional script that suited perfectly his already fully-formed aesthetic and thematic concerns.
At the risk of psychoanalyzing the young Lynch, it seems safe to say that his early work is steeped in anxiety. Like so many fables before it, The Grandmother is a fantastical tale of a child’s struggle to escape corruption and cruelty by restoring the foundations of his lost and mythical “traditional family.” Love and death are ethical and metaphysical issues for Lynch, but they’re bound up in biology, too. Human flesh and organic processes are mysterious, unreliable, and frightening in these films. You can practically smell the decay. In Eraserhead, the anxiety is more specifically sexual: given the film’s grim cast of seductresses, spermazoid parasites, and foetal nightmares — not to mention one terrified young man — it should come as no surprise that a quick Google of “David Lynch” and “Freud” returned more than a hundred thousand hits.
Having seen various clips from The Elephant Man over the years — “I am not an animal” and all that — I was caught unprepared by the film’s opening sequence, which is almost identical in style and tone to Eraserhead. Like John Merrick in his coat and tie, Lynch’s first Hollywood production is more refined and respectable, perhaps, but it’s a wonderful oddity, nonetheless. Intercutting Freddie Francis’s black-and-white portrait of slow-moving elephants with fever-dream images of Merrick’s desperate mother, Lynch immediately reestablishes his old preoccupations — myth and archetype (“Leda and the Swan” for starters), sexual anxiety, nostalgic longing for family, and the loss of innocence — all of them refracted through the particular prism of Lynch’s imagination. He’s an odd guy, let’s face it, with a keen ability to transform even the most benign of objects (a pile of dirt, a baked hen, an oval portrait) into something genuinely Uncanny, in the Freudian sense. The Elephant Man, like the two films that preceded it, is so laden with harbingers of loss and ruination, Merrick’s actual death at the end of the film seems redundant.