I remember thinking, at least the first time that I saw The Elephant Man, that Bytes' narrative about Merrick's origin (and that surreal bit at the opening of the film) was an accurate reason for Merrick's condition. But, we had a book about Merrick in our home and, while I never read it cover to cover, I browsed the text and looked over the photos.
But, other than that initial confusion, I don't think I thought much of those Lynchian moments; they were distractions. I also didn't think much on the idea of exploitation; Bytes was awful, Treves was nice--that's all I thought about that.
What really mattered when I saw this film as a kid--and what absolutely shines through now--is Hurt's portrayal of Merrick. (And, primarily, he's got his eyes and his voice, and little else; the malformed head prosthetic doesn't move.) Humanizing the monster, so to speak. Something close to that we've seen in multiple movies in this childhood deconstruction so far--Blackbeard's Ghost, Young Frankenstein, The Villain, even The Apple Dumpling Gang and, arguably, The Jerk (though it makes a far weaker case).
(Plus, we had protagonists who stepped outside mainstream society in Snowball Express, Adventures of the Wilderness Family, and Star Wars.)
In church every Saturday and five days a week in Bible class in private school, I was being told that there was good and evil. In those same religious environments, and in so many movies and on television, I was being told that the world was coming to end. On the big screen, violence was the way to win--Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Norris, and so many more--because there were actual villains out there and they deserved to be killed. But, watching some of these mainstays of my childhood again in this deconstruction suggests some very mixed messages. On the one hand, monsters deserved to be destroyed. On the other hand, monsters were quite human.
Blasco, Moreto, and Blasco (2015) suggest that, since "emotions usually come before rational thinking," learners (which I would extend to everyone) form a large part of their beliefs about the world from what they see in "a popular culture largely framed through emotion and images." "Life stories are a powerful resource in teaching," they argue. Every film, even one that isn't based on a "true story", is a life story; every film accesses the learner's (again, everybody's) affective mind. Neuroeconomics professor Paul Zak has found "that even the simplest narrative can elicit powerful empathic response by triggering the release of neurochemicals like cortisol and oxytocin" (Popova, n.d.). Blasco and Moreto (2012) argue, "Life stories and narratives enhance emotions, and therefore set up the foundation for conveying concepts. Movies provide a narrative model framed in emotions and images that are also grounded in the everyday universe."
Lynch does ground The Elephant Man in the everyday universe. Between the surreal bits with the furnace or the factory workers and Treves' patient early in the film being the victim of an industrial machine accident, Lynch is positioning the film within a reality where the inhuman is overtaking the human, so to speak. His surreal flourishes weaken this theme, in my opinion, and the film doesn't spend enough time with the theme to really examine it. It's like an elaborate establishing shot of London, even though the film will spend almost no time outdoors, and will mostly show us the negative side of the city's society--while Treves contemplates whether or not his actions are good or bad, he continues them; on the night Merrick goes to be without his pillows, thus causing his own death by asphyxiation, Treves takes him to the theater, where the high society folk applaud Merrick. The film never actually sets those folk as that far from the lower class people that Jim brings to Merrick's room, or those who frequent Bytes' freak show.
But, because these elements are left scattered throughout the film, what we have after the first act is a film that finds its focus in Merrick himself. And, almost immediately, we can get used to his deformed appearance, and we can appreciate his emotional outbursts, and feel the anguish of both wanting people to interact with but fearing those interactions. His joyous moments are palpable, but so are his most painful.
Lynch paints a picture that is dark and twisted at its edges, and deformed at its center, but we are there in the center, and once we are there, we remain. The darkness is the inhumane and inhuman.
It is too bad that Bytes had to be smeared in the process, since in reality, he was a businessman who teamed with Merrick when Merrick was tired of workhouses. The themes about exploitation actually wouldn't have changed much if the film gave us a Bytes, and even a Jim, who were less caricature, more character.
As Roger Ebert says in Life Itself, "movies are like a machine that generates empathy." It is too bad that The Elephant Man spends so much of its effort making us/allowing us to empathize with Merrick, and so little with everyone else. But still, as a child watching this film, maybe those broadstroke villains made Merrick stand out more, forced me into his corner even before I saw him. By the time we see Merrick's face, we have seen how he is mistreated by Bytes, we have seen him put on display for doctors, and we have heard a nurse scream upon seeing him. He comes into view a quiet, scared thing, waiting for us to be in that corner with him. That corner where our brain chemistry can be altered by Merrick's story. The film's flaws do actually help promote its strengths. Both because of and despite Lynch's flourishes, we are invited into Merrick's world. And, it may be a sad world, but we remain because we can sympathize and empathize with Merrick.
Blasco, P.G. & Moreto, G. (2012). Teaching empathy through Movies: Reaching Learners' Affective Domain in Medical Education. Journal of Education and Learning, 1(1), pp. 22-34.
Blasco, P.G., Moreto, G., & Blasco, M.G. (2015). Education though Movies: Improving Teaching Skills and Fostering Reflection among Students and Teachers. Journal for Learning through the Arts, 11(1).
Popova, M. (n.d.) The Neurochemistry of Empathy, Storytelling, and the Dramatic Arc, Animated. Brain Pickings. Retrieved from https://www.brainpickings.org/paul-zak-kirby-ferguson-storytelling/