Viewer Guide: The Elephant Man and Safety Not Guaranteed with Richard Peña

November 2, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.


This week’s classic is The Elephant Man, the 1980 biographical drama on the life of John Merrick, directed by David Lynch.

Just as the story of John Merrick had transfixed and profoundly moved Victorian audiences during Merrick’s lifetime, this cinematic account of the human being behind the freak show “exhibit” known as “The Elephant Man” prompted similar reactions from movie audiences some 90 years after Merrick’s death in 1890. Born in 1862, Merrick’s mysterious disfigurements began at a very young age, and steadily worsened to such grotesque proportions that he was even shunned by his own family, and forced at 17 to seek refuge in the British Workhouse system. Suffering a fall which permanently crippled him, Merrick soon had no choice but to enter the freak show circuit, with his condition “promoted” under the preposterous theory that his mother had been traumatized by an elephant at a country circus while she was pregnant.

Marking only the second feature film by director David Lynch, The Elephant Man also represented a radical departure from Lynch’s first feature, the avant-garde, cult-classic Eraserhead, which had garnered critical raves but was a far cry from traditional period biographical films. The film’s lead executive producer was in fact Mel Brooks, whose role went uncredited to avoid giving audiences the unwanted impression that the movie was a comedy. Brooks and his fellow producers wisely perceived that Lynch’s simultaneous horror and fascination with the human body in Eraserhead made him the perfect choice for The Elephant Man’s disturbing tale of human biology gone so terribly wrong. Bravely allowing him to shoot the movie in black and white, Brooks also defended Lynch against the nervous interference of studio executives at early test screenings.

Partially based on the account of Merrick’s life by Frederick Treves, the British surgeon who rescued Merrick from his freak show existence, the film offers a riveting dramatization of Merrick’s rise from pariah to prominence within both medical and social circles. Anthony Hopkins stars as Dr. Treves, with John Hurt in an Oscar-nominated performance as Merrick; each day, Hurt had to submit to a grueling eight-hour make-up session, with another two hours needed just to take the make-up off. The supporting cast features British acting royalty John Gielgud and Wendy Hiller, with Mel Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft memorably appearing in a cameo role as Madge Kendal, the famed Victorian actress who becomes one of Merrick’s leading champions.

As so often seems to happen with competing projects emerging at the same time, renewed interest in the story of John Merrick had already produced a Tony Award-winning play by Bernard Pomerance in 1979. Although partly based on Frederick Treves’ book “The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences,” the film rearranges events in Merrick’s life for dramatic effect. Treves’ account was later discovered to contain several inaccuracies—including the fact that Merrick’s first name was actually Joseph—yet it must be admitted that some of the errors may have been due to Merrick’s willfully shielding details of his family history. Despite all the contemporary scrutiny of Merrick’s story, modern day medicine has still not cleared up all the mysteries, and there are questions lingering as to what exactly was responsible for his severe body deformities.

Garnering eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, The Elephant Man launched the career of director David Lynch in Hollywood, even if arguably it remains the most conventional film of a highly idiosyncratic career that includes such mind-bending masterpieces Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, as well as the cult-favorite TV series Twin Peaks. 


 This week’s indie is Safety Not Guaranteed, a quirky romantic comedy directed by Colin Trevorrow.

Aubrey Plaza stars as Darius Britt, a recent college grad who finds herself struggling to get out of her post-school “funk” to begin her adult life and career. Living at home with her widowed father and with no clear idea of what she wants to do, Darius has learned not to expect too much from life, especially in the years following her mother’s death. Her unpaid internship at “Seattle Magazine” keeps her busy but broke, so Darius is pretty much ready to try anything to make some money, even if means interviewing for a dead-end restaurant job.

Eager to escape the menial office chores she is saddled with at the magazine, Darius is intrigued by an idea pitched during a story meeting by Jeff Schwensen, one of the magazine’s staff writers, played by Jake Johnson. Jeff has spotted a most unusual help wanted ad looking for someone to join a time-traveling expedition, the only requirement being to “bring your own weapons” although “safety is not guaranteed.”

Darius’s initial excitement at working on the story quickly wanes when she realizes the assignment will require her to join the boorish Jeff on an out of town research expedition along with another geeky intern played by Karan Soni. Staking out the post office, Darius whiles away the time waiting for whoever took out the ad to check on their mailbox—until at long last a furtive oddball played by Mark Duplass appears on the scene. And with that, Darius embarks on a cat and mouse game to get to the bottom of a time-traveling quest that just may not be as much of a nutty hoax as she initially thinks.

In some respects, Safety Not Guaranteed follows the formula of a contemporary screwball comedy—except this time around it’s the male side of the romantic equation who functions as the kooky eccentric disrupting the dull logic of conventionality. The script was inspired by an actual want ad that first appeared in “Backwoods Home” magazine in 1997, placed as a joke by a senior editor. Understandably attracting considerable attention, the ad initially attained legend as an internet meme before serving as the basis of Derek Connolly’s screenplay for Safety Not Guaranteed in 2012.

Marking the theatrical feature directing debut of Colin Trevorrow, the director did not have to wait long before moving into the cinematic big-time. In 2015, his second film was Jurassic World, another quirky variant on screwball comedy that became the first film to make $500 million in a single weekend. While Trevorrow lost the opportunity to direct the last movie of the new Star Wars trilogy, he will return to Jurrasic Park to direct the third Jurrasic World.



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