I am not an animal. I am a human being. I am a man!
As defiantly romantic as the above quote sounds, it just isn’t true. Men (and women) are, in fact, animals. You can look it up. It’s right there in the Bible but I will not insult you by quoting the chapter and verse.*
The whole idea that humanity is somehow separate from the rest of the animal kingdom (and some of the more intelligent sponges) is nothing more than hubris and thumbs. Need proof? Just click the next three links you see on the internets and I guarantee you that you will either find yourself staring at something useless for sale, a buxom female human in congress with an electronic appliance, or a Kevin James movie. Need I say more?
No. You can’t argue with me or the Bible.
We are animals, and yet we yearn (tragically) to be somehow superior. To separate ourselves from the tumultuous mass of fur and claw and soiled newspaper. This week’s Mind Control Double Feature delves deep into this human/animal dichotomy (appropriately as it’s Double Feature #36, and 36 is double-chai, or ‘twice life’ if you are a numerologically minded Jew).
Without further ado, here is your cinematic double-punch to your sensitive bits, by which I mean your heartstrings and your uvula.
The Elephant Man (1980)
Have you heard of John Merrick, aka the Elephant Man? This was a real person, and a horribly deformed one at that. He was so messed up that Michael Jackson thought he was messed up—so he bought his bones and that’s messed up indeed.
In reality, this man’s name was Joseph Merrick and he lived all too briefly at the end of the 19th century in Britain. He developed at least one catastrophically deformative disease as a child (perhaps Proteus syndrome, perhaps neurofibromatosis type I, perhaps both or neither) and saw his body transformed into something many found ghastly. He survived as a sideshow attraction until he caught the eye of London surgeon Frederick Treeves, who recognized his submerged humanity.
But that’s enough of reality because what we’re watching today is a David Lynch film. While Lynch’s film is based on Treeves’ own book and another reputable source, it isn’t a documentary. It’s a story about what Merrick represents and what his experiences reflect on our own.
And it’s by David Lynch, who was fresh off the sedate and perfectly comprehensible Eraserhead. This is Twin Peaks David Lynch, Blue Velvet David Lynch, scrubbing away the polished surface of comfortable society that conceals the all too strange turmoil of reality beneath. In this case, however, the turmoil is only exaggerated, not invented.
Lynch (and cinematographer Freddie Francis) shot The Elephant Man in black and white, which perfectly suits its claustrophobically dreary London setting. He cast such luminaries as (pre-Sir) Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, and Sir John Gielgud. You could almost, for a moment, forget that this is a David Lynch film until the screaming woman starts tossing her head in slow motion and the elephants rampage. Which scene happens at the very beginning. So yeah. David Lynch. Also, you win a nickel if you spot John Hurt before the credits roll. And by “win a nickel” I mean an ACTUAL NICKEL from me, to you.
Nickels for everyone! I am not an animal!
Here’s what I’d like to tell you about The Elephant Man.
- It does an exceptionally good job of making you understand what it might have been like to be John Merrick.
- I cried three times watching this movie and I’m hard as nails, I am.
- It does not skimp on the sentimentality.
The Elephant Man takes as its subject our humanity. It slides its scalpel under what we desperately hope distinguishes us from the beasts and discovers all our dirty secrets. Take away your videogame console and your handbag and your ability to lie down in bed like a normal child and what remains? A cloth mask.
The woman’s head tosses in slow motion as she screams. The elephants rampage. Would you like to look at the creature behind the curtain? It’ll only cost you a taste of silver.
District 9 (2009)
After the weepy mess that is The Elephant Man, you’ll need something jovial and fun and… oh, who am I kidding? District 9 is one of the better science fiction films you could pull off the shelf, but it sure as hell isn’t jovial. It shows us a grim reflection of the Elephant Man’s transformation. Poor John Merrick, unsightly but brimming with emotion, finds his so-called humanity in his story. In District 9, Wikus van der Merwe may be an entitled bureaucratic arse, but he looks just peachy.
Then… his so-called humanity comes into question. Mostly because he transforms into an alien.
This film, directed by then new-comer Neill Blomkamp, cracks us over the head with its grim intensity. Blomkamp is South African and this production—very clearly—speaks to the political situation that nation struggles to completely put behind itself. It is, simply, a film about what it means to be human and about how we treat those whom we consider lesser—be they humans of other races or prawn-like aliens who eat cat food.
In this case, we get prawn-like aliens who eat cat food. These extra-terrestrial refugees have a roadside mishap above Johannesburg, leaving their giant spacecraft adrift. After everyone on Earth freaks out sufficiently, the inhabitants inside get ferried down to a temporary displacement camp like they’re poor immigrants from (insert your local scapegoat country here).
In this camp—the District 9 of the title—the new arrivals behave strangely, cause a ruckus, and are generally dismissed as useless, gross, scavenging parasites. So the government hires a private paramilitary firm to evict them to an even shittier camp farther away from the city. That’s when Wikus (Sharlto Copley) steps in.
He’s the dickhead who’s in charge of shuffling the poor creatures along. Only something goes wrong. He is infected with some weird alien fluid and slowly he begins to change. Is he still a man when his body appears alien? Is he human as long as he loves his wife? Was he human before, when casual cruelty was business as usual? What about if he begins to actually notice the suffering of others and act like a decent fellow for once?
I am not a prawn! I am a human being. I am a man. (says no one in the film)
District 9 is one of those excellent films in which weighty subjects do not require a ton of scenes of people sitting around drinking tiny glasses of schnapps and talking about Nietzsche into the wee hours. It is one of those films in which weighty subjects require people to explode in clouds of gristle while vivisectionists ply their trade.
So, uh, probably don’t watch District 9 while trying to eat a sloppy joe.
While I heartily agree with the Supreme Being that Children of Men is the best science fiction film (and perhaps film) of this century, District 9 is right up there. It is this generation’s Robocop. There. I said it. And it’s true: violent, shocking, emotionally disturbing, politically challenging, intellectually stimulating, and basically excellent. Also: giant killer robot things.
You will not be surprised to find that the story of District 9 is based on real happenings in apartheid era South Africa, when blacks were evicted in great numbers from newly designated “whites only” areas. You will also not be surprised to learn that both District 9 and The Elephant Man will make you question exactly what it means to be a real, goddamned human being and not some damn, dirty ape.
Until then, please try to be nice to everyone. And if you happen to be a Supreme Court justice, I think marriage equality is a swell idea. Just saying.
*Teen Wolf Act II, Scene 4