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Mother's little nightmare: Photographic and monstrous genealogies in David Lynch's The Elephant Man

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David Lynch's film The Elephant Man (1980) tells of the bourgeoisification and rehumanization of the physically deformed Englishman Joseph Merrick, who was put on display as the Elephant Man in European freak shows. The stages of this formative process are illustrated by the monster's progressive acquisition of the ability to engage in the normative use of photographic images. These events are framed by an allegory that constructs two material genealogies, Merrick's own and the genealogy of the filmic medium, and presents the origins of these genealogies, Merrick's mother and the medium of photography, as divided and derivative. At the same time, the interweaving of the two genealogies does not allow film to appear as photography's legitimate descendent, but rather its monstrous offspring. But The Elephant Man suggests that it is precisely this monstrosity that allows film in contrast to photography to represent the monster in a way that lends him a human countenance. This celebration of the filmic culminates in the final sequence, in which the transformation of the photographic medium into the filmic is surpassed by a general transformation from mediated to immediate, in which Lynch's film paradoxically allows its own medium to participate.

Keywords: David Lynch; The Elephant Man; disturbed genealogies; fetishism; mediality/immediacy; photography/cinematography; physical deformity; portraiture

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: The University of Trier.

Publication date: 2010-11-01

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  • The Journal of European Popular Culture investigates the creative cultures of Europe, present and past. Exploring European popular imagery, media, new media, film, music, art and design, architecture, drama and dance, fine art, literature and the writing arts, and more, the journal is also of interest to those considering the influence of European creativity and European creative artefacts worldwide.
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