Cinema DNA: The Elephant Man

UW professor José Alaniz explores the cultural, social and cinematic influences that went into David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) – a problematic yet ground-breaking representation of disability in film.

March 28, 2019

David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980), only his second film, took on the controversial story of Joseph Merrick, a deformed "freak" in Victorian England, making of this bizarre subject a surreal, mesmerizing and profoundly human drama (with lead actor John Hurt receiving an Oscar nomination for his performance). Based in part on Bernard Pomerance's 1977 play of the same name, the film subtly comments on the long, troubled history of disability representation in cinema itself, and would go on to influence many later movies, from Peter Bogdanovich's Mask (1985) to Barry Levinson's Rain Man (1988) to Stephen Chbosky's Wonder (2017). Its famous line "I am not an animal! I am a human being!" has entered the lexicon as a cry for equality of all people.


Thursday, March 28, 2019

This class first examines the history and key issues in representing disabled people in movies, with a combination of lecture and clips of relevant works, including Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Hal Ashby's Coming Home (1978). We will use these as an entry point for discussing David Lynch's ground-breaking 1980 film The Elephant Man, about the 19th-century sideshow performer and "medical curiosity" Joseph Merrick.

Class Specifics:
Thursday, March 28
7:00 PM - 9:30 PM
SIFF Film Center Theater
$25 | $20 SIFF Members
SIFF is happy to provide ASL interpretation or other accommodations upon request at least two weeks prior to the event date. The auditorium is fully accessible for all patrons.

Class Workload:
A familiarity, and preferably recent viewing, of The Elephant Man is recommended but no knowledge of the films being discussed is required for enjoyment of this class offering.

About the Instructor:
José Alaniz, professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Department of Comparative Literature (adjunct) at the University of Washington, Seattle, has published two books, Komiks: Comic Art in Russia (University Press of Mississippi, 2010)
and Death, Disability and the Superhero: The Silver Age and Beyond (UPM, 2014). He served as director of the UW's Disability Studies Program from 2014-2018. He is currently writing a book on the representation of disability in Russian cinema.