Community and the individual: Reflections on viewing “The Elephant Man” (1980) at the Ex Convento dei Teatini (Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 34), city of Lecce, Tuesday 6 July, 9pm, 2021.

Image: Ready for the screening in the courtyard of an ex-convent, city of Lecce.

21 August 2021.

It was almost a year to the day (7 July 2020) that I saw my last film, and it was in this same place, the Ex-Convento dei Teatini, which, as you might have guessed, was a former convent.

This elegant Baroque convent (or monastery- in fact I have heard there were also nuns domiciled there at some point) was built as a domiciliary for the Teatini Fathers (or “Theatine” Fathers, in English), before their order was suppressed under Napoleonic rule. Construction began in the last decade of the 16th century and was completed around the mid-17th century.

After the building was closed for good as a Theatine convent/monastery in 1866, it was made use of, sequentially, as a barracks, as a school and as a site of municipal offices. More recently the commune of Lecce has allowed the elegant courtyard to be used for theatrical performances and films screenings.

As a fan of the independent DB D’Essai cinema in Lecce, which presents mainly “art-house” films, I was concerned for the cinema’s ability to sustain itself through the long closure of regional cinemas, decreed by the regional government of Puglia, in response to the Covid pandemic in 2020.

Partly in response, it would seem, the DB D’Essai took advantage of the cloudless and balmy summer nights in Lecce to arrange a series of open-air screenings in this space, adhering to social-distancing rules by placing seats two metres apart, and it was there I saw an “original version” screening of a reissued print of Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War satire, Dr Strangelove (1964).

Between that screening on 7 July 2020 and the screening of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) on 6 July 2021 I really saw no other film, at least by design. The one other film I saw, a few weeks after the Dr Strangelove screening, was a screening of Sergio Leone’s For A Few Dollars More (1965) I stumbled upon in the Piazza del Popolo, in the town of Specchia, presented in tribute to the film’s legendary composer Ennio Morricone, who had recently passed away. However, this was not a “closed” screening – in other words the film was screened at one end of an open piazza where many people were cooling off under the stars, after another extremely hot and humid day, listening to pop music, conversing with friends – so I consider that event more an ambient experience that a film viewing in a real sense.

Open screening of “For a Few Dollars More” in the main piazza, Specchia, July 2020.

You may wonder why I only saw three films in the period of a year, when I clearly have a strong interest in them. The answer to that is that although I love film, and always have, I very rarely watch a film at home. I bought a DVD- player last year, but I used it only a handful of times to watch a half-dozen films during the starkest part of the Covid restrictions in March/April 2020. I don’t subscribe to any film streaming service. A long time ago now, perhaps a decade ago, I started to find watching films on my own a lonely and depressing experience, unlike reading fiction or poetry, where I feel – if the work is good – that I am engaged in a form of direct communication with the author.

“Film, as a medium, is made to be received communally, in relationship to others,”

Perhaps it is the intensity of the level of engagement when reading, diminishing one’s self-awareness or self-consciousness – or perhaps it is the medium itself that makes the difference: fiction and poetry is written to be read by people alone; it is an intimate medium that requires the receptor to be solitary, to disengage from others, in order to engage with the work. Therefore, when reading, one feels one is embroiled in a valiant and time-honoured solitary endeavour.

Films, by contrast, are made with the intention (for most filmmakers, even now in the “simultaneous home/cinema release” era) of being seen in a cinema or public space, but if at home, in company – with family, friends, lovers or spouses. Film, as a medium, is made, in other words, to be received communally, in relationship to others, and in this way, it is closer to theatre or live music performance than the medium of fiction or poetry.

Therefore, when watching a film alone, separated from other people, I am distressingly aware of my own separation from others, and regardless of the artistic merits of the film, the activity seems irrelevant and unworthy of the time left to me on this earth – time wasted. Film, at least for me, needs to be experienced with others for its spell to work as intended.

For this reason, when the opportunity has arisen to see a film with others, between periods of government-enforced social distancing or “lock-down”, it has felt like an especially rare and moving experience.

It made me think about the meaning of “community”. This space was once the domicile of a community of religious brothers; on this night it was the temporary haven of a community of film-buffs. This community of film-buffs were (for the most part) members of the wider community of the city or province of Lecce. That wider community, outside the walls of this ex-convent, were at that moment avidly watching the European cup semi-final game between Italy and Spain with friends and family, either at home or outside the bars and cafes in the surrounding streets and piazzas. A community of football aficionados – at least when Italy is in strong contention to win the European cup (which it did, in the next match). There were communities within communities there that evening.

And even I was not completely alone. A friend of mine was with me. She, like me, is not from Lecce, or the region of Puglia – we were both “sconsciuti” – strangers to the place, trying to find our “tribe” in the city, trying to connect (while trying to retain some dignity about it, reminding me of the lines from an old Bob Dylan song, “I am just a poor boy, baby/ Trying to connect/ But I certainly don’t want you thinking/That I haven’t got any respect”).

Several weeks after this screening, when considering how to write about this experience in a way that made it more than a simple review, I realised this was the connection, thematically, between the narrative of The Elephant Man and the subjective experience of watching the film in this scenario. On the surface, there could not be any more incongruous difference between the stark, vaporous, monochromatic world of industrial-era Victorian London, as depicted by David Lynch – peopled with grimy villains and subliterate barroom desperados on the one hand, and a starchy God-fearing middle class on the other – and the well-educated and broad-minded twenty-first century audience, watching the film under the stars at the peak of summer, within the walls of one of Lecce’s most unblemished and elegant edifices of the pre-industrial age.

However, the story that played out on the screen is also a story of isolation and community. Lynch’s previous feature film to The Elephant Man, his debut low-budget feature Eraserhead (1977), had a Kafkaesque ambience and narrative, and although The Elephant Man was an “optioned property”, as they say in the film business, that was offered to Lynch, rather than from an original idea like Eraserhead, it has a similarly Kafkaesque protagonist and scenario. The material fit Lynch’s sensibility like the proverbial glove.

In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa’s feelings of alienation are externalized one day when he wakes up to find he as transformed into a giant dung beetle – disgusting and abhorrent to the world. In The Elephant Man, John Merrick (John Hurt) was born terribly deformed, and at the inciting incident of the story, when Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) first sets sight on him in a dingy circus freak show, he has never known any reaction to himself from the public but disgust and abhorrence, and an appalled fascination with the “otherness” of him that allows him to survive in a meagre and subhuman way as an attraction in the freak-show of the immoral, cruel and self-pitying impresario, Mr Bytes (Freddie Jones).

For Merrick, communities have always been something to be feared – they are the people that come to stare at him, and who would probably do him physical harm if he were found anywhere but it in the sordid circus that is his refuge. In the course of the narrative, Treves rescues him from Bytes’ control and is able to make him a permanent ward of the Royal Alexandra Hospital, after the personal intervention of Princess Alexandra of Wales (Helen Ryan).

Some of the hospital staff, in particular the chief matron “Mothershead” (Wendy Hiller), and Dr Treves and his wife (Hannah Gordon) become a small protective community for Merrick at the hospital. He opens up his soul in response to their kindness. Although he is physically incurable, he develops as a human being under their influence and the influence of certain people that visit him, such as the stage actress Mrs Kendall (Anne Bancroft). He starts reading Shakespeare, he creates a model of the church outside his window, using his imagination to complete those parts he cannot see from the window. He calls Treves, with strong feeling and conviction, in great contrast to the withdrawn, fearful person Treves first encountered, “my friend”. The value of community, at its best, to the soul of the individual, and the individual’s incompleteness without a nurturing community, is implicit in all this.

At the same time, community can also turn on the outsider viciously, and at the peak of his spiritual victory, Merrick has to suffer being brutalized by a section of London’s underclass, who after guzzling cheap booze in a nearby saloon, are emboldened to enter his chambers at the hospital (“for a price”) by the hardboiled and opportunistic night porter (Michael Elphick).

There are many ways to interpret a film, and my focus on the theme of the fraught interrelation between the individual and the community in The Elephant Man seems to derive from the experience of it that night, where the sense of community felt possible, but also ephemeral and difficult for a stranger to connect with (thinking again of that Dylan song). However, it could be argued, having opened this particular line of enquiry into The Elephant Man, that you can see the same theme repeated, to a greater or lesser degree, in most of David Lynch’s films – but most strongly present, perhaps, in Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-1993) and Mulholland Drive (2001). I also thought recently of Kurosawa’s film The Seven Samurai (1954) in the same context. At a time when film screenings in cinemas or public spaces seems on the verge of becoming a thing of the past, due to both the pressures of controlling Covid and a general trend toward the convenience of home-viewing options, such events as this one seem precious and profound, almost like the religious services that once took place in that same courtyard, three hundred years ago.

One thought on “Community and the individual: Reflections on viewing “The Elephant Man” (1980) at the Ex Convento dei Teatini (Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 34), city of Lecce, Tuesday 6 July, 9pm, 2021.

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