I first saw the light
Super 16mm film, 2012. 12 mins
An autobiographical text and card model are the focus for a new short film by Phillip Warnell, transmitting the vestiges of Joseph Carey Merrick’s output. A reminder of his response to adversity and bodily deformation, I first saw the light is a looped film installation, which also functions as a footnote to David Lynch’s eponymous film, The Elephant Man.
An imaginary zebra crossing on Victorian London’s Whitechapel Road separated its opposite parades. Seemingly worlds apart, on one side was the public extravaganza of a late Victorian freak show (in which Merrick himself was exhibited) on the other, bio-political scrutiny as exercised by an emergent state health apparatus on the observational wards of The Royal London Hospital. Joseph Merrick’s conspicuous passage across the road’s broad highway connected these spectacular neighbours as concomitant establishments, intrinsically and conceptually linking populist spectacle and biopolitical, medical gaze.
I first saw the light is a silent 16mm film, channelling inter-titled extracts from Merrick’s few-page autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Joseph Carey Merrick: Half a man, half an Elephant. It conveys a poignant yet overwhelming optimistic tone, originally handed out to spectators of the freak show in which his disfigured bodily form was displayed as part man, part animal. The film combines this with the scrutiny of a model church, as constructed by Merrick himself whilst in residence at the hospital, hermetically sealed in a display case within which it remains startlingly well preserved, despite its evidently fragile form. Word and model regard and revolve each other – text and image satellites in an otherwise darkened cinematic sky – the model an archival resonance that perhaps, as depicted by Lynch, offers a way towards Merrick’s very soul.
Notes on I first saw the light card text:
(1) Deleuze: see A to Z DVD, with Claire Parnet. Semiotexte, 2011. A is for Animal
(2) Agamben: The Open, Man and Animal, for the development of a notion of 'bare life'. Stanford Press, 2004