Tag Archives: wedding

My Favorite Movies: Freaks

Olga Baclanova becomes the "Feathered Hen"

I was recently inspired (largely by Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” series) to start a weekly series of posts devoted to what constitute “my favorite movies.” This is a multi-purpose idea: to probe into why, exactly, I consider these movies my favorites; to explore the difference between personal taste and objective quality; and to just see how much I can extract meaningwise from the movies in question. I’ve jotted down a little list of possibilities to start from, but I plan it to be pretty fluid and, like Ebert’s series, a “collection” rather than an limited or exclusive list of any kind.

And so, I figured, what better movie to start out with than one that’s much-beloved by myself and others, but generally neglected in official “best ever” lists, Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)? I first encountered the film maybe 5-6 years ago (on TCM, of course), launching me into an obsession with Browning’s work. I’d long been familiar with Dracula (1931), but soon watched collaborations with Lon Chaney, Sr. like The Unknown (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928). While Freaks may not be as culturally omnipresent as Dracula nor as emotionally focused as The Unknown, it’s nonetheless a totally one of a kind film and probably, in the end, Browning’s most notorious.

Freaks occupies several interesting borderlands. It’s a mix of narrative (a romance/revenge storyline) and spectacle, tapping into the average viewer’s anthropological voyeurism. I’d compare it to Tabu, which was made one year earlier by master of melodrama F.W. Murnau and pioneering documentarian Robert J. Flaherty, in the way it drapes spectatorship into foreign lifestyles around a fairly simple plot. It also sits in the space between mainstream Hollywood productions and exploitation cinema: produced by MGM (and originally slated to star Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow), it nonetheless has more in common – in terms of subject matter and presentation with its low-budget, independent brethren than it does with, say, Grand Hotel. One sign of this affiliation is the fact that Freaks was exhibited nationwide by Dwain Esper (director of Sex Madness, among others) in the years after it was roundly condemned by mainstream authorities.

The title screen of Freaks

Indeed, when it came out, Freaks received as vicious a response as The Rite of Spring or L’Âge d’or: people fainted, shrieked, even miscarried, and Browning’s career was pretty much ended (though he did manage to direct two more horror classics, Mark of the Vampire and The Devil-Doll). All of this just added to its reputation when, 30 or so years later, Freaks was revived as one of the original, most-appreciated cult films, which is where it sits today. So why the uproar and outrage? Maybe the clearest reason is this: Freaks is nothing if not transgressive. The title itself suggests that everything about the movie is outside the norm, and vehemently different. It’s a movie intended to shock and surprise as much as anything out of exploitation or John Waters; you can see it even in the carnival barker’s introduction. Superficially, he’s referring to the deformed Cleopatra, but ultimately, he’s talking about the movie as a whole.

So what kinds of difference, transgression, and line-crossing do we have in Freaks? First, there’s Hans, the midget, who loves the “big woman,” Cleopatra, setting up the film’s main conflict. There’s the freak community existing within a world that rejects them. A Frenchman condemns a group of young freaks as “monsters” even as Madame Tetrallini, herself physically normal, defends and mothers them. Repeatedly, the film bumps up against a fear of physical abnormality, and a fear of compromising bodily integrity – a current that runs throughout pretty much of all of western horror fiction, from Frankenstein to Lon Chaney, from the career of David Cronenberg to a large number of urban legends, and more. It’s a fear that serves as Freaks‘ main subject, making the film both in your face and ahead of its time, a forefather of the body horror subgenre.

An easy way to discuss the film’s encounters with difference might be to look at all the heterosexual pairings that populate it: there’s Hans and Frieda, the midgets who are a romantic couple here, despite being played by Harry and Daisy Earles, real-life siblings. Hans loves Cleopatra, the beautiful acrobat, who is conspiring and making love behind Hans’ back with Hercules, the strongman. I see Cleopatra and Hercules, with their mythological namesakes, as being just as freakish as Hans and Frieda – but instead of having “not enough” (i.e., in terms of height), they have “too much”: they are the super- woman and man, on display because of their excess of feminine and masculine qualities. A third couple is seen in Phroso and Venus, both played by recognizable MGM character actors (Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams), who are the film’s representations of physical normality, yet tolerant of the abnormality that surrounds them.

"A loving cup!"

Other couples abound in the periphery: we see Angelo Rossitto (the dwarf) and Frances O’Connor (the armless girl) eating together in a trailer; the stuttering, emasculated Roscoe married to Daisy, a Siamese twin; and the bearded woman and the human skeleton, who have a child together. In a very interesting twist on this pattern, the film has Josephine Joseph, ostensibly half-man and half-woman, split right down the middle. S/he brings to my mind the theory espoused by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium of a world originally populated by four-legged, four-armed creatures who were broken apart into two-person heterosexual couples. In one of the film’s many perverse subplots, Josephine Joseph is a couple unto him/herself – s/he hits on Hercules, only to be rejected, and later gazes on in sexual frustration as Hercules embraces Cleopatra. It’s symptomatic of the film’s many ambivalences that one minor character finds him/herself inherently crossing gender boundaries.

Freaks, then, brings the viewer across one line after another through its characters, many of whom are uncategorizable both in physical and sexual terms. (Another example is Schlitze, a male pinhead who is dressed and referred to as female.) The prejudice they face from the “normal” world makes the film, I think, a very durable metaphor: the impossibility of a freak/normal marriage between Hans and Cleopatra echoes miscegenation fears, and on a broader level the film’s conflict can apply to anyone who has ever felt rejected or dehumanized for any reason, just as the film itself was rejected upon first release. Like the freak shows it depicts (although curiously, only fractions of any performances are ever seen) and like the exploitation cinema that claimed it, Freaks has always been sideshow (or underground) entertainment smelling of sawdust and spilled beer. This lack of respectability, coupled with the film’s insistence on transgression, gives it much of its cult credibility. (What’s cool about seeing a movie “they” are encouraging you to see? Incidentally, Freaks was banned for decades, like A Clockwork Orange, in England.)

Thus, Freaks itself as a film manages to match the “forbidden” qualities of its own subject matter – a depiction of taboo violations becomes a taboo in itself. I’m sure semiotics could have a field day with that. Just mentioning Freaks is a sign of outsider qualities, as with the Ramones’ “We accept her! We accept her!” in the song “Pinhead,” or Bill Griffith’s long-running, enigmatic comic strip “Zippy the Pinhead.” (There’s just something about being a pinhead, it appears, that succinctly signifies exclusion in a way that “dwarf” or “legless boy” doesn’t.) I think it’d be worthwhile to examine in some more depth the infamous “Wedding Feast” scene.

It’s strange that, although generally considered a horror film, Freaks contains little explicit horror beyond the physical identities of its actors. However, everything about the wedding feast is so bizarre and so foreign that it constitutes “horror” just as much as any violent assault or intrusion of the supernatural. While the human skeleton plays no particular tune on the harmonica (creating a strange but merrily circus-appropriate backdrop), two otherwise absent characters demonstrate sword-swallowing and fire-eating, which amounts to a pair of filmed circus performances. Then, under the leadership of Angeleno the dwarf, the freaks prepare Cleopatra “a loving cup”: an enormous goblet of champagne from which one freak after another drinks in succession; meanwhile, Josephine Joseph and others strike up a surreal refrain of “We accept her, gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us…” What makes this most effective as horror, I think, is how naturally the freaks join into the nonsense verse “gooble gobble.” Consider an earlier exchange between Angeleno and Frances O’Connor, the armless girl, with regard to Cleopatra:

Angeleno: Let her try it. Let her try doing anything to one of us.

Frances: You’re right. She don’t know us. But she’ll find out.

All of these subtle hints at the extremity of the freaks’ sense of togetherness are, of course, proven true in the grisly climax, and they suggest something the movie never shows us outright – the unwritten, unspoken code of the freaks and their concealed knowledge that an attack on one of them will be treated as an attack on all. In this regard, the wedding feast is an inversion of the climax; together, the two rituals show the family of freaks while at the heights of celebration and at the depths of revenge.

Freaks is a roughly-made movie, I admit. It stars professional performers, but they often fail as actors, as with the living torso Prince Randian’s single but inaudible line, “Is there anything I can do in the act, bro?” The editing is patchy, some scenes go on too long, and the movie’s been through so many versions in its storied history that it’s hard to identify a definitive version. (E.g., some have a tacked-on prologue, while others have a tacked-on ending.) But as with much of Browning’s career, the way the material is presented is subservient to what‘s being presented: an ensemble cast full of genuine physical abnormality. Freaks‘ sheer audacity is what lets it live on in infamy while most of the more-accepted films of 1932 have since been forgotten. Carefully treading the line between understanding and exploiting, it’s compelling and enjoyable in its violations of our basic beliefs about the human form. And the fear inspired by this violation makes it a horror classic. Positioned brazenly on the outside of everything, Freaks is one of my favorite movies.

"Offend one, and you offend them all."

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But it’s always been that way!

So, we got out of class 20 minutes early today, and even if I have the sword-of-Damocles of responsibility hanging over my head (damn writing portfolios), I wanted to write a blog. About what, you may ask? I’m not sure. But it usually comes. And if it doesn’t, I just give up and go home. Except I am home. Or am I? I’ve long been confused about this vague, dubiously meaningful concept of “home.” You know, “There’s no place like home.” Be it ever so humble. Humble abode. A house is not a home? Or, as we learned in my melodrama class, home is the “space of innocence” in which melodramas (like, archetypically, D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East) begin. I randomly just thought of Jules Dassin’s great film noir Thieves’ Highway, which begins with the hero (Richard Conte) coming back from WWII. He finally reenters his home, starts doling out gifts to his parents and girlfriend, when all of a sudden it’s revealed: his father has no legs. This leads back to an incident involving an unscrupulous fruit merchant, motivating the revenge that dominates the rest of the film. But the point is that he comes back home, attempting to “Return to Normalcy” as Warren G. Harding would’ve put it, and finds that something is very much rotten in the state of California.

This is a common plot device (which has its own trope, Doomed Hometown) that basically feeds on the desire for everything to be good, normal, and how it used to be. When the hero comes back from the war, he expects to find his family just as happy and his hometown just as idyllic as it was when he was little. We certainly get a strong dose of this in that quintessential melodrama Gone with the Wind: what example in American history is as obvious as the Atlantan aristocrats who endure the Civil War only to see their old, beloved plantation and way of life literally burned to the ground by Union soldiers, just as certainly as the stormtroopers burned Uncle Owen’s moisture plantation in Star Wars, or the image that inspired that, the burning of the family house by Indians at the beginning of The Searchers. In these latter two examples, the destruction of the home serves a dual purpose, in that it both motivates revenge (setting in motion the hero’s journey) and makes it so there’s nowhere for the hero to come back to anyway, so he has to seek out the wrongdoers and make them pay.

So, the home. It’s a strange idea. What is home? The place that little bastard E.T. phones? Where the heart is? What the fuck is “the heart,” anyway? Sometimes I just hate tedious little adages like that. “Home is where the heart is.” Well, thank you! That’s so specific and meaningful! It’s not just repeating an old grouping of words with about as much magic power and insight into the human condition as “abracadabra.” I hate it when people just spout bullshit because people have said it before them. I say this over and over again: I can think of few reasons to do something worse than “people have done it before”! You know, committing murder has a long tradition in the human race. Does that make it a real valid course of action? Racism was law in America for 400 years. Does that make it a great way to live your life? In the 16th century, the Catholic Church condemned a heliocentric view of the universe. Is it therefore inappropriate to teach in schools? My point is, tradition can have its good points, but tradition is never good just because it’s tradition.

Another example: Ashley recently told me how at a wedding she attended, they celebrated a tradition where apparently the bride and groom each cut off a piece of the wedding cake and smash it in each other’s faces. And I spent about the next five minutes shaking my head in disbelief, going, “What the fuck is that? Why? Why? Why would you ever consent to doing something that deeply stupid?” So from the sounds of it, there’s a lot of idiotic traditions revolving around marriage. You have to do this, you have to do that. Why? Because people have done it before! And OK, some traditions, if they’re remotely meaningful or cute or whatever, I can appreciate. Doing moronic bullshit just because you’re supposed to is something I despise. I mean, what’s going to happen if you don’t follow all the stupid traditions? Maybe someone will get all upset and confused and go, “No, you have to do the cake-smashing thing, because that’s how it’s always been done! Intelligence be damned!” Maybe they’ll protest along lines that are frighteningly similar to the reasoning used by the village elders in “The Lottery.” Maybe, little did we know, but those stupid traditions were in fact holding together the fabric of the universe, and since you failed to do them, the sky is going to come apart at the seams. But I think it’s worth the risk. Seriously, it’s like people let their ceremonies be guided by a kind of collective OCD.

I think this also connects back to a basic tension underlying a lot of human behavior, beliefs, and also fiction: old vs. new. And not just that; to elaborate, people like novelty. It makes little chemicals fire in the brain and they go, “Oooohhh…” But change is scary, and people also like it when things stay the same. So when you try to suggest something new or different, even if it’s useful and good, they’ll fight back with all they’ve got because it makes them uncomfortable. (After all, “there’s a storm gathering.”) So what do these two ideas mean together? That, I think, human beings are a bunch of fucked-up little monkeys with inherently dysfunctional brains. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. But I’m sleepy and have to leave for class in 10 minutes, so pardon me if I cut some corners.

Let’s see, any other thoughts been percolating up in this ol’ head of mine? Well, I did want to write something about Edith Massey, one of John Waters’ Dreamlanders, just because she’s so fucking awesome. I’ve been watching and rewatching a clip from Pink Flamingos for my final project in digital storytelling, and every single time I hear her say how she’s going to eat her eggie-weggies before she goes sleepy, I just crack up (pun apparently intended). Massey is really just one of a kind. Here’s a sample of her unique acting genius:

Apparently in Female Trouble, she dresses like a dominatrix. I’m not overstating it when I say I have to see that movie. Also, I have a copy of Massey singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry” with her novelty/punk band, Edie and the Eggs. Words escape me. The world clearly needs more actresses like Massey. (Incidentally, though she died 25 years ago, you can read about her and her band, and listen to her music, here.)

And now I’d best be off to class where we’ll discuss Kon Ichikawa’s The Makioka Sisters (1983). Enjoy your day.

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