Month: September 2009

THE HILLS Premiere: Viva la Spectacle!

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“Media stars are spectacular representations of living human beings, distilling the essence of the spectacle’s banality into images of possible roles.”
-Guy DeBord, Society of the Spectacle

“I’m more famous than president Barack Obama. I’ll say that to President Obama’s face. My portrait is higher than his on the wall at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut restaurant. That’s such a statement. Spencer Pratt is above the President of the United States in fame. No matter what I say or do from here on out, I’ve imprinted myself on the culture. Ask somebody why I’m famous, they’ll say I’m annoying or have a big mouth, but there’s no tangible thing.”
-Spencer Pratt, interview in Spin Magazine Online

A panorama of douchebags.
A panorama of douchebags.

I am well out of MTV’s target demographic. I am not a consumer of the bands featured on the show (or its accompanying soundtrack), nor do I plan to party at Les Deux any time soon. I don’t want a career in fashion or public relations or whatever it is that Audrina Patridge does. And truly, I care very little about The Hills’ young, overprivileged, spray-tanned cast. I do however, read a lot of gossip magazines and I even read academic analyses of celebrity culture in my free time. In other words, I enjoy The Hills for the same reason that I enjoy films like Glen or Glenda? or The Room — I love how the text of the show constantly pushes me beyond the frame, to the extratextual. I can never see an episode of The Hills as a self-contained world. I am constantly thinking about the casts’ lives outside of the show — who they’re dating, how much they’re making and whether or not they still have that pesky eating disorder.

Stephanie, don't you know you're not supposed eat in Los Angeles?
Stephanie, don't you know you're not supposed eat in Los Angeles?

The young cast of The Hills is a regular feature in tabloid magazines like US Weekly, In Touch and OK!. They are also featured on celebrity gossip websites like PerezHilton.com and The Superficial. Fans who enjoy the “stars” of The Hills can also buy their clothing, listen to their music and read their novels.

Look away, friends, for it is too horrible to behold.
Look away, friends, for it is too horrible to behold.

This kind of “multiplatform” engagement with the text is an ideal way to target Generation Y (aka, MTV’s prime demographic), who enjoys consuming their entertainment through multiple venues. This type of engagement also leads to a peculiar viewing experience. As I have written elsewhere, The Hills’ “media savvy audience is likely aware of the characters’ offscreen lives and yet they continue to tune in (in record numbers) to see what transpires onscreen each week.” Viewers tune in to see these characters, rather than to see “what happens next.” For example, I did not need to watch last night’s Hills’ premiere, subtly entitled “It’s On Bitch,” to know that Audrina and Kristin would butt heads — I read all about their growing animosity in last week’s US Weekly. I also love knowing that the only reason Kristin Cavallari is back on reality TV is because her attempts at a film career tanked. No wonder she’s such a bitch. The Hills’ multiplatform structure almost demands that its viewers consider the extratextual. It is central to The Hills experience.

Does this lighting make me look human?
Does this lighting make me look human?

Of course, the most entertaining personalities on the show are Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt (aka, Speidi), a couple for whom the term “fameosexual” must have been invented. Unlike their co-stars on The Hills , Speidi is fascinating precisely because it is almost impossible to locate where their textual personas end and their extratextual lives begin. While castmates like Lauren Conrad and Lo Bosworth have been caught by the paparazzi’s lens sans make up or biting into a greasy hamburger, Speidi seems to have the preternatural ability to avoid being taken by surprise. Every single paparazzi image of the couple is staged, as if they were able to construct a special fantasy world around themselves — a life-size Barbie dreamhouse that includes shopping at Kitson and going to brunch.

Spencer and Heidi "relax." Spencer and Heidi "shop."

Spencer and Heidi exist in a constant state of performance before an ever-present camera. I imagine Heidi getting into bed at night — in full make up, hair freshly blown out — and turning on a video camera that is mounted to her ceiling. Indeed, their entire life appears in quotation marks: Spencer and Heidi go “golfing,” Spencer and Heidi “shop for toys,” Spencer and Heidi “breathe.” This couple, and the world of The Hills in general, seems to be the emodiment of Guy DeBord’s thesis in Society of the Spectacle (1967) (and I am sure that somewhere a graduate student has already written this paper). DeBord writes “Understood on its own terms, the spectacle proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance.” Perhaps its is for the best that DeBord did not live to see the rise of The Hills.

Speidi, in their natural habitat.
Speidi, in their natural habitat.

I do not say these things to spite Spencer and Heidi. In fact, if Speidi read this blog post, my guess is that they would agree with everything I’ve just written. In a recent interview, Pratt explained “Heidi and I got married on the show. You know as much about us as anyone. We tell people everything. No one is more honest than Spencer and Heidi.” The thing is, I believe Spencer. I believe that I know as much about his life as Heidi does. I believe that if we took their clothes off we would discover smooth, plastic, genital-free bodies with a “Made in Los Angeles” stamp. And for this I salute them. Long live the Spectacle!

A few other thoughts about The Hills premiere:
1. I love that Lo, once referenced in her onscreen title as “Lauren’s friend,” is now labeled as “Audrina’s friend.” Isn’t Lo important enough to just be “LO”? And more importantly, don’t Lo and Audrina hate each other?

2. Did anyone get a little creeped out when the recap segment at the beginning of the episode featured Kristin’s voice over narration, rather than Lauren’s? It felt dirty somehow, like I was cheating on Lauren.

3. Finally, although I have never been a fan of Kristin, I was definitely enjoying her in the premiere. Moments after her first cat fight with Audrina and Stephanie my husband turned to me and said “This girl’s way more fun than Lauren!”

So, what do you think? Can the show go on without Lauren? Or will Lauren show up at some point this season, mascara streaming down her cheeks, telling the audience that we betrayed her? And if we all keep watching this show, will the world collapse in on itself?

UPDATE on “Is GLEE Racist/Heterosexist/Ableist?”

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Have the writers for Glee been reading this blog? No, of course they haven’t. But I was still very pleased to see that Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) got her big solo — West Side Story‘s “Tonight” — in last week’s episode, “Preggers.” There was a lot of talk about how Rachel (Lea Michele) has a better voice and really should have the solo, but Tina sang it nonetheless. A small victory for the show’s non-white characters.

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And, of course, a lot of the episode was devoted to Kurt (Chris Colfer) and his strained relationship with his heteronormative father. I’m glad Kurt was a featured player and for the most part, I thought his story arc was intelligently rendered. Though, was it really necessary for Kurt to shimmy effeminately before making his game-winning kick? I’m still not sold on the show’s need to turn Kurt into Mr. Roper’s vision of the homosexual in every episode. However, the final scene between Kurt and his father, Burt (Mike O’Malley), when we learn that Kurt’s mother has been dead for many years and that Kurt’s father has always known that he was gay was very moving. I imagined these two men figuring out how to negotiate their complicated relationship in the absence of the mediating mother/wife figure and I did get a little weepy.

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One final note about “Preggers”: every time Sandy (Stephen Tobolowsky) appears on screen in a pair of pastel pants and a turtle-stitched belt, I laugh out loud. The show should get a costuming Emmy based on this character alone.

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Excess, Badtruth and the Extratextual in GLEN OR GLENDA

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“Let us not mince words. The marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful.”
Surrealist Manifesto (1924)

“Badness appreciation is the most acquired taste, the most refined”
-fan of paracinema (qtd. in Sconce 109)

Barbara gives her fiance, Glen, her angora sweater in Glen or Glenda?
Barbara gives her fiance, Glen, her angora sweater in Glen or Glenda?

In “Trashing the Academy: Taste, excess and an emerging politics of cinematic style” (1995), one of the first attempts to theorize cult cinema within the academy, Jeffrey Sconce defines “paracinema” as “less a distinct group of films than a particular reading protocol, a counter-aesthetic turned subcultural sensibility devoted to all manner of cultural detritus. In short, the explicit manifesto of paracinematic culture is to valorize all forms of cinematic ‘trash’, whether such films have been either explicitly rejected or simply ignored by legitimate film culture” (101). In an earlier post I discussed how I would be using precisely these kinds of texts in my Trash Cinema course.

Theatrical poster for Glen or Glenda?
Theatrical poster for Glen or Glenda?

This week my students watched and discussed one prime example of paracinema, Edward D. Wood Jr’s Glen or Glenda? (1953). Glen or Glenda (which has also played under the more sensational title I Changed My Sex) originated as a documentary about the life of one of the first highly publicized transsexuals, Christine Jorgensen, but the film quickly morphed into an odd, often dreamlike self portrait of the director, who was fond of wearing women’s clothing (particularly angora sweaters).

Christine Jorgensen
Christine Jorgensen

When watching Glen or Glenda? it is vital to know such extratextual details. For example, this knowledge explains Wood’s passionate defense of crossdressing (at a time when men who crossdressed in public were frequently arrested and/or beaten) and his frequent, emphatic claims that the film’s crossdressing protagonist, Glen (played by the director) is NOT a homosexual. At these moments the film becomes Wood’s plea to be understood and embraced by a society bent on rigid gender codification. Indeed, as Sconce points out, paracinematic texts often push the viewer beyond the boundaries of the cinematic frame, demanding that we account for the profilmic.

Edward D. Wood, Jr. on the set of Glen or Glenda
Edward D. Wood, Jr. on the set of Glen or Glenda

The moments that pull the viewer out of the fantasy of the text, pointing them to extratextual, are often identified by fans of paracinema as instances of “badtruth”: “As with the [Surrealist concept of the] marvellous, the badtruth as a nodal point of paracinematic style, provides a defamiliarized view of the world by merging the transcendentally weird and the catastrophically awful” (Sconce 112). For example, Bela Lugosi’s role in Glen or Glenda? — a mix between a God figure, a mad scientist, and Glen’s subconscious — is strange and distracting and therefore a primary example of “badtruth.”

The above scene only becomes tolerable (and even pleasurable) when we know that Lugosi was, at this point in his career, a fallen star, desperate for money to support his debilitating morphine addiction. Wood was a huge Lugosi fan and could not believe his luck when Lugosi agreed to star in his film. Despite Wood’s enthusiasm (and one can never doubt Wood’s enthusiasm), he clearly had difficulty fully integrating Lugosi into his crossdressing/sex change film. One of my students even asked “Did Lugosi even know that he was making a film?” These moments of badtruth, when Lugosi plods through nonsensical lines like “Beware of the big green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys,” point us to the extratextual, and the extratextual, in turn, contextualizes, even rationalizes, the film’s badtruth. This is the circuitous logic of paracinema and one of its primary pleasures.


The obviously doctored newspaper: a great moment of badtruth in Glen or Glenda?

Unfortunately, the majority of my students did not see it this way. They described the movie as “too long” (the version we watched was just 68 minutes long), “exhausting” and “annoying.” Our discussion of what many cinephiles consider to be the “worst film ever made” naturally led us back to The Room, with my students claiming that the latter was far more enjoyable. As one student put it “Both films were poorly made but at least The Room didn’t preach to the viewer.” Apparently, badtruth on its own is pleasurable, but badtruth mixed with a political agenda is not.

Despite my students’ less than enthusiastic response to Glen or Glenda?, I will continue to screen it in the classroom (it holds a regular spot on my Introduction to Film Studies syllabus). As a fan of paracinema I delight in the way the film constantly pushes me past the frame, to think about its production history, its stars and its now iconic director. But maybe Tim Burton and I are alone on this one? At least I’m in good company…


Scene from Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton)

Why I’m Still Watching SURVIVOR (And Why You Should Too)

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A few months ago I was having a conversation with my brother and made a reference to Survivor, one of the first television programs to merge the conventions of reality television with those of the games how. “You’re STILL watching Survivor?” he asked, clearly incredulous. Though most of my other reality TV affairs have come and gone (America’s Next Top Model, Hell’s Kitchen, The Bachelor), I still find myself tuning into Survivor each season.

The success of so many reality shows today are fueled by our enjoyment of the schadenfreude that comes from knowing that we would most certainly never defecate on the floor in front of a group of people while wearing a formal gown (no matter how badly we had to go) or puke into our hands at the dinner table, the way contestants on the dating shows Flavor of Love and Rock of Love , respectively, have done. That’s because in these and in other shows (Nanny 911, The Real World, Bad Girls Club, to name just a few) the viewer is positioned above the cast member. Producers are banking on our elitism and disdain.

I don't watch this show. Seriously.
I don't watch this show. Seriously.
These women make me feel better about myself.
These women make me feel better about myself.

Likewise, shows such as So You Think You Can Dance , Project Runway and Top Chef, position the viewers below the cast members. With these shows we lift our eyes to marvel and envy the innate and cultivated talents of the contestants, knowing that we could never achieve that same level of skill. As one Top Chef contestant, Dale, put it a few seasons ago, “You sit on the couch watching the show and be like [sic] ‘Oh I could do that shit.’ Um, well you know what? Most of you? You can’t. ‘Cause it’s really fucking hard.” Dale may not win a spot on the newest season of America’s Next Top Grammarian but he does make a good point. The average viewer cannot whip up an artful amuse bouche in 5 minutes using only items pillaged from a convenience store. But the great thing about Survivor is that it showcases ordinary people — people just like you and me — pushing themselves to do extraordinary things.

Here are a few other reasons why I tune in season after season:

1. The Man
Jeff Probst is, in my opinion, the best game show host of all time. His detailed play by play commentaries during reward and immunity challenges are always informative and often funny. And during tribal council he has the uncanny ability to ask exactly the questions we were hoping he’d ask. He can put contestants on the spot — by challenging their circuitous logic or by bringing up an issue he knows they do not want to address — and somehow not come off as exploitative or mean-spirited. Probst IS Survivor.

The Man. Period.
The Man. Period.

2. The Premise
After 19 seasons, Survivor is still great because it is built on a brilliant premise: take a group of average Americans (with the occasional super-athlete or former member of the military occasionally tossed in) and put them on a desert island for 39 days. Require these people, many of whom have never even been camping, to build their own shelter and forage for their own food (sometimes the show’s producers give them rice and beans to start the game and sometimes they don’t even give them flint to make fire). When the contestants weak from hunger, thirst and lack of sleep, force them to compete in grueling physical challenges. And the amazing thing? Even with all of this to worry about, when their legs are covered in rashes and spider bites and their clothes are brown and brittle, these people still find ways to strategize, strategize, strategize.

The cast of Season 19
The cast of Season 19.

3. The Hunger
Watching a video of a malnourished family compete for their dinner would be horrifying and even sickening. But watching people who have chosen to place themselves in extreme living conditions compete for their dinner is completely engrossing. I love watching a prim Southern belle eat grubs from under a rock for “protein” or a large, muscled man make do with a few bites of rice. Nothing will match the joy I felt back in season two when Elisabeth Hasselbeck (then known as Elizabeth Filarski) pulled out a clump of her own hair, a side effect of malnutrition. “She really is starving!” I said to myself with glee. This is sick, I know.

Elisabeth--before she got all scary and right-wingy
Elisabeth--before she got all scary and right-wingy.

4. The Challenges
The reward and immunity challenges alternate between physical and mental competitions, but they are always difficult and intricate. Contestants have to dig holes and shimmy through them, dive under water to unlock treasure chests, assemble puzzle pieces to build ladders. Even the simplest challenges — such as having contestants perch on top of a tiny ledge to see who can stay there the longest — are endlessly fascinating.

One of my favorite challenges.
One of my favorite challenges.

True there have been some weak seasons (Survivor: Palau) and weak premises (breaking down the tribes by race?) but on the whole Survivor remains a consistently satisfying reality TV powerhouse. So while the premiere of Survivor: Samoa was down 22% from last year, I for one will continue to watch.

Is GLEE Racist/Heterosexist/Ableist?

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Only three episodes have aired but I am already a huge fan of Glee. Hell, I was a huge fan 5 minutes into its premiere last spring. My enthusiasm for the program largely stems from my love of the American film musical: Glee is peppered with elaborate, often integrated, musical numbers. Even the show’s nondiegetic music is sung a capella. Sure, the musical television show has tried and failed to gain traction with American audiences, but Glee seems like it’s going to make it.

Glee's multiracial, multiethnic, multisexual cast
Glee's multiracial, multiethnic, multisexual cast

In the months following Glee‘s sneak preview/premiere back in May, however, some quiet rumblings began (also here and here). The show includes an African American female character, Mercedes (Amber Riley) who is … wait for it … overweight and sassy. The show also includes a homosexual character, Kurt (Chris Colfer), who loves Liza Minelli and obsesses over his fashion choices and a wheel-chair bound character, Artie (Kevin McHale) with thick, horn-rimmed glasses and sweater vests. Yes, these are a lot of stereotypes.

Mercedes and Kurt
Mercedes and Kurt

Of course, stereotypes are not inherently problematic, particularly when a show seems to revel in its stereotypes. For example, Glee is filled with numerous high school movie clichés, including snotty, blonde cheerleaders (Dianna Agron) and a squat, laconic football coach (Patrick Gallagher). But, the early complaints about Glee have been that its African American, Asian, homosexual, and handicapped characters have taken a backseat to the show’s white, heterosexual, able-bodied characters. Rachel (Lea Michele) and Finn (Cory Monteith) have received far more screen time, characterization and most importantly, solos, than any of the other young characters. For example, in the premiere episode’s “big number,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”, it is Rachel and Finn who not only monopolize the juiciest bits of the performance, but also turn the song into a romantic duet. I’m not sure that Artie, the parapalegic or Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), the Asian American character, have had more than 2 lines between them yet. And yet, these characters all over Glee‘s promotional images and in its trailers. As the blogger at Alas! A Blog put it “Diversity consists of real parts, not just tokenism.”

By including (and promoting) a diverse range of characters and then not utilizing them within the narrative or the musical numbers, the show seems to be saying that tokenism is enough. It’s a simulacrum of diversity. An all white cast would not be more politically savory but it would be more honest.

Rachel and Finn
Rachel and Finn

However, there are indications that the show will start allotting more screen time to some of its other perfomers. In the most recent episode, “Acafellas,” the primary narrative revolved around Will’s (Matthew Morrison) attempt to reclaim some of his lost confidence by starting up an all male a cappella quartet that performs 1990s era hip hop. This naturally leads to an a capella rendition of Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up.” Naturally.

The Acafellas conquer New Jack Swing
The Acafellas conquer New Jack Swing

But the show’s secondary storyline finally yielded some screen time to Mercedes and her somewhat inappropriate crush on Kurt. Kurt’s rejection provides the segue for one of the episode’s main musical performances, a sultry, dare I say “window busting,” rendition of Jazmine Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows.” I was happy to see Mercedes have her moment in the spotlight because Amber Riley can really sing. And she looked pretty fierce in her black jumpsuit and fringed red jacket (even if such clothing is completely inappropriate for washing cars). The episode also featured a tender moment when Kurt finally vocalizes, for the first time, that he is gay. Glee often operates at one move away from reality, but this scene was both grounded and touching.

Fierce
Fierce

This most recent episode seems to indicate that the show will shift its storylines (and its solos) to different characters from time to time. I hope this is the case because, as I mentioned, I really like musicals. And a capella versions of “Poison.”

But what do you think? Is Glee going to be the kind of program that pays diversity a lot of lip service without actually putting it into practice? Or do we need to give this show more time to grow?

TRUE BLOOD Season Finale: The End is the Beginning

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The True Blood season finale was all about knowledge and whether it is best to have it or to remain in ignorance. First, Maryann (Michelle Forbes) prepared for her nuptials to the god-who-comes and once again asked Sookie (Anna Paquin) “What are you?” Sookie’s response “I’m a waitress. What the fuck are you?” was humorous, but unenlightening. We could also hear the fear in Sookie’s voice — what is she really?

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While Sookie is frightened by her own ignorance, Hoyt (Jim Parrack) discovers the perils of learning the truth. While under Maryann’s influence his mother (Dale Raoul) reveals that Hoyt’s father did not die bravely, fighting off a burglar, but took his own life. And the desire to keep his mother safe from an imaginary burglar is what kept Hoyt from going to college, leaving home or having a life of his own. “I should’ve known the truth when I was 10!” he screams before walking out on his mother. This knowledge may permanently destroy his relationship with her (good riddance, I say).

There were other examples of the knowledge/ignorance theme in the finale. The residents of Bon Temps have agreed to practice collective amnesia, rather than admit to the things that they did while under Maryann’s spell. Ignorance may be the best policy, however, as evidenced by Eggs (Mehcad Brooks), who could not handle the knowledge of the murders he committed. He appears to lose his mind and demands to be arrested.

But there was more to this finale than the simple tying of loose ends. What I really appreciate about True Blood is that it has used its finale episodes to put the next season’s plotlines in motion. So here’s what we can expect from Season 3:

1. Sam Merlotte’s Origins
We know that Sam’s (Sam Trammell) adoptive parents were terrified by his shape shifting and consequently abandoned him at a young age. In the finale he returns to their home for answers about his past. In keeping with the theme of the evening his mother warns him that it is in Sam’s best interest to remain in ignorance. His biological parents are “bad people,” she tells him. But then we see a close up of a monitor. Who is on the other end? In the next shot we enter a room loaded with medical equipment and pervaded with the sucking and beeping noises of a body kept alive by machines. This is Sam’s estranged father and he is dying. I loved that there was no attempt to explain what was wrong with Sam’s father — he simply handed Sam a scrawled note with the names of his biological parents. At the bottom of the note were the words “I’m sorry.” I can’t wait to see how this story unfolds in Season 3.

sam-merlotte

2. Bill’s Kidnapping
Like many fans of the show, I have very little tolerance for the blissful romance between Bill (Stephen Moyer) and Sookie. I rolled my eyes continuously throughout the scene in which he takes her to a fancy French restaurant in a gag-worthy lavender cocktail dress and then (ugh) proposes marriage (I did, however, enjoy learning that it is only legal for vampires and humans to marry in Vermont). Although the writers likely wanted my eyes to fill with tears as Sookie jubiliantly reentered the dining room to tell Bill that yes, she will marry him! only to find him gone, I actually cheered a bit. This means that Season 3 will open with Bill and Sookie apart and, I’m guessing, Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) moving in for the kill. Sweet! Oh yeah, I’m on Team Eric all right.

true blood season 2 finale 01

3. The Murder of Eggs
I was not particularly sad to see Eggs die. First of all, I never caught why people called him Eggs [note: since posting this I have been schooled: Eggs is a play on his real name, Benedict]. Also, his relationship with Tara (Rutina Wesley) always seemed somewhat artificial to me — created under and perpetuated by Maryanne’s spell. I’m confidant that she can find a better mate (like Sam perhaps? Hint, hint, writers). Jason (Ryan Kwanten) shot Eggs in an attempt to grab at the heroism he feels he missed during the Maryanne debacle, and although Frank Sobotka, errr, I mean Andy (Chris Bauer), created a believable cover story for Jason, I’m betting the truth will out as Season 3 progresses. In fact, I’m betting Jason will out himself. The boy has a guilty conscience.

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4. And then there’s Jessica
Man does Jessica (Deborah Ann Wohl) hate being an eternal virgin. The question is, how long will her blood thirsty rampage last before Daddy Bill finds out? Oh wait, Bill’s been kidnapped. Horny truckers across Bon Temps better watch out.

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Teaching Tod Browning’s FREAKS

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This week in my Trash Cinema class my students watched and discussed Tod Browning’s controversial horror film turned cult masterpiece, Freaks (1932). Freaks was released by MGM, but it was an odd choice for the studio given that their house style was associated with glamourous stars (Greta Garbo, John Barrymore), elegant settings, and story properties teeming with cultural capital. But after seeing the phenomenal box office returns for Frankenstein (1931, James Whale) and other Universal studios horror films, Irving Thalberg is supposed to have said to Tod Browning, “I want something that out-horrors Frankenstein!” (qtd. in Norden 115).

Theatrical poster for Freaks
Theatrical poster for Freaks

What Browning submitted to Thalberg was a film that touched on many of the themes that he had covered in previous releases like The Penalty (1920), The Unnkown (1927), and The Unholy Three (1930). These bleak stories emphasize protagonists (all played by the incomparable Lon Chaney) with physical disabilities and how these disabilities shape their personalities and affect those around them.

Lon Chaney as the vengeful amputee, Blizzard, in The Penalty
Lon Chaney as the vengeful amputee, Blizzard, in The Penalty

Freaks is a tale of love and vengeance in a traveling circus. But unlike his Lon Chaney collaborations, which relied on prosthetics and binding to create the image of disability, Browning cast real life “freaks” (a term embraced by the sideshow community and the freaks themselves) in his film. As a result, many anecdotes have circulated about the strange production history of this film. Most famously, F. Scott Fitzgerald, a sometime scriptwriter at MGM, allegedly walked out of the studio cafeteria in disgust when he saw the famous Siamese twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, eating there. Another employee recalls “Suddenly, we who were sitting in the commissary having lunch would find ‘Zip the What-Is-It’ sitting at the next table or the Siamese twins who were linked together, and half the studio would empty when they would walk in because the appetites went out” (qtd. in Norden 118).

Daisy and Violet Hilton
Daisy and Violet Hilton

MGM employees were not the only ones to make a fuss about Browning’s casting choices. The Hays Office (which would not heavily crack down on studios until 1934) requested numerous cuts of the original print and a disastrous test screening alerted the studio that the film was going to be controversial and problematic. The uncut version of Freaks (which is lost to this day) did well in its brief, initial run but MGM eventually withdrew it from circulation. The scandal surrounding the film permanently damaged Browning’s career and resulted in Thalberg’s demotion (Norden 118). Clever exploiteer Dwain Esper knew the value of the film, however, and took it on the road, marketing it as an exploitation film under sensational titles like Forbidden Love and Nature’s Mistakes.

Famous publicity photo for Freaks, featuring much of the cast with director, Tod Browning
Famous publicity photo for Freaks, featuring much of the cast with director, Tod Browning

But what was so problematic about this film? What was so horrifying, so offensive, that it ruined careers? In her essay “Intolerable Ambiguity: Freaks as/at the Limit,” Elizabeth Grosz attempts to unpack our fascination with freak shows. She concludes that the individuals most frequently showcased in these spectacles, including Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, “pinheads” (microcephalics), midgets, and bearded ladies “imperil the very definitions we rely on to classify humans, identities and sexes — our most fundamental categories of self-definition and boundaries dividing self from otherness” (57). In other words, while we comfort ourselves by breaking down the world into neat binary oppositions, such as Male/Female, Self/Other, Human/Animal, Child/Adult, “freaks” blur the boundaries between these reassuring oppositions. She concludes, “The freak confirms the viewer as bounded, belonging to a ‘proper’ social category. The viewer’s horror lies in the recognition that this monstrous being is at the heart of his or her identity, for it is all that must be ejected or abjected from self-image to make the bounded, category-obeying self possible” (65). We need the freak to confirm our own static, bounded identities. And yet, I think there is a certain terror that we may not be as bounded as we think. If the hermaphrodite can transcend traditional gender categories, then perhaps our own genders are more fluid. For many that is a truly horrifying thought.

For example, in one of the film’s earliest scenes we witness the “pinheads” Schlitze, Elvira and Jenny Lee dancing and playing in the forest. From a distance they look like innocent, happy children. But as the camera approaches, it is clear that they are neither children, nor are they quite adults either. Thus it is the ambiguity here, rather than the disability itself, which is momentarily disturbing.

Grosz also mentions that “Any discussion of freaks brings back into focus a topic that has had a largely underground existence in contemporary cultural and intellectual life, partly because it is considered below the refined sensibilities of ‘good taste’ and ‘personal politeness’ in a civilized and politically correct milieu” (55). It is for this reason that I selected Freaks for my Trash Cinema course — the film, as well as its content, is considered to be in bad taste. It is in bad taste to exploit those with handicaps for a profit and it’s even worse to view the handicapped with horror, as Freaks seems to be asking us to do.

During our class discussion, I wanted the students to talk about these issues as well as Browning’s failure in the film. Freaks preaches acceptance and, as the above scene claims, the belief that we are all “God’s children.” And yet, the film was intended to “out horror” Frankenstein through its fantastic display of disabled bodies.

However, this teaching moment failed as soon as I replayed the famous “wedding banquet” scene for my students. In this scene the freaks have gathered to celebrate the marriage of a midget, Hans (Harry Earles), to the trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Cleopatra and her lover, Hercules (Henry Victor), plan to poison Hans in order to collect his vast inheritance, but at this point the freaks are unaware of her ulterior motives and attempt to embrace her as one of the group.

I wanted my students to see how Browning had made this scene “horrific” by having the freaks don their performance clothing (which serves to further highlight their differences) and chant in unison, “Gooble gobble, gooble gobble! One of us! One of us!” while beating rhythmically on the table. While the words themselves are friendly and accepting, they almost sound like a threat in this scene. Indeed, in the film’s opening frame story, a sideshow barker introduces the diegetic audience to an unseen but undoubtedly horrific sight: “You are about to witness the most amazing, the most astounding living monstrosity of all time!” (Here a woman in the crowd screams and recoils in horror). “Friends,” he continues, “she was once a beautiful woman…” This opening indicates that Cleopatra will meet a horrifying fate at some point during the film.

At the film's conclusion it is revealed that Cleopatra has been turned into a freak herself
At the film\’s conclusion it is revealed that Cleopatra has been turned into a freak herself

My students, however, were not horrified by this scene. They did not think Browning was exploiting his disabled actors by making them appear monstrous or threatening. Rather, many of them saw this scene as a celebration of diversity and a warm welcome to Cleopatra (who would reject that welcome moments later). The only monstrous characters in this scene, according to my students, are Hercules and Cleopatra.

I then asked them to discuss the film’s violent climax, when the freaks exact their revenge on Hercules and Cleopatra. I pointed out that in the film’s opening a man describes the frolicking pinheads as horrible, twisted things that “crawl and glide” in the dark. We are meant to dismiss this cruel assessment and yet, in the revenge scene, the freaks are depicted as horrible, twisted, gliding things (Hawkins 269). They crawl through the mud, clutching knives, and peer out at their victims through the darkness. Although the entire film argues that the freaks are happy, normal, loving human beings, this scene appears to undo that message. I wanted my students to therefore question why Browning depicted his disabled actors in this way, exploiting their physical differences as a method for horrifying his primarily able-bodied audience. Indeed, many contemporary critics of the film denounced this scene as a “significant miscalculation by Browning and his scenarists” (Norden 116).

While my students admitted that Browning seemed to replicate the very imagery he denounced earlier in the film, they felt very strongly that the revenge — Hercules is stabbed while Cleopatra is horribly disfigured — was warranted. While most horror films ask us to identify with the helpless victim and his or her suffering, my students argued that their sympathies never shifted. Cleopatra got what she deserved.

Although this class discussion did not go the way I intended — I wanted to talk about taste and exploitation — it did prove to be an interesting example of how a film’s reception can change dramatically over time. In 1932 Browning intended to “horrify” with this film and he succeeded to such an extent that MGM had to pull the film from circulation. Although Browning successfully horrified his contemporary audiences, who were accustomed to the conventions of the freak show, it is possible that his own view of his disabled actors is more in line with those of my students, who saw the film as a quaint tale of love and revenge. So maybe Browning was not an exploiteer after all — maybe he was just making his film for the wrong audience? Regardless, I will need to rethink these issues before I teach Freaks again.

Works Cited

Grosz, Elizabeth. “Intolerable Ambiguity: Freaks as/at the Limit.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 55-68.

Hawkins, Joan. ” ‘One of Us’: Tod Browning’s Freaks.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 265-276.

Norden, Martin F. The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994.