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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I first watched Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), in preparation for my Trash cinema class, I watched it alone. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience but it was not until this week, when I screened it for 21 undergraduates, that I got the full effect of this masterpiece of cinema terrible. I had prepared my students for what they were about to watch: I told them the film had a strong cult following, that it has been dubbed the “Citizen Kane of bad movies,” and that fans had developed their own set of rituals, such as spoon-throwing. But, my students’ enthusiastic, joyous response to the film truly exceeded my expectations.
The moment Tommy Wiseau enters the frame in the film’s first scene and utters the words “Hi Lisa” in his strange, unidentifiable European accent, the room erupted in raucous laughter. And it only built from there. Usually, when I screen a film for students they remain quiet, laughing or gasping when appropriate and occasionally making a stray remark. But when watching The Room my students immediately sensed that it was acceptable to laugh, whoop, and even yell at the screen. When, for example, Lisa (Juliette Danielle) has a prolonged, Cinemax-style sex scene for the 3rd time one of my students exclaimed “But we saw this already, right?” And when a random couple appears in Johnny’s (Tommy Wiseau) and Lisa’s apartment (as characters often do in The Room), another student yelled “Who the hell are they?” When the film was over the students burst into applause, something which has never happened at a screening in my 7 years of teaching film classes to undergraduates.
In our discussion of the film yesterday in class, I asked the students to consider several key questions: Why is The Room considered to be a “bad” film? What codes, conventions, and expectations does it violate and why do these violations provoke laughter (as opposed to boredom or annoyance)? And if this film is so poorly made, then why do audiences gain so much pleasure from watching it?
Here is what we determined:
1. It’s Just Plain Bad
The movie violates almost every rule of storytelling: characters pop in and out of scenes with little explanation, plotlines are addressed and then dropped forever (Lisa’s mother’s cancer, Denny’s [Philip Haldiman] drug problems, etc.), and character dialogue is frequently nonsensical. Wiseau inserts establishing shots of San Francisco into the middle of scenes for no apparent reason and spatial continuity is nonexistent (does Johnny live in an apartment or a house and how do they get up to that roof deck anyway?). These problems are so pervasive that it almost seems as if Wiseau is making these blunders on purpose–but according to reports from his former crew, Wiseau was simply inexperienced.
Wiseau’s senseless dialogue:
One of many scenes that make no sense and do nothing to further the plot:
Who takes wedding photographs one month before the wedding?
Wiseau’s arbitrary use of establishing shots:
The film’s inability to convey the passage of time:
Is it “tomorrow afternoon” already?
2. It’s Camp
The Room is enjoyable precisely because it proposes itself seriously and yet we cannot take the film seriously because it is so over the top. Susan Sontag writes that, “Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste.” My students agreed that in terms of bad taste, The Room is as good as it gets. For example, in one of the film’s many sex scenes, Wiseau employs rose petals, gauzy bedding, bad R & B music, and a sinewy man thrusting away at a woman’s pelvis (I would include this clip but when I uploaded it to YouTube it was determined to be “pornography” and was removed). As my students pointed out, these sex scenes bring together every cliché of the Hollywood sex scene and the effect is overwhelming.
3. It’s Passionate
In Land of a Thousand Balconies: Discoveries and Confessions of a B-Movie Archaeologist (2003), Jack Stevenson argues that a great camp film is “the product of pure passion, on whatever grand or pathetic scale, somehow gone strangely awry… pure camp is created against all odds by the naïve, stubborn director who in the cynical, hardball, bottom line movie business can still foolishly dream he is creating a masterpiece without money, technical sophistication, or (orthodox) talent.” Indeed, The Room is infused with Wiseau’s passion. From its awkward dialogue to its nonsensical plot, the film is the embodiment of this strange, quixotic man. Watching The Room is, in many ways, like the reading the diary of a tortured teenage writer. My students agreed that it was Wiseau’s unadulterated passion and hubris that made the film so engaging to watch, despite its frustrating plot and characterization.
The best example of this passion can be found in the infamous “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” scene, a blatant rip off of a similar scene in Rebel without a Cause
But, if The Room is so very personal, if it is Wiseau’s soul up there on the screen, then is it wrong to subject this film to scrutiny on a regular basis? Is mocking this man’s art akin to walking into an art gallery and pointing and laughing at a painting that you think is shit? Or going to the theater and yelling at an actor for being bad at his job?
Fans react to “You’re Tearing Me Apart, Lisa!”:
4. It Makes Us Feel Better About Ourselves
This leads me to the final characteristic of watching The Room: it makes the viewer feel better about him or herself. In his famous study of taste cultures, Distinction (1984), Pierre Bourdieu writes, “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed.” When we watch The Room and mock it we are essentially saying “I am better than this. I am superior to this.” For example, during the following scene my students howled with laughter–and when we rewatched it during our class discussion they laughed even harder. Why? As one student put it, “This scene is intended to show us that Johnny’s character is a good guy because he is always buying roses for Lisa. But it just FAILS.”
So are we cruel for laughing at Wiseau’s film, for laughing at Wiseau himself? On this point my students were divided. Some said yes, that they felt guilty for laughing because the film was so personal. Others argued that the moment Wiseau made his film and put it in a public theater, he agreed to public ridicule. Personally, I am torn on this issue–but that won’t keep me from watching The Room. And laughing.
Like many True Blood fans I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of Sophie-Anne (Evan Rachel Wood), vampire queen of Louisiana, whose existence had been leaked through various entertainment news sources weeks ago. Last week I was tantalized by the sight of her lavish home and the image of a pale female foot, bathed in a stream of blood. And as a fan of Wood, whose portrayal of a teenage terror in Thirteen (2003, Catherine Hardwicke) blew me away, I was sure that the young actress was well-equipped to handle the role of an 1100-year-old vampire queen.
But last night I found myself underwhelmed. I don’t blame Queen Sophie-Anne’s failure on the writers–who gave her choice lines like “I haven’t been interested in men since Eisenhower was President”–or the costume designers–who gave her beautiful white gowns and bathing suits to luxuriate in (plus a vintage copy of Vogue to read!). No, this character fell flat due to Wood’s lackluster performance (though EW’s Ken Tucker disagrees with me).
Queen Sophie-Anne is supposed to be more than 1,000 years old, but Wood plays her like a precocious child playing dress up. Such a role is certainly challenging–Wood needs to convey the sense that she is an old soul even as she lives in a teenager’s body, a state of endless arrested development. But it has been done before and done well. Here I can’t help but think of Kirsten Dunst’s turn as Claudia, a mature, blood-thristy vampire trapped in the body of a sweet, prepubescent girl for all of eternity, in Interview with a Vampire (1994, Neil Jordan).
I believed Dunst’s performance–indeed, I found it to be highly disturbing. Dunst expressed her frustration with her small, child’s body and its incompatibility with her adult hungers. You could see her age in her eyes and in the way she carried her body. Queen Sophie-Anne is supposed to be elegant, regal and a commanding presence (she is the QUEEN after all) but as Wood plays her she is more like an annoying celebutante in the vein of a Paris Hilton or a Lydia Hearst. Blech.
I am not giving up on Evan Rachel Wood (girlfriend did look hot), but for now I remain unimpressed.
P.S. Not enough Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) in last night’s episode. Just sayin’.
It’s week 2 for my little blog and with classes having just started and a head cold ravaging my senses I was all out of blogspiration (if this is not already a word it should be). Besides, the first weeks of baby bloghood are so unsatisfying: why am I doing this? is anyone reading this? should I take a nap? But today I received an e-mail from a colleague in my department (hello Randall!) who said this regarding my inaugural post, “The Watercooler” :
Interesting comment during your water-cooler post. I’ve also noticed how little we talk about lit and film. I wonder if some of the lack of wc talk is due to a fear of showing ignorance, revealing that you have not seen a particular movie or read a particular book. I certainly don’t want Marianne [our department’s Shakespeare expert] to know that I haven’t read most of Shakespeare’s plays and can’t remember much about those I have read.
I say we come up with a log in which every one lists their most embarrassing literary or cinematic oversights.
Upon reading this I thought “Eureka! I have something to post about this week!” So in the spirit of Randall’s e-mail I have assembled a list of the films I am most embarrassed to have not seen:
1. Rambo: First Blood (1982, Ted Kotcheff)
As a child of the 1980s, this is unacceptable.
2. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)
My friend, Ali, is devoting a substantial portion of her dissertation to the films of David Lean. When I admitted that I hadn’t seen Lawrence, she replied “It’s long.” That pretty much sums up why I’ve avoided it.
3. L’avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni)
I have brought this film home from the library at least twice. And then I’ve opted to watch something like America’s Next Top Model instead. Oh the shame.
4. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)
I have read numerous critical essays about this film and even sat though several conference presentations that address this classic WWII flick. Does that count?
5. The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)
I haven’t read the book either. Nail me to the cross.
6. Shane (1953, George Stevens)
I am embarrassed about this one primarily because I always show a clip from it when I teach the Western to my Intro to Film students. Shhhh, don’t tell them.
7. Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray)
My knowledge of Indian cinema is woefully thin.
8. Rashômon (1950, Akira Kurosawa)
I know, I know, bad me.
9. Way Down East (1920, DW Griffith)
As with #6, I always show a clip (the one on the ice floe) of Way Down East when teaching melodrama. I should watch this tomorrow.
10. Thelma and Louise (1991, Ridley Scott)
I’m an American chick who was in my teens when this film was released. What the hell is wrong with me?
That was oddly liberating.
Care to share your own list of embarrassing cinematic oversights? Yes, you may use an alias…
This fall I have the great privilege of teaching a course I have always wanted to teach, “Topics in Film Aesthetics: Trash Cinema and Taste.” Jeffrey Sconce has defined “trash cinema” 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.” Would Sconce agree with the way I am defining trash cinema in my course? I’m not sure. Nevertheless, the term “trash” is a useful way to denote the broad and shifting category of “bad films” and as a method for getting students to discuss film aesthetics. We will watch films that have been maligned for their “bad” acting (Showgirls), “bad” taste (Pink Flamingos), “bad” subjects (Freaks), “bad” politics (El Topo) and just plain “badness” overall (Glen or Glenda?). We will discuss what qualities categorize a film alternately as “bad,” “low brow” or “cult” and how taste cultures and taste publics are established. Finally, we will discuss why certain films are believed to have “cultural capital” and why and how trash cinema rewrites the rules about which films are worth watching.
Every week I will discuss one of these films on this blog, my students’ reactions to them, and whether or not these films offer a useful way for undergraduates to discuss film aesthetics as a political, cultural, economic and social construct. This is also a good excuse for me to talk about some of my favorite films.
The first film the students will watch (during the week of 8/31) is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003). The film has been dubbed “the Citizen Kane of bad films” and has gained an impressive cult following in Los Angeles, where folks line up for midnight screenings. Last year Entertainment Weekly did a wonderful story about it, which is when I first became obsessed with it. The Room even has its own Rocky Horror Picture Show-like rituals.
Which brings me to why I am posting about this now: if anyone out there (are you out there?) is familiar with any of The Room‘s rituals (I know about the spoon throwing and the yelling of “Denny!” whenever that character appears), could you please share them here? My students and I would be most grateful.
More on The Room to come…