strange_complex: (Daria star)
IMDb page here. Seen round at Daz Towers with [livejournal.com profile] big_daz and [livejournal.com profile] gillywoo.

Shot in black and white, and given its macabre subject-matter and Victorian setting, this felt more like a Hammer film from their still-actually-quite-serious era than it did an early 80s David Lynch number. Which I guess was Lynch's intention.

It was moving and powerful, and did lots of very interesting things with the issue of gazes and exploitation. The uncomfortable similarity between Bytes, the freakshow proprietor who exhibits John Merrick to the public for money, and Dr. Frederick Treves, who 'rescues' him but then exhibits him to fellow doctors, is explicitly addressed, while there's also a lot of stuff going on about who is audience and who performers in the theatre, whether windows are for looking out of or looking into, and the general relationship between seeing and being seen. All of which, of course, then neatly poses the same questions to the audience, watching through a fourth wall. Thought-provoking symbolism = yay!

For a David Lynch film, it was a pretty straightforward narrative, but there were some rather bizarre sequences about machines and pollution, which I was somewhat nonplussed by. I didn't think anyone had ever thought John (or properly Joseph) Merrick's condition was caused by either, so I wasn't sure what the point was, really. However, a bit of Googling today reveals that one form of elephantiasis is thought to be caused by 'persistent contact with volcanic ash', so I guess maybe that was Lynch's point after all. In fact, DNA tests on his remains published in 2003 suggest that the problem was a combination of two rare genetic disorders - type 1 neurofibromatosis (NF1) and Proteus syndrome - but Lynch could not have known that in 1980.

[livejournal.com profile] big_daz also had a book chronicling the true story of Joseph Merrick, which I had a good browse through after we'd seen the film. It showed that quite a lot of things had been changed for the sake of the story - for example, massively exaggerating the extent to which Merrick was ill-treated by Bytes, and completely inventing an episode in which the latter steals Merrick back from the hospital where Treves is looking after him. It also clarified what Merrick's childhood had been like, and how he came to have been so well-educated - something completely unexplained by the film. In fact, his whole life up to his time as a 'novelty exhibition' in Leicester is very eloquently chronicled in his own words, while good old Wikipedia supplies the rest.

None of which undermines the quality of the film, of course. But the real story is just as interesting in its own right.

strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
IMDb page here. Seen round at Daz Towers with [livejournal.com profile] big_daz and [livejournal.com profile] gillywoo.

This was part one of a double-bill film evening we had last night, which somehow worked itself out so that it centred around the theme of people with severe physical deformities: Freaks followed by The Elephant Man. I'm not sure how that happened, because we'd collectively decided to watch these two films together ages ago, and I can't remember our reasoning now - but I suppose we decided on one and were reminded by it of the other. It made for quite a harrowing evening - but well worth it.

Freaks is mainly famous for being banned in the UK for 30 years after its release. I expected it to be pretty morally repugnant for that reason, but actually it's not. The story in fact has a quite straightforward and uncontroversial moral line, which I think ought to have gone down palatably enough in 1930s Britain. Prejudice against the 'freaks' is portrayed as unenlightened, they themselves are shown as having both very human feelings and a strong moral code, and the true villains of the piece turn out to be a trapeze artist and strongman, who have no physical deformities, but are morally corrupt. I presume that the reason for the ban, then, was less that the film was considered actually unethical and more that it simply turned over too many stones, and brought audiences face to face with things (the censors thought) they preferred not to know about.

Meanwhile, for the modern viewer, there are definitely some uncomfortable aspects. Despite the "good looks != good morals" message, the deformed characters are still very much portrayed as Others, and with an associated underlying malevolence. Their being called 'freaks' is obviously part of that - but they're also shown as having their own very close-knit and generally exclusive community, and as being very ready to take violent vengeance on anyone who hurts a member of that community. It's the sort of tale that's been told a thousand times about gypsies, Jews, slaves, aborigines, immigrants, barbarians, etc. etc., ever since human beings learnt to write - but something we're more consciously aware of as unhelpful today.

It does have to be added, too, that the acting throughout is abysmal. Obviously, for most of the deformed characters, this was their first and often only film, so some haltingly-delivered lines can be forgiven. But the four lead able-bodied characters (two nice, two nasty) don't have that excuse. They just suck. So it's always going to be a film that's watched for its historical interest and the issues it touches upon - not because it's actually a cinematic masterpiece (despite claims to the contrary on the back of the video box).

Finally, I was really struck by how much the heroine, Venus, and / or the young lady who played her, Leila Hyams reminded me of the character of Tallulah in Daleks in Manhattan. I mean, I'm not saying Tallulah was consciously based on her, because I think what's really going on is simply that actresses of that kind were ten-a-penny in this era, being churned out by the dozen from acting academies. (I read a short story to that effect once, although I can't remember who it was by or what it was called). But it's another testament to how right the Doctor Who team got that character, anyway.

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