Chained for Life begins with a quote from Pauline Kael: “Actors and actresses who are beautiful start with an enormous advantage because we love to look at them.” Director Aaron Schimberg then uses the rest of the film to test this assertion. It is an investigation into how history in general, and film history specifically, has perceived people with disfigurements, all done with a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward political correctness, but also genuine heart. Though it is about a marginalized group, it does not become a savior narrative that “gives voice to the voiceless,” nor a trite “imagine yourself in their shoes” moralistic spiel, or a “touch them, they’re just like us” embarrassment. In fact, all these tropes find themselves on the receiving end of some cutting satire.
The story concerns the making of an English art film called The Undesirables, about a eugenicist experimenting on people with disabilities and disfigurements in order to “cure” the world of all abnormality. It is the brainchild of a German filmmaker referred to only as “Herr Director” (Charlie Korsmo), who looks like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and talks like Werner Herzog. The lead is traditionally beautiful actress Mabel (Jess Weixler), while the supporting cast members have myriad physical deformities — there are dwarves, conjoined twins, bearded ladies, etc. One of them is Rosenthal, played by actor and activist Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis. He gradually becomes the object of Mabel’s affection, both on and off the set. Meanwhile, the cast decides to shoot their own film after-hours, one in which they are the heroes rather than victims or monsters.
In one scene, Mabel tries to help Rosenthal get over his jitters by acting out different emotions on his command. When he requests “empathy,” the camera doesn’t show her face, but he opines, “That’s more like pity, but good effort!” The difference between empathy and pity is a crux of the film. In one cringeworthy sequence, Herr Director has Rosenthal do retake after retake of a shot of him stepping out of the shadows to reveal his face while whispering, “Don’t be frightened.” The scene is a parody of a hundred similar films about “ugly” leads. Cinema has often perpetuated revulsion of people with physical deformities even as it purports to sympathize with them. Think of Beauty and the Beast, The Elephant Man, The Phantom of the Opera, A Woman’s Face, and so on. Similarly, in films ranging from You Only Live Twice to Wonder Woman, villainous characters often have scars, warts, moles, and the like to signify their vileness. With Chained for Life, Schimberg, who has a facial deformity himself, creates a subaltern dialogue with this history, attacking any notion of what’s “normal” or “pleasant.”
The cast of Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, about a circus sideshow, included many real carnival workers — people missing limbs, or with deformed skulls or bodies. The story revolves around a scheming trapeze artist who marries a dwarf for his inheritance. When her plot is revealed, the sideshow takes revenge by gruesomely disfiguring her. Despite treating its marginalized characters with an unusual level of compassion for the time, the movie still poses being made like them as a fate worse than death. Chained for Life starts where Freaks left off, seeking to dispel the idea of “ugliness” as a punishment to live with. It even takes its title from a 1952 exploitation film starring conjoined twins who had previously appeared in Freaks, further underlining its corrective approach to history.
When we watch movies, we often don’t often question the privilege of the gaze behind them. What motivates Herr Director to make this pulpy horror flick? In contrast, what makes the cast of “freaks” want to make an alternate film of their own? What legitimizes one and delegitimizes the other? And by extension, who becomes an auteur and who doesn’t? Schimberg, also a programmer at Brooklyn’s Spectacle Theatre, is aware of the conflicting privileges within cinema culture. Chained for Life is filled with references to Cassavetes, Truffaut, and of course Fassbinder, Browning, and Herzog, tweaking the canon to make it more inclusive. The central conflict rests on the politics of perception. Rosenthal and Mabel’s friendship, and later her unconsummated attraction to him, are presented just like any other romance. Schimberg treats the actors with equal respect and writes them with equal nuance, forcing the audience to recalibrate their culturally sanctioned preconceived ideas of love, and how physical beauty plays into it.