The #MeToo era has brought heightened attention to a lot of mis- and under-representation issues in entertainment media, not all of them related to misogyny or racial discrimination. Close on the heels of Disclosure, the recent Netflix documentary about transgender imagery onscreen, there’s now Salome Chasnoff’s Code of the Freaks, which examines “The Story of Hollywood’s Exploitation of Disability.” Though just over an hour long, it covers a lot of ground, encompassing depictions of both physical and intellectual disability, from “monsters” illustrating the notion that “evildoers must be ugly” to more sympathetic portrayals that nonetheless can manage to seem equally condescending.
At one point there’s a long montage of fit, glamorous actors taking the stage to accept their Oscars for a string of “grotesque” roles, the audience invariably rising to its feet to applaud another “normal” star’s miraculous transformation. As is noted here by a lineup of activists, there’s something queasy about that “stunt casting” value, much as we might be touched by Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot and the like. Their ability to move in and out of such characters gets us off the hook from having to truly identify. We, like the performer, can safety sample and empathize with “difference” for a brief while, then scurry back to our able-bodied lives. (Not addressed here is perhaps the most high-profile instance among those still-rare cases where a differently-abled person played a role: Harold Russell, a WW2 enlistee who lost both hands in an Army base explosives mishap, and was cast as a veteran in similar circumstances in 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for it—yet didn’t get another acting offer for nearly 35 years.)
Code of the Freaks is named after the notorious 1932 Tod Browning film Freaks, which cast real-life sideshow performers in its circus melodrama, and was thus considered in appallingly bad taste at the time. Yet several latterday commentators here regard it as among very few Hollywood films that depict a community of such societal outsiders finding strength in their allegiance. It’s noted that you never, ever see screen sex scenes between disabled persons. Instead, it’s usually an “act of charity” in which a “normal” character gifts a disabled one with an experience that’s often their first.
Other cliches skewered are the insistence on making people with dwarfism “magical;” blind figures needing to feel other people’s faces, or to recklessly drive cars; and the hoary, false-hopes-raising “cure narrative” of “Look, ma…I can walk!!” Maximum criticism is reserved for tear-jerking “snuff movies” like Million Dollar Baby, in which a protagonist who faces a physically compromised future chooses the “noble” exit of euthanasia rather than live “that way.” Perhaps most galling to the documentary’s observers is that stories of people like them are so often turned into the same kind of “inspirational” cinematic pap—erasing the more-complex or less-tragic truths of the real lives such films are often based on.
There are lively, sometimes surprising perspectives here on movies as disparate as The Miracle Worker, Scent of a Woman, The Elephant Man, Rain Man, The Sessions, Frankenstein, and Forrest Gump. Even the most well-meaning screen depictions tend to exoticize “otherness,” frequently compounding that error with “magical Negro”-type narrative gimmickry (whether or not there’s an actual racial element). Eye-opening and entertaining, Code of the Freaks is now available on various streaming platforms (including Amazon Prime) as well as DVD from Kino Lorber.
Other new documentaries include two of particular Northern California interest: Steven Oritt’s Accidental Climber portrays Sacramento resident Jim Geiger’s attempt to become the oldest American to climb Mount Everest, at age 68; and Berkeley’s Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation produced Willa Kammerer’s Starting at Zero (www.startingatzerofilm.com), which examines the increasingly urgent need for widespread early childhood educational programs in the US.
Then there’s the archival music-lover’s bonanza of Bert Stern and Aram Avakian’s 1959 Jazz on a Summer’s Day, an unprecedented enterprise at the time (it preceded the vogue for concert films by some years) that remains arguably the greatest screen jazz showcase ever. Compiling “highlights” from the prior year’s Newport Festival, it has a stage rollcall that can still make one nearly faint—Louie Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Garry Mulligan, Dinah Washington, George Shearing, Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day, on and on—quite brilliantly shot by famed photographer Stern and editor Avakian, both making their directorial bows. Newly restored, it is being added to the CinemaSF, Roxie and BAMPFA virtual cinema programs this week.
Other new home-viewing arrivals:
Sonja: The White Swan
Perhaps the oddest major Hollywood movie stardom was that of Norwegian emigre Sonja Henie, an Olympic gold medallist whose figure skating was the centerpiece for a series of fluffy musical comedies in the late 1930s and early 1940s. She was, briefly, very popular—in the box-office top ten 1937-1939—but the novelty wore off fast, after which audiences never had much use for Henie (or any other skating star) again. This was hard for her to accept, being…well, phenomenally bratty, as Anne Sewitsky’s biopic makes clear.
Born into wealth, she was nonetheless so avaricious that the same studio which had profited from her (albeit at the price of the industry’s highest salary) declined to meet her financial demands once contract renewal time came up just a couple years after her commercial peak. A dimpled blonde kewpie doll of somewhat cloying wholesomeness onscreen, Henie (played by Ine Marie Wilmann) was petulant, irresponsible, shallow, boozy, and sexually voracious offscreen. Or at least so she is depicted here, in a chronicle that duly depicts bridge-burning behavior with everyone from her own brother to 20th Century-Fox chief Darryl Z. Zanuck.
Yet oddly enough, The White Swan leaves out numerous equally important things about Henie (her Olympic gold, a first marriage, Nazi-phile controversies, etc.), while providing a fictive BFF to abuse (Valene Kane as a long-time personal assistant) and messing with her life’s chronology. The sense of facts being fudged with is heightened by Sewitsky’s decision to undermine period flavor by soundtracking a lot of modern dance music (synthpop, hiphop), and staging parties in the gaga MTV mode of Baz Luhrmann. Sonja Henie may well have been a gorgon of selfishness, but she was once so enormously popular, one feels she deserves biopic treatment more serious than this colorful yet trite depiction. Having bypassed US theatrical release, the film is now available on streaming platforms and on DVD from Kino Lorber.
Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn
Hawkins was a 16-year-old student who crossed Brooklyn from East New York to Bensonhurst with three friends to get out a used car for sale on August 23, 1989. Once they arrived via subway in the largely Italian-American neighborhood, the teens were soon surrounded by up to thirty baseball-bat wielding youths who’d apparently been tipped that a local girl had invited Black people and Latinos to her birthday party—the apparent ringleader of the mob being her aggrieved ex-boyfriend. The visitors had no idea why they were being targeted, but within minutes Hawkins was dead, the sole shooting victim.
Muta’Ali Muhammad’s documentary reviews a case that at the time brought NYC racial relations to a boiling point and beyond, stirring great acrimony on both sides. The Bensonhurst community claimed that somehow the incident had nothing to do with “race,” yet when Black protestors repeatedly marched in their neighborhood, the venomous reaction made that notion laughable. Mayor Koch handled the polarized fallout so poorly, it probably cost him his reelection. (He lost to the city’s first African-American mayor).
While two defendants did receive prison sentences, the wrist-slaps and acquittals given others involved stirred fury that anticipated the LA riots a couple years later. Not to mention… well, you know, our entire cultural climate today.
It’s a complex and stirring tale with a lot of present-day relevance—unfortunately, as the lessons one would hope had been learned then have only grown more urgent since. Storm Over Brooklyn premieres on HBO as of Tues/12.
Song Without a Name
In 1988 Peru, when the country was just beginning to emerge from years of Shining Path terror, 20-year-old Georgina aka Geo (Pamela Mendoza) and husband Leo (Lucio Rojas) are Quecha villagers living on the city’s farthest outskirts, expecting their first child. One day while selling potatoes on the street, she hears an announcement for free medical assistance at a supposed clinic for pregnant women in central Lima. After an examination, they tell her to come back when it’s “time,” and not to “worry about money.”
She does return to give birth to an apparently healthy girl, which is taken away as she’s told to rest. But upon waking, the baby is gone, supposedly removed to an undesignated hospital “for some checkups,” and distraught Geo is simply hustled out the door. Later, the “clinic” itself has disappeared. Police refuse to help, and the couple run a maze of bureaucratic offices to no better result. Finally, they turn to the press, finding a journalist (Tommy Parraga as Pedro) willing to investigate—albeit at considerable peril to them all, as it soon emerges there’s an international ring of kidnappers smuggling infants abroad for lucrative adoption sales. Anyone who upsets that gravy train may be marked for violent threats, or worse.
A fictionalization of actual events, Melina Leon’s first feature is striking if flawed. The subject matter carries its own inevitable power, and the script’s more cryptic aspects are viable in lending a certain Kafka-esque nightmare feel. At the same time, a subplot involving closeted Pedro’s romance with an actor (Maykol Hernandez) is so pointless, it seems to belong in another movie. Leon’s direction can border on the mannered, but there is no question that Song Without a Name is arrestingly textured: Shot in B&W, with a nearly-square aspect ratio, it sometimes feels like a lost minor classic from sixty years ago. The lead characters’ shack on a featureless hill is so near-abstract in its visual starkness, you might feel you’re watching a cinematic transcription of a Beckett play.