Sunday, May 19, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #84: Freaks

Theatre audiences in 1932 had no idea they of what was in store for them with this film.  In fact, when test screenings were done, a woman in attendance later threatened to sue the film studio, MGM, because she thought the film caused her a miscarriage.  Folks across the pond could not even see the film for 30 years after its release due to a ban on it.  This was Tod Browning’s Freaks.

Browning, who did Dracula, made Freaks his baby.  It is, at its heart, a love story steeped in revenge.  Its plot?  Fairly standard.  A female trapeze artist named Cleopatra loves a sideshow midget (“little person” now).  Well, what really she loves his inheritance.  The other circus “freaks,” not knowing how shallow this woman really is, accept her as one of their own at a dinner underneath the big top.  (“One of us,” they chant.)  Wine flows, and so do Cleopatra’s secrets.  She’s been having an affair, and the freaks are none too happy … especially when Cleopatra, in a drunken state, belittles them.  And so hatred is born.  During a stormy night, Cleopatra and her lover are attacked by the freaks, and Cleopatra is left hideously mutilated … forever becoming “one of them.”  (The original film, which was extensively cut, also had the freaks castrating her lover.)

So what sent audiences over the edge?  The freaks were not the products of special effects or makeup.  They were real sideshow performers.  The Living Skeleton.  Siamese Twins.  Pinheads.  The Half Boy.  For audiences not yet exposed to the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, seeing an armless and legless man crawl through the mud toward them with a knife in his mouth was more than enough to cause panic attacks.  Perhaps they were also disturbed by the film’s message: A “normal” human could be even worse than one of these “exhibit pieces.”

Browning’s film cost him his career, and that is a shame.  If you watch it today, even in cut form (which, to my knowledge, is the only version of the film that now exists), it still packs a punch.  It is simply a really good story.  It’s complex.  It’s disturbing.  It’s chilling.  It is mob mentality at its worst, and protective spirit at its finest.  If you haven’t seen it, do so.  It is now considered a classic, but back in 1932 it was one of the first films to truly shock an audience … and continues to do so today.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer: I did not receive this film to review, and clicking on a link may earn me a commission.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #85: Sid and Nancy

Young hearts beat free tonight.  If ever there were to be a doomed love story to come out of the early punk rock era, it is the story of Sid and Nancy.  Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman), the Sex Pistols bassist, loved Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), and they both loved heroin.  That’s what ultimately did them in.  Well, to be honest, Nancy died of a stab wound after arguing with Sid, while he overdosed later.  Alex Cox’s 1986 film is his take on their relationship, and what a take it is.

Oldman just about dominates any role he takes on, and this is no exception.  He is Sid in Sid and Nancy.  After watching it, you can’t imagine anyone else in the role.  Webb, who is sometimes mistaken for Courtney Love in this movie (Love has a different role in it, but it’s easy to see why someone would think that), plays Nancy as a loud force of nature who essentially keeps Sid co-dependent, though her love for him is not in dispute.  Again, this is Cox’s take on their relationship, Sid’s relationship with the other Pistols, and the punk rock scene at that time.  It’s not always historically accurate, but it is an emotional piece of art that captures the spirit of a time the music world will never see again.
Cox made a movie that is the equivalent of lying face down in the gutters of New York City.  It is full of depressing, degrading moments of desperation, and it focuses on two characters most of its viewing audience can’t really relate to in any reasonable way.  Despite that, it works.  It is a love story and a cautionary tale.  It is hopes and dreams and heroin, and it doesn’t shy away from the worst aspects of any of those things.

This film may not fit everyone’s idea of a romance, but for those who tend to look at life a bit more honestly, it works.  It’s a film as unique as Sid and Nancy, too, and while it’s hard to picture anyone but Oldman playing Sid, it’s also hard to imagine anyone other than Cox directing.  Of course, it’s a bit morbid to think that if Nancy had not of died we wouldn’t have a film, but so be it.  In the end, this stands as an amazing tribute to love and addiction while at the same time romanticizing and deconstructing both.

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer:  I did not receive this film to review, but in fact stole it in true punk rock fashion.  Clicking on a link may earn me some filthy lucre.