Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 11, 2019

Chained for Life; Depraved

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Two films open this week that challenge the idea that “normalcy” has anything to do with virtue. “Chained for Live”, which opens at the IFC in NY today and at the Landmark in LA on Friday, is inspired by Todd Browning’s “Freaks” but without the carnival sideshow vibe that made the original such a cult hit. Directed by Aaron Schimberg, who was born with “a gaping hole” in his face that was surgically repaired, it confronts conventional expectations as he explains in the press notes:

When disfigured characters are seen at all in films (usually played by handsome actors with disfiguring latex), they are trotted out to play monsters or objects of pity, made into vessels for the symbolic expression of cruelty, sin, villainy and other ills. “Bitter defectives,” as a character in my film says. Even when they’re portrayed sympathetically, they function only to impart inspirational lessons to the able-bodied people who encounter them.

“Depraved”, which opens at the IFC on Friday, is based on the Frankenstein story but, like “Chained for Life”, leaves you with the feeling that it is normal people who must be feared. It is directed by Larry Fessenden, who is hands down the smartest and most socially aware director of horror movies today. Made in 2007, “The Last Winter” was about global warming. This film was way ahead of the curve given the occurrence of five category five hurricanes in the last 3 years as compared to the zero count between the time “The Last Winter” was made and 2016.

“Chained for Life” is a movie within a movie. It is set in a hospital that has been rented out for the filming of an art-house version of “Freaks”. They are put through the paces by a pretentious German director who struck me as either an intended or unintended send-up of Werner Herzog, who has made a number of films about abnormal people. One that certainly must have violated Schimberg’s sense of fair play was the 1970 “Even Dwarfs Must Start Small” that depicted a group of dwarfs in an institution on a remote island rebellimg against the guards and director (all dwarfs as well). Vincent Canby said, “Herzog is a highly skilled director, but his images, because of their essential meaninglessness, become their own reason for being, “indistinguishable from its Germanic, side-show spectacle, as if it were a movie that had been conceived by the same kind of perverse, uninvolved intelligence that had created the world of the film.”

The plot of the movie in the movie revolves around a doctor who is experimenting on dwarves, giants, conjoined twins, etc.–the same kinds of people who were featured in “Freaks”–in order to develop a procedure that will allow his blind sister to see again.

Among them is Rosenthal, who is the hero of the movie and a hero in real life as well. He is played by Adam Pearson, a British citizen who suffers from neurofibromatosis. This is an illness in which non-cancerous tumors grow in the nervous system. That would ordinarily be bad enough in itself but it has the added curse of disfiguring your face and skull. Pearson has been very active in speaking to young people against bullying.

What he has to put up with in the film is not bullying but patronizing insensitivity that is highlighted in a scene during a break when the actor playing the mad doctor says all sorts of stupid things in the course of taking a selfie with him. As Schimberg and Pearson certainly understand, actors and actresses are not the smartest people around. The film begins with a quote from Pauline Kael, the long-time critic of The New Yorker, a magazine that epitomized superficial notions of beauty both in its advertisements and its middle-class values:

Actors and actresses are usually more beautiful than ordinary people. And why not? Why should we be deprived of the pleasure of beauty? It is a supreme asset for actors and actresses to be beautiful; it gives them greater range and greater possibilities for expressiveness. The handsomer they are, the more roles they can play…Actors and actresses who are beautiful start with an enormous advantage. because we love to look at them.

Aaron Schimberg refutes this quote through the humanity of the people he has cast. This is a film that not only rejects Hollywood superficiality but is a joy to watch.

Returning from an evening of love-making with his girlfriend, Alex, a handsome, self-involved yuppie computer programmer, is knifed to death on a dark street in New York City. Some days later, he is resurrected (or more accurately, his brain is) in the body of a man who has been stitched together by Henry (David Call), a medic who had served in Iraq and who is suffering from PTSD. Tormented by his failure to save the lives of fellow soldiers in Iraq, he is determined to develop a procedure that combines medication and body parts to bring them back to life. There is no Igor in this film. The only people who know about this latter-day Frankenstein’s experiments is his girlfriend (Ana Kayne) and his old friend and business partner Polidori (Joshua Leonard) who is far more interested in making money than saving lives.

When the “monster” wakes up, Henry begins to orient him to his rebirth. He tells him that he is Adam, named obviously after the first man. Over the next few months, he begins to develop Adam’s skills, which involve doing simple jigsaw puzzles at first and then moving on to ping-pong.

Polidori, who is ethically and psychologically depraved, decides to take Adam for a night out on the town, which means going to dance clubs, doing coke and drinking. After seeing scantily clad women for the first time, Adam decides he needs a mate just as was the case in the 1935 classic “The Bride of Frankenstein”. As was the case in this film, “Depraved” ends up with a bloody confrontation between the “monster” and his creators.

In the press notes, Fessenden describes his goals in making such a film:

In most versions of the story, the doctor is repulsed by his creature and rejects the thing he brought into this world. Since I don’t deal as much with physical deformity in the portrayal of the monster, I focus on Henry’s ambivalence about his responsibilities after proving he is capable of creating life. It seems we rarely anticipate the repercussions of scientific advancements; we simply pursue them regardless of consequence. And our wars leave collateral damage in their wake: veterans with PTSD, societies ravaged, environments wasted.

Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” in 1818, the year of Karl Marx’s birth. The underlying theme of the novel is that challenging nature, like bring someone back to life through a collection of body parts revived by electricity, can lead to disasters. Is it any wonder that the title of the novel has been appropriated to describe GMO as Frankenfood, for example.

Rejecting these fears, the Marxist scientist J. B. S. Haldane wrote in 1924: “There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion.” Perhaps so but under capitalism it is almost predictable that every scientific breakthrough, including nuclear energy most of all, will be a perversion.



  1. When Pauline Kael died I wrote the following on Salon’s old comment section: “It’s amazing they could find a coffin to bury her in, what with her head jammed so far up her own ass.” The reason for my derision was her dismissive attitude towards the works of Stanley Kubrick, arguably the greatest filmmaker who has thus far lived. I’m ashamed to admit that I was unaware of the missive you quote, and shall add it to her list of infamy.

    Comment by Robert Anderson — September 11, 2019 @ 11:03 pm

  2. Do you ever review comedy specials? There are a lot of good ones on Netflix right now. Dave Chapelle, Bill Burr, even Joe Rogan, who I don’t really like — I saw part of his new one and it was pretty funny.

    Comment by Janet Avery — September 14, 2019 @ 10:30 am

  3. Neurofibromatosis is a genetic condition, not a disease.
    The condition varies enormously from person to person, so it certainly does not mean all people with it will develop ‘the added curse of disfiguring your face and skull.’ not many will.
    It was said that Joseph Carey Merrick also called ‘The Elephant Man’ had the condition, but this is not so, he probably Proteus Syndrome
    It’s important to get the correct facts out.
    For more useful and medical info on Neurofibromatosis see https://www.ctf.org/

    Comment by splodgen — September 14, 2019 @ 4:16 pm

  4. AFAIK: The current problems with nuclear power stem mostly from the fact that light-water reactors as deployed to date operate with steam under high pressure and have highly radioactive cores that can melt down. Steam explosions combined with meltdown are a deadly threat, especially when you add in the fact that siting is problematic–fukushima needed to be where it is, with resultant extreme vulnerability to tsunami. Then, given the inefficiencies of LWRs, there is the issue of the waste produced.

    There are a number of other designs that solve the first two problems and diminish the third to a timescale feasible under actual historical conditions, but offer other concerns–e.g.internal corrosion and resultant potential catastrophic emission of gamma radiation, perhaps–not the least of which is the lower cost and relatively easy construction of some of them, which cannot be properly regulated under the neoliberal “free market.. The Jeffrey Epsteins and Koch brothers of the world can and will fling these down all over hell’s half acre under essentially no regulation at all–and even if they don’t, the likelihood is that they can be deployed under capitalism only if all effective regulation is scrapped. This last is of course exactly what freedom-loving libertarians and their friends in both US “parties” want.

    My very own thorium MSR and thorium car on a thousand-acre ranch with bitcoin for money. Woo-hoo.

    Best practices for deploying these things, IMO, if feasible, could be developed only under socialism. The current system is incapable of providing the appropriate regulatory regime and production strictly for use that would be required. Nor can the dozens of entrepreneurial startups that are pushing their mostly undeveloped “solutions” at present ever actually complete the development process.

    If Indonesia ever actually deploys ThorCon, watch out world.

    The latter, IMO, does not mean New Nukes should not continue to be studied–they do offer at least part of a short-term solution to global warming–only IMO that the Golden Day would have to come before the question of using them could be evaluated objectively.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — September 16, 2019 @ 11:53 am

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