Precious Bodily Fluids

Freaks


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A film like Freaks has so much baggage that one needs some kind of method by which to discuss it, or at least a framework. The ethical questions answer themselves, and whether Tod Browning created something here worthy of serious discourse is nay unanswerable. So, genre is a way to think about it. It’s known often as a “horror” film, which only seems to work in light of its original ending. As the performers’ trailers travel to another location by night (the “home” of the freaks occupies highly transitory space, by virtue of their lack of any social grounding), the freaks sabotage Cleopatra’s attempt to take Hans for all that he’s worth. Shortly before this scene, the freaks congregate in the darkness underneath the parked trailers, watchfully keeping tabs on Cleopatra and Hercules as they set their sites on Hans’ riches. These are the first shots in the film that treat the freaks as such. Prior to this, Browning’s camera has not exactly identified with the main characters, but neither is it particularly voyeuristic or judgmental. It all feels quite staged, as the characters’ acting abilities demonstrate their own shortcomings. There is, however, the sense of a central camera that simply turns in circles, catching images of life among these performers. Even this cinematographical effect works well in a circus context. However, when Cleopatra’s money-grab fails and the trailers crash into the raining night, the chase scene is straight from the horror genre. She is punished by the freaks and becomes one herself. Prior to this, the audience has the distinct impression that the “freaks” are not the freaks, but the “normal”-sized people are. The film’s “alternate” ending features Hans in an upper-class house with a “normal” servant; all’s well that ends well. The mood returns to its earlier one, very non-horror. One wonders how even shorter this film would be had the numerous, superfluous scenes of microcephalics, bearded women, and midgets been omitted. They serve no clear purpose; Browning cannot even legitimately fall back on the “aesthetic” excuse here. Which brings us back to the realm of ethics, and this is an obvious point already.

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This entry was published on March 7, 2009 at 12:48 pm. It’s filed under 1930s Cinema, American film and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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