Someone is bound to say, “Chained for Life is like Tod Browning’s Freaks.” The director has said as much. That doesn’t feel quite right. Though the two films, the latter embalmed in infamy and heavily cut by MGM in 1932, are in dialogue with one another, it’s better to think of director Aaron Schimberg’s Chained for Life as a riposte to Browning’s pre-Code horror, whose legacy as one of the greatest and shocking films in the genre is stained by its exploitative and, certainly, ableist streak. It casts sideshow workers as both villains and victims cognizant of their own oppression, attempting a tricky mix of disdain and a searching humanity. Still, Schimberg’s preoccupations extend beyond that one film, and perhaps even beyond the subjects of marginalization and representation. Throughout Chained for Life, he forces his characters into a tete-a-tete between sympathy and empathy, between acting as object and as subject.
Ingenue Mabel (Jess Weixler) might think that sympathy and empathy are effectively the same thing. They come from the same place. When speaking to a journalist on the set of the schlocky horror movie she’s starring in, she avoids broaching controversial subjects. On casting, particularly the casting of differently-abled people for said movie, she demurs, saying that it’s up to the director, but in her avoidance of discussing the social and political implications, ends up defending Orson Welles doing blackface for his adaptation of Othello. Rookie mistake? Shortly after, in a conversation with her German “villain-sounding” director (Charlie Korsmo, looking like Fassbinder at his most strung out) and co-star Max (Stephen Plunkett) concerning a scene where her now-blind character must touch someone’s face, it becomes clear that nearly everyone’s notion of empathy is misplaced or miscalculated—or completely absent.
When the people playing the “creepy” hospital residents in the film arrive, everyone (other actors, the craft person, the cinematographer, etc.) treats them nicely in such an overly practiced way they can barely keep the contempt from seeping through their teeth. Most of these performers new to the set don’t seem to care, but Adam (Adam Pearson, seen in Under the Skin) smells the crew’s shit. He’s right to: Mabel literally practices in the bathroom how to conduct herself. So nice, so perky, so happy to give Adam, who has neurofibromatosis, acting tips on his first day and corny platitudes like “you’re too hard on yourself.” They play an acting game, with Mabel performing emotions: happiness, sadness. Adam then offers “empathy.” Mabel is caught off-guard. She makes a face. “I think that’s pity,” he says, unsurprised.
Ideally perhaps, empathy is the equalizer so many need and so few have, positioned by everyone across the political spectrum as the ultimate cure for all that is wrong with the world. Weaponized, it congeals and becomes perverted. Sympathy is hierarchical, and empathy is supposed to ask people to identify with others for the sake of justice—as if it’s a replacement for justice—but empathy is peanuts in the face of systematic discrimination and oppression. Schimberg wrestles with this idea, navigating a cultural landscape saturated with (necessary) conversations about representation in media, but what he posits is unlikely to make your garden variety self-identified woke person feel better. Representation is a double-edged sword, particularly when the site of representation (movie, TV show, book) is created or directed by someone not of the group being represented. On the one hand, there is raised visibility and potential for normalization. On the other, because everyone’s experience is inherently subjective, representation is, at least abstractly, impossible to perfect because it’s still denying agency and voice to someone. The camera is often a de facto source of objectification, depriving those not behind the lens of their voice.
I recall watching the pilot of the fourth season of Ryan Murphy’s FX anthology show American Horror Story, that year entitled Freakshow. In it, Jessica Lange, the ex-Nazi Emcee of a circus and mistress of its sideshow, delivers a rote, maudlin monologue about how—gasp—we able-bodied people are the real monsters and freaks of society. The show laid its clumsy thesis bare, and continued to steamroll into the melodrama. While the season is the closest Murphy will ever get to resembling Douglas Sirk’s films (in its quietest moments), it’s too caught up in the thrill and shock of the premise to reconcile what it says it will explore: ideas of authorship, exploitation, marginalization based on ability, power and objectification. Every speech from a character undermines its very mission. It’s wall-to-wall pity confused for empathy.
What’s so curious about Chained for Life, and its effortlessness in gliding from the real to the surreal, is how easy it is for its cast of differently-abled actors to seize the camera and its gaze, from both Herr Director (Charlie Korsmo) and, seemingly, Schimberg himself. In and outside of scenes of rehearsal and shooting, Pearson stands out, taking control of the film’s direction, even when he’s not on screen. His absence, and the presumed inequity of that of his co-stars, is felt, particularly as he makes a mockery of the “marginalized person teaches a non-marginalized person how to care” movie. Pearson, whose performance swings easily between actor acting and his own character traversing the landscape, bounces back and forth, object and subject, whether being condescended to by Max, struggling with the director regarding blocking or talking of his dreams with his friends. He commands scenes with no time for our pity.
Schimberg’s ultimate challenge to the audience is to reconsider not only their understandings of beauty and ability on film, but what representation at its core is supposed to do for those represented: Whom is it for and why, and how will that change how we—those who aren’t marginalized—understand those on the margins of society? Representation, and the emotions or reactions engendered from that, does not exist in a vacuum, but one emotion Schimberg seems to want audiences to discard is patronizing, disingenuous pity. Chained for Life has no time for it. The film just wants to see its characters live.
Director: Aaron Schimberg
Writer: Aaron Schimberg
Starring: Adam Pearson, Jess Weixler, Charlie Korsmo, Stephen Plunkett
Release Date: September 11, 2019