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February 03, 1984 - Image 7

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1984-02-03

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The Michigan Daily - Friday, February 3, 1984 - Page 7
Freaks' is a real live nightmare

y Byron Bull
A NYONE WHO HAS ever seen a
real freak show never forgets the
powerful mixture of disgust, com-
passion, fear, and fascination they
elicit. We're torn between morbid in-
terest and utter revulsion. Tod
Browning's 1932 Freaks has just that ef-
fect, as ugly as it is it's impossible not
to watch. It's a bizarre piece of film-
making, and the only memorable film
of Browning's otherwise unspectacular
career as a director of MGM
melodramas during the thirties. His
London After Midnight doesn't qualify
because it has been tragically lost, with
only a handful of strikingly tantalizing
stills remaining. Freaks still ranks as
one of the most unusual films ever tur-
ned out by the old Hollywood studio
In this thriller, set among the mem-
bers of a circus freak show, Browning
did something that is either regarded as
ingenius, or insane. For the roles of the
freaks, Browning cast people with the

actual deformities. The pinheads,
siamese twins, and hermaphrodites
that move across the screen are not
covered with prosthetics, they're quite
real. The sheer realism is shocking.
Critics and audiences, at the time,
reacted with repulsion, and the film
-was quickly withdrawn from release.
Due to Great Britian's severe (and
ludicrous) censorship restrictions, it
wasn't released there until 1963. Even
today a showing is rare, and I can
guarantee that you'll never see it on
The plot and execution are rather
contrived. The storyline seemingly
works around the idea of using actual
deformed people, and not vice versa. A
scheming trapeze artist named
Cleopatra seduces and marries a
midget named Hans for his wealth. She
plots to poison him, and steal away with
the goods and her lover, the circus
strong man. But the other freaks instin-
ctively know she's up to something, and
watch closely. Disdained by the outside
world, the freaks cling together with a
ferocious tenacity. When you injure one

of them, you injure them all.
Why Hans would suffer the in-
dignation of a freakshow existence if he
can affort not to is unclear. But then so
is Hans' character, as are all the
freaks. Cleopatra and the strong man
fare no better, they're stock villains
right out of any thirties potboiler.
Assuredly the acting is crude, par-
ticularly the gentleman playing Hans,
who literally reads his lines to the
A far more serious mistake is
Browning's direction. He doesn't let the
viewer empathize with the freaks.,
alienating them far worse than our
initial prejudices do. He concocts a
somewhat hokey subculture for them,
replete with strange ritual trappings
right out of a bad B-movie. At a strange
wedding feast the freaks throw for
Hans and his bride, they dance about
and shout "One of us! One of us! in
jubilation. But the grins on their faces
are obviously forced and uninten-
tionally look like obscene leers. When
Cleopatra loses her cool and screams
her loathing for them,any possibility of

audience sympathy has been diffused
by their macabre portrayal.
It's also not the horror film it's often
been mislabeled, though there is one
genuinely terrifyihg sequence that
hasn't been diluted by the years.
Failing in their attempt to poison Hans,
Cleopatra and lover flee the circus
during a thunderstorm. The freaks, out
for blood, follow in pursuit, crawling
and creeping along through the forest
at night. The sight of a man with no
legs, walking on his hands with a knife
between his teeth, revealed in bursts of
lightning, is an image that imbeds itself
into your memory.
But at what price? To achieve the ef-
fectiveness of that shot Browning had to
exploit that man's deformity, as well as
the viewers gross reactions. How we're
supposed to accept the freaks nor-
mally again as human he doesn't ven-
ture to suggest. He's gotten his shock
effect and he's satisfied.
Freaks remains a film worth cat-
ching for its audacity and historical
significance. But one is not likely to find
it a particularly rewarding experience.

It took 48 years and David Lynch to
treat the same theme with compassion
and intelligence and succeed with his
The Elephant Man.
Freaks plays this Friday at 7 and
10:25 at the Michigan Theatre.
Join the
Arts Staff!

S 5475 with coupon
1 Choice of Chili - bacon - cheese -
sauerkraut - relish
1 I.,
1 1:
South University Store Only1OE
1 668-9773


SAT., FEB. 4
11'15 p.m.
Preceded by two Marilyn Monroe movies:
Admission to the entire program
(movies and contest): $2.50
PRIZES: $100 cash, Gift Certificates; Poster
603 E. LIBERTY ST. * 668-8480

'nter of Signs
R.K. Narayan
gun Books, 143 pages, $4.95
en government manipulation, money, contrary moral
i ests, and human scale characters are blended over the
t authorial fire, a spicy stew boils up, and with R.K.
yan; that ain't just curry. Narayan, an Indian author
relates tales in English of citizens of Malgudi in southern
I gets' laurels, kuds, and a soft reunion in nirvana for
reation. The town takes some telling - eleven novels
200 short stories, so far.
is smooth comedy, reissued since its first U.S.
publication in 1976, turns on the Indian effort to cap
population with birth control. In every country suffering to
reduce new numbers, the heat of opposed moralities and th-
wvated hopes pegged on future generations burns political
careers, effigies, efficacious gods, and psychological
bridges, both those going back and those crossing to another
Raman, protagonist and cousin in simple astuteness to
other Malgudi narrators, is attached to leisurely afternoon-
s over coffee at The Boardless Hotel with the guys and to his
live-in aunt's cooking. He would be proud to paint signs if
only people appreciated quality in the signs they com-
misioned. Though he is an idealist with carefully reasonable
go , he would win the Modern Daisy as his wife.
rniployed by the Family Planning Center, Daisy im-
plements birth control policies in the countryside. She will
not dissimulate, not be tolerant, not be swayed from this
task. To win her, Raman pretends to be the companion she
denands, a man committed-to a 5 percent annual population
decline. He privately considers Daisy's zealous style ex-
travagant, childish, and untested. His less spartan way leads
him to think "wait until ..." And so Narayan leads these two
intr love as love has led for thousands of years to shared lives
and children.
This comedy is a westerner's quiz, replete with references
to our.own literary styles and philosophies. The classic sym-
blism of sign painter as announcer of events who does not
p~rticipate spirals into affectionate parody of our bawdy
Potronius and journeyist Chaucer. Diamond cutters Homer
a4d Ovid glitter throughout.
The book makes great train-ride reading; strong mythic
fa~cy, saris, downcast eyes, and greedy hermetic sages. The
water Italo Calvino says, "The origin of all fiction is the fairy
tale." Narayan would agree, but the source for him is myth,
both European and Asian, particularly the epic. He makes a
2001 century concession in'the definition of hero, electing the
conmon man such as Raman.

Narayan, also at ease paying homage to Shakespeare by
rewriting him, is very western and very Hindu. He is no
doubt re-combining Indian literature here, too, having writ-
ten a version of Indian epic The Ramayana and English tran-
slations of great Indian myths. His literary breadth is
striking; especially since he hates school systems and as an
adolescent failed the University entrance exams. Even today,
after winning India's highest literary and distinguished ser-
vice awards, he says, "I liked to be free to read what I please
and not to be examined at all."
To fully appreciate the novel, you, like Narayan, must love
the underplayed and oddly juxtaposed. He is a multi-level
banterer, joking about his readers as often as about Malgudi.
Raman, our time's non-vocational scholar, shows how casual
handling of literature gains for one a companion as intellec-
tually stimulating as a good dog.
"It was an awkward moment. He was not prepared to
receive any visitor, least of all the girl. He has been having a
nap in the afternoon, falling asleep over a volume of verse."
Narayan is erudite, but not exclusive; if you don't get the
reference, the -story is pretty good anyway. The comic
posture is backboned by the idea that men are less than they
boast, and they dream of hope and humor. Concepts of evil
and hate appear pristinely as envy or unconditional self-
interest; this shape makes full, intricate characters in a
story molded by a nearly effervescent touch.
Raman and Daisy travel into the countryside, he to paint
signs as she dictates. They walk a foot-track far beyond the
bus routes. Tired, over-baggaged, Raman, the awkward
aggressor, muses silently:
They probably mean this state when they say, 'love is
blind.' It probably also deadens the wits and makes one
dumb . . . He speculated on what would happen if he
caught a couple of women in each village and went to
bed with them and thus, in ten months fouled up
Daisy's anticipated five percent improvement. Fantastic
and morbid but, withal, a very entertaining dayldream.
The novel's confrontation between "let alones" and
"highminded manipulators," is reminiscent of the
Shakespeare whose people decry the world but can't live
without it.
Pleasant to know, the town of Malgudi survives all: the
persistent issues that complicate this relationship will be
considered again. For what's on Raman's side in combat
against the strong will of Daisy is the status quo which is
depended upon as fully, and only half-consciously, as a
familiar older aunt who minds the house quite well enough
for now. - Tania Evans

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