Freak City


Our Daily Correspondent

Would it be frivolous to bring a class-action lawsuit against the Emmys? I can’t be the only one who slept poorly and, when she did drop off, slid into nightmare. One assumes productivity suffered. Wages and jobs may even have been lost.

It’s not just the contrast to the state of the world and the country that rankles. This is the nature of the beast. Opening monologues based on racial tensions and international crises have never been calculated to keep network viewers glued to the screen. It’s not merely the crumminess of the writing, which was stale and dull, full of hoary, tone-deaf jokes and bits that would have felt démodé on The Benny Hill Show. Or even the monotony of the awards themselves, which overwhelmingly favored a couple of programs; a rout is never very entertaining.

People looked creepy. I know we all realize this, but it bears repeating. We are as physically grotesque right now as at any time and place in human history. The face-lifts, the fillers, the wasted, sinewy limbs are now the rule, not the exception. We all know why; the fetishization of youth—and its spiritual implications—are recognized by everyone. And yet, our cultural tolerance for true unnaturalness is unbelievably high. This is horrifying, but it is also fascinating. And this has got to be a unique moment: within five years, plastic surgery techniques will have evolved. Makeup artists and chemists will have better adapted to the harshness of HD. In a decade, we’ll look back with shock at what we accepted as normal and desirable. Never before, and never again, will things be as bad. Relish it.

Over the weekend, I went to see a little-screened West German comedy from 1981, by the avant-garde filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger. It was part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Strange Lands: International Sci-Fi series, although—as the curator pointed out when introducing the movie—Freak Orlando is not, strictly speaking, science fiction. It is, rather, a chaotic, low-budget, campy spectacle that feels like a particularly interminable performance by the Bread and Puppet Theater, if that venerable guerrilla-art troupe decided to cross Virginia Woolf’s Orlando with Tod Browning’s Freaks. Perhaps predictably, it drew a (sparse) crowd of hard-core cineastes, genre enthusiasts, and cranks.

Like the Woolf novel, the film ranges across the centuries and follows a gender-bending protagonist, although in this case all the action takes place in a garish universe known as Freak City, populated by the sorts of characters who inhabit Browning’s famous sideshow: two-headed women, hermaphrodites, conjoined twins, midgets. By the time we have gotten through the Spanish Inquisition and Holocaust references and reach the film’s denouement—a pageant to crown “the World’s Ugliest Person,” which is won by the normal-looking salesman who wanders in by mistake—we get the idea: Capitalist society is shallow, sexist, myopic, and cruel. Gender is a construct. Religion is arbitrary. Lunatics run the asylum. Beauty is subjective.

At the time, I found it heavy-handed. But then, last night, I watched the Emmys. And it was so much more grotesque than anything Ottinger could have imagined. From the polished fingers creeping across the mani-cam like an army of James Joyces, to those orange, emaciated—yet muscular!—arms, it was, as my mother would say, beyond parody. We are living in a world between genres, and it’s awful. For a while I thought, Where is our Grosz, our Otto Dix? Who will show us for what we are when life becomes so obvious and heavy-handed? And then, of course, I glanced up, and saw someone’s under-eye concealer exposed by the unforgiving glare of the HD, and realized I was looking at it.