Bound by Flesh (2012)

The major shortcoming of Tod Browning’s Freaks is that its commitment to the horror genre ultimately requires it to betray its empathy for its “circus freak” performers. The majority of Freaks plays like a hangout comedy that just happens to be set in a circus full of amputees, little people, microcephalics, etc., an intentional plea to the audience to find the common humanity in the “ABNORMAL” & “UNWANTED” societal castoffs that work the film’s traveling sideshow. All of this work is undone at the climax when the titular “freaks” wordlessly creep up on & mutilate the physically abled erotic dancer who wrongs them, essentially playing the part of a Universal Monsters-style creature. Largely missing from the violence of this conclusion are the famed conjoined twins The Hilton Sisters. Daisy and Violet Hilton largely manage to escape the more nastily exploitative aspects of Freaks, only enjoying the benefits of its more empathetic opening half, but they weren’t so lucky in real life. From birth, the sisters were exploited for entertainment on public display, often suffering the worst side of show business without ever fully reaping its benefits. The documentary Bound by Flesh attempts to give The Hilton Sisters their full due with posthumous praise for their successes in sideshows, vaudeville, and Freaks, but unfortunately also falls short in fully honoring the value of their entertainment industry legacy in the way they deserved.

Leslie Zemeckis, longtime romantic & creative partner with “Mr. CGI” himself, Robert Zemeckis, has been quietly toiling away as a documentarian in recent years. She’s been directing a series lowkey profiles on long-forgotten female entertainers like burlesque dancers, tiger trainers, and of course, in Bound by Flesh, The Hilton Sisters. Even where her still-developing sense of craft as a filmmaker fails the legacy of her subjects, Zemeckis’s intent in glorifying the conjoined twin vaudeville singers is an unquestionably admirable effort. Essentially sold at birth to a pub owner, the twins were raised from day one to serve as entertaining curiosities for strangers & drunks. As babies, they were displayed for barroom patrons to prod in wonder at the flesh that connected them; their earliest memories were of being curiously touched by strangers for amusement. Their career was built from there, without their consent, by shuffling them from traveling road shows to amusement parks to wax museums as life-long entertainers. By the time they appeared in musical vaudeville acts as young adults, they had no real talent or skill besides being able to sing, dance, and play the piano & saxophone. They had plenty of peak-years struggles with crooked managers, sham marriages and constant emotional abuse, but the toughest times in their life didn’t start until they drifted away from the spotlight entirely and were left unprepared to function as autonomous adults in the real world, much less pull themselves out of financial ruin. Zemeckis does an okay enough job balancing enthusiasm for their onstage accomplishments with honesty about the abusive exploitation that fueled them, but the story being told is consistently more fascinating than its method of delivery. Bound by Flesh is a mediocre film about an incredibly fascinating subject.

One thing Bound by Flesh benefits greatly from is how well the Hiltons’ lives were documented in the public eye. Combining photographs with reel footage of their two motion picture appearances, Freaks & the (very) loosely autobiographical Chained for Life, finds plenty of visual stimulation to accompany its talking head accounts of the history of their lives in carnivals & vaudeville. One of the better side effects of those interviews is in getting a general glimpse of what 1920s carnival sideshows & vaudeville-era exploitation entertainment was like, even including footage of ancient amusement park attractions & attendees. I also appreciated the way its general look is informed by vintage promotional material for sideshow attractions. Much less effective is the employment of former Zemeckis collaborators Lea Thompson & Nancy Allen to vocally dramatize accounts from The Hilton Sisters’ point of view, as filtered through an old-timey gramaphone effect. The movie also disappoints in its lack of interest in the behind the camera war stories from the twins’ two feature film appearances, what they’re currently best know for, and in its gradual decline in enthusiasm when discussing their most tragic, post-fame years (for obvious reasons), despite stretching out coverage of that period of their lives as much as better-documented eras. If you can excuse the lackluster execution in some of the technical details, however, Bound by Flesh is a welcome exalting of a pair of performers who spent their entire lives on the wrong end of exploitation entertainment. There might be a better movie to be made about their lives as empathy-worthy tragedy, like the way David Lynch lovingly profiled John Merrick in The Elephant Man. Either way, Zemeckis’s documentary is worthy enough for the way it draws attention to the often-dehumanized Hilton Sisters and the ugly industry that displayed them as oddities for profit and then dumped them into obscurity with no resources but the limited use of their vaudevillian talents.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Blow Out (1981)

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Every month one of us makes the other two watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month James made Britnee & Brandon watch Blow Out (1981).

James: Brian De Palma’s political thriller Blow Out is our May Movie of the Month and I’m pretty stoked to revisit this hidden gem from one of my all-time favorite directors. Based on the 1966 film Blow Up about a fashion photographer who accidentally films a murder, Blow Out tweaks that premise, focusing on Jack Terry, a sound engineer for B horror movies, who gets entangled in a conspiracy after capturing the audio of a fatal car crash that kills a presidential candidate.

Putting his stylistic chops on full display, De Palma doesn’t pull any punches. Split screens, long tracking shots, dizzying angles; Hitchcock would be proud. It’s mind boggling that even with a star studded cast (including John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, and Dennis Franz) and gushing reviews from critics, Blow Out was a box office flop when it premiered in 1981. That’s a shame because everyone gives great performances, especially Lithgow as a cold blooded psychopath (what else) and Travolta as the sound engineer always looking for “the perfect scream”. Thankfully, Blow Out has gained popularity through the years and earned a reputation as a quintessential De Palma. I think it’s his best film.

What really blew me away re-watching Blow Out was how strongly the film holds up as a homage to the medium of film itself. It is a movie about making movies. As Jack puts together the audio and video of the fatal wreck, we are viewing the process of film making itself, the melding of sight and sound.

Brandon, do you feel like I do about Blow Out being a “movie about making movies”? Do you think this is why De Palma chose to focus on a movie sound engineer instead of a fashion photographer?

Brandon: I did find that approach interesting here, because normally films will interact with their own medium by showing members of a theater audience. This is even true in horror films, such as the monsters-break-the-fourth-wall classics Demons & The Ring or the throwaway gag in Gremlins where an entire theatrical audience is made of unruly, cackling monsters. There’s a little bit of audience-acknowledgement in the opening minutes of Blow Out, which features a few men in a screening room enjoying a hilariously tawdry, violent slasher movie. It adds whole other layer of specificity that the men are actually working on the film they’re watching, specifically on its sound effects. As James just noted, it’s not interacting with film as a medium from a consumer’s point of view, but rather from an active participant’s. Of course, the movie maker’s perspective isn’t entirely unique either, but the sound engineer angle has a very precise specificity to it, since most films about filmmakers would approach the story from the perspective of a writer or a director. It gets even more specific from there, given that these are men that only make cheap slasher flicks. At one point a character asks Jack if he works on “big” movies and he responds, “No. Just bad ones.”

That specificity turns out to be a very important distinction, especially the sound engineer detail. As James points out, Travolta’s protagonist, Jack, spends most of Blow Out’s run time attempting to construct a film version of a car crash he witnessed. Although film is a mostly visual medium, it’s Jack’s work with sound that dominates this process. He obsesses over the audio recording of the crash that he captured, using it as a cornerstone in his reconstruction of the crime scene. Yes, Blow Out is in some ways a movie about making movies, but more specifically it’s a movie about how essential sound is to film. It boils the medium down to one of its more intangible elements. In that way it’s much more unique than a lot of other movies about movies, arriving more than three decades before the film it most closely resembles in this approach (that I can recall, anyway), Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.

Britnee, how do you think De Palma’s focus on sound in Blow Out shaped the film as a final product? Did its sound obsession have a big effect on you as a viewer, as opposed to how you normally watch movies?

Britnee: De Palma’s focus on sound really makes Blow Out a standout film and turns what could’ve been a run-of-the-mill thriller into a milestone in cinema. Of course, there are many other elements that make this film unique, but I think its obsession with sound is really what differentiated it from others. I have watched quite a few movies in my lifetime, but I’ve never come across or heard of a film that offers a behind-the-scenes look at the importance of sound in movies. Prior to viewing Blow Out, I never gave much thought to any of the sounds that occur during a movie, and now that I’ve seen the film, it’s all that I think about. In the final scene of Blow Out, Jack uses the screams from Sally’s murder for the bad movie he’s working on (his “perfect scream”), and I found this to be very unsettling. When I now hear a scream in a movie, I can’t help but think of the possibility of it being from an actual murder. What if there are psychotic sound technicians that go around killing people for authentic screams? It’s just something to think about.

The film’s camerawork is definitely something that stood out to me as well. Many of the angles were creative and voyeuristic with similarities to those in Blood and Black Lace, but there were a few that were way over the top, almost to the point of being ridiculous. The one that stands out the most to me is the merry-go-round shot that occurs in the scene where Jack is searching through his studio like a mad man looking for the missing tape. The camera must have spun around 100 times without stopping. It was like being on a Tilt-A-Whirl but not in a good way. Other than his theme park inspired camerashots, there were many others that were very innovative and enjoyable.

James, what are your feelings about De Palma’s imaginative cinematography? Were some of the shots a little absurd? Were they necessary for the film’s success?

James: A self-professed De Palma devotee, I love his unique approach to cinematography but I can understand how some viewers might scratch their heads at his more show-offy, “I went to film school” shots in Blow Out. Like the long tracking shot at the beginning of his1998 film Snake Eyes, many of these grandiose shots aren’t necessary, definitely a little absurd, but totally awesome. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have ejoyed Blow Out nearly as much if it didn’t included close up of owls and dizzying trips around Jack’s office. It reminds me of previous Movie of the Month directors like Mario Bava and Ken Russell who seem to take a similar delight in playing with their audience’s perspective

On a different note, I have to bring up the ending to Blow Out. As I addressed in my first question, Blow Out did not perform well in the bow office, and I wonder if the film’s bleak ending was the reason. With Jon Lithgow in full on psychopath mode and the Fourth of July festivities in full swing, we assume that that Jack will reach the girl in time but De Palma pulls the rug out from under us and the backrop of patriotism and freedom takes on a more ominous tone. Is this punishment for Jack’s participation in exploitation films? Is it a statement on American politics?

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Blow Out‘s ending? Why do you think De Palma chose to end the film in such an unconventional, bleak manner?

Brandon: I think the movie’s pessimistic conclusion is best understood in the context of De Palma’s status as one of the voices of New Hollywood. New Hollywood was already at least a decade old by Blow Out’s release, often cited as beginning with the release of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde in 1967, but De Palma’s aesthetic & tone was very much rooted in the movement. In addition to other genre-defining traits, notable New Hollywood films like Easy Rider, Chinatown, The French Connection, and Harold & Maude had a tendency to subvert audience’s expectations by concluding on bleak & unresolved notes. I suppose the idea was that this approach was more realistic & honest because conflicts in “real” life don’t always end on the definitive & upbeat terms that often accompanied more escapist Old Hollywood fare.

I think De Palma goes even a step further than some of his peers in this case by falsely promising a grandiose, happy conclusion. When Travolta’s protagonist Jack first rushes to save the day, he disruptively drives directly into a Liberty Day parade in a grand gesture that normally would end with him victorious & Lithgow’s antagonist in jail. Instead, he crashes & burns. Literally. The “happy ending” subversion in Blow Out is so deliberate & well-teased that it plays like a hilarious prank before it takes an even darker turn. Despite the violence & grim political intrigue of the film’s story, De Palma still found a way to let his darkly playful sense of humor shine through.

Britnee, were there any other ways you found Blow Out oddly humorous outside the slasher-movie & hero-saves-the-day fake-outs that began & closed the film? What made you laugh in-between those moments?

Britnee: There was a whole lot to laugh at between the opening and closing of the film. While Blow Out was a serious thriller, there were a good bit of ridiculous moments and scenes that got a few chuckles out of me. Particularly, the scene when Jack first meets Sally in the hospital. Sally basically has a concussion after being in a fatal car crash, but Jack is so set on dragging her out of her hospital bed and getting her to a bar. He does succeed with getting her out of the hospital while she’s still in need of medical attention, but ends up having a hard time getting her to the bar for a couple of drinks (go figure). As Brandon mentioned previously, De Palma does have a dark sense of humor, and this is a pretty good example of it. Also, I’m just now realizing that the lovers in Blow Out, Jack and Sally, just so happen to share the same name as the famous couple from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Interesting.

Most of the other comical occurrences in the film were minor, but still pretty damn hilarious. Jack’s over-the-top dramatic facial expressions, Sally’s quirky dialogue, and Manny Karp’s dirty wife-beater really stick out in my mind as little things that were humorous in the film.

Lagniappe

Brandon: One thing I think that has gotten somewhat lost in the mix here is the performance by Nancy Allen as Sally. Known to most as “That Lady from Robocop” and known to Blow Out director Brian De Palma at the time of filming Blow Out as “My Wife” (feel free to read that in the Borat vernacular if you need to), is an actress who doesn’t necessarily get a chance to shine often. She’s extremely charming here as the love-interest-who-isn’t-quite-what-she-seems noir archetype, recalling performances like Dotty in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure & the secretary from Twin Peaks. It’s not entirely surprising that Allen’s performance is overwhelmed by the likes of John Travolta, John Lithgow, and the impressively sleazy Dennis Franz, but I do feel like deserves more recognition for bringing a certain heart, authenticity, and (as Britnee mentioned) humor to a film that may have felt like a (exceedingly technically proficient) cold cinematic exercise without her.

Britnee: Blow Out is such an unrecognized treasure. What I liked the most about this movie were the many twists and turns that occurred from beginning to end. After the first half-hour or so, I thought that I had the film figured out; an average Joe solves a murder and gets the girl in the end. It turns out that I’m a terrible guesser.

James: Blow Out is essential De Palma and arguably his masterwork. With its mix of intrigue, nail biting suspense, and dark humor, the film transcends genres and feels as fresh as it must have in 1981. Showcasing De Palma’s formidable skill behind the camera, Blow Out is also a great homage to the process of film making from a modern master.

Upcoming Movie of the Months:
July: Britnee presents Highway to Hell (1991)
August: Brandon presents Babe: Pig in the City (1998)

-The Swampflix Crew