Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Steve's thoughts on Code of The Freaks (2020) Reelabilities 2020

One of the more interesting, at least in the concept, film on film documentaries I’ve seen in a very long time Code Of The Freaks may change the way you see every film with a person with a disability. Or it may not. It was made to be a damning portrait of how even positive films can be condescending and hurtful. Unfortunately because of that, I'm not sure it's any good beyond it's premise- however intriguing  the idea behind it is.

A collection of clips are mixed with talking head segments with people with disabilities, the film charts how Hollywood really doesn’t get or understand disabilities and as a result they don’t know how to handle them. More times then not disabilities is used for some dramatic purpose to tweak the emotion. Hollywood so much wants them to be used as something to over come and make us feel good. The films want to be inspiring- but as one person says "I’m sick of people telling me I inspire them."

While I like what the film is trying to do,  I don't think it is as successful as it should or could be.  Basically while the film opens the discussion of how disabilities are seen in popular entertainment (because FENCES  that transferred from the stage and DAREDEVIL which comes from a comic book I am throwing the net wider) it doesn't make it a complete enough discussion because it almost exclusively dwells on what Hollywood gets wrong. Based on material surrounding it's making the film was made  with a very negative point of view in mind which corrupts the entire discussion because it doesn't allow for anything other than the negative.

Even before one looks at  the story behind the film it is clear that the murderers row of talking heads pretty much hates or has a problem with every film discussed.  If you look at the story behind the film you see the Kickstarter page talking of the film as the film being made with the intention of it being "take down" of all Hollywood's product. While I can understand that the film was made out of anger, there has to be some positive portraits...right? Not according to this film which seems to simply exist to rip the films apart.  I say this because in watching the film a second and third time I realized that even when they like something a film does, say how COMING HOME shows how sex can be difficult, it still manages to find all sorts of faults with the film.

Some of  what I find troubling is that some of the faults fall outside of the scope of the film. Some of the talking heads ask questions about why in the course of making THE MIRACLE WORKER a blind girl didn't play Helen Keller or why the signing wasn't exactly right. I would have thought a discussion of the making of the film and the state of Hollywood then and now would have followed, but it doesn't. This is odd because the Kickstarter page talks about the film giving a broader social context for the films but in actuality that seems to be missing in favor of just picking particular films apart. Sadly CODE is firmly focused on the films and their flaws with only a token amount focused outside of that.

In the case of FENCES, and other films, questions are asked about why secondary characters with disabilities are not given more fully rounded characteristics of the sort a lead character would get "Why don't we know if Gabriel would want a family of his own?" muses one person. I could see the argument if Gabriel or other  secondary characters were the focus of the film/play/ect but they are not. They are there for other reasons and are not the focus of the narrative thrust, even if they are carried along by it. The inclusion of this sort of a discussion doesn't belong in a film such as this because while they are most definitely part of the film looking for a broader exploration of a secondary character would change the notions of what the film was about. Is it about Gabriel or Troy, the Denzel Washington character? This is Troy's story. If it's about Gabriel then it would be a different film, just as say in David Fincher's SEVEN focused on Second Guard at The Library (a real character title) instead of Brad Pitt.

This wanting more from some characters is an odd choice to focus in on when in some cases the talking heads don't full speak to things that should color their discussion. There is a discussion of how some people with handicaps are seen as having superpowers and use DAREDEVIL as an example. The trouble is that the character is decidedly not supposed to be a representation of all blind people.  Sourcing from a comic book he is the result of an accident which gave him super powers.  He is not every man just as none of the X-Men or any other superhero is a singular representation for any one group.  Frankly with proliferation of comic book films one must ask why the film didn't  have a larger discussion of the representation of the characters. The film is up to date and includes a discussion of WONDER WOMAN's disfigured villain so it could have and should have been there if you are going to reference films in the genre.

Like wise why did the film include Dracula, Frankenstein and the other movie monsters? While I understand it because of the notion of disabilities equating with the notion of them being an outsider the inclusion doesn't really work since except in the case of stretching the idea of what is disabled to the point of including undead and unhuman. It's negative view is especially untenable when there have been dozens of discussions of monsters as a positive representation of the outsider, such as  Douglas McEwan's WE BELONG DEAD: A GAY PERSPECTIVE ON THE CLASSIC MOVIE MONSTERS which do a better job and more complete job of putting the monsters in perspective (gay or otherwise) as an outsider and explaining why the monsters connect with people on the edge of society.

The film sadly seems to pick and choose characters that fit it's narrow view with the result that this film is more doctoral thesis than an viable cultural discussion. The film only throws a net toward the films it can safely take down. I won't venture to suggest potentially positive example outside the net since I'm certain the makers of CODE would no doubt find fault just because they can (one of the talking heads in an on-line bio talks about the jot they get from simply nay saying any portrait of the disabled on screen- which begs the question - why include this person on a panel when all they can give you is vitriol and an insistence that what you or they are doing is wrong. If you are that sure of yourself, you make a movie).

And one has to wonder if the talking heads are aware of actual events depicted in the films discussed. For example the death of John Merrick in THE ELEPHANT MAN is taken as a noble death because he died knowing that laying down would kill him. The trouble for me is that while the film makes his death moving in keeping with the whole structure of the narrative, his death as reported in accounts of the time said was not suicide but an experiment to see if he could sleep like a normal person. I see the sequence as an out growth of him simply trying to be a normal person and nothing more. Because we are given a sequence of what he "saw" as he died doesn't mean it's a noble death.

The film in many ways is so narrow refusing to deal with anything outside of its POV  that there is no wiggle room for a real discussion.  Despite the film raising  many valid points about how Hollywood and popular culture see certain specific things elating to disability,  say the over use of certain tropes, playing a character with a disability is the way to win an Oscar and using a similar plot line for most films, the ultimate myopia sinks it.  It sinks because  according to the panel pretty much all the films are bad and not worthy of discussion.  I left watching this film each time sensing all the films discussed and worthless and bad so why discuss them further? (I know I keep repeating this point, and I'm sorry but my doing so mirrors what it is like to watch CODE.)

My biggest problem with the film is,  if you are like me, you probably know people with disabilities who love the movies and love it when they see a film that shows what it is like for them. I have several friends who have rallied around some film or another of the ones discussed because it spoke to them and what they were going through either mentally or physically.  In some ways I have to dismiss this film simply because the murderers row of talking heads largely doesn't reflect the people in the world I live in.  This isn't to say that they aren't right and that Hollywood and popular culture are absolutely condescending and wrong more times than not (especially in the details such as blind people touching faces) but the outright dismissal of the films themselves requires a much broader and detailed discussion than a 68 minute discussion of 100 plus years of history can relate.

And lest you think this is my thoughts after a single viewing, it is not, I have seen the film a couple of times now and my view of it has changed. When I saw the film the first time I was moved by the issues the film raised and I told several friends about the film, telling them to contact the PR person for Reelabilities in order to see it. I was disturbed by the film because I had assumed that the film was playing with my prejudices and forcing me to see the films discussed differently. I then went back into the film in order to  make notes and I realized that the film was very one sided. I was disturbed not because my prejudices were being played but rather this wasn't a fair discussion because it wasn't a large enough discussion with the result this isn't a documentary or even a  polemic but a screed with a very clear point of view (as I mentioned above one of the producers lists in their production bio as being someone who loves to ruin all films about disabilities.)  I seriously considered not writing it up. I then went back and tried to see the film with more accepting eyes... and the result is this piece.

In the end CODE OF THE FREAKS absolutely raises issues that we should discuss. We should ponder what it is saying, but we have to reframe the discussion into something else, something other than CODE's "this is all bad". While the film absolutely is a place to begin the discussion, its presentation of its points are problematic. CODE is so negative and so narrow  that it is hard to really talk about the films and the issues around them past a certain point.  There is no larger discussion of anything except the films and the notion of Hollywood in the panel's and filmmaker's view of them. That simply isn't enough because the reality of the films beyond their view isn't that simple.

A late in the game addendum : In researching something related this film but not specifically this piece I discovered  that Mubi has compiled a list of 171 films with persons with disabilities. Looking over the list my feelings of just how narrow this film is and how we really need a broader discussion than this film comes was re-enforced. The full list can be found here. While the list is full of "offenders" I am left to ponder how the panel in CODE would see some of the films on the list that they didn't discuss, particularly some of non-Hollywood titles and the documentaries since some of the structures of the docs mirror a version of  some Hollywood narrative structure.

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