With Noir City behind us, more film festivals are populating in Frisco Bay cinemas and on my sidebar. The next one to begin is SF IndieFest, which starts Thursday February 7th and continues for fifteen days. Michael Hawley has written a fine preview, and my friend Adam Hartzell has a review of one of the few documentaries in the program. Here's Adam:
The examples I gave above are for dramatic films, but I think the danger of high hopes causes the greatest harm for documentaries. Particularly when those documentaries are done about topics on which we ourselves have engaged in a great deal of outside research. Case in point for me, Lisa Zemeckis' Bound By Flesh (2012), screening as part of this year's SF Indie Fest running from Feb 7-21 at the Roxie and other San Francisco venues. If I hadn't read Alice Domurat Dreger's exhaustive medical anthropological study of the lives of conjoined twins, One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal (Harvard University Press, 2004), would I have found Bound By Flesh more compelling? Instead, I only experience disappointment at a missed opportunity for something greater than the life of Violet and Daisy Hilton told from limited perspectives.
Freaks (1932). (How Dreger deconstructs Freaks by flipping the script of the dramatic arc in in that film as her own narrative arc for One of Us is part of what makes her rigorous scholarship so accessible and so brilliant.) Along the way to stardom, they suffered child abuse, both physical and emotional, including being surveilled every hour of their lives by their guardians. Eventually the Hilton sisters secured emancipation, but since they were now on their own in society for the first time, they made some less than ideal choices, the consequences of which they survived temporarily. But when the vaudeville circuit began to crumble against the enticements provided for audiences by movies and (later) television, the Hilton sisters eventually found themselves impoverished in a new labor market where their skills didn't secure the income and companionship to which they had previously become accustomed.
The life of the Hilton sisters is compelling and propels the linear narrative in Bound By Flesh. The talking heads interspersed between the stills, film and TV footage, and audio recordings of the twins have interesting details to add. The most engaging of the talking heads is Amy Fulkerson, the curator of collections at The Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas. To Zemeckis' credit, leaving in The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton's author Dean Jensen's giggles when talking about what he knows of their sexual lives reveals the prurient fascination some male audiences had for the sisters. But when the former sideshow promoter Ward Hall chooses the word' handicapped' rather than 'freaks' at one point, stated in a way by him that seems to dismiss liberal calls to re-think our language, it's an unintentional fissure in the text that illuminates the primary problems with Bound By Flesh.
Lori and George Schappell are still boot-scootin' and as conjoined twin performers, they are as appropriate, if not more, than any of the talking heads dominating the film. (Readers might know the Schappell twins as Lori and Reba, but in 2007, Reba began identifying as male and now goes by George.) The historical notes on the impact of American entertainment choices is valuable, but so much important history is still missing. There's no mention of the lives of other conjoined twins in the circus, of earlier times or contemporary to the Hilton sisters. For those who don't know, the reason conjoined twins were referred to as 'Siamese twins' was because the first world famous ones were Chang and Eng Bunker who were Chinese-Malay conjoined twins born in what was then called Siam. They were successful enough after their circus careers to purchase a plantation with slaves in North Carolina. They also married two women who were themselves sisters, although not conjoined, and had 21 children between them. (Darin Strauss wrote a fictional account of their lives called Chang and Eng: A Novel where Strauss decides to whip up some psycho-sexual speculation for some reason.) Reference to the experience of conjoined twins past (Chang and Eng) and present (Lori and George) along with the seeming paradox that, although objectified, some performers, such as the little person Charles Sherwood Stratton (aka General Tom Thumb) were able to establish fulfilling careers through work in the circus would have expanded the lives of the Hilton sisters beyond an isolated 'freakish' moment in history.