Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Adam Hartzell on Bound By Flesh

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:

When we build up hopes for a film from which we anticipate big things, we may be setting ourselves up to letting ourselves down.  Will my anxious awaiting for Park Chan-wook's Stoker or Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer, two South Korean ventures into U.S. production territory, live up to my expectations of those two directors?  Will the rest of the U.S. population finally get on the Song Kang-ho greatness bandwagon with his role in Snowpiercer like some in the U.S. finally have with Bae Doo-na in Cloud Atlas?  Or am I just building a poorly constructed infrastructure of hope that will only collapse from the slightest nudge of less-than-greatness?

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.

Bound By Flesh details the life of the Hilton sisters, conjoined sisters from  England who eventually found their way to the U.S., via Australia, where they found huge success on the vaudeville circuit.  Most cinephiles know them from their role in Tod Browning's 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.

Why weren't any conjoined twins included amongst the talking heads?  Yes,  there aren't that many to choose from, but country singer conjoined  twins 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.

An equally important history to weave in to the story of the Hilton sisters is the history of the Disability Rights movement.  Part of how such context would be helpful is in explaining how the isolation of the Hilton sisters later in life is partly related to issues of accessibility. Bound By Flesh briefly notes how the loss of a U.S. train network impacted the sisters' mobility, but the over-arching commentary of this historical fact is how 'out of touch' the Hilton sisters were with the contemporary Zeitgeist, not how disastrous our national  transportation policies have been for certain segments of the U.S. population.  The Disability Rights movement, like other civil rights movements, spawned a Disability Studies scholarship.  Inclusion of such scholarship in the documentary would have helped deconstruct the 'infinite wisdom' of the able-bodied savior of the Disabled that creeps in to 'save' the Hilton sisters when they are down on their luck along with countering the antics of the former sideshow promoter.

If the Schappell twins were not available, at the very least a film like this demands consideration of Dreger's book if not splicing in interviews of Dreger speaking herself.  As a result of the vast lacunae that unbounds Bound By Flesh, the fact that the life of the Hilton sisters was not conjoined with Disability Studies constructs is the biggest flaw of the film.  If Dreger's One of Us would have been one of the texts used to prepare Bound By Flesh, we would not only have learned that the Hilton Sisters' lack of desire to be separated was not an exception, but the very norm of conjoined twins, we might also have had a documentary that doesn't disappoint the  viewer who has come prepared with background knowledge before the screening, or who chooses to investigate the wider subject afterwards.

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