Pretty as you feel: Chained For Life (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 5, 2019)

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Now the questions that come to mind: “Where is this place and when is it?” “What kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm?” You want an answer? The answer is it doesn’t make any difference, because the old saying happens to be true. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in this year or a hundred years hence. On this planet or wherever there is human life – perhaps out amongst the stars – beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Lesson to be learned in the Twilight Zone.

— Epilogue from “Eye of the Beholder”, a Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling.

Depending on how far back your pop culture references go, a certain classic episode from the original Twilight Zone TV series may (or may not) keep popping into your head as you watch writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s “movie within a movie” Chained For Life.

Picture if you will: a postmodernist mashup of The Elephant Man with The French Lieutenant’s Woman (I’ll give you a moment). Schimberg’s film intercuts two parallel romantic affairs; one involving two fictional lead characters in an arthouse horror flick, and the other one that is developing off-set between the two actors who portray the leads.

Mabel (Jess Weixler) is the leading lady, a beautiful movie star hoping to score some art cred by working with a critic’s darling German director (Charlie Korsmo) who is making his English-language debut. Cast opposite Mabel is Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), a sweet-natured young man with a pronounced facial deformity. “Herr Director” is using a semi-abandoned hospital for his set, casting a dwarf, “real” Siamese twins, a “bearded lady”, and other folks with unusual physical attributes alongside professional actors like Mabel.

Rosenthal has never acted in a film before; he picks Mabel’s brain between takes for tips. He’s particularly nervous about memorizing his dialog. Mabel assures him that every actor, no matter the degree of experience, worries about that in the early days of a shoot.

“Name an emotion,” Mabel says to Rosenthal in an impromptu acting lesson. On the spot, he can’t think of one. “Sadness,” she offers, as she changes expression to match the emotion. “See?” she says, “Acting.” “I see,” says Rosenthal, “Now I’ve got one. Happiness.” Mabel obliges. “Let’s try fear,” he says. She promptly shows fear. “How about…empathy?” Rosenthal requests. Mabel begins to hedge. “So…empathy in 3-2-1, action!” he repeats. Cleverly, Schimberg keeps his camera on Rosenthal as Mabel gives it a go. “And…it’s a lot like ‘pity’. But all the same, I’m touched,” Rosenthal deadpans.

That funny/sad scene in the first act is essentially the crux of the film: “Empathy” truly is “an advanced emotion” to convey, as Mabel says to Rosenthal with a nervous laugh. Rosenthal’s resigned response to Mabel’s good intentions reveals much about what it’s like to be inside the head of someone who has no control over others’ first impressions of them (he’s thinking “different day, same old shit”). Our first reactions give us away, and honest conversations about how society treats such “outsiders” are far and few between.

Schimberg’s film, while decidedly unconventional, is eminently accessible (once you adjust to its peculiar rhythms). He is clearly a student of the Robert Altman school; highly populated shots with slow zooms from multiple cameras, overlapping dialog, and an improvised feel (although I don’t know for a fact that he gave his actors that leeway).

For me, the best scene is the denouement. Mabel is taking a taxi to the airport after the film production wraps. The camera remains solely on her while she has a conversation with the driver (who we hear, but never see). Initially, Mabel appears uncomfortable, particularly when the driver tells her she is very beautiful and then says he’s a movie fan.

“We have something in common,” the taxi driver says. “We are both artists.” He hands her a book that he has written about his escape from Nigeria. He thinks it would make a great movie. Maybe Denzel Washington can play him. “I know 9 languages,” he tells her. “I am also a math wizard.” He asks her to give him a random math problem, which he solves in seconds, Rain Man style. He tells her about his plans to produce a YouTube series that teaches children math. He dreams it will become so popular that he will be able to use his celebrity status to “ask President Trump to bring my family from Nigeria.”

“You’re an extraordinary man,” Mabel says in wonderment.

And this is an extraordinarily timely film.

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