Chained for Life is a richly layered abstraction by Aaron Schimberg. In it, he proposes the development of a meta-movie, the film-within-film, about the shooting of an exploitation flick about disfigured people. A typically objectivist Pauline Kael quote opens the film, asking why we should not seek beauty? She posits, it must be the most rational thing in the world, that we see beauty and respond to it as beautiful, worthy of our attention. That is one kind of performance. There are many kinds of representation. While we make great strides in the representation of race and sex, our cinema remains an ableist cinema, performed by men and women of rationally sound bodies and complexions.
We’ve achieved an entire cinema history of our most beautiful people. We have those documents. One of them is certainly Scarlett Johannson. In her defining work, Under the Skin (2014), she plays an alien that must come to terms with the human gender. She’s sent to earth to harvest the meat under the skin of our human population. That is as easy a job as any. Men are easy to convince to follow a woman like that. On the mission, she grows and comes to understand the real nature of human gender and what it means to be a woman. The film’s most gorgeous moment, to this critic – and it’s full of them – is when she meets Adam Pearson, of whom I’m a great fan. The thing is that the experience changes her completely, she understands deep empathy and compassion, faced with a man who is different from the rest. It is relatable, in her own alienness, and moves her, wounds her organically, in the sense she can only operate as a human with deep feelings, after such an encounter.
That is the kind of representation that can exist, for a man with neurofibromatosis. Another lovely kind is in the dark satire of Chained for Life. This critic also believes Adam Pearson is one of our bravest actors. Our history of facially deformed cinema has largely been one of prosthetics. It means something significantly greater to receive the genuine article, a true performance of disability, in the charming and lived-in face that is true to that situation. It matters a lot. In a film like Chained for Life, he is joined by a cast of folks with like-conditions. They are all incredibly brave and inspiring, a collective progressive presence that make this release dramatically important.
Pearson plays a man called Rosenthal. In one scene, he is shrouded in darkness. The director – they say he’s a German, but nobody really knows – says it could be anyone in the darkness. That is the trick of cinema. It could be Orson Welles, the director exclaims – as the movie exclaims, an actor is an actor, Welles could play Othello. The camera is a camera and will only show the tricks employed by its lens. Rosenthal shifts in the darkness, forming in the frame, reminding us exactly of Welles in The Third Man (1949). “Don’t be frightened.” It could have been Welles.
The central conceit is about the relationship between a classically beautiful actress, played by Jess Weixler, and Rosenthal struggling to connect on set. They play off one another wonderfully. Her performance is curious and central to revealing more about the disfigured cast. She plays it with an openness that reveals the vulnerabilities of others and within herself, while Pearson shows his continued dedication, showing up for art with a point. In one scene, they exchange turns play-acting and she shows her ability to emote while the features of his face are set, assigned for the task of this picture, but what can he express with the same emotion? The film begs the question, does it matter to enlist the talent of a blind actor, if we can believe anyone is blind?
The film-within-the-film brings us back to Welles. It is of the era of exposition, where foreign auteurs expatriate from wherever they from and make different kinds of art, without their local politics. We arrive in a state of chaos in its shooting. Someone needs vans moved and can’t find the person in charge. We’re lost in the confusion of the set. Art is made of chaos. This concept spins out in darkly funny satire.
Chained for Life is an important film for representation. The actors are extremely brave. It does not take a classically beautiful person to create an immensely beautiful, and moving, picture. With grace and intellect, it captures layers of differences and arrives at a point of central understanding. We are all human and films can capture every aspect of that experience, beautifully.