Salome Chasnoff’s CODE OF THE FREAKS

Reviewed for Cinefile Chicago:

Salome Chasnoff’s CODE OF THE FREAKS (US/Documentary)

Gene Siskel Film Center – Tuesday, 8pm

Chicago-based filmmaker Salome Chasnoff and writer-interviewees Susan Nussbaum, Alyson Patsavas, and Carrie Sandah did the world a favor by creating this breezy and informative 69-minute documentary about the depiction—and frequent misrepresentation—of people with physical and/or mental disabilities in narrative cinema. Utilizing film clips spanning nearly 100 years, from Robert Wiene’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI in 1920 through to Hollywood movies in the 21st century, CODE OF THE FREAKS provides a welcome corrective to the myriad, dangerous distortions and falsehoods offered by depictions of the differently abled in cinema‚ almost none of which were made by filmmakers who were actually disabled themselves. The most provocative aspect of CODE OF THE FREAKS (the title of which affectionately nods to Tod Browning’s 1932 masterpiece FREAKS) may be the way it illustrates how narrative cinema’s need for traditional “resolution” does a particular disservice to stories centering on disabled characters by providing the same few tidy endings over and over again (i.e., the “miracle cure,” death, and institutionalization). But, in spite of the seriousness of the subject matter, most of the disabled artists and activists interviewed for Chasnoff’s camera come across as witty and good-humored, and the director herself gets a surprising amount of comic mileage out of the way she juxtaposes these interview clips with relevant film scenes (a case in point: disability advocate Candace Coleman’s balking at the subtext of M. Night Shyamalan’s UNBREAKABLE followed by a shot from that movie where Samuel L. Jackson’s character says “No!” half a dozen times). Even better is the way Chasnoff creates clever montages incorporating a range of different films about disability in order to show how pervasive some of the most unfortunate tropes are (e.g., the way a disabled character’s highest function seems to be to serve merely as an inspiration for non-disabled characters; or the absurd frequency of scenes in which blind men are able to successfully drive cars as a means of reclaiming the masculinity that disability has otherwise threatened to take away from them). Screening as part of the Midwest Film Festival. The event will begin at 7pm with a social hour, followed by an 8pm screening and a Q&A with Chasnoff and members of the production team. (2020, 69 minutes, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]

About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

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