There’s nothing unusual to say that cinema captures surfaces. The visual medium is all about recording the appearances of people, places and things. Film, as opposed to digital, has a kind of body too, if you will, a materiality. In cinema, particularly narrative cinema, the human figure is a special site for sight. Actors and actresses, and the way they look — “normal,” disfigured, beautiful, ugly — is the main concern in Aaron Schimberg’s second feature, Chained for Life (2018), which is a kind of corrective or re-phrasing of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).
A small film crew, helmed by a German director (Charlie Korsmo, the child actor from Hook) making his American debut, stages an art-horror movie set in a hospital with a cast that includes disfigured people. Young Mabel (Jess Weixler), toiling in less-than-stellar projects beforehand, hopes this film will be her big break. Starring opposite her is Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), a man with neurofibromatosis. The social dynamic is uneasy between them at first, but they gradually form a close bond over the course of the film shoot. And amid the comings and goings of the various crew members, happening in the larger world, and reported on local televised news reports, is a series of crimes committed by a man with facial wounds, creating a low-level unease to the film’s proceedings.
Taking its name from a 1952 exploitation film featuring the conjoined Hilton twins, thus giving it another metatextual layer, Chained for Life is the latest in a long line of films about filmmaking. After a Pauline Kael quote about the beauty of actors, the film even begins with a film-within-a-film: echoing Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face (1960), doctors perform a facial skin graft. A gun discharges somewhere, and the illusion of the scene transitions to the crew involved in actually making it. There will be many more breaks, more alternations between the layers of reality when Chained for Life ends. In fact, a few of the principle characters in the German director’s film will borrow film equipment and shoot their own narratives that are a stark contrast to the bordering-on-exploitative one currently being made. One, for instance, reverses social dynamics by envisioning a “normal-looking” actor as disabled and vice versa.
Shooting on Super 16mm, cinematographer Adam J. Minnick (Joel Potrykus’ go-to DP) gives the film an earthy, yellow hue; each shot has a hint of grainy haze. Minnick and Schimberg use traveling and panning shots that scour spaces filled with people, and that pick up points of interest and activity amidst the microcosm of the film set. Chained for Life recalls Robert Altman and his ensemble films, especially in the way that the intricate sound mixing and design reveals snatches of dialogue here and there: a grip and gaffer always in the middle of a heated discussion about movies; an attractive, narcissistic supporting player talking to anyone who will listen; the director fussing over the minutiae of his movie.
Although a little shapeless, with the narrative lagging at times, thereby softening its impact, Chained for Life is a fine sophomore feature. It demonstrates that Schimberg can work in a different visual idiom and genre, while still crafting ensemble narratives and sustaining a mood — the telltale signs of his aesthetic given the two feature films that he’s made. In a borough of New York teeming with independent and micro-budget filmmakers, Aaron Schimberg is one of the handful to keep an eye out for with every new work that he makes.
Tanner Tafelski (@TTafelski) is a film writer and journalist based in New York City. He frequently contributes to Hyperallergic, Kinoscope and The Village Voice. Find him on Instagram, Letterboxd and WordPress.