An actress becomes unhinged — and enlightened? — in Aaron Schimberg’s knotty meta-melodrama.
There’s something very East Coast about the introductory moments of writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s singular meta-melodrama Chained for Life. A lengthy, very gushy Pauline Kael quote about the resplendent good looks of actors and actresses slowly rolls up a black screen, accompanied by a string-plucking score by C. Spencer Yeh that seems arch and contemptuous. It’s got the feel of a sneering warning shot. To wit: “Oh, that’s your definition of beauty, Pauline? Well, get a load of this!” A subsequent performer credit — “Keith Poulson as An Asshole” — seemingly narrows the perspective further to the Brooklyn DIY filmmaking scene. It’s hardly surprising that Chained for Life received its world premiere at a Kings County institution, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual BAMCinemaFest.
But the threatened navel-gazing quickly gets nipped in the bud. First, because of the movie’s opening shot, a slow, serpentine and luxuriantly opulent track along a vaguely European hospital hallway. (Truly bigger than life work by cinematographer Adam J. Minnick.) And second, in the way Schimberg utilizes the shot to give his lead actress, Jess Weixler, playing what appears to be a shell-shocked mental patient, an entrance that acts as an in-motion complement to Kael’s observations. Indeed, she glows with that very splendor that the former New Yorker critic describes in effusive spasms. The initial sense of contempt toward Kael remains, but it’s now complicated by a gesture so heartfelt and genuine that it leaves us on thrillingly shifty ground.
And then Schimberg reveals it as a ruse. Weixler is actually playing an actress, Mabel, starring in a movie helmed by a thick-accented German (Charlie Korsmo, the child star of Dick Tracy and Hook) in his English-language debut. The film he’s making is some expressionist-horror hodgepodge about a mad doctor and the patients, most of whom society would deem abnormal, on whom he operates. And the hall-of-mirrors cinematic pastiche expands outward, ad infinitum, from there. Mabel shares her name with Gena Rowlands’ character from John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), and the film and its various behind-the-scenes crises work on her in ways similar to the blighted theatrical production in another Cassavetes-Rowlands collaboration, Opening Night(1977). Then there’s the basic structure of Chained for Life, which pays homage to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s on-set satire Beware of a Holy Whore (1971). Korsmo even resembles, with his scraggy beard and oversize glasses, the New German Cinema enfant terrible, though his accent is pure Werner Herzog, who once affectionately eulogized Fassbinder as “our greasy wild boar.”
This may make it sound like Chained for Life is made up of nothing but cinematic detritus and citation (its own title refers back to a 1952 exploitation flick starring sisters Violet and Daisy Hilton as Siamese twins). But Schimberg doesn’t deploy his references in a scattershot or meaningless manner. They’re more harnessed as polar extremes — a Kael quote at once ridiculed and admired; a character composed of equal parts Fassbinder and Herzog; even, in the film’s funniest vignette, a monologue that appears as if it’s setting up an allusion to Orson Welles’ shadowy reveal in The Third Man before hard-lefting toward a whole other rainbow connection — in-between which arises a strange, surreal and ardent sense of humanity.
This lays the groundwork for the story’s central conflict. Mabel and the rest of the crew are apprehensively awaiting the arrival of a group of performers with disabilities and genetic irregularities who will fill out the hospital setting. One of them, Rosenthal (Adam Pearson, the neurofibromatosis-afflicted actor from Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin), becomes Mabel’s co-lead, both onscreen and off. It would be easy to describe them as an odd couple, though the way Schimberg sketches in the duo’s friendship (and sometimes more than that, though not necessarily on the same plain of reality) makes it feel anything but odd. Whatever physical disparities exist between Mabel and Rosenthal quickly become moot in light of how Schimberg treats them with equivalent, complicated affection, a warmth very much all the filmmaker’s own.
You can see this tenderness stretching back to Schimberg’s debut short Late Spring/Regrets for Our Youth (2009), in which he documents his friendship with the artist Vanessa McDonnell, a producer on Chained for Life, and also turns the camera on one of the many surgeries he himself underwent to fix a bilateral cleft palate. (More polarities: The short’s title alludes to two significant Japanese directors, Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, provocatively placing them in opposition/harmony.) Chained for Life expands on the short’s idea of difference as a humanizing catalyst, and cinema is its playground.
Schimberg confidently blurs the lines between fantasy and reality (more than once a scene that appears to be real is actually fiction and vice versa), though never to the point that it detracts from the people onscreen. No one is a cog. No one is a martyr. No one is to be pitied or made fun of, not even the egocentric matinee idol (Stephen Plunkett) who imagines himself more sophisticated than he actually is. There’s always a hint, even if we can’t fully see the evidence, that there’s more to each person’s story, however big their role and even, as suggested by the sublime penultimate shot with its dual ambience of menace and sensitivity, whether they’re onscreen or not. It’s no accident that Schimberg has one of his characters recite a renowned line from John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”
We might apply the next part of Keats’ quotation to the very gifted Schimberg himself, in all good hope for his future endeavors: “Therefore, ye soft pipes, play on.”
Production companies: Grand Motel, The Eyeslicer, Flies Collective
Cast: Jess Weixler, Adam Pearson, Charlie Korsmo, Sari Lennick, Stephen Plunkett
Director: Aaron Schimberg
Producers: Vanessa McDonnell, Daniel Patrick Carbone, Matthew Petock, Dan Schoenbrun, Zachary Shedd
Cinematographer: Adam J. Minnick
Editor: Sofi Marshall
Music: C. Spencer Yeh
Costumes: Stacey Berman, Karen Boyer
Production design: Sia Balabanova