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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Freaks and Geeks: Cinematic Symbolism in JSA 18

The flashback scene in JSA 18 is one that I've blogged about before. I find the subtext of the scene horrifying and oddly fascinating. There are constant details that I never notice the first time through that utterly blindside me when I finally notice them, the most notable being the state of the clothing on this page which led to me interpreting very bad subtext into that flashback.

Well this time, the page that got me was this one.

What I'd never noticed was:

That broken down theater's marquee says "Todd Browning's Freaks."

Which *blows my mind* on a meta/subtextual level.

Wherein I completely spoil a movie made in 1932 as well as JSA 18
If you've never seen Freaks I'll summarize it. (Or you can just click on the link).

The story takes place in a traveling circus and centers around the lives of the performers. The central character is the beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra. She's in love with the circus strong man named Hercules. However, the little person Hans has a crush on her. She mocks him until she discovers that he is the inheritor of a vast fortune. She then plots to marry him and poison him and get the money for herself (whereupon she will run off with Hercules). Her plot is exposed and the "freaks" enraged by the betrayal turn on her. Hercules is killed and she is mutilated into an exhibit herself.

This is the movie where that "One of us! One of us!" chant comes from. It's an interesting examination really. The "freaks" are given a very sympathetic portrait at the beginning of the movie. It is the beautiful people, Cleopatra and Hercules, who are the real monsters. However the "One of us!" motif works both ways. They make Cleopatra "one of them" at the end of the movie, however through her treachery, she's already made them like her. She's made them into true monsters. That's why, despite his own role in Cleopatra's fate, Hans is broken up. Because they're all the same now.

It's really a fascinating, if hard to watch, movie.

But the use of it *here* is brilliant. Simply brilliant on a number of levels.

First of course has to do with Sorrow's own past as an ex-silent film star brought to ruin by talkies. So using one of the early talking motion pictures for the theater makes a nice correlation.

But the theme of the movie itself makes for fascinating metatext surrounding the way Sorrow works. Johnny Sorrow is an actor, he's all about the drama, grandiose terrifying gestures. He's cast himself as the villain and he enjoys it, thrives in it. Notice how the entire thing is set on a stage. He's performing for the world and he's cast himself and Sandy and the King of Tears of course as primary players.

This I'd thought for a while, but I'd had a simple interpretation. Sandy was cast as the victim, Sorrow as the villain and the King of Tears as the unspeakable horror itself.

However, I hadn't paid any attention to the marquee. I hadn't seen the movie.

Now everything's changed. See, Sorrow hasn't cast Sandy as the victim. He's cast Sandy as Cleopatra.

It makes perfect sense. Johnny is one of the "freaks". His ruination after the advent of talkies is symbolically equated to the circus performers whose disfigurements would have prevented normal lives. However the movie portrayed the characters very sympathetically. They were regular people at heart, regardless of their appearance. They had the same emotions and dreams as anyone else. The circus was portrayed as a shelter, allowing them a sanctuary where they could work and live relatively normal lives.

Crime was supposed to be Sorrow's circus, his means to survive and support his wife (who he loved dearly). However, this was ruined by the act of one single person. Sandy the Golden Boy.

Look at the name: "The Golden Boy". We've heard it before. Contrasted to the black sheep of the family, the golden boy is the perfect one, the smart, successful, handsome brother used as the measuring stick for all of the others, who fall short. Sandy takes that to extreme. In the Simon-Kirby issues of Sandman, the character is a child prodigy, even more so than his counterpart Robin, because he is even closer to an equal partner. He got to make intellectual contributions more often than his counterpart, often remembering obscure facts or noticing minute details that would lead Wesley to the answer. He wasn't the fighter/athlete Robin was, but he also seemed to end up in distress much less often. And nearly as often as he was the victim, Sandy would end up being the one to save Wesley.

And physically, the character is beautiful. Blond hair, blue eyes, fine features, he even *looks* a little like Cleopatra in that sense. And just like Cleopatra, the outward beauty masks a nature that corrupts. From Sorrow's perspective, Sandy caused him to become the monster he is.

Everything that happens after that point is Sandy's fault. He, not Sorrow, is the true villain of the story. And thus Sorrow is perfectly justified to make him "one of us".

I always bring up my reading of the scene in anything in which I mention Sorrow. I've said it before, when I read it, I perceive a sexual subtext. Rape is an act of domination, the attempt to exert power. It is sadly often perceived by the victim as something that makes them dirty or tainted, stained and degraded. Thus the use of that sort of subtext here makes a lot of sense.

Though even if you don't agree with my interpretation, there are other elements. When he kidnaps Sandy, he's kidnapping a young person in pajamas. A normal person. Only when dressed in costume, does he then truly fit in the world of villains and heroes.

And then there's the really interesting element. Sorrow tries to summon the King of Tears twice. Once in flashback once in the present day of the comic. Both times he makes sure that Sanderson Hawkins is right there. Both times, he was in a position to kill the boy instantly, but instead brings him front and center to meet the Lovecraftian thing face to face. This is the thing that turned Sorrow into a monster after all. Now there are many possible revenge opportunities here, gloat and make the kid watch him wreak havoc. Sacrifice him as Elder God food. Or...the best revenge of all, make the kid go through what he went through.

He's not just getting revenge! He's making a companion! "One of us! One of us!"

Now the really elegant parallel between the situation and the movie is that Sorrow's wrong and right to cast Sandy as Cleopatra. He's wrong of course, because Sandy was innocent. Sandy was just trying to stop Sorrow. The actual death was just a terrible accident.

But he's right too. Because common interpretation of the movie casts Cleopatra and Hercules as the bad guys. And they are indeed monstrous. The "freaks" are the victims. But I'm reminded of something I'd seen a lot in reviews of the movie, people were bothered by how monstrously the "Freaks" pursuit of Cleopatra and Hercules was portrayed. It was uncomfortable to see the characters suddenly transform, and this transformation is blamed on the effect of Cleopatra's treachery.

But I don't actually think that's what Browning was going for. To declare Cleopatra (and Hercules) the sole villains of the piece negate the fact that when they reacted as they did, the circus performers made a choice. They *chose* to react to treachery with violence. They *chose* to become monsters themselves. They didn't have to make that choice. Regardless of the provocation, their reaction was because of the darkness in their own hearts, which is a part of the nature of humanity.

To rob the characters of the accountability of their own actions, to paint them as poor innocent victims, robs them of their humanity as much as anything Cleopatra or Hercules could have done. And that, I think, was the point of the monstrousness of the scene. Because first and foremost, I think that Browning saw his characters as human.

Sorrow blaming Sandy is a much more obvious reflection of this. Sorrow didn't have to make a deal with the King of Tears. He did anyway. While the death of his wife was a tragedy, he didn't have to kill the seven soldiers or kidnap Sandy for revenge. But he does. He's made his choices, carved his own path to damnation.

Heh, the choice of movie was probably pure chance. But it's definitely fun to think about.


  • At June 11, 2006 8:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Yay! Fun with Referencing!

  • At June 11, 2006 4:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    ...awesome. o.ovvv

  • At June 11, 2006 7:54 PM, Blogger Centurion said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At June 11, 2006 7:56 PM, Blogger Centurion said…


    I've heard of the movie, but never seen it. I really doubt that was total chance. I mean, someone working on that issue had to know the context and suggest it be in. Out of so many movie titles to randomly select, they chose that one.

  • At June 11, 2006 8:34 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    anon: Hee.

    ununnilium: It is pretty neat that they used it!

    centurion: I can't see it as being accidental either, this was a Robinson issue after all. And he's pretty good with the allegories. :-)

  • At June 12, 2006 4:39 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    simon: Well, that doesn't really correlate with the movie. But then it doesn't really fit with Sorrow's perspective either.

    It does make a fascinating parallel between the two characters though. And why I'd really like a serious post-crisis version of Creature in the Velvet Cage, because that could be an intense story.

  • At June 20, 2006 2:47 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Eeek, somehow I missed your response.

    Oh yeah, Sand's own actions completely shatter Sorrow's little delusion...

    I think that might be why he's so quick to re-stage it in 19. Poor Sand wakes up bound to a rock in the belly of the beast, in a sense, this time, but Sorrow's actions and presentation is the same. He's trying to push him back into the role, re-attempt the scene. Take too.

    And he's crazy, so the logic that you and I see...the way Sand's attitude breaks Sorrow's reasoning, is lost on him. :-)


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