Saturday, November 13, 2010

Gleaks



The pleasure of watching Fox's Glee is witnessing a group of outcasts form their own unique society through an interest in performing and using that performance as a way to seek glamorous revenge on those who have consigned them to the status of "freak."  Every week the Gleeks get victimized:  the stridently talented girl-singer is egged in a parking lot, the gay kid is thrown into lockers, the pregnant teen is ostracized by her once tight network of cheerleader friends, the guy in the wheelchair is pushed down the stairs...  And all this humiliation is answered through heartfelt, intense performances of pop songs.  The catharsis comes through karaoke, only it's not mimicry the Glee cast is indulging in:  it's reinvention through pop, self-acceptance channelled through a song on the radio.  The pleasures Glee offers all of us losers are intensely satisfying because we have constant access to both sides of the equation in our daily lives:  we all get treated like crap, and we all crank up the radio in the car when Lady Gaga belts one out.    

It's the same beautiful vengeance you feel at the end of Carrie when our pig-blood-covered teenaged heroine finally lets loose the hounds of hell at prom; only with Glee it's a really splendid rendition of Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" that does it for us.  Carrie is performing her pain in that famous horror movie scene, but remember:  she is the Queen of the Prom and the Queen of the Night combined in that image, and her power not only comes from what has been done to her, but also from her own glamorous transformation from dowdy girl in the gym showers having tampons tossed at her by mean girls to this figure of both horror and transcendence at the end of the movie:  the center of attention, a centrifugal force of teenaged pain and telekinesis not singing her way out of outsiderdom, but burning the whole stupid joint down just because she can.

Hallelujah.

The connection between the pain of daily humiliation and the release of a triumphant performance, between being bullied and glamorously confronting those bullies in show-tune showdowns, is palpable especially now because of the media coverage of gay teenaged boys killing themselves after being tortured by classmates.  The fury that comes from knowing this is happening is always quivering under the surface now.  And it's not just a pop-song we're talking about here, but still Glee provides a public service:  it allows us to know the truth (the gay kid getting thrown into lockers and worse) and the beautiful fiction it takes to transform and survive (that same gay kid singing a song from Victor/Victoria and all the other Gleeks clapping amazed and stunned by his talent).  Without fantasy, without music, without performance, the torture becomes an unbearable malignant force.

Watching Glee, I keep thinking of Todd Browning's 1932 controversial masterpiece FreaksFreaks is a revenge-fantasia concerning sideshow freaks taking revenge on the "normal" people who are trying to trespass into their own happy society.  The freaks in the movie (people with disabilities ranging from microcephalia to leglessness, a bearded lady, midgets, conjoined twins, etc.) survive through performance:  they use what is seen as "wrong" with them as a way to make a living, strutting their stuff inside tents and cages to suckers who pay to see them.  But the movie never catches that gaze:  it's interested in how freaks live and survive and flourish behind the scenes, and it is that society that both Glee and Freaks tap into, that cultural creative diaspora that allows groups of people often consigned to "outsiderness" to reinvent what it means to be "real," what it means to be alive.  

The penultimate, most gorgeously hilarious and strangely heart-warming scene in Freaks happens a little past midway in the movie, when the Freaks gather for an acceptance dinner.  The circus' beautiful trapeze artist has agreed to marry the leader of side-show performers, the midget named Hans.  The trapeze artists is not a freak, and she has secret plans of killing Hans after their wedding in order to get his inheritance.  At this dinner all of his sideshow friends (not knowing his betrothed's evil plans) pass around a goblet filled with wine, everyone taking a sip from the loving cup while chanting, "Gobble, gobble, we accept you, one of us."  Over and over the phrase turns into a beautiful song.  The camera lovingly pans from sideshow freak to sideshow freak, everyone happy and free and enjoying each other's company (kind of like the choir-room in Glee). 

"Gobble, gobble, we accept you, one of us!  Gobble, gobble, we accept you, one of us!"

But the trapeze artist is not amused.  She just can't take it anymore.  She turns on the chanting folks and screams, "Freaks!  Disgusting freaks!"

There is a moment in this scene of pure guttural rage flowing through the shot-down happiness of the party.  The bully here is outnumbered however.  The mob has switched from chasing the monster to being chased:  the monster now is the mob.  The freak controls the room.  This morality changes the atmosphere.  There is a close-up of the trapeze artist's face.  She is dumbfounded and horrified and amazed.  Freaks are people too, she seems to understand.  But it's way too late for sorry.

Glee captures this same shift in the moral code, only in slightly less horror-movie terms of course.  But the sentiment is there:  freaks shall inherit the earth.  Now let's all break into a song.