by Art Chantry ( firstname.lastname@example.org)
tod browning’s bizarre masterpiece, “freaks”, also seems to introduce an interesting tweak in movie title typography. i imagine there are earlier examples, but this is the earliest i’ve found of a sort of ‘interactive’ typographic treatment in film. the way this works in the beginning of the film is that a carnival pitchman (barker) is pitching the rubes about a fantastic and extraordinary sideshow freak inside the tent. as he introduces the freak (and thus introduces the movie), the camera frames in on the banner shown behind as a title frame. then, as the barker continues to pitch the marks (you the audience), he literally tears through the banner with his hand, the camera travels through the hole and starts the movie. it’s an odd and novel way of attempting to erase the psychological division between the audience and the drama to unfold. i imagine when such a gimmick was introduced at so early a stage in film metaphor development, that it was extremely effective. it still is.
tod browning came form the carnival world where he worked as a promoter and pitchman/barker. since the motion picture biz started out as a tent novelty act in competition with his workplace, browning naturally wanted to be part of it. he went to the brand new film colony in hollywood and, due to his hustle, personal style and experience almost immediately became a director. his landmark career introduced so many film and cultural mythological stereotypes that he has become known as the “edgar allen poe of cinema.” that’s an apt title, considering the literal impact of his work. among many other things, he introduced and created the career of lon chaney ,sr. (the man of a thousand faces), and introduced bela lugosi in the film role of ‘dracula.’ his later film ‘mark of the vampire’ introduced the stereotypical model of the ‘vampire chick’. just for those three innovations alone, he deserve a place in our cultural history. the guy was mysterious and psychologically perverse in his subject matter and we all changed because of it.
but, his greatest and most bizarre (and career destroying) achievement by far was the move, “freaks.” browning always had an affinity for the world of the sideshow . famous performers (aka, freaks) became some of his closest friends. he identified with them to a large degree. when he started casting his new film, he interviewed REAL circus freaks and selected a ‘creme-de-la-creme” to perfom in his film as actors. the results astonished and repulsed the straight world far more than browning thought possible. women fainted, godders were outraged, moral mavens waved pitchforks, censors brandished scissors. he lost a bundle for the studio and his career fizzled afterward. the film was sold to an exploitation distributor and edited and cut up and run in dime museums and sensational tent shows and drive-in theaters for decades afterwards. it wasn’t until the midnight movie circuit developed out of the film/art house world that attempts were made to restore and actually SEE the movie with a critical eye.
and that’s when the ramones saw it. the entire punk culture movement so identified directly WITH the freaks, that the song they sing at the dinner table celebration (the refrain: “gabba-gabba, gabba-gabba, hey! we accept you, gabba-gabba, etc.) became the mantra of punky ramone lovers around the world. joey ramone would even hold up a large hand-scrawled banner with the words (gabba gabba) on it, so the audience could sing along. tod browning also gave to the world the ramones mantra! so odd.
browning’s eye for set and effects and psychological manipulation resulted in this rather innovative title sequence. this brings me to another title sequence i looked carefully at the other evening, we were watching john carpenter’s “the thing” (john carpenter is one of my favorite directors, by the way). to be precise we were watching the director’s commentary (alongside star kurt russell). it’s one of the very best director’s commentaries i’ve ever come across, so good it actually warrants repeated viewings. also on the dvd was a small “making of” film featuring interviews with the special effect technicians and artists along with the director and actors. i also highly recommend viewing this little film.
among the folks interviewed was the guy who created that amazing “burn-out” title sequence. like robert massin’s “condom type”, his execution was a marvel of low budget clever trickery that bears telling. to begin with, he had a large fish tank which he filled with smoke (i believe cigarette smoke). behind the tank. he place a cardboard cutout of the title typography (with the type cut out of the background). behind that he placed a garbage bag stretched and stapled to a wooden frame.
he set the plastic garbage bag on fire and backlit the whole works. as the flames worked up, the light leaked through the burning plastic and shot through the cut-out type (and through the smoke-filled fish tank) on it’s way to the camera lens on the other side of the tank. he then moved the light source up and down to create the projected smoky light movement. the result looks exactly like the typography is burning a hole through the film itself and directly into your eyes. it’s like it’s trying to get at you. very unnerving and very cool – really nice work.
this idea is a direct throwback to that early tod browning title sequence. instead of tearing, it’s burning. both techniques create that disturbing psychological sense of assault and confrontation between the audience and what they are to behold. at the same time it allows passage into a the dark and constrictive, even claustrophobic settings of both stories. it DRAGS you in against your will. it’s an incredibly simple and devastating way to link the ideas in the film directly into the minds of the viewers. even though it’s as old as the hills, it’s great stuff and it works every time.