Photo by Madelyn Ritrosky
At film festivals, filmmakers often have postcards to entice journalists to see their films, hopefully write about them, and, if the coverage is favorable, get some good free publicity. They are basically mini posters with screening information and credits on the back.
The postcard advertising DISFIGURED at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival caught my eye. As soon as I saw it, I grabbed it.
The title word ‘disfigured’, in hot pink, and its root, ‘figure’, were to be associated with the two women standing right below. More specifically, it’s an association with their bodies. These are the women we will see and identify with in this film.
One woman appears abnormally thin and taller. The other is shorter and hefty. Their body shapes stand out not only in contrast to each other and in associative links with the title, but with the entirely white background. The focus is on the size and shape of their bodies.
Smaller copy tells us that this is “A movie about women and weight,” and invites the reader to connect with the movie and its themes and issues through the question at the bottom, “Are you happy with your body?”
(Photo from l-r: Staci Lawrence as Darcy and Deidra Edwards as Lydia, in Disfigured. Photo courtesy of Dialogue Heavy Pictures)
As a writer very much interested in gender issues and their representation in our culture, I put Disfigured on my list. And I am glad I did.
When the movie opens, we find Lydia (Deidra Edwards) attending a support group of heavy-set women who want to feel good about themselves but lament the way society often treats them. When a very thin woman, Darcy (Staci Lawrence), slips in the door and sits in back, the other women eye her warily. What is a skinny woman doing here?
The shortsightedness of the group now comes into focus the discussion leader tells Darcy she’s not welcome because she obviously does not have the body to understand their predicament. They, too, have bought into the cultural ‘ideal’ if they cannot see Darcy’s anorexia. Lydia is the only one brave, wise, and tolerant enough to suggest that Darcy’s problem may not be so different from the group’s purposes.
(Photo from l-r: Deidra Edwards as Lydia and Ryan C. Benson as Bob, in Disfigured. Photo courtesy of Dialogue Heavy Pictures)
Of course, the viewer can immediately sense the irony and complexity that is about to unfold. There is a strong, underlying link between the complaints of the heavier women and the anorexic-looking woman who anxiously attempted to join their group. Both are symptoms and symbols of Western culture’s incessant pressure on people in general but on women in particular to be thin.
Why does that ideology pervade our culture? If we step back and scan American social history, going into the 19th century and moving up to today, we can trace the lineage and circulation of popular ‘types’ and physical ideals. There is no one constant ideal, which suggests how arbitrary and stifling and ideological those ‘ideals’ actually are.
There’s also more emphasis by far, historically on women’s bodies rather than men’s bodies. In many cultures, men have traditionally held and still hold more power than women, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And traditionally, women have been taught to consider their bodies as objects, for the gaze and pleasure of men and in competition with other women for men’s attentions.
If you think I’m talking only of, say, the Gibson Girl and corsets, or Marilyn Monroe and risqué dresses, then think again. In today’s world, we see evidence all around us of the continuing imbalance between the sexes. Even though I am very glad to see contemporary images of sexy male bodies, women still outnumber men in media images that overtly emphasize, sexualize, and promote ‘ideals’ of physical attractiveness.
Because of this social, historical, and now highly mediated environment, it’s not surprising that many women internalize the pressure of the current ideal and let the stress get to them in various ways. It becomes part of a never-ending quest for a satisfying self-identity.
Lydia and Darcy are women who are constantly struggling to deal with their bodies, their self-images, and others’ reactions to them through their bodies. But after some push and pull, they realize that underneath the surface dissimilarities of their physical selves, they are struggling with, against, and amidst the same social pressures. They now have each other to help in the struggle.
When I first saw that the film was written and directed by someone named Glenn Gers, I thought, ‘Must be a woman as in Glenn Close’. In speaking with Gers, Deidra Edwards, and Staci Lawrence, I learned that I was not alone in making that initial supposition. So I was surprised to discover that Gers is a man, and a man of average weight at that. Yet his insight is astounding. As he pointed out, we all identify and empathize with all kinds of people. True, but some of us more than others.
Gers, who wrote Mad Money and Fracture, is trying his hand at directing for the second time. His first effort was in 2000 with The Accountant, which he also wrote. Directing your own script has definite advantages. As writer, you start the process, creating the characters, the story, the themes, the tone. As director, even if you’re the writer, “the script was just the start. It’s how the actors embody the characters and how the director and actors relate that’s how you create the moments.”
Indeed, Gers noted that independents rely on those moments. “Emotional acting is the special effect,” he said, with independent filmmaking. And Disfigured is an independent film self-financed by Gers which immerses you in characters’ self-critiques and relational dilemmas. Emotional acting clearly anchors it all.
Related to this is the way that the film is ‘untidy’ or what we could refer to as thematically nonlinear. Plot-wise and formally speaking, Disfigured is a linear narrative. There’s no messing with time and causality through editing like, say, Memento or Mulholland Drive. Rather, the film raises a host of issues and angles on those issues rather than focusing on and striving for closure on just one or two angles. The characters certainly grow, but many issues are left out there for our contemplation. It’s sort of a slice-of-life film and a primer on the issues, giving it a holistic feel rather than just the standard experience of traditional narrative trajectory.
And according to Glenn Gers, that is why the project was unattractive to most investors and producers. When I spoke with him at the Santa Barbara festival in February, he noted that theatrical distributors might shy away, too. But he was optimistic that straight to DVD or pay cable would still allow the film to find its audience. As it turns out, Disfigured will indeed get a limited theatrical release through Cinema Libre (more below).
I also had the opportunity to speak with the two stars of the film, Deidra Edwards (Lydia) and Staci Lawrence (Darcy). Disfigured is Edwards’s feature film debut and Lawrence’s first lead role in a feature film. Both women have done short films and Lawrence is also a stand-up comic. I was definitely impressed. Edwards and Lawrence do superb jobs.
Lawrence said, “I have never been so moved by a script. Unlike other auditions, I thought, ‘This is my part’.” She calls Disfigured a “message film that doesn’t hit you over the head.” She noted that the film gives voice to female body issues that are often disallowed in other contexts. She also explained that she gave up alcohol and desserts to get herself extra thin for the part of anorexic Darcy.
Edwards concurred with Lawrence in her reaction to the script: “I was incredibly moved. It’s not caricatures, not stereotypes. The characters and themes are universal.” She described Lydia as on a quest: “Lydia is never ever going to give up searching for herself. She’s always trying different arenas.”
Edwards makes the case for the film’s potential universal appeal. Although the lead characters are women struggling with gender-inflected body issues, Edwards stressed that “weight is the topic we’re using to talk about loneliness and connecting with others.” Lawrence added, “And learning to let go.”
With Disfigured, don’t let it go when you have the chance to see it. The Santa Barbara film festival was the film’s world premiere, and it’s currently playing at other film festivals. The distribution deal was just announced. Cinema Libre, which has picked up the film for worldwide distribution, will release the film in select markets, followed by a late July DVD release.
In addition, Glenn Gers and others associated with the project hope to make the film’s messages even more tangible and effectual through special presentations: “With Cinema Libre, we hope to work with groups that support awareness of size diversity issues and would like to set up special screenings of the film across the country this summer.”
So figure Disfigured into your viewing schedule. You’ll be glad you did.