Oct 26, 2012

Freak Orlando

After searching for years in vain for a copy of Ulrike Ottinger’s Freak Orlando (1981) – an apocalyptic cinematic epic of the exceedingly eccentric –  I can happily admit that I secured and viewed a copy of the film, albeit with a positively piss poor VHS transfer (who knows what generation), yet that did not stop me nor my girlfriend from thoroughly luxuriating in what is undeniably one of the most loony, lecherous, and lovely lesbian fantasy films ever made. More freaky than Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), more campy and obsessively stylized than Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), more marvelously mystical than Don Chaffey’s adaptation of Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and more carnally carnivalesque than Federico Fellini’s City of Women (1980), Freak Orlando is indubitably one of the most ideally idiosyncratic cinematic works ever made that has no contemporaries, aside from auteur Ulrike Ottinger’s other Sapphic spiritual films (e.g. Madame X: An Absolute Ruler, Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press). Set in the fleeting fantasy world of ‘Freak City’ – a weirdo world of self-flagellating leather fags, bodypaint-covered midget artists, big bearded women, two-headed singers who sing in two-part harmony, and rival Siamese twins, among various other merry yet oftentimes miserable mother nature made miscreations – Freak Orlando is a "small theater of the world" and allegorical history of the world depicted in a marvelous maniac microcosm of the macabre yet magical. Told in five different acts of varying waywardness, the film centers around an innately unconventional protagonist named Freak Orlando aka Mrs. Orlando Mr. Orlando aka Orlando Capricho aka Orlando Orlanda aka Orlando Zyklopa (all played by Werner Schroeter’s muse Magdalena Montezuma), who seems to have more lives than a black magic pussycat. On her wild and delightfully dangerous entrada, Orlando encounters a number of bestial, bloodlusting enemies and futuristic lipstick lezzy lovers, with the outcome of her literally out-of-this-world odysseys being virtually the same: love, loss, and finally enduring the lap of the gods. Featuring a quasi-medieval dystopian setting of the decidedly deformed and daunting sort – not unlike John Waters’ Desperate Living (1977), except with more testosterone and meticulously assembled sets and costumes designs – Freak Orlando is a fiercely phantasmagorical film full of flaky fashion and tumultuous tragedy that reminds one of why people watch fantasy films in the first place.

Created after a series of co-directions with her doily dyke collaborator/lover Tabea Blumenschein (The Enchantment of the Blue Sailors, Ticket of No Return), Freak Orlando is a seemingly more melancholy and misanthropic work than her previous efforts, if stoically and mirthfully so. Although featuring a virtual carnival of undraped bodies, the film is less focused on glorifying the fiery femme fatale beauty than in, for example, Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1978) where brutish blonde bombshell Tabea Blumenschein plays an integral role. Whereas in Ticket of No Return (1979), the female anti-heroess ‘She’ seems to be a fantasy character composite of both Ottinger and Blumenschein, Orlando of Freak Orlando – as a stalwart alpha-female of uncompromising personal integrity, individuality, and honor – is most certainly Ottinger’s filmic alter-ego. As a feisty and agile anvil-striking Führer of a heptad of dwarf-shoemakers, a two-headed singer of melodies, a fierce freedom fighter against the Spanish Inquisition, a merry but sometimes malevolent man who feels one head is better than two when it comes to bumping heads with Siamese twins, and campy entertainer with a queer quartet of playboy bunnies, Orlando is a renegade renaissance woman with a rugged interior and a oftentimes fetishistic quasi-New Romanticist exterior. Like a wandering Jew hopped up on Ritalin, romance, and fervent freak righteousness, arduously anomalous Orlando attempts to bring oddball order and beauty to a mostly rural city in ruins that – despite its freak-only population – seems to hardly accept her, at least until the conclusion of the film. Her greatest enemies are the ferocious yet faggy flagellants – a curious collective of self-punishing, sadomasochistic, semi-savage leather fags that sport matching black pleather uniforms (aside from one curious fellow in white) – who brutally beat and decapitate Orlando during the first act of Freak Orlando after she refuses to become their leader when the original ‘stylite’ lord (played by Eddie Constantine) falls to his much-desired death. Judging by her portrayal of the flagellants in the film, I think it is quite blatant that Ottinger is an opponent of leather fags everywhere, a group that homo-maniac auteur Rosa von Praunheim described as the male abberosexual group whose, "masculinity is damaged the most” in his documentary It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives (1971). During the second act of Freak Orlando, Orlando Orlanda must save two acrobats from the flaming flagellants and deter their dreams of hatred, which are fueled by male inadequacy; an all-consuming character flaw the Ms. Ottinger seems to be hardly stricken with. In the end, Orlando leaves the city just as she came, admiring a topless lady flower with marvelous mammary glands.

Unfortunately, aside from a minority of unhealthily fanatical cinephiles, Freak Orlando is a film that is more often talked about and dreamed of than actually seen. After what seemed like a lifetime worth of waiting, I finally had the grand opportunity to watch this grandiose occult cinematic exposition and I cannot say I was left wanting.  Considering that Freak Orlando is comprised of five decidedly distinct acts, the film is sometimes 'hit' or 'miss' in what it seeks to achieve in terms of the moral of the story due to its excessive esotericism, but one would be hard-pressed to argue that a single second of the film is anything less than enrapturing and awe-inspiring. Like Federico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) meets Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), except with a superlatively Sapphic persuasion, Freak Orlando paints a pulchritudinous, if peculiar, portrait of the history of the world that is about as literal as a soundly asleep paranoid schizophrenic's most sordid and starkest dreams.   A singularly preternatural cinematic escape from the banality of the technocratic, cosmopolitan globalized world featuring a city-sized cabaret of spastic yet spectacular characters, Freak Orlando is a film that deserves a broad fan-base outside of the pompous academic and lesbian underground world.

-Ty E

1 comment:

Rafaela Ueda said...

Your girlfriend is so lucky. You're so nice and sweet.