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Canuxploitation!

Being Different

1981, Narrated by Christopher Plummer. Directed by Harry Rasky.



At the tail end of the tax shelter years, one of the more curious trends in Canadian film was a brief resurgence in documentary filmmaking with a "mondo" bent. The most conspicuous entry in this subgenre, Bonnie Klein's anti-pornography manifesto Not a Love Story (1981), only found itself in this category by accident when the graphic scenes and stills it included as examples of power politics in porn ended up appealing to the very audience it sought to demonize. Other early 80s films, including a trio of highly questionable "documentaries" by Anthony Kramreither, also focused on sex as their selling point. That helps Being Different, one of the premiere mondo documentaries about human oddities, stand out as a truly original Canadian vision. Although exactly who that vision belongs to is highly debatable.

It might surprise you to learn that Henry Rasky, the Canadian documentary director behind Being Different has made some pretty respectable films in his career. Best known for intimate portraits like The Song of Leonard Cohen (1981) and Homage To Chagall (1977), Being Different is a film that seems increasingly out of place on his rsum⼺. On the other hand, it probably wouldn't surprise you to learn that ex-Cinpix producer Don Carmody was also on board. Leaving a trail of sleazy Canadian cinema offerings like East End Hustle (1976) behind him, Carmody started working for Astral in the early 1980s where this was just one of the moneymakers he had his finger in.

Although it features the participation of legendary carnival businessmen and performers like Billy Barty, Ward Hall, Johann Peterson and Perscilla the Monkey Girl, Being Different isn't strictly "about" sideshow performers. Even in the 1980s that was taboo, so Rasky instead focuses on the soaring human spirit that overcomes physical disabilities.

After a square-up introduction by Christopher Plummer, in which he mumbles some gibberish about how "being different is the poetry of life," the film heads out to Gibsonton, Florida. This once-thriving retirement town for carnies of all kinds provides a fertile base for the film. Dazzling in his white suit, bally pitchman Ward Hall takes over for Plummer at this point and throws his best stuff at us. He introduces conjoined twins Donny and Ronny, Paul Fish, who at 700 pounds advertises himself as the World's fattest, (and as he reveals in his interview, perhaps also the most bitter) man, and the "World's Strangest Couple": Priscilla "The Monkey Girl" and Emmitt "The Alligator Skin Boy" Bejano. Rounding up this part of the film is Dolly Reagan, an old woman with the body of a baby who smokes cigarettes with the aid of a specially made stick to reach her lips.

Rasky can't sustain this level of momentum long though, and uses an appearance by gentle giant and carnival performer Johann Peterson to segue into a section on big and little people. Many Canadian documentaries don't spend much time on home soil, but Sandy Allen's appearance at the Guinness Museum on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls once again takes this film a notch above its peers. This is followed by an interview with Billy Barty about the group he founded, "Little People of America." Footage of Billy and his friends playing golf at a LPA convention is shown before it's back to Canada with an look at "The Midget Palace," a house in Montreal which features tiny furniture for tiny people.

The last highlight of Being Different is Rasky's interview with "Elephant Man" Bob Melvin, who certainly guaranteed some video rentals with his image plastered on the cover of the video. After a brief look at some "half men," the film slips into stories of handicapped people overcoming adversity in segments that end up resembling the 1980s CTV show Live it Up! A man with deformed arms is shown learning karate, and a footless marathon runner andmotivational speaker makes an appearance. The film ends on a sour note, with armless Texan Louise Capps blathering on about wanting to be a Playboy model.

The good old fashioned exploitive sequences certainly work to undermine the film's pretensions to capture the "soaring human spirit" but to what extent, and who's responsible? The film alternates between interviews and action sequences, many of which seem exploitive, like the midget sports competitions. Others are overly sentimental, as when legless mechanic Sam and his wife (who suffers from Cerebral Palsy) walk around a park oblivious to the stares of others. One distinctly out-of-place segue features a good three minutes inside a disco club with young "normal" people dancing away for no apparent reason.

Speaking of the disco sequence, the worst part of Being Different is undoubtedly the music. Many of the action scenes are punctuated by syrupy ballads written especially for the film, including a song dedicated to Louise in which a crooner melts ears with: "There's a woman, who lives in Texas/ She's quite a laaaaddyyyy" while the armless woman skateboards at a playground. Surprisingly, the lyrics to these songs were written by Rasky himself. Perhaps he didn't learn as much from his Leonard Cohen documentary as he'd like to think.

Although it would seem likely that Carmody could have tinkered with Rasky's film to make it more "commercial" in post-production, the interviews themselves call this into question. Rasky plays the rube, and by extension, the viewer is transformed into the ultimate lowbrow onlooker, too. The camerawork voyeuristically lingers on deformities while the subjects tell their fascinating stories, and in almost every single interview, Rasky asks the subjects about the physical possibilities of their sex lives. This was perhaps one of the most common questions heard under the flapping carnival sideshow tent, and the way Rasky positions himself as interviewer/sideshow gawker in the film goes against his stated altruistic intentions. In light of this, it really is impossible to tell if Being Different represents a tug-of-war between Rasky and Astral's most infamous producer.

Rivaled only perhaps by Tod Browning's Freaks, Being Different has long been considered the standard in documenting freak on film. When interest in sideshow performers resurfaced in the mid-1990s, many of the resulting documentaries used and reused bits and pieces of this movie. And no wonder this film is an amazing look at many performers who have since passed away. Despite it's curious pedigree, Being Different certainly makes for an interesting film.


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