Denise Papas Meechan’s Freckles rattles with emotional urgency and intensity of our protagonist, Lizzie (Jenn Halweil), who, like many of us, suffers from low self-esteem and an uninspiring life. And, like many of us, she ‘knows’ the source of her unhappiness, and this ‘curse’ is presumably something we cannot break by ourselves.
Freckles tells us a story about Lizzie, who believes that she is alone, repulsive, and rejected for one reason alone: her freckles. Whilst this premise appears unlikely for a regular viewer, from the subjective standpoint of Lizzie’s, it does not matter from what she is suffering: the only fact that matters is that she is suffering, and we must focus on how much she is suffering, in order to comprehend the danger she faces. And, as Papas Meechan demonstrates, it is a dangerous place to be, for, in this intensely subjective state, the sufferer knows only one thing: one’s suffering. In Lizzie’s world, her identity is singularly defined by her ‘curse’, i.e., freckles, and the entire world is characterised by her suffering alone, which is so intense that it is as if she is the only person who has ever existed with freckles.
Still, what Lizzie suffers seems quite odd. Lizzie suffers from her body-image, yet she is young, lovely, and fit. She does have freckles, to be sure, yet our society is quite 'forgiving' of this particular feature. Several celebrities and supermodels have them, and their freckles are not even ‘photoshopped’. They are even considered 'charming'. Then why freckles? I think this choice by Papas Meechan demonstrates her deep understanding of contemporary American culture. Papas Meechan focuses on the degrading effect of our insatiable demand for ideal female beauty, yet, quite rightly, she also leads us to realise that body-image problems are only part of a larger, and more fundamental, problem. To realise this, it is useful to shift our attention to Lizzie’s co-worker, Margo (Jane Dashow). She is older than Lizzie, and not exactly fit. Yet, she shows no sign of hesitation in her pursuit of, well, ‘happiness’. She dates, she eats what she wants when she wants, and she is absolutely unapologetic about who she is and what she enjoys. In this self-affirming attitude, Margo is everything Lizzie is not.
It is thus no surprise that Lizzie holds Margo with contempt. Lizzie at once envies and deplores Margo. She envies her because she wants for herself what Margo is indulging. Yet she looks down on her because Margo doesn’t ‘know’ that she is ‘unattractive’. Lizzie, despite her self-hatred, probably knows that she is relatively more acceptable in light of contemporary standards of beauty. She is young and fit, so she should be more attractive. Then why in the world, she wonders, is she still a virgin, and yet Margo gives her an earful about her sexual conquest? The only explanation, in Lizzie's mind, is her freckles. To see whether she is right or not, we must examine her encounter with Brody (Antonio E. Silva), on whom Lizzie has a crush. Brody is her neighbour and he is extremely friendly. An extrovert, he is not very intimidated by Lizzie’s lack of social skill. Their brief exchange shows an interesting aspect of Lizzie’s torment; it becomes clear that Lizzie is not alone because of her physical appearance. She is alone because of her self-image. She believes that she is repulsive, and thus her mannerism toward others is painfully awkward. From Brody’s standpoint, it seems that Lizzie does not want anything to do with him.
As the story develops, it becomes clear that the source of Lizzie’s torment is not the freckles themselves; she is suffering from a severe form of paranoia induced by our culture which imposes an impossible ideal of physical beauty. Lizzie can no longer see the world around her objectively, and what she sees, from the negative expressions on the faces of strangers to bizarre cartoons that depict Margo’s private life, are effectively her hallucinations. That being acknowledged, it is important to note that her case is not unrelated to other forms of paranoia bred in the United States. Whilst Lizzie internalised the cultural obsession of physical beauty, there are other objects of obsession which are equally powerful. Take the obsession of: masculinity; guns; money; sex; religion; fame; or political ideology. All of these obsessions induce powerful paranoia, which is underlined by fear, angst, and rage. In contemporary America, we don’t have to look for survivalists in the desert to see evidence of the culture of paranoia. Whilst diverse in subject, there is a common feature to all this paranoia; they are decidedly steeped in violent confrontations. And Lizzie’s story is no different in this regard.
In this sense, this thoughtful film is a perfect companion to one famous glimpse on the culture of paranoia: 'I’m Afraid of Americans' by David Bowie (1997). This music video, despite being less than five minutes long, captures the extent to which American culture breeds paranoia of all kinds, and I see a parallel with Freckles so that I cannot help but to treat the two as a pair. Seeing these two pieces together makes us realise that we are all susceptible to paranoia. In Freckles, it is Lizzie, an outcast, who suffers a severe paranoia. In 'I’m Afraid of Americans', it is David Bowie who becomes paranoid of a ‘paranoid’ stalker (Trent Reznor). As Bowie tries to escape from the stalker, he starts hallucinating random gun violence in the streets of America. In this sense, the two works represent two sides of the same story; one from the perspective of a perpetrator of violence, and another from the standpoint of the victim. The parallel does not end here; Lizzie’s monologue, especially at the beginning, reminds us of the emotional intensity and fragility of Reznor’s songs such as 'Hurt' (The Downward Spiral). Just like in the best songs by Reznor, her emotion intensifies and is finally expressed as a hell-fire of violent rage, without losing touch with the more tender and fragile side of the sufferer. From this point of view, Freckles shows the making of a paranoid stalker who appears in I’m Afraid of Americans, whilst the latter expresses Brody’s experience in an alternate universe wherein he narrowly escapes from Lizzie.
It is important to note that, in America, everyone is a potential victim of the culture of paranoia, becoming trapped in their own self-projected image of the world, and can lose the point of humane contact with the world as a result. With complete lack of common ground, the society undergoes a terrible degeneration; the cultural, political, and social disintegration of America has been widely reported for quite some time. Whilst it is perhaps impossible to pinpoint a single reason as to why America can induce such a powerful paranoia in many of us, including non-Americans, it is clear that the culture of contemporary America creates all sorts of obsessions. The excessive nature of the ills that are induced by this culture is utterly devastating, and effectively destroys the ground on which we might develop civil discourse. In this light, Freckles joins the ranks of important statements about our Form of Life. It is a thoughtful contemplation of the human cost of our paranoid culture, and, even though all paranoia won’t escalate to a homicidal passion, this film makes us aware of just how horrible it is to be shut off from the world around us.
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