Chained for Life is 2019’s smartest cinematic contribution-cum-excavation of the current discourse surrounding #Representation.

And “cinematic” isn’t just a synonym for movies here. The film ingeniously utilizes the layers of expression at the form’s disposal to dissect the taxation of representation, specifically its fight against our pre-existing, unfounded understanding of erroneous, arbitrary norms — which are often far from normal — that we insist on projecting onto whatever we experience.

Chained for Life‘s artistry calls attention to its Russian Doll artifice, poking and prodding the bounds of how art and artists (separate entities) can and can’t, do and don’t represent reality and truth (ditto). If our knowledge is based on what we’re used to, can we escape our past? In artistic terms, does this prevent us from creating and receiving new stories about different types of people that don’t center their differences? How often are these tales all about their differences, especially because depicting their interactions with the world will inevitably reflect the fact that the world treats them according to their differences? Which means they’re defined only in relation to those expectations and those actions, instead of being able to be defined in fresh terms, separate from the dominant gaze.

How can art change reality if it’s ostensibly inspired by reality? Can we invent something new, or are we chained to what’s always been? The lens through which we perceive — I.E. ourselves — must affect how we conceive; there’s a reason one of the first lines of dialogue we hear is, “it’s all about the lens.” How can art, inherently a reduction of life, possibly hope to expand our conception of life’s multiplicity?

And audiences who rely on art to learn about existence outside of themselves are beholden to those controlling the lens, who are susceptible to perpetuate their own biases, and reaffirm those of others. The auteur theory — the prevailing approach to filmmaking on display on the set of Chained for Life‘s movie-within-a-movie — further complicates these issues. If the director’s the author of a movie, though they may collaborate with co-workers, and though they may be influenced by their surroundings — from their immediate proximity to everything they’ve ever learned — they’re still projecting their single vision outwardly.

Movies appear to be a cacophony of varied voices, but whose voice are we really hearing, especially if only one person’s credited with the screenplay? Ultimately, art is reflection of a few with the capacity to reflect many, and yet how often do we assume it reflects everything and everyone? Is it a window into truth, or a window into one person’s — or a few’s — truth? If everything’s filtered, can we ever hope to unfilter? A question that should haunt us on screen and off.

For instance: Chained for Life‘s heightened style may not conform to what we’re accustomed to calling naturalism. And yet, what’s natural to us may not be what’s universally natural. So then what does naturalism even mean? Is it a completely useless phrase, explaining less of what is and more of what has been long-considered “what is.”

These ideas adopt new resonance in the presence Chained for Life‘s characters, born with physical attributes that call to mind the age-old nature vs. nurture debate. How much agency do we possess over our lives, or is a majority of the script written the moment we’re born?

There are no easy answers to these queries, and yet people love to take away tidy lessons from art, particularly in regards to those they consider “different” or “other” to themselves. Is there anything to be done, or are we forever chained to the same paradigm for life?

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