Areas of Unrest
13 August 1999 - Chang and Eng and Blake and Francis
Once again our travel people have failed to find me a hotel in Colorado Springs within the per diem. They claim that three of the four places I had listed on my request were sold out and the fourth is the one they booked - at $16 a night over the per diem. There are approximately 836 other hotels in Colorado Springs so it is beyond me why they didn't try calling any one of them. At the very least they could have called me and asked me if there were other places I'd consider. It's not like business travel is stress-free to begin with; this continual poor service just makes it all the more irritating.
Anyway, I spent the day trying to catch up on various odds and ends, as I am rather swamped with work right now. By the time I left the office, I decided I couldn't face the backlog of household stuff to do, so I opted for a movie instead. Sometimes I just drive to either Santa Monica or to Century City and look to see what's playing, but there was something specific I really wanted to see, so I actually planned ahead. Which still meant driving to Santa Monica.
I had some time before the movie would start, so I indulged in frites at Benita's (ancho chile mayonnaise, yum) and a minor CD binge at H.E.A.R. music. I had just three more stamps on my card before getting a free CD, so once I decided that I would indulge, it was just a matter of choosing which four CDs I wanted most. I ended up with recordings by Oliver Mtukudzi, Les Nubians, Pink Martini and Los Straitjackets.
As for the movie, what I went to see was Twin Falls Idaho. I'd seen the trailer a few weeks ago and was intrigued. And it had gotten good reviews. Since this is an obscure art house movie, I'll briefly explain it for people outside the three or four cities this is likely to make it to. The premise is essentially that a hooker falls in love with one of a pair of Siamese twins. Part of what intrigued me was that when I saw the trailer, I really couldn't tell whether Michael and Mark Polish, who play Blake and Francis Falls, were Siamese twins themselves. Unfortunately, one of the reviews I read did reveal the answer to this; I won't because I think it detracts from the movie if you know. And, while I thought the movie raised some interesting issues, I thought it moved too slowly. I didn't hate it, but I wouldn't recommend it either.
There are some delicious subtle touches, though. For example, when Penny (the hooker/aspiring model) steps out of a taxi at the beginning, she gets a $2 bill in her change. Then there's a sign advertising "A Tale of Two Cities" in a hotel lobby. But the best touch was that one of the papers (I think it was the adoption record, but might have been the birth certificates) for the twins listed the county in which the action takes place as "Bunker County." I'm sure almost everyone who sees this misses this, but "Bunker" was the last name that Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins exhibited worldwide in the early to mid 19th century, adopted when they settled down on a farm in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. They married sisters and had a total of 22 children between them, by the way.
Anyway, part of what I found jarring about the movie was that some of the details didn't fit together well. There's a scene in the hospital, for example, where the doctor shows Penny X-rays of the twins. What bothered me is that I couldn't see anything particularly interesting about the X-rays. All I saw were two chests, so why was Penny so fascinated? The worst detail was the mother of the twins telling Penny how she reacted to their birth. She claims the doctors told her she had Siamese. This just didn't ring true; doctors would surely use the term "conjoined".
But, as I said, the film did raise some interesting questions. At one point Penny asks Blake if he ever feels lonely. There's an intriguing scene in which Blake and Francis fight with each other (triggered by how much Penny is responsible for another character's effort to exploit the twins for financial gain). And there is a decided focus on how the stronger Blake has no choice but to care for the weaker Francis.
Which was more or less the situation for Chang and Eng, as well. Chang drank and Eng, who was supposedly a teetoller, also got drunk. (By the way, Mark Twain got this entirely backwards in a piece he wrote about the twins, a piece for which he did absolutely no research.) Worst of all, Chang died several hours before Eng. That's apparently not that uncommon when it comes to conjoined twins, but it strikes me as particularly horrible to know that the death of the sibling you've been joined to for life means you will inevitably die within hours.
I realize that nowadays the majority of conjoined twins can be (and are) separated, particularly as the conjunction is relatively trivial about 90% of the time. But there are still exceptions. I remember seeing photos of sisters joined at the head who couldn't be separated because their separate brains shared some circulation. The article said they had to walk in a strange, twisted way, but they seemed fairly well adjusted. But that was before they were old enough to date. Violet and Daisy Hilton, who were popular on the vaudeville circuit, claimed they had trained themselves to detach mentally so, while one was having sexual relations, the other would sleep or read. What would concern me even more in that situation is worrying about what sort of person would want to get involved with one of a pair of conjoined twins. I don't see how you could ever be sure it wasn't just the freak value that your partner was interested in. Unless the other person was also considered a freak in some way, I guess. That was the good side of the freak shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries. We can be all high-minded about exhibiting these unfortunate people, but at least the association with each other provided some sort of opportunity to interact more normally with other people.
Which brings me back to the movie. One scene I liked a lot had to do with Penny taking Blake and Francis to a Halloween party. She'd already told her best friend about them and, at the party, Penny begs her friend not to reveal that they're real. It's the one night of the year they can go out without being stared at, the one time they are "normal." Realizing this is a major sign that Penny is starting to appreciate them for who they are, and is a nice turning point. We see her begin to turn from repulsion and fascination to understanding and start to realize that maybe there is a possibility for a happy ending.
Still, if I had to be some sort of freak, being a conjoined twin wouldn't be my first choice. It would be better than missing limbs or having extra ones - typically, the extra limbs are parts of parasitic twins in which the separation is even less complete than in conjoined twins. But, in terms of normality of life, I'd say bearded ladies have it easiest. After all they can always shave. I'd have said things aren't all that hard for giants and dwarfs, but that is only true if you have the money to customize your environment. Which puts you back at figuring out what you do if, say, you want a scaled down kitchen but you need to share your apartment with an average height person.
All, in all, I think I'll settle for being merely weird.
Copyright 1999 Miriam H. Nadel
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