Laird Cregar, a man with virtually no name recognition today, was, in his time, a popular American stage actor, one who was fast-tracked to Hollywood and appeared in a few box-office hits in the early ’40s, and who tragically died at age 31 right before hitting it big. While his official cause of death was a heart attack — one brought upon by an extreme diet of heavy amphetamines and gastric bypass surgery — close friend George Sanders characterized it more sensationally: “Hollywood virtually assassinated Laird Cregar.” He was a short, closeted, heavy-set man who was obsessed with his own body image, to the point that he was willing to die for it. Studios saw him as a natural rival to Vincent Price, and pitched him as such; Cregar, instead, wanted to be a romantic lead, and was fearful of typecasting based on his portly appearance. So, he lost over 100 pounds in less than a year, a process that put so much strain on his body that it ultimately killed him. While upsetting on a personal level, Cregar’s death is illustrative of a certain type of Hollywood preoccupation with one’s image and the lengths people go to preserve their faltering egos: that being beautiful comes before anything else. Even in death, Cregar’s image still remains his most noteworthy attribute.
While Stephen Broomer’s latest feature-length archival deconstruction (in a rather literal sense of the word) is tangentially concerned with this type of conceptual mythos, it would be more accurate to describe Fat Chance as interested with image-making less as a human practice and more as a materialist processes — one that can be doctored and mutilated in unforeseen ways, much like Cregar and his fluctuating body weight. By chemically altering, overexposing, crumpling, and at times overlaying 16mm footage from the final two cinematic works that Cregar appeared in — The Lodger and Hangover Square, both helmed by John Brahm — along with a few others, Broomer crafts a degenerating potpourri which operates in tandem with his subject’s own personal degradation. Because of these various physical manipulations, it becomes difficult to parse where one collected image begins and the other ends, turning these high-fidelity reproductions into massive, amorphous figures of abstract projected light, seemingly ready to burst and catch fire if not for their crisp transfer to digital.
This post-production process recalls Phil Solomon’s Twilight Psalms in terms of aesthetic design, but Broomer’s intrinsically haptic rhythms and moody ambiance are indebted to his fellow Canadian avant-gardists R. Bruce Elder and Guy Maddin (both of whom are thanked in the end credits), influences that become especially clear during a few segments that bombard viewers with an overwhelming amount of visual and sonic stimuli. This also means that Fat Chance is far more interested in expressing the full brunt of its formal abilities than in acting as psychoanalytic subtext for Cregar, beyond having him look forlorn on a few occasions, which, given the natural limitations of an exercise such as this, is probably for the best. That said, the emotional gravitas that’s signaled toward the finish — concluding with the blazing end to both Hangover Square and this work as a whole — doesn’t particularly feel earned, and the soundtrack is often foregrounding this affective attempt in some rather obvious ways that feel as blunt-force as some of the rapid editing. But as a filmic experience, its visual ideas never threaten to become monotonous, and that in and of itself is something of a feat considering how anguished the enterprise tries to be. In fact, in somewhat morbid and possibly contradictory fashion, Broomer elucidates the pure ecstasy that destruction can provide.
Published as part of IFFR 2021 June Programme — Dispatch 2.