Amanda Kramer’s Give Me Pity! is, at first, a visual pastiche of a quintessential television special from the 1980s. The film does not strive for accurate recreation, but instead the sensation of how one might imagine this kind of television special to feel like. Give Me Pity feels like something that would appear on television at three in the morning; a little off-putting and earnest and impossible to find ever again once you’ve seen it, with no way to prove to your friends or yourself that it’s real.
Protagonist Sissy St. Claire (Sophie Von Haselberg) has dreams of “making it” — an abstract idea that means different things as the special progresses. Making it to Sissy means money, or power, or fame, or being a character, or being desired, or seeming “new,” or having a dog or baby that loves her, or finally one-upping the girl who used to live on her childhood street who always had nicer dresses.
Sissy is ready to “make it” through some pretty old-fashioned means. Namely, her approach is via a seemingly quintessential television special including big hair, blue eyeshadow, bad songs, and a tinny-sounding, never seen audience. Everything is almost grotesquely filmy, hazy in the low quality of the camera. Sparkle effects are added with a heaviness to an already glittery, disco ball-lit set.
But within the first seven or so minutes of the film, we begin to get the sense that something is very, very off. A distortion of red and green that could maybe be brushed off as a bad taping of the special suddenly becomes a haunting and choppy, regular interruption. During her first song, our seemingly sunny performer is suddenly casting furtive, nervous glances over to the side of the stage, where a creepy-crawly person in a mask watches on.
As Sissy soldiers on regardless, things become increasingly fucked up. A “comedy sketch” with a faceless psychic turns into a haunting conversation as the psychic tells her in a low growl that Sissy smells of hell. When Sissy answers fan mail from a campy little postal bag, she pulls one out with a grimace and turns to someone offscreen. “This one is covered in blood,” she snaps, more frustrated that something has gone awry than upset or scared.
Time feels nonsensical — celebrity guests bail on sketches fifteen minutes before showtime, evoking a feeling of liveness, despite the special obviously being shot over an extended amount of time to account for the multiple costumes within the same performance.
Sissy is obsessed with the idea of America, including in her special an overly-complicated jingoistic performance of old nationalistic songs. She seems particularly tied to her identity as a white woman, to appearing beautiful and all-American; she considers all other women as competition (one of her answers from her twisted, grinning fan mail sketch).
And it ultimately seems what is most fearful to Sissy is the risk of not being desirable. The psychic not wanting to touch her freaks her out. She is haunted by the thought of not seeming “new” to men who like her, dreams of having a baby so that someone will look at her for the first time, performs a strange sketch titled “Wife Hooker” in which she tries to pick up men with offers of domestic tasks like carrying in groceries and waxing their floors.
Sissy brings on a guest (Cricket Arrison) to do an “impression” of her, but instead of some quintessential vocal mimicking, the guest instead does some strange, avant-garde movement. In it, Sissy sees failure — she feels the impression reveals where she moves weirdly, slouches, touches her hair in an unflattering way. Sissy crumbles as the impression goes on, and then continues to crumble for the duration of the “special,” opting to evoke pity where she at first tried to wow through performance.
Give Me Pity has something definitive to say about performance, gender, and the specific brand of white womanness that both loathes herself and demands to be centered simultaneously. There are layers to be pulled back — in fact, almost every segment of this faux-special seems to hold its own weight. But more than anything, especially on a first watch, Give Me Pity is an experience in visual sensation — overpoweringly dedicated to its gauche aesthetics and a stunning sense of uncanny, skin-crawling performativity both on the part of our protagonist and the strange, contained world created by Kramer.