Saturday, June 19, 2010

Open: The Existential Angst of Pandrogyny

Jay getting pandrogynously gorgeous

Warning: There are spoilers in this review.

This is the first of several reviews of trans-themed films currently playing at the Frameline 34 Film Festival in San Francisco. This showed at the Victoria Theater on Fri., 6/19/10.

Open is an award-winning new film by Minneapolis filmmaker, Jake Yuzna. The award was the "Teddy" prize at the Berlin Film Festival, one of the most coveted awards in the world of queer filmmaking and the first American film to ever win one. Open is not a warm and cuddly film about gay or dyke couples being cute, but it is, most certainly, about love and commitment. It's a sometimes challenging and even frustrating work, but one that, indeed, opens new doors about the nature of intimacy.

There are basically two concurrent stories which don't interconnect with one another about a pair of couples + one. The first couple consists of a young cis-gay dude, Nick, who is instantly attracted to another man at a club, the very cute Syd. The two end up getting it on over at Nick's place that night. In fairly short order, we find out Syd is a trans man and they immediately form a tight emotional and sexual bond. Nick next meets Syd at an art gallery after visiting it with a rather anarchic female friend of his who, in the film's funniest scene, signs her own name on the displayed works and puts a labels of her own over the "artists info" cards next to the paintings. Nick meets Syd afterwards and, riding their bicycles, the two go off exploring curious sites in the Minneapolis landscape including empty parking garages, and what seem to be abandoned factories, eventually literally camping out pup-tent style in the urban jungle. These scenes have minimal dialogue and (like the rest of the film) seem to operate outside the constraints of linear time in a kind of dream state.

Alternating with this story is the tale of Jay (musician Jendeen Forberg, the drummer from the band, All the Pretty Horses) and Gen (Tempest Crane), two somewhat goth looking transwomen, both with red hair, petite jaws and noses, gold teeth and dressed in black bodysuits and boots. When we first encounter them they are having surgery at a clinic with the idea of consummating their pandrogynous relationship... two people literally merging visually and spiritually as one. We are told by Cynthia, a nurse who works at the clinic, this is their third go-around with surgery in an attempt to resemble one another. She finds it all hopelessly romantic.

Genesis and the late Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge

This story line was greatly influenced by the story of Genesis P-Orridge, founder and front man of the highly influential art music groups Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. Both these bands (or music collectives) had an enormous impact on what would later be known as Industrial music as well as Techno. Much of Psychic TV's output was later remixed and formed the soundtrack for many of the earliest raves. In the 1990's, Genesis (always rather androgynous) married American, Lady Jaye, and formed a pandrogynous (positively androgynous) union with her. Both renamed themselves Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and, started to have multiple surgeries with the idea of resembling each other and, ultimately becoming one person in two bodies. This "project" was tragically cut short with the surprise death of Lady Jaye in late 2007. P-Orridge served as an advisor on the film and, clearly, elements of the story line are taken from his life albeit with a major changes.

This plot takes a turn when Gen, one-half of the pandrogynous couple, goes away (perhaps to get more surgery?) and nurse Cynthia steps in and, jealous of their closeness, tries to connect with the remaining partner, Jay. Cynthia, sad and lovely, is in many ways the most striking character in the film. She's played by the androgynously beautiful Minneapolis-based spoken word performer, Gaea Gaddy. Gaddy (who was in attendance that evening) and some reviews suggest the character is somehow Intersex. If so, there's really no indication of it in the film and to assume androgyny equals Intersex is highly simplistic. Jay, rather sombre hirself, states, "all transition gets you is wearing a lot more concealer and being scared to go out at night."

As with Nick and Syd, Cynthia and Jay make tours of and camp out in a number of urban industrial locations around Minneapolis. There is a definite narrative disconnect in the film as to why these two are together, why they're camping out and why Cynthia has any connection to Jay (who spends most of hir time on hir cellphone, talking to the partner zie misses). At one point Cynthia relates a prolonged story about her bricklayer grandfather who, when rehabbing a museum, discovered a hidden room filled with taxidermed human figures from Africa. I imagined it was a reference to a forced colonialization of the human body, perhaps in reference to how society assumes control of our bodies and frowns on those, like Gen and Jay, who take real possession of their physical selves.

Again, Open shuttles back and forth between the two story lines and the two main couples. Syd shares memories of his late father and an unstable childhood. At some point we find out Syd missed a testosterone shot and, yes, after all that unprotected sex, you guessed it, has become pregnant from Nick's sperm. The two lovers initially panic. I admit to having an immediate negative reaction to this twist in the story since it was very much straight out of the 'trans man Max getting pregnant from his male partner' story-line in the L Word (yes, leaping from the pages of the tabloid press about Thomas Beatie--"The Pregnant Man"). I have no idea which was filmed first but, whatever, I thought it sank Open into a direction which seemed contrived and a false note (even though I am assured by FTM sources it is theoretically possible, albeit extremely unlikely, to commence ovulating after missing one fortnightly shot of T).

Gaea Gaddy's Cynthia Dreams
of getting a boob job

Meanwhile, Jay has rebuked Cynthia's advances and is reunited with Gen. Cynthia is devastated by her loneliness and sense of rejection. The last part of the film consists of loving reunions and recommitment contrasted with tragic outcomes. Open contains powerful imagery, especially the scenes with Jay and Gen. The disconnectedness of the two stories, however, sometimes make it seem like two different shorter films spliced together.

Cynthia, while portrayed by Ms. Gaddy with a charismatic performance, became an annoying and sullen presence for me quite early in the film. The actors playing Gen, Jay and Nick had a low-budget wooden style of acting which isn't quite as objectionable in a minimalist art film like Open, but can cumulatively be painful to watch. The one performer who really shined was Morty Diamond as Syd. Indeed, Diamond is well known on the queer performance circuit, and it showed. The cinematography used vivid colors interspersed with intense lighting and chiaroscuro to create a hypnotic and moody landscape, but the film's dodgy sound recording made many of the lines seem muffled and monochromatic and diminishes their impact.

My one issue (as someone who's had a certain amount of surgical body modification myself) is how the film objectifies gender-related body changes as an act of love or as revolution. It seemed to be projecting an entire meaning onto it which, granted, someone like P-Orridge has promoted, but which smelled a bit stuck in art school rather than the reality of trans lives. Likewise, androgyny is presented as an act of defiance against the binary rather than just a natural identity. Not a big deal, because Yuzna is a very laid back director who doesn't really push any of his themes in your face.

I honestly kept wishing Open were split into two films. For me, the Jay and Gen storyline was more inviting and arresting than the L Word retread but the many queer-ID'd trans guys in the audience might have thought otherwise. Open is well worth seeing if your tastes run to modernistic, alternative queer films. Its use of trans performers and explorations into the subject of pandrogyny make it striking even though both plots, towards the end of the film, veer into cliche. Open is, at heart, very much two traditional love stories spiced by the tale of a Bronte-esque spurned lover all wrapped in androgynous, post-industrial, uber low-rent trans-queer chic. Either that sounds intriguing to you or it doesn't.


  1. What a fantastic review i really enjoyed reading it and thank you for your perspective and writing it. Your posts always stir the grey matter and are a pleasure to read. Ya got a way with werdz Gina. thx.


  2. Good review, good film but too little dialogue it was hard to tell exactly what the story was. side note, I think Tempest was in the pretty horses as well and is Jendeen's real life partner now.


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