Friday, November 19, 2010

Jonathan Ames: pasteurized not homogenized

Paul Dano as Louis in drag: trying to look
like Katie Holmes

Jonathan Ames' book "The Extra Man" is basically two stories woven together. The first being the relationship between Louis, a 20-something, somewhat directionless writer (based on Ames) and his friendship/mentorship with Henry, his 60-something flamboyant roommate who is a "walker"— a companion for old, wealthy women, probably a closeted gay man and, as he says, politically somewhere to the right of the pope. The other plot involves the main character's exploration of his own sexuality and gender issues including forays into crossdressing and sex with pre-op trans women. The latter is pretty much a thread through almost all of Ames' work, which for almost a decade involved his sexual obsession with trans women and his frequenting the famed (somewhat seedy) trans-themed club "Sally's" located just around the corner from Port Authority Bus Terminal near Times Square. Ames has some mention of Sally's, street transsexuals, trans sex workers or sex with trans women in pretty much all of his various fiction and autobiographical short story collections.

Jonathan Ames enjoying a cameo of
what he's no longer allowed to
do in mainstream representations of his books.

The 'Expert' Man
He even edited a collection called "Sexual Metamorphoses" which is an anthology of excerpts from transsexual autobiographies and not a bad introduction to the subject matter for "novices." In the preface of that book (and in one of his autobiographical short stories) he goes into detail how he had a brief sexual fling with Aleisha Brevard, an iconic trans woman who transitioned in the 1960s (after starring at Finocchio's in San Francisco) appeared [in stealth] in b-Hollywood films like The Love God with Donald Knotts, and on a regular the Dean Martin Show, went back to school, and became a college professor, stage actress, director and writer of her own highly witty autobiography. (She also played the DC Comics superhero "Giganta" for a Saturday morning kids' series!) When Ames met her in a small, gay bar in Pennsylvania, he had no idea she was trans, and it was only years later, when Ames' editor showed him Brevard's highly-entertaining autobiography, "The woman I was not born to be" did Ames understand Brevard's history (so claims Ames).

(l) Stealth starlet Aleisha in the 60s
(r) A poster from her 1969 classic trash film
filmed at Spahn Ranch... AKA Charles
Manson's home base of 'operations'

Manufactured quirky
In 2010, a film version of The Extra Man came out (just out on DVD), by the same team which made the award winning film American Splendor (based on Harvey Pekar's comic novels). While some parts of The Extra Man are transferred over nearly verbatim, much of the transsexual characters and storyline is expunged and minimized in the film as well as virtually all the overtly sexual content. By contrast, in the novel, Louis has two extended, explicit sex scenes with two different trans women.

The Kit Kat Klub of 90s New York
He goes to Sally's a number of times in the book, giving an fairly accurate, if 'white boy-tranny chaser's' view of the scene. Apart from the women he has sex with, he regularly talks to an older trans women who's a fixture at the club... very likely based on the late ballroom legend, Dorian Corey, who was a regular at Sally's. While his connection to the 'chaser' scene is laced with guilt (something many chasers feel) his attraction to and appreciation of the trans women depicted in the book seems genuine. As is his profound concern about whether he's straight, gay or, as a the Dorian Corey character dryly explains... 'straightish.' Much of Ames' best writing is based around his ambivalence and (momentary) shame surrounding his sexual desires.

Beautiful Giselle Xtravaganza/Alicea at the film's
version of Sally's (which had long since closed)

In the film, this plot line (perhaps 30% of the book) has been reduced to one very short scene at Sally's. He meets only a single trans woman (fortunately played by the beautiful ballroom star/sometime Pat Field model, Gisele Xtravaganza, has a handful of dialog with her in which she tenderly senses his 'interest' in crossdressing and, guess what... no sex, no intimacy. As NYC cops love to say, "shows over, move along." It's all replaced with Katie Holmes (AKA Mrs. Tom Cruise) who plays a character which, though extremely marginal in the book, is vastly expanded in the film—that of Louis' nuts and granola co-worker. Needless to say, in the final product, the brief scene with Gisele is one of the few high points of an otherwise, tired and forced-quirky film while the scenes with Katie Holmes have been ripped by critics as flat and cliched (jokes about uptight vegans... heehee). The film also removes an extended scene in the book which takes placed at Show World, once the area's 'premier' sex emporium, eventually forced out by Mayor Rudy Guiliani's whitewashing rehab of the Times Square district in the 90s.

Crossdressing = harmless; sex with trans women = bad
Curiously, a certain amount of the content involving Louis' interest in crossdressing remains in the film (albeit in slightly watered-down form). The film, like the book, begins with him trying on his co-workers bra at the private school where he teaches, only to get him laid off. In both he contracts with a kooky punkette to help him feminize himself. In the book, his disappointment with this session comes from his feminizing consultant's total lack of taste—basically trying to dress the en femme Louis as an uglier version of herself. In the film, he curiously is shown trying to half-ass dress up like the Katie Holmes character in a kind of creepy version of autogynophilia. What the film lacks is some of the book's painful self-loathing narcissism though which Louis' crossdressing is funneled. In the film, a terribly passive and chaste performance by Paul Dano as Louis makes the character seem as if you'd have to teach him how to masturbate while wearing a bra and panties.

Audiences come in droves to see Katie Holmes
As it was, the film was pretty much a bomb, getting a lowly 6.2 rating on Internet Movie Database, and a poor Metacritic score of 56 out of 100. The reviews focused largely on Kevin Kline's 'comeback' role as Henry and the one note performance by Paul Dano as Louis which in fairness, when all the book's sexual obsessions and trans lust are bleached away, is a not terribly compelling character. At the same time the film was being made, HBO began running a series called Bored to Death based on one of Ames' short stories in which he becomes an amateur private detective (advertising on Craigslist) who finds his client's lost sister, nearly gets killed and forgets to charge for expenses. The series is cute and is largely filmed around Park Slope, Brooklyn but, again, eradicates all of the sexual and trans-based content so prominent in Ames' written work. The lone trans element from the entire first season is Laverne Cox (from VH1's Transform Me) as a "tranny hooker" in a seedy hotel who calls the cops on Jonathan Schwartzman's character who's here the stand-in for the young Ames. After one or two sassy lines, she's off, never to be seen again. Evidently, some executives have decided Jonathan Ames has a quirky appeal, especially for slob single guys who like his perv humor (and also likely visit Ames has a strong gay following as well) but the trans stuff... too creepy except as a bit of "freaky... woo hoo, look what a sordid place New York is" kind of window dressing. But measured in fractions of a teaspoon, not in Ames' usual "I'm a perv" gallon container. It's bowdlerized Ames... about as exciting as reading the bowdlerized versions of the Delta of Venus or Tropic of Capricorn.

Very mild salsa
Sad to say, stripped of his sexual and trans obsessions (not to mention his best friend who appears in many of his stories... an amputee who invented a "mangina" appliance—involving his own scrotal skin as pseudo labia!), Ames seems like just another sophomoric overgrown college boy humorist, the kind which overpopulate America's cultural landscape. PJ O'Rourke with a bald head. Clearly, the media types encountering his written material think the trans elements in his writing are easily slashed or minimized but, like removing all the stuffing out of a (kinky) comfy chair, one is left with nothing on which to sit. The truth is, in a film world without trans people, what are you left with but a bunch of overpaid straights imitating transgression.


To rub salt into the wound, The Extra Man DVD release features commentary with Ames and Kevin Kline. During the Sally's scene, when Giselle comes on, Kline offers the following:

KK: This guy's really good... what's his name? Not Paul [Dano]... him/her?

Ames explains Giselle is a transsexual then goes on to tell an [almost certainly apocryphal] story about how they ADR'd (filmspeak for dubbed) Gisele's voice with the voice of director Shari Springer Bergman.

Having heard Gisele speak in a number of other videos, I can honestly report she sounds exactly the same in this film as she does in the film Lost In the Crowd, in which she appears with her mom in a loving scene of motherly support for her trans daughter (and that Giselle doesn't sound a thing like the director, who does another commentary track for the DVD). Heaven forfend two straightish men 'comment' about a truly gorgeous trans women and not have some element of putdown.


  1. I've never read any of Ames' work and, to be honest, I'm not that interested. However, I am a little bit upset, again, at Hollywood's total erasure of our existence. Yet, at the same time I feel like we've somehow dodged some kind of bullet...

  2. Untoward: I have the same mixed feelings. On one hand, they've sanitized us out of Ame's writings and pretty much ruined whatever was interesting about his work, on the other, at least they didn't have a gay guy playing Gisele's part.

  3. Shari told me when i worked with her that she can't think of a project that she did of late that didn't have a drag queen or trans or cd character in it at some point, draft or final

  4. Shari? Who dat?

    The key is "at some point"... they come, they go. A number of series have had trans characters only to quickly dump them after they served their exploitation value. It's kind of like the "disease of the month" club... wanna have a sensitive plotline (and get rid of someone with a big contract or has a big head)... give a character a fatal disease, just don't let them look too unattractive as they die. I think trans people are about two steps below that in the plot totem pole. Also, if you don't use actual trans people for those roles it really doesn't mean much (and it's so much more booorring). Personally, i would rather Krystal get those roles than someone like Shangela (who was on Drag Race for about 5 seconds and recently featured on 'Terriers').


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