Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Almost Perfect: Transphobia explored
in young adult fiction

A Novel by
Brian Katcher

Young Adult Fiction
is usually defined as novels aimed at an audience between 13 and 20 with the main characters being adolescents. It's one of the few parts of the publishing industry which has actually greatly grown in the last 15 years. As digital publishing proliferates and production costs greatly diminish, Young Adult Fiction is expected to come out with many more titles in the near future, becoming an even more dominant sector of the industry. Moreover, unlike mainstream adult fiction, which is increasingly constrained by marketing strategies, Young Adult Fiction is often not afraid to tackle "problematic content" such as sex, drugs, parental abuse, eating disorders and LGBT issues.

Because these books are being read by a demographic characterized by their increased brain capacity, social intensity, insecurities, hormonal drives and fanaticism about their passions, fiction encountered at this time of life tends to make a huge impression and impact on an individual's views and sense of the world. It should come as no surprise how such books about trans issues or depicting trans characters will also have a profound influence on how their readers ultimately experience our community (although it could be argued that many of the teens reading such books are those who are already theoretically sympathetic towards trans people).

In this essay, and in a follow-up one next week, I'll be discussing one very impressive new work about a trans girl character called "Almost Perfect" and two slightly older novels which deal with a trans youth called "Parrotfish" (2007) and the award-winning book "Luna" (2004). All three works are targeted at roughly the same age range, albeit it with varying levels of sophistication. The books all have their strong points (incorporating a genuine sensitivity to trans experiences) and limitations (they all involve white characters). There is, needless to say, a desperate lack of fiction about trans teens of color, something I'm hoping digital publishing, and it's ability to narrowcast for specialty audiences, will help rectify.

Small Town Missouri, not a great
bastion of trans-related fiction

Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher takes place in the tiny rural town of Boyer, Missouri with its own mini high school of 400 students. But it's not far from Columbia, Missouri, home of the University of Missouri (more commonly known as "Mizzou") a kind of progressive beacon which figures prominently in the book. Almost Perfect centers around the character of Logan, a senior who lives with his single mom in a mobile home (yes, she's a waitress at the local diner), runs with the school's hapless track team and is still devastated by the breakup with his long-time girlfriend, ice queen Brenda.

Into Logan's world comes Sage, a tall, freckled redhead with a quirky sense of style and cheeky humor who's the new girl in a school where everyone else has been together since kindergarten. Sage becomes Logan's lab partner (heavens to Twilight!) and there is, yes, immediate chemistry in the biology class. For the first time since his breakup, Logan comes out of his depression and becomes obsessed with Sage who, while very outgoing and fun in class, is reserved in one-on-one situations and had been home schooled for the past 4 years for mysterious reasons. Her family moved across state from a larger town to sleepy Boyer and Logan can't stop wondering why.

Early on in their friendship, Logan invites the parentally-cloistered Sage to a movie (she sneaks out with her sister's help). Logan is instantly rebuffed when he attempts to kiss her and is mystified why Sage's freshman little sister, Tammi, has seemingly way more leeway from her family than the 18-year old Sage. In starts and stops, the two young people are drawn closer and closer. The day after Thanksgiving, Logan confides all his shameful secrets to Sage... his ex cheated on him and his dad abandoned their family. The next day, Sage calls Logan to her and shares the reason for her homeschooling and strict upbringing. You guessed it, Sage tells him, "I'm a boy."

Almost Perfect rather brilliantly focuses on Logan's conflictual attraction-repulsion towards Sage better than any other book on trans issues I've encountered. He immediately leaves her and is disgusted and confused by his love for her. The author creates an excellent portrayal of erotically-charged transphobia. Logan has shame for being genuinely drawn towards Sage and, at the same time, profound shame for the shabby way he's treating her.

As the book develops, Sage and Logan end up visiting Mizzou together and, due to his sister's ministrations, end up spending the night together with an intimate, physical (yet non-sexual) connection. Laura, Logan's very accepting sister, inadvertently finds out about Sage's trans history, tells her brother about it and now Logan must deal with the fact that "his secret" is shared by another human being. His inner conflict about Sage and his knee-jerk reaction towards her becomes more intense. Without giving too much of the story away, there is a bashing and one of the two young people ends up on suicide watch.

Almost Perfect falls into a hybrid category of novels which could be enjoyed equally by adults or more sophisticated teens. Yes, it's a novel about young people but, in many ways, I found it to be a more unflinchingly honest book about trans issues than "She's Not There," which is a rather "lite" version of transition. It's also a more adult and hard-edged work than either Parrotfish or Luna. Moreover, the book has an extremely complex view of young people, never falling into much of the John Hughes-inspired assumptions and cliches which plague so much of other young adult fiction and films (eg. jocks, nerds, bitchy pretty girls, etc.). Logan, Sage and all the other young characters have simultaneous multiple levels of childishness, maturity, and behavior which is both selfish, loving, gracious and sometimes, disgraceful.

How you feel about the book's portrayal of Sage may have to deal with your own experiences with trans persons (perhaps, including, yourself?). Much to Katcher's credit, Sage is never made to seem camp or draggy nor any awkward "boy" moments with her. Again, depending on your own experience, that might not seem altogether real (since many young trans girls do to go through a gay/femme boy stage) or refreshingly not filtered through the gay experience (as many recent young transitioners increasingly aren't making stops in the gay community, especially those from white, suburban, Internet-savvy backgrounds).

What I found altogether real about Sage was her degree of self-loathing about her body, a quality I've found nearly universal among trans women to varying degree, (and I'm not referring to being pre or post-op). Sage hates her height, her shoulders, her hands, her feet even though she isn't clocked by anyone at the school and is seen as attractive by most people who come in contact with her. She is described as attempting suicide as a tween (something I have personal experience with) and how that led to her family's very begrudging acknowledgment of her issues, albeit with paranoid fears about her safety and their own paranoia about being marginalized.

Perhaps the most controversial point in the book is Sage's serious consideration of detransition at one point. Some reviewers have found this to be a not thoroughly motivated part of the story, but I found it plausible. After experiencing a number of ugly realities of being a young trans girl, she is overwhelmed and experiencing a form of PTSD (something I believe many transitioners deal with on some level).

As with Julie Anne Peters' novel, Luna (also about a trans girl teen), Almost Perfect has a rather fatalistic, bound-to-go-through-hell tone to it which could be viewed as a off-putting to young people dealing with their own issues of gender dysphoria. Which could be seen either as a cold, harsh reality or, as with the many trans murders (and miserable trans characters) depicted on detective shows, a kind of exploitation and objectification of someone's struggles. In general, I felt Katcher gave a complicated enough view of Sage's life and mindset to not make it seem yet another "do this and bad things will happen" lesson. There is no exploitation of who she is into a morality lesson.

In a brief conversation I had with the author, Katcher said he had no prior experience (to his knowledge) with trans people and the novel came out of a short story he wrote and was encouraged by his writer's group to expand into novel length. In speaking of his research process, he said he contacted a number of people on trans Internet forums who were highly willing to share their life stories. It paid off, since he does an especially good job of not having sequences of "Trans 101" which pop out in the novel, a trap in which virtually all other works about trans people written by cis writers tend to fall (eg, having a character literally repeat a line-for-line explanation or definition from books like TrueSelves).

Where I think his research fell short was how none of his respondees had transitioned before the age of 30 (and Katcher was surprised when I told him I knew a number of people who had actually transitioned as teenagers). Moreover, many of the long time transitioners he corresponded with had started transition in the 1980s and early 90s, pre-Internet and during a kind of low-point in the public understanding of trans people. And as with Peters and Luna, it's notable how Katcher chose to tell the story through the narration of a cis-teen and not a trans-teen. Perhaps neither Peters or Katcher felt confident enough to truly inhabit the mindset of a trans person. While understandable, it does create a certain amount of distance from the character who truly drives the plot.

These are minor quibbles in what is, otherwise, a highly powerful book about homophobia/transphobia, complicated young love, real small-town high school culture and the time of life approaching the end of secondary education, when most kids are desperately filtering through their parent's dreams for their futures and scared as hell about growing up. And as for Logan, as with many straight-identified men who, at one time, intimately encounter a trans women, he has a hard time getting Sage out of his mind and one senses that, no matter what happens after high school, he'll spend the rest of his life searching for some version of her. As with Logan's memories, I had a hard time getting this intense, haunting book out of my mind.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Susi Graf's Lost in the Crowd

Kimy (l) and Nicole (r) lament their tough roads

Lost in the Crowd
is Susi Graf's often heartbreaking documentary about homeless queer and trans youth in New York City. It was filmed over a 7-year period starting in 2003. Because her film's subjects were on the street, in and out of housing facilities and often transient, it took incredible patience for Ms. Graf to maintain trust and contact with these young people who've often been abused, rejected and exploited by adults. As she explained in the Q&A after the film, she was unable to even keep or pay a cinematographer because of the long hours often required to locate and follow the young people (ranging in age from 18 to their early 20s) to maintain continuity in their narratives. Graf was both interviewer, and camera op. This showing at San Francisco's Frameline Festival was the film's official debut although its actual first showing was at a preview in New York a few months ago.

An interesting interview by Samara Rivera of Susi Graf and Gisele at the New York premiere.

Privilege leading to... homelessness
At the center of the film is Kimy, a tall, long-raven-haired trans-identified 18-year old. A well-educated, talented artist and budding fashion designer, he (I'm only using male pronouns because of his final gender identity in the film) was abused by his step-father, and unable to deal with his repressive family situation in Utah. He relates how he exchanged sex to get a ride most of the way to New York. Explaining in humiliated tones how he's done a combination of repellant sex work and not-too-successful thievery to live (including multiple stints in jail), a chilling moment in the film comes when he says in a bitter voice, "I hate men, I hate everything about them." But admits he's still attracted to them.

All God's children
There is Adrian, a sensitive African-American HIV-positive New Yorker who, at various times, seems to be thinking about transition, but mostly presents as a femme male and does sexwork to survive. Adrian is from a family of 14 kids. His foster mom, a highly religious woman, can't deal with Adrian's femme gay/trans identity nor his drug use and kicks him out of the house. By the time we first see him at 21, his youth is starting to leave him. He explains how, when younger, he was seduced by a 42-year old man who was the one who gave him AIDs. We later find out he was also abused for 7 years by his family's preacher. Sometimes Adrian wears $200 fuschia heels a john bought him and $50 decorated acrylic nails; other times he's on the street looking impoverished, scared and vulnerable.

Adrian, scared on the street

Passing out of the scene
Jazmine is a young trans Latina who spent time on the street, in the ballroom scene and in prostitution but has gotten housing, seems farther along with her transition than the others and is attending school. She provides a hopeful glimpse of the possibility of future stability, but even later in the film, getting her MSW degree and in a straight relationship with a cop, she retains her deep-rooted insecurities about her trans history and anxieties of a future of being clocked.

Jasmine keeping it real and stealth

Other interviewees come and go, appearing in the film whenever the tenacious Graf can find them. Nicole, a young trans woman friend of Kimy's who was brutalized while doing sex work as a young teen vanishes in 2003. Serenity, somewhere between a femme male and an untransitioned trans girl does sexwork, sadly explaining at her advanced age (early 20s) no one wants her as a woman any more but she's very popular as a young femme queer. Clayton is a slightly older HIV+ femme gay man who has finally obtained stable medical treatment and is working part-time doing outreach. The most glam participant is Gisele, a well-known trans-Latina beauty from the New York Ballroom scene (and member of the House of Xtravaganza) who has parlayed her ballroom renown into modeling and acting in mainstream film projects.

Serenity ponders the transience of beauty

Some mothers know best
A key scene in the film is when Graf visits Adrian's mother. Earlier on, he achingly wishes he could just go back to his family. He clearly misses the love and companionship he had at home even when his place in the family was precarious. When mother and child are sitting next to one another, it's not hard to see why he's out on the street. She cares about him, but not to the extent where her extreme fundamentalist faith can excuse who he is. By contrast, Graf visits the home of Gisele's mother in East Harlem and mom, religious though she is, wholly embraces her child as a daughter and provides a solid base of support for her transition and endeavors. The comparison between the two situations is painful to watch.

Willi Ninja 1961-2006

You better work
The other main component of the film is a glimpse into the ballroom scene in which many of the film's subjects were participants. Graf has some of the last interviews with the late, great Willi Ninja, who was featured prominently in the film Paris is Burning, choreographed and performed in many music videos, coached runway supermodels and famously founded his own Ballroom House (of which Adrian is a member). Ninja, who died of AIDs-related heart failure in 2006, serves as inspiration for the often marginalized youth in the ballroom scene as to how they can leverage their talent and creativity into other (more remunerative and mainstream) pursuits. Graf also features some wonderful footage of Gisele and Jazmine doing Ballroom runway (a scene which also produced Isis King, who was also homeless around the same time yet went on to appear on America's Next Top Model).

Kimy with bear

Without giving away the end of the film, needless to say, some of these young people die, some end up incarcerated and some drift away from the scene while others seemingly outgrow it. It's interesting to note how the two subjects who seemed to thrive the best were the most "passable" and binary-identified. Others who live between genders or flit back and forth with transition seem to have greater issues being marginalized. Is this a function of having the opportunity and support to transition or whether it's just easier to live as a binary (and attractive) trans woman in the world isn't clear. While I doubt this was an intentional message of Graf's, as a trans woman viewing the film, it's hard to not be struck by the contrast. Several of the participants in the film, while still experiencing profound issues around being trans, push transition away as a likely (and unaffordable) option or for safety reasons, preferring to live queer-bodied.

Shelters neither respectful or safe
In the Q&A after the film, Graf explained how most of these young people had problems with homeless facilities like Covenant House (which, in Houston, was recently accused of not accepting LGBT kids nor creating a safe space for them). Graf noted it was much the same in NYC where straight homeless kids would intimidate the trans and gender-variant youth. A care provider in the film explains how most homeless trans youth would rather try and sleep in the subway system all night than go to adult/straight shelters. Many preferred to be on the street (or as one of the subjects states, in jail) than the intimidation and physical danger they face in the adult shelter system or even their families.

Will it sell at the GLAAD Media Awards?
Every few decades the issues of homeless youth seem to be covered by films like 1984's award-winning Streetwise about dumpster-diving street kids in Seattle (or 1990's Paris is Burning, with Venus Xtravaganza, who is murdered before the film was finished filming). Sadly, the organizations which assist these kids continue to be some of the first to get their meager budgets slashed. It's my hope that films like Lost in the Crowd can encourage LGBT organizations to actually prioritize focusing on homeless and at-risk queer youth (especially those of color)... but I doubt it. While millions are spent fighting issues like marriage equality, street kids are considered non-contributors to large political organizations and therefore, persona non grata. Moreover, the very people who desperately need to be exposed to this film— schools, support organizations and, especially, the parents of non-gender-conforming children, will likely not see it.

Which is tragic, because Lost in the Crowd (shamefully sparsely attended being shown on the night before SF Pride when many people were out partying) has much to tell us all about what familial and social responsibility means and what love really looks like. A family which doesn't put the needs of its children first can have no Pride.

For more interviews and information on the creative personalities who've survived and thrived in the Ballroom scene, I highly recommend The Luna Show on YouTube.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Beautiful Darling: Bittersweet Candy

There is little question Candy Darling is a key icon of the trans and gender variant communities. In her short life she created a mystique nearly akin to James Dean or Marilyn Monroe among wider culture. Little surprise then, that a showing of James Rasin's new documentary about her, "Beautiful Darling," should fill the 1,400 seat Castro Theater as part of San Francisco's Frameline 34 Film Festival. The film, which was produced by Candy's friend, Jeremiah Newton, is a whirlwind exploration of her reality and how contemporaries experienced her (with widely varying results). Of special note are her diary entries and sketches which reveal genuine artistic talent and humor.

Candy as Kim Novak

Like a kid in a candy store
I almost felt "Beautiful Darling" was a little too brief and cursory to cover its subject matter in a wholly satisfying manner, but it's still a powerful meditation on her life, her talent and, to a surprising extent, the transphobia she encountered. Most people who already know about Candy will relish spending the time exploring her life and for those who haven't yet been exposed to her (as I heard several people saying while waiting in the around-the-block ticket line) it will be a wonderful introduction to one of the most magnetic and unique performers of the 1960s and 70s.

Image before real life
Rasin's film is, for the first third, a non-linear exploration of her imagery and clips. It's framed by Jeremiah Newton preparing to finally bury her cremated ashes in Cherry Valley, NY (where Newton's family is interred). Newton, in need of hip replacement, hobbles with his cane, lovingly cradling his dear friend's remains. Clearly, he has a profound love for her and is still in mourning her loss after 30+ years. Interspersed are brief memories of and thoughts about her her by people who, in some way, knew her. And this is where the film gets spicy and even controversial.

Newton w/Candy in the late 60s (l) and now (r)

Among the people interviewed along with Newton (who met her when he was 16) are Warhol stalwarts Paul Morrisey (who directed her in several films), Taylor Mead (Warhol actor and pal during the first two factory periods... and my ex-next door neighbor!), Gerard Malanga (Warhol's gorgeous right hand man who ran much of the first two factories), and Holly Woodlawn (who was also present at the screening!). They have mostly respectful and loving memories of Candy, albeit pointing out the dichotomy of someone who epitomized glamor yet had to sleep on the couches of friend's apartments and lived a hard-scrabble life which veered between hobnobbing with celebrity and out and out marginalization. She could shine with a brilliance when required yet seem ephemeral and fleeting when she was struggling and marginalized.

Sour grapes/rotten fruit
It's the interviews with former Cafe LaMama actress Helen Hanft, writer celebrity hanger-on Fran Lebowitz and Candy's lawyer when you really start to sense the difficulties in her life. Hanft basically saw Candy as someone who was always playing an unreal part, a put-on. She explains Candy's womanhood as little more than an act and pretending to be a female movie star. Candy's attorney says when he first met her he noticed 5 o'clock shadow underneath her heavy makeup and went out to the sidewalk to throw up. Lebowitz (whose big claim to fame was writing a column for Warhol's Interview magazine which were collected into a couple of best selling collections in the 1980s) makes out and out transphobic slurs about Candy, (and against all trans women). Audible hisses came up from the audience after several of her statements.

If you don't want to fuck
me baby, fuck off...
In one of the most powerful segments of the film, Lebowitz makes a pronouncement that changing your sex is impossible and (basically repeating a classic second wave feminist transphobic meme) that Candy (or any trans woman) can't be a woman because they didn't have a girlhood. In that moment, you realize that for all the hipster attention Candy received, there was always an undercurrent of disgust and dismissiveness about her and who she was. Raisin deftly responds to Lebowitz's ignorance with an emotive statement by trans woman and punk rock icon Jayne County (who, prior to her transition, knew Candy quite well from the Max's Kansas City nightclub) and basically trashes the glib transphobic comments made by other interviewees.

The aging transphobe and the aging punk duke it out

P.T. Barnum with a bad wig
As were his relationships with everyone, Andy Warhol's connection with Candy was complex. He first encountered her in an off-off Broadway play called Glamour, Glory and Gold written by Jackie Curtis (despite Candy's apocryphal tale of him coming into the coffee shop where she worked as a waitress!). He gave her performance the highest possible Warhol compliment... "I wasn't bored." From then on, they became nearly inseparable for several years, perhaps to a greater extent than with any other female superstars like Edie Sedgwick (already crashed and burned and gone from New York), Ultra Violet or Viva. Candy had a natural vivaciousness, unique style and genuine wit those other "faces" lacked. She accompanied Warhol on all his interviews and public appearances, nearly becoming a kind of queer defacto wife.

Candy and Andy at a Velvet Underground concert

She was put in a small role in Paul Morrisey's "Heat" and then made a huge impact in "Women in Revolt" giving perhaps the best and most memorable performance in any Warhol film. She rather naively thought Warhol would promote her into becoming a "normal" actress but, as was usual with Andy, he quickly grew tired of people (or was threatened by those with genuine talent) and soon cynically dismissed her as "a chick with a dick." (yes, that term goes back to the 60s-70s). A.W. (after Warhol) Candy went off to make a brief appearance in the film, Klute (starring her friend Jane Fonda), made two films in Europe, several indy films and especially, starred in a non-trans role as Violet, a trampy girl in Tennessee William's short lived off-broadway play, Small Craft Warnings.

Candy at her Small Craft Warnings dressing room—
she couldn't dress with the ladies or gents

The p*nis discussion
Beautiful Darling also includes some ugly speculation about Candy's sex life, involvement with sex work (Newton swears she did not prostitute herself) and interest in getting SRS. Needless to say, a lot of the interviewees sound like they're talking out their asses and more about their own projections into who they think she was. Truman Capote states "she should never get the operation... or she wouldn't be Candy Darling". Um, okay Truman. Others said she didn't want SRS, but the reality is, this was a woman who didn't have 2 dimes to her name, and slept on friend's living room couches (except when she was in Small Craft Warnings and was put up in a hotel only to rack up huge bills). Unknowing speculation or not, Candy clearly had a very profound female identity which is emphasized by both Woodlawn, Jayne County and by one of the other performers in Small Craft Warnings. Moreover, in a beautiful montage of photos from her childhood, you can see her childish female core come out along with a gentle, sweet personality that many thought was a put on, but seems as if it was deeply a part of her inner self.

Sad, lost girl
The last section of the film is a hard-to-watch recitation of entries from Candy's diary which clearly show her to be morbidly scared of the future, and burnt out by scrambling for an existence and living the life of a "famous transsexual." Rasin's documentary provides a strong glimpse of what it was like as a trans person around the time of Stonewall. Despite one or two anecdotes from when she first moved to NYC from suburban Long Island, Candy was never a street queen. At one point she makes a possibly ironic (yet achingly sweet remark) about wanting to get married and find love. I don't doubt for a moment she meant it.

Shortly before her death at a Catholic Charity Hospital

When Newton mentions she had a growth in her abdomen and was diagnosed with cancer, the film gets rather too sketchy and falls apart. It's suggested by Newton that her estrogen intake was somehow responsible for it, yet Candy officially died from Leukemia, a kind of cancer which is in no way impacted by estrogens. Helen Hanft and others repeat how she was playing a role even when she died... but is this really fair? By all accounts she had a painful death (at 29, not 26 as other biographies have claimed) and, if anything, was upset about how wasted away she was, how she looked and tried to put on a brave face. Newton gained access to Candy's ashes and some of her possessions (including her diary) because Candy's mom married a homophobe and she wanted to eradicate all memories of her oddball child. Many of Candy's possessions and clothes were burned. Warhol's enterprises became increasingly dull, repetitive and commercial, mostly catering to the wealthy and the Candy cult went really underground.

Beautiful but hardly flawless
Beautiful Darling isn't a perfect biography. It leaves out signifiant portions of her life, such as her time in Europe and shortchanges her early, pre-Warhol period in New York and details of her death. Since so much of the story is funneled through Newton's experience with her, I suspect that might have to do with certain aspects being favored over others. Too much time is allotted to Lebowitz and Hanft by virtue of their minor celebrity and not enough to people who knew her as a teen or young adult. My key issue is how so many non-trans people are allowed to discuss and define Candy's gender identity and body. Fortunately, Rasin is wise to counter some of those assumptions with trans people like Jayne County who, perhaps, might have a more informed perspective and call them on their assumptions.

But Beautiful Darling provides such a moving, complex and long needed portrait of her and a glimpse of her magic and beauty that it's hard not to fall in love with Candy all over again. Most contemporary highly-paid actresses seem boring, flat and generic by comparison. As usual, America has a problem truly recognizing its most unique and special artists. Invariably, like Candy, they are beacons for the fantasies and assumptions of others, not valued for their own reality.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Paulista: Modern Romance without the Samba

Note: this is another review of "trans-themed" film from the Frameline 34 Film Festival in San Francisco.

Justine and Marina: getting to know you
before we fuck each other's brains out

(original title: Quanto Dura o Amor?) is both one of the largest thoroughfares in Sao Paulo and a slang term for natives from that very urban metropolis. Marina arrives from the burbs wanting to be an actress. She shares an apartment in a high rise with her sometime boyfriend's former roommate, Suzana, an attorney. Also in the building is schlubby Jay, a poet who meets the newcomer on her second day in the city, and takes her to a bar/music club. Unfortunately for Jay, Marina only has eyes for the charismatic (and very likely bat-shit crazy) Justine, a tall, moody singer (who sings a great cover of Radiohead's High & Dry... there is no samba in this film). Marina and Justine are soon involved and you suspect this relationship is too charged to last long. Meanwhile, the respectable attorney Suzana is approached by another attorney, Gil, and they connect over sushi and talk of karate and cats. Finally, Jay is hopelessly smitten with prostitute Michelle, not quite getting that she's strictly in it for the money.

Jay pining while his sexworker/love
Michelle watches the clock

Don't expect Sex and the City 3
Director Roberto Moreira beautifully wraps these three stories effortlessly around one another, using the crushingly packed city as a character. Disruptions appear when Nuno, a handsome slick hipster owner of the club where Justine performs and who is a still-sometime rough sex lover of Justine's and warns Marina about Justine's instability. Needless to say, all of these relationships go through their own ups, glories and eventual meltdowns since, as the title asks in Portuguese, how long does the love last? Brazilians aren't big on optimism or happy endings and, despite the sexiness, fun and charge which floats most of Paulista, this isn't your typical U.S. feel good chick flick.

Suzana and Gil: Lawyers in Love?

A character who is trans not a trans character
For purposes of this blog, Suzana's character and relationship are most pertinent since she's a somewhat unique character in the history of trans women in cinema. As played by actress Maria Clara Spinelli (who is also a trans woman) the character is only incidentally about being trans. As the director stated, "[It's a paradox] the fact is that she's a transsexual, but she's the most conservative one in the film. People assume that she would be the flamboyant, overly sexual one, and it is not so." He also pointed out:
There is a transsexual, but this is not focused on should she get the [gender reassignment] surgery or not. For the lesbian character, it's not a coming out story. We are beyond that. This a story of ‘how do I live? How do I love?' Those are universal themes that everyone can relate to.”
In other words, she's trans, it's not a big deal, get over it. Suzana is basically the older sister of the household, needing to remind the not-especially-mature Marina not to smoke inside or to leave a big mess when having wild sex with Justine. Suzana is pretty much living in stealth with the exception of her downstairs neighbor. Yes, eventually the relationship comes down to, "when do I tell Gil about my history."

Maria at the Hollywood Brazilian Film Festival in LA

Award Winner first time out
Considering this is the 26-year old Spinelli's first film, she gives an amazingly assured, measured and low-key performance (she won "best actress" at the Paulinea Film Festival, Sao Paulo's largest). I hope she gets a chance to act in other films which don't revolve around her being trans. Many trans actresses in European films have gotten their one shot, only to be marginalized again after their film has made the rounds. All the actors in this film are excellent, especially Silvia Lourenço as Marina and grammy winning singer Danni Carlos as the unstable Justine. Fábio Herford deserves special mention as the neurotic and obsessed Jay, who tries to give his book of poetry to a hooker in hopes she'll have a real relationship with him.

Sao Paulo: 11 million naked stories
in the concrete city

Trans = no biggie
Suzana's trans issues of stealth and disclosure are nothing new for films, but they're handled with such a lack of any sensationalism that they take a back seat to Justine's issues (who is, interestingly, a tall, outrageous, be-wigged, messed up and very sexual cis woman... an interesting twist for a film with a trans character). At one point in the film, Suzana shows photos of herself as a boy (actual shots of Spinelli when young), but it's not done as a "reveal scene" more with ironic detachment and wistfulness for a sweet, loved little child who is long gone but still in her heart. At no point is her womanhood made an issue in the film, which greatly differentiates it from virtually every other North American film about trans women.

As with the other characters, she survives in the overwhelming concrete ugliness of Sao Paulo which, like New York, is no beauty but sizzles with excitement, swarming humanity and possibility. It's a very un-cliched view of cities, multicultural societies and trans womanhood in a way which seems both so foreign to American mainstream filmmakers and extremely refreshing.

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.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Queens at Heart: a pre-Stonewall treasure

Back in the mid-90's, San Francisco film historian Jenni Olson would peruse collectors magazines like the now-defunct "The Big Reel" looking for hidden cinematic treasure. She came across a 35mm print being sold by an old projectionist in Kansas City for $75. Olson was always on the lookout for queer/trans-related titles and her radar instantly went up when she saw the title "Queens at Heart" and thought it might be related to the subject of drag. She took a chance and when the single reel arrived, a label covering it stated it should be played in front of the feature length film "She-Man."She-Man was a sordid 1967 florida-made exploitation film by Bob Clark (who would later go on to create the "Porkys" series) and starred famed female impersonator Dorian Wayne as a crossdressing dominatrix who would would force men into being feminized or feel the slash of her whip!

SHE-MAN: Dorian Wayne (in the white dress and whip)
and one of her not-so-voluntary she-men

All in the name, scientific exploration
Olson, who was able to find no information about Queens at Heart prior to purchasing it, nor was it mentioned in any books relating to LGBT film, knew it must have some link to drag or crossdressing because of the She-Man connection. Such films usually played in scummy urban movie theaters (usually called art houses) which specialized in exploitation films. (a prime example of such a film which 'broke out' to be highly successful was 1962's Mondo Cane, which was an Italian 'documentary' best known for its theme song "More" which displayed many titillating and voyeuristic subjects in a similarly serious "scientific" documentary format). Queens at Heart is clearly cut from a similar cloth for the same audience.

Cinematic prospector Jenni Olson

Since there was no date on Queens at Heart and Olson was unable to find other historical information about it, she determined the release date based on the release date of She-Man. It has since been been confirmed it was actually produced around 1965. Olson finally convinced a projectionist friend at the nearby independent Roxie Cinema to show the film after hours so she could finally view it. And what she saw blew her away. She remembers, "I pretty much jumped up and down in joyful amazement at this amazing discovery the whole time we were watching it."

Olson explains what she saw:
A very serious newscaster-type named Jay Martin tells the audience we're about to see the results of a six-month psychological project and introduces us to Misty, Vicky, Sonja and Simone who are seated nervously on a small couch in this guy's wood-paneled office. They go by their first names only, he explains because they are breaking the law. He speaks directly to camera through this whole first section and explains that they are all trannsexuals.

The Queens-at-Heart ladies waiting
for their creepy questioner

Kids... don't turn out like this.
The film has the same ominous tone as many sex ed or 'drug education' films from the 60s and 70s... a mixture of imparting information, exploitation and outright prurient fascination.
Then the film takes us to a drag ball where we see the four girls interacting with tons of other drag queens and regular gay guys dancing and partying at a drag ball. Really amazing verite footage, very multi-racial with black, Latino and white guys and drag queens carrying numbered contestant cards. Great music, amazing hair -- bouffant mania! ...Next Jay Martin interviews three of the four girls and asks them a lot of extremely personal and even sexually explicit questions which play half like concerned therapist and half verging on pornographic.

Jay Martin informs one of the women:
"You don't live a normal life, do you."

It eventually follows one of the girls to her hairdressing job (and we're informed she's breaking the law by being cross-dressed in public) ending with a deadly serious Jay Martin facing the camera and admonishing the viewers, "We know that homosexuality is a psychological aberration that should be treated, but what about those who don't want to change? Who are we to judge?" Who indeed, Jay?

Film restoration challenge
The next stop for the film was the Outfest Film Festival in LA, of which Andrea James is board member. She explains The Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation works with the UCLA Film & Television Archive to restore films, particularly films which portray the LGBT community and are out of general circulation or in danger of being lost. Jenni Olson joined the board of the Legacy Project and the first film from her large collection which she donated was "Queens at Heart" (she also subsequently located a second print of the film). From these two very old and deteriorated prints (since there was no existing master for the film) a new digital print would be processed and generated. Seed money for the project came from activist and writer Joanne Herman (who also paid a matching grant to pay for the remaining restoration which was largely funded with donations from the trans community). A showing of the new print was arranged by Andrea James in LA last year. She notes:
I have viewed a lot of film restorations, but this was one of the more remarkable jobs I have seen. They showed about a minute of the old print before they screened the restoration, and the entire audience gasped and applauded. It looked as if it had been shot yesterday.

Jay Martin: "You're a very tall girl aren't you...'re one of the taller drag queens around."
Blonde: "Yes but I'm also one of the most
beautiful ones too, darling."

Cheese, sleaze, but also gold.
Yes, Queens at Heart is exploitation. As Andrea James remarks, "The film to me feels like it was put together by someone with an attraction to trans women. It's generally respectful but has a somewhat lurid feel. The women are very ill at ease when being interviewed, but they are very self-possessed and quite thoughtful in their answers." In other words, despite the framework of "freakshow" or "sexual objectification" one still gets a glimpse of the real women behind the show and a bit of their lives from 45 years ago.

Olson explains the film's impact:
Of course it is extremely significant for us to be able to look back and see this rare portrait of 4 pre-op transsexuals being so candid and courageous in the years before Stonewall. The power of film for bringing us face to face with our forebears is absolutely incredible. I think the film is especially remarkable for how candid and brave the women are in expressing themselves so vulnerably when we can tell that the film was produced more as an exploitation film than as a serious documentary.

Rachel Harlow from 1968's The Queen.
No, this is NOT Helen Mirren.

Andrea James observes, "It's notable for being one of the few pieces of pre-Stonewall color
footage of trans life in Manhattan (or anywhere for that matter)." And this does make it truly a re-found lost treasure. There are films of pre-Stonewall New York like "The Queen" from 1968, about a drag beauty pageant staged at town hall. While most of the participants in that film were gay men, several of the contestants, such as the winner and runner up, eventually transitioned (Rachel Harlow, the winner, had SRS several years later and was involved in a relationship with Grace Kelley's older brother, Kell). Yet as fascinating as The Queen is, it doesn't really portray trans women living in the world as such and is more about drag culture.

A window into another era
remarkably like our own
Queens at Heart demonstrably shows trans women as part of the larger 'gay' community, a community which erupted into anger and activism only a few years later (and a trans community which was already making waves in Los Angeles at Cooper's Donuts, in Philly at Dewey's Lunch Counter and in San Francisco at Compton's Cafeteria). It's also interesting to note that, 45 years after Queens at Heart was filmed, the New York State Senate once again rejected adding gender identity and expression to anti-discrimination protections which already apply to GLB citizens. Queens at Heart is both a poignant reminder of how much society has changed yet, sadly how much remains the same.

Queens at Heart will be shown on Sun, Jul 11th 9:45pm at Sat, Jul 17th 5:00pm. In the program "Trans Politics Then and Now" Following the screenings, there will be a panel discussion moderated by Riku Matsuda. Director's Guild of America Theater 2 7920 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles

**For those interested in finding out more about the Outfest Legacy Project's work and some of their future restorations and possibly making a donation (preserving and archiving film doesn't come cheap), please visit their website. This is an incredible way of keeping our history alive.

Note: Queens at Heart should not be confused with a 2006 documentary (also about drag) of the same name.