Friday, October 3, 2014

Let The Right One In: Trans Fade to Bland

Eli asks the trans million dollar question

Warning: some minor spoilers

Let the Right One In is a novel of vampire fiction by Swedish writer and performer, John Ajvide Lindqvist. Lindqvist, who was first known in his country as a comedian, wanted to create a serious book which channeled his pain growing up in a dumpy, hardscrabble suburb of Stockholm during the 1980s and the intense bullying he faced as a tween. It's set in an endlessly snowy landscape with nearly 18-20 hours of daily darkness (which would make it seem a natural for Vampires... certainly more than New Orleans). Most of the adults in the book are alcoholics and everyone lives in dreary public housing. His concept morphs into a vampire story when he has his browbeaten protagonist/loner, 12-year old Oskar, meet a girl named Eli (seemingly the same age) who just moved into the run down apartment next door with her father.

Oskar about to be bullied

Father and daughter are a strange pair. The middle-aged father talks to none of the local lushes and doesn't seem to work, while daughter goes around barefoot in the snow, has greasy, matted hair, is intensely asocial and never comes out during the day. The windows of their apartment are covered up with cardboard and duct tape. Yes, it turns out this girl, Eli is, in fact, a 220-year old vampire and, in a trans twist, was born male.

Three different versions of Eli. (l) From the original
book cover; (c) from the Swedish film;
(r) Abby in the English remake.

Lindqvist's book became hugely successful in Sweden and, eventually, in Europe as well. In short order it was made into an internationally acclaimed 2008 film by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson which has since become one of the top cult films of the last 10 years. Ultimately, its English language rights were bought by Hammer films, a British studio famous for its horror output. This US-based remake by Matt Reeves (best known for his film, Cloverfield) called "Let Me In" has just been released. After seeing both films, I can honestly state the recent remake is a slick, cliched imitation of Alfredson's original film which is an elegiac masterpiece about loneliness and addiction (and actually far more frightening than the remake). But what is especially interesting is to see how Lindqvist's trans-related themes, which run strongly throughout the novel, get differently digested (and edited) in the two subsequent films.

Håkan's 'food order procurement' spoiled
by an inquisitive poodle

Time for a job eval
In the book, much is made between the pedophillic relationship between seemingly young girl Eli and her "father" Håkan. It turns out she met Håkan when he was a homeless alcoholic, took care of him and paid him on one condition... that he murder people for her so she can have a steady supply of blood to drink. In the novel, Håkan is sexually obsessed with her and says he would gladly kill for her for free if she would love him. By the time he's an older man, Eli cares about him but is frustrated by the dysfunctional human he's become. He's now only good for one thing and he even manages to have problems finding her a proper food supply.

A girl with a history
Along the way, in all three versions, Eli and Oskar haltingly become close—two outsiders who've found each other. At one point (also in all three versions) they hug and she shyly asks, "would you still like me if I weren't a girl?" When I saw original film, "Let the Right One In," it was at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. No one reacted to this line. When I saw the remake "Let Me In" it was at a multiplex in a suburb south of San Francisco and the same line elicited big laughs. In the book we find out (by way of a tender fable Eli tells someone she's about to suck dry of their blood) that she was the youngest, very beautiful boy in a poor family. Because the boy was small and not very useful for farmwork, he was given up to a nearby lord (who presumably made him into a vampire).

Eli naked in bed with Oskar. He wonders:
"will you be my girlfirend?"

In the book, Eli continues to ask Oskar for his feelings about someone who isn't the gender she seems. She ultimately tells him her name was formerly Elias. He obsesses more over the fact she used to have a boy's name than the fact that he's now figured out she's a vampire who has been responsible for many local deaths.

Show and tell
At one point in the novel, when the two are alone, she willingly reveals her naked body to the overwhelmed Oskar. She is described as basically having no genitalia, having a scrawny body with long limbs and zero curves. He asks what happened to her penis. She makes an awkward joke that she left it on the subway! Oskar is confused but laughs along with her. In a 2008 interview, author Lindqvist stated, "Eli is supposed to be a boy, a castrated boy." After Oskar sees her genitals, he worries he's a "fag" which he is called by the bullies at school and now, because he's in love with a boy, it's come true.

Oskar is initially shocked by what he sees

In the Alfredson film, Oskar instead sneaks a peek at Eli while she's naked (she's just showered off a large quantity of blood) and sees a quick glimpse of what seems to be the crude results of a penectomy/castration but not typical female genitalia (and granted, the rather insular Oskar probably doesn't know what typical female genitals look like). The Swedish film has Eli played by the haunting amateur child actress Lina Leandersson, who has a powerful presence and pathos in this role. She looks like pre-teen version of Joan Jett who's been living in filth and malnourishment for the past year (or is it 220 years?).

Curiously, the director, at the author's instigation, had the young actresses' voice dubbed at the last minute because they thought it was too high and wanted it to sound lower and more androgynous. The final effect is that of someone who's seemingly sexless both from her addiction (blood) and her inability to properly take care of herself. There is never any mention by Oskar about his concern for being moony over a "boy" but given rapturous responses I've heard from moviegoers of all genders, it's hard to see the film and not find yourself with a crush (or, at least, extremely maternal/paternal) towards Eli/Leandersson.

Oskar and neglected "child" Eli

Put the body back in the casket
In the new Reeves version, they just show a reaction shot of Owen's (the American version of Oskar's) face when he looks at Abby (the American name for Eli) naked in the bathroom and, basically, don't show anything. From the audiences' lack of reaction, I'm assuming they had no idea why he had a look of surprise on his face. Later in the film, Owen asks Abby, "If you're not a girl what are you?" She replies, "I'm not really anything." The actress playing Abby (professional child actress Chloe Moretz who made a big splash in the film Kick Ass) looks far more female and more girly in this version of the story. She's still without curves and, at certain points, I swear they padded her shoulders to make her look more male-bodied. But Moretz is a pretty girl who, with the right makeup, might look like a standard issue teen model on the cover of 17 Magazine. Needless to say, it pretty much ruins the impact of the character and buries the entire gender thread from the novel.

Owen listens to one man berating another man

In a somewhat bizarre scene from the English language remake, Owen, listening through his shared bedroom wall into Abby's apartment, can hear muffled sounds of Abby berating "The Father" (as Håkan is called in the English version) using a voice which sounds like an adult male. This scene isn't in the book, so it's an invention of the director's... obviously as a way of bringing out some sense of Abby really being an adult male. It happens twice in the film and then isn't repeated while we can actually see her. It seems to have an undercurrent of the "born a man" line which trans women after get tossed at them.

Abby, the new cleaned up version of Eli

So much of the Eli's outsider status comes not just from her addictive need to drink human blood, but because she's basically a trans girl (or perhaps a forced eunuch like David Reimer?) who is incredibly insecure about how people see her and what she offers the world as a girl—mirroring Oskar/Owen's owns insecurities about his masculinity. In the Alfredson film which, although it edits down this thread from the book, I still think it would be impossible for a trans person to see this version and not have it profoundly resonate with them. In the English film version, so much of this powerful character revelation has been whitewashed.

English remake: Girlier really-a-male vampire

Bland acceptability at any cost
It's so frustrating that, especially American filmmakers, don't believe honest trans storylines and characters will go down well. In another recent film, The Extra Man (starring Kevin Kline and based on the novel by Jonathan Ames... the subject of an upcoming post) two very major scenes in the book involving the main character's sexual relationship with trans women are hacked to pieces in the film version and mostly replaced by his crush on a very minor, uninteresting cis-woman who's played in the film by Katie Holmes (to terrible reviews). As it was, perhaps the most interesting part of the book was homogenized into a story line no one cared about. And this accomplished what... trans erasure? The film quickly sank into poor reviews and oblivion. Likewise, perhaps the most intriguing thread in the Lindqvist novel, effectively digested (yet toned down) in the Swedish film, is only to be obliterated in the flat, generic English remake (the vampire even wears uber cliche white contact lenses when she's thirsty... scaaaary).

Put the body back in the casket
And so it goes. Evidently, from the uncomfortable laughs in the audience at the remake version, much of our culture is so insecure about the "tranny tricked a man" trope that they're willing to strip a work of one of its most intriguing aspects only to replace it with dreary subplots and special effects which have been (excuse the pun) done to death rather than feel any gender discomfort. While reading commentary about the various versions, I came across a serious discussion on an Internet forum about the "Crying Game" scene from Let the Right One In and asking "would they have it in the English version?" None of the people responding to the thread said they thought it would make it into the new film. Yes, the very idea of a lonely boy tenderly falling in love with some flavor of trans girl is worse than people having their jugulars torn open by a vampire.

Top: the Swedish version of Oskar and Eli
Bottom: the actors who played Abby and Owen

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Send this one out for Lou and Rachel: the trans girlfriend turned mystery meme

One of many portraits of Lou and Rachel
taken by famous Brit photographer
Mick Rock.

In the pantheon of iconic male rock stars, a goodly number have been linked with trans women. David Bowie had a lengthy relationship with Amanda Lear, as did Bryan Ferry, as did Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. Bowie was also involved with Dutch/German trans woman Romy Haag during his extended time in Berlin. Michael Hutchence of INXS hooked up with April Ashley (who has also written how Elvis Presley hit on her). But of all these connections to trans women, none is more shrouded in curiosity and hearsay than Lou Reed's relationship to his trans girlfriend Rachel Humphreys. With the recent passing of Lou on 10/26/13, a renewed interest in his life and songs has brought up a reexamination of the period in the mid-70s. Reed and Rachel were together for over 3 years when he also did some of his most controversial and beautiful work.

Some have characterized this time period in his life as Reed being 'lost' and especially messed up on drugs—curious, since he was already using heroin when he was in the Velvet Underground and admitted he was awake on amphetamines for several days when he met Rachel in a club in downtown Manhattan in 1974.
It was in a late night club in Greenwich Village. I’d been up for days as usual and everything was at that super-real, glowing stage. I walked in there and there was this amazing person, this incredible head, kind of vibrating out of it all. Rachel was wearing this amazing make-up and dress and was obviously in a different world to anyone else in the place. Eventually I spoke and she came home with me. 
I rapped for hours and hours, while Rachel just sat there looking at me saying nothing. At the time I was living with a girl, a crazy blonde lady and I kind of wanted us all 3 to live together but somehow it was too heavy for her. Rachel just stayed on and the girl moved out. Rachel was completely disinterested in who I was and what I did. Nothing could impress her. He’d hardly heard my music and didn’t like it all that much when he did.  
Rachel knows how to do it for me. No one else ever did before. Rachel’s something else.

The place where they met was Club 82 (bordering the Bowery and East Village). A basement venue long famous for trans and gender variant performers but, by the 70s had morphed into an underground rock club which was an early hangout for the Max's Kansas City/Mercer Arts Center glitter crowd including the New York Dolls, Jobriath, pre-Blondie Debbie Harry and Jayne County (as well as Bowie, Bryan Ferry and John Lennon). Lou claimed Rachel didn't know who he was and could care less about his music... but she was clearly leading him on and confided to photographer Eileen Polk :

"I've met Lou Reed! I've made it! I knew this was gonna happen to me and this is it and I'm in love!" She was ecstatic. Eventually Lou would just sit in the corner and Rachel would keep everyone away from him. Rachel said, "he's mine" but she didn't threaten anybody. I felt like everybody wanted something good to happen for her, and when it did everyone [at Club 82] was happy. (from "Please Kill Me" a history of Punk by Eddie McNeil)

They were a passionate couple until late '77 early '78. Perhaps it should come as no surprise Reed was attracted to trans-fem people. In 1969, he'd already written the song "Candy Says" on the Velvet's first post-John Cale album (it was sung by Doug Yule, Cale's replacement, and not Reed), "Sister Ray" (later ripped off by Jonathan Richman for his song "Roadrunner"), "Lady Godiva's Operation" (about someone getting SRS) and then followed that in 1972 with his iconic hit ode to gender variance, "Walk on the wild side," which featured lyrics about Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis... all of whom were featured in the recently released Paul Morrissey/Warhol film "Women in Revolt." He was clearly quite smitten with Rachel and remained in constant phone contact with her during his 1975 tours. As described in Bambi Fanzine from 1997 (which had one of the best interviews of Lou):

"In July 1975 his tour was called off in New Zealand as Lou missed Rachel so much. He would spend hours on the phone to her, sleeping at night with the receiver off the hook and the call connected to New York so he could resume his conversation as soon as he awoke." 

Little is known about Rachel's background other than she had been a hairdresser, was popular among other club goers and was from Philadelphia. In stories about Lou where she's mentioned (and there were quite a few because the 70s were, in some ways, less squeamish about androgyny and gender variance than we are now), she was constantly referred to as 'half-mexican' (a 'half-Mexican transvestite'). I can only think the Mexican aspect of it was a form of racism in an attempt to make her sound more sleazy and marginalized. Raquel Welch, Lynda Carter, Martin Sheen and Ted Williams were all half-Mexican, well known in the 70s, yet weren't inevitably referred to as such.

She was also frequently referred to as a transvestite (a sensitive few called her a transsexual), a label which was then often applied as a blanket term to anyone male assigned who presented as female (Candy Darling was usually referred to as such even though she was obviously a transsexual). It's pretty clear from any mentions of her after 1975 she lived as a woman 24/7, was on hormones (she's described by several people as having breasts) and, although she dressed androgynously in some photos (as was common among rock fans of both genders in mid-70s lower Manhattan), in photos from 1977 including their 3 year anniversary pic by famous Brit rock photographer Jill Furmanovsky, Rachel is clearly presenting female, and always wearing women's tops and shoes (and sometimes dresses). She also had almost waist length hair worn in a female style (unlike the typical hippie dude 'parted-down the middle tied low in back' style of the mid-70s), plucked her eyebrows and shaved her legs. Even gay men who did drag or genderfuck didn't present that way.

Rachel appeared on stage with Lou at a number
of performances in Europe.

During this era, when Reed was coming off his biggest commercial success (although not necessarily his best work, the big hit record "Sally Can't Dance"), he came out with what's doubtless his most controversial album, a double record set called "Metal Machine Music." It's an indulgent reaction against rock stardom which consisted of zero 'songs' and 4 sides of industrial noise, and feedback which was played at different speeds and processed though guitar effects. It was greatly influenced by avant-guard German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and former Velvet Underground member, John Cale's mentor, LaMonte Young. Universally reviled at the time, many critics and writers thought of it as a joke (although it ultimately had a big impact on industrial bands like Throbbing Gristle and Nine-Inch Nails and other groups like Sonic Youth). It was given as proof how Reed had lost his mind and gone off the deep end of drugs and transvestites. Yet right after that, Lou wrote what is perhaps his most romantic opus in 1975—the album "Coney Island Baby." A testament to how much his relationship with Rachel meant to him. It was much softer than the rest of his output, more sentimental and nostalgic (in its references to doo wop and old R and B hits) and songs like "Nobody's Business" were direct retorts to media which continued to pry into the relationship and to characterize it as a bizarre aberration.

And how did people in the 'scene' and media treat Rachel? It wasn't pretty. For example:

Mary Harron (photographer and director of "i shot Andy Warhol' who bizarrely cast Stephen Dorff as Candy Darling??!!)
 "We all went off to the Locale... Lou Reed ordered a cheeseburger. Lou was with Rachel, who was the first transvestite I'd ever met. Very beautiful but frightening. But I mean, definitely a guy: Rachel had stubble. I sat next to Rachel, and asked her what her name was—and he said Rachel." I thought, right. That kind of shut me up for a bit. I think I actually sort of tried to make conversation with him, but Rachel wasn't talkative."
Not talkative to you... gosh Mary, I wonder why? Eileen Polk (known for her photos of punk musicians):
I started going to the 82 Club real early on and made friends with all the drag queens. That's where I met Rachel, Lou Reed's girlfriend. Rachel was a drag queen [she actually never did onstage drag] who was very feminine and really nice. The drag queens liked me, but Rachel was especially nice. One night she was really drunk and told me she could never be a guy because she had such a small dick. Then she showed it to me and it was really small. I said, "That's okay, Rachel. That's okay." And she said, "Well, it better be, because I make a better woman than I do a man."
One of the rudest reactions towards Rachel was from rock writer/critic Lester Bangs who worshipped Lou Reed, but also attempted to attract attention from Reed by being incredibly rude to him. In an article for Creem (a then famous alternative national rock magazine), Lester Bangs' description of Rachel was so vicious that Reed never forgave his friend and staunchest supporter. Bangs described Rachel with stunning insensitivity:
“[L]ong dark hair, bearded, tits, grotesque, abject… like something that might have grovellingly scampered in when Lou opened the door to get milk or papers in the morning.” “If the album Berlin was melted down and reshaped in human form, it would be this creature.” [Berlin was one of Reed's darkest albums]
Reed never forgave Bangs for this attack on his girlfriend. When Reed's sometime guitarist, Robert Quine later informed Reed how Lester Bangs had OD'd [at the age of 33]:
Lou said, "That's too bad about your friend." But then he launches into a forty-five minute attack on Lester.
He mentioned the article in Creem when Lester describes Rachel [Reed's transsexual lover]. He says, "Do you understand, Quine--this is a person I was close to. And he is calling her a creature and ‘thing.'"
[Quine defended Bangs] Lester was under the impression that Reed had her on his arm precisely because she was a creature. And Reed made her fair game by writing songs about her.
In other words, that Quine felt Bangs couldn't conceive of how Reed could really be in love with a woman like Rachel except as a kind of prop of sleaze and rebellion. Quine felt Reed was being extremely unfair about what Bangs wrote. [btw, Quine himself OD'd in 2004]

Some people were (a little) more sensitive towards her. Andy Warhol wrote in his diary in 1976:
Lou Reed called and that was the drama of the day. He said Rachel had gotten kicked in the balls and was bleeding from the mouth and he wanted the name of a doctor. Lou's doctor had looked at Rachel and said that it was nothing, that it would stop [the bleeding?] but Lou wanted another doctor to check. Lou called back and said he got Keith Richard's doctor to come over. I told him he should take her to the hospital. I was calling Rachel 'she' because she's always in drag but then Lou calls him 'he.'
Musician and sometime producer Steve Katz (Reed's Rock and Roll Animal and Sally Can't Dance) said, "Imagine a woman in a man's body getting by as a juvenile delinquent. The whole thing about 'was Lou gay or was he straight—Rachel was gorgeous for any sex. Straight men were hitting on her all the time."

Lou and Rachel at their anniversary
party in London not long before
they broke up.Photo by Jill Furmanovsky

With Lou Reed's passing in 2013, there seemed to be renewed interest in this period of his life. It's known how after he broke up with Rachel and, especially after becoming involved with performance artist Laurie Anderson, Reed seemed to skip over this prior period of his life, not really wanting to talk about Rachel (okay, most guys don't want to talk about their ex-girlfriends when they're involved with someone else), downplaying his bi-ness and queer-ness and looking a lot more cleaned, presentable and focusing on eastern religion and Tai Chi. He and Laurie Anderson seemed to have a happy marriage although, let's face it, it's a lot easier to do that when you're not dealing with issues of addiction and even mental illness. You can't blame someone who had gone through long periods of substance abuse for wanting to clean up their act, it's just a pity that included erasing one of his key relationships from his life (and likely losing some of his creative energy in the process).

As for Rachel, I admit I've tried to find out what happened to her for the last several years with absolutely no results. I've seen some people theorize she died of AIDS. I assume this was because they couldn't conceive how a half-Mexican trans woman would survive the 70s and must have been prostituting herself and shooting up (while Rachel is mentioned as being drunk with Reed several times, I've seen no evidence she was an IV drug user nor seen any specific mention of her doing sex work). In the following decades when Reed was a punk and alternative rock icon, and both of those music genres sadly developed along strongly dude-centric lines, someone like Rachel became an embarrassment which tarnished the manly reputation of their hero. And without his trans obsessions, Lou became a healthier, distinguished (AKA boring) gentleman of the *cough-cough* 'mainstream rock community.'

ADDENDUM: The New York Times published an article about AIDS patients who ended up in "a potter's field" (a place for unclaimed bodies). They specifically mention Rachel as having been buried there in 1990.  A sad ending to her story.
The text from the NY Times article:

"Another notable person buried on Hart Island is Rachel Humphreys, who in the mid-1970s was Lou Reed’s transgender partner and the inspiration for the music and artwork on Mr. Reed’s 1976 album “Coney Island Baby.” Ms. Humphreys, whose birth name was XXXXXX, died in 1990 at St Clare’s Hospital, which specialized in treating AIDS patients at the time, though Ms. Humphreys’ official cause of death is unknown.  (I have crossed out the deadnaming of Rachel)

And you, you really are a queen
oh, such a queen, such a queen

And I know, 'cause I made the same scene
    ~That Crazy Feeling on Coney Island Baby

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What's the T... a documentary trip back to 1987.

"What's the T" is a new 65-minute documentary by filmmaker Cecilio Asuncion. It profiles 5 trans women, 4 of whom live in the San Francisco Bay Area while one is in New York City. They seem to all be in their 20s (except for one who's more mid-late 30s), are all very femme presenting and, in some way, have connections to drag or ballroom performance. The promotion materials for the film read as follows: "These women represent normality and abnormality, seamlessly, in their daily efforts to achieve a balance of feminine and masculine;" and
"This film is not about middle-aged husbands wrangling strained marriages for the sake of identity. It's not about teenagers looking for identity or toddlers embraced by progressive families. And it's not about loners seeking medical solace. The ladies of What’s the T? are reality and self-assurance in identity."
Got that? In other words, it's about a specific piece of the trans community which doesn't make it more representative of that community than any of the other genres of trans documentary from which it seems to be attempting to distance itself. Perhaps most importantly, it's a trans documentary made, written and produced by gay cis men. 

That the documentary is made by non-trans gay or lesbian filmmakers shouldn't come as a surprise. There are, in fact, only a handful of trans-themed documentaries actually made by people in the trans community. Most commonly, films about trans people are made by cis gay or lesbian filmmakers, presumably because of their assumed overlaps and connections to the trans community and its stories. As with every documentary, the subject matter is seen through the filmmaker and producer's lens: why did they choose this set of people to interview and what's the point they want to get across? The good news, in this case, is that the film focuses on several Asian trans women. There have been documentaries and films which have focused on Asian trans women's lives both in the US and overseas, but it's always good to see more. Asuncion, as a Filipino gay man himself, clearly has a specific viewpoint as to what part of the trans spectrum and community he's interested in. If they aren't pretty, aren't interested in a certain amount of glitz, makeup and clothes and don't frequently say the word "tranny"... he's not interested.

The 5 women: Cassandra Cass, Rakash Armani, Nya Ampon, Vi Le, Mia tu Mutch, discuss their lives in relatively short snippets. There really aren't any long, thematic arcs in the film or showing them over prolonged periods of their lives or challenges. Several are dealing with school (including one who is pre med... a subject I'd have like to have seen expanded), one is a practical nurse (but we never see her doing her job) and performs in ballroom competitions in New York, one is a SF Youth Commissioner (but only gives a very cursory glance at what that job entails and why she was selected) and one who's a professional drag artist.

Perhaps my biggest issue is with the inclusion of Cassandra Cass in this documentary. Cass is a raunchy, huge boobed, campy and entertaining interview... but she's hardly a new face or a new story. She's been in several other documentaries and "reality" tv shows (including some which, IMO, where highly insulting and objectifying views of the trans community). She lives in a gorgeous apartment in San Francisco's North Beach with million dollar views and talks about how her small dogs are her children (I found it offensive how she said most trans people don't have children... that's a huge piece of misinformation which does a disservice to the many trans parents in our community). The filmmaker interviews Harry Denton, a rather conservative, old school gay theme event promoter, who's Cassandra's boss for an overpriced Sunday drag show she does at one of SFs touristy hotels. In truth, by virtue of age and where she is in life, I couldn't help wondering why she was even interviewed in this documentary other than maybe the filmmaker knew her.

The other four seem at a little more similar place in their lives. Nya dances at AsiaSF, a trans-themed restaurant which features trans women gyrating on a runway for a mostly straight audience (kind of the west coast version of NYC's Lucky Cheng's). It's basically meant for people who want to see sexy trans women (in a safe environment) or for bachelorette parties. Get the picture? And surprise, it's also a gay-owned business which insists on showing trans women a certain way for cis consumption. Vi Le, the academic, also does some drag on the side, but we really don't get a terrible detailed picture of her life. If the director wanted a good-feeling trans film, what would be better than seeing more about her journey and life in school? Mia, a well-known young trans activist in San Francisco, doesn't discuss much from her life (including her being attacked in SF's Mission District). She goes to City Hall and gives us a very brief tour of the Youth Commission office and we meet her trans man boyfriend, but they really don't give much of a picture of what being in a two-trans-person relationship is like for them. Rakash is a pretty, pre-hrt transgender woman who does nursing and ballroom realness competitions concurrently. She is interviewed as she's putting on her makeup... and puts it on, and puts it on and puts it on. As readers of this blog might have noticed, it's called "Skip the Makeup" because the tired cliche of the 'makeup shot' has been used in virtually every filmic representation of trans women as some sort of a quick symbol they're aspiring to (surface) womanhood. I can honestly report "What's the T" features a higher percentage of makeup shots than any other trans film I've seen—the myriad makeup shots easily take up 1/5th of the entire film.

I kept wondering why Asuncion felt as if doing surface portrayals of 5 trans women in a relative short feature documentary would be better than profiling, say, 3 of them in more detail? Moreover, because there's relatively little footage of any one woman in many different facets of her life, other than a trans women's dinner at Nya's place (which looked staged for the film) we don't get a more full or in depth picture of their lives and journeys. Instead, it mostly stays on the gay-male filtered Trans 101 level... glamor and drag edition circa 1987. At one point Asuncion asks people who attended a $50 a plate drag show (featuring Cassandra) what transgender means? There is no further explanation of why he's asking them, or following up with their answers or fascination about drag shows or trans lives. Again, if you want to do a film about cis people's assumptions and attitudes about transgender people, make that film and don't waste 5 precious minutes of your film talking to people who, honestly, had nothing to do with the subject matter.

Worst of all is a serious technical glitch involving the final 1/3 of the film. The sound syncing goes south (I was unclear if it was a sync problem or poorly done overdubbing) and the audience is treated to 20 minutes of mismatched soundtrack and moving lips. This was not the first showing of the film nor was it some kind of preview/pre- post-production print. To see that level of amateurishness (as well as several bouts of beginner level videography with embarrassing zooming in and out) made me question why a film festival would think this is a film ready to be shown and charged money for? I can't imagine for a second that an LGBT/Q film festival would show a film like this about cis gay men or lesbians... why is that okay when it comes to trans portrayals?

"What's the T" isn't an especially well done nor contemporary documentary. Looking at it, you would think most trans women spend their off time doing their makeup or involving themselves in drag. The director said he wanted to do a positive portrayal of trans women's lives which isn't focused on hardships or challenges of being trans but what he's given us is a very old school version of what trans lives are like and there's certainly a place for that. If he saw a shortage of Asian LGBT portrayals, he would have done better to focus on those because 5 portraits in 65 not-terribly-well edited minutes isn't a lot of time to tell their stories. Nor did he show them in work or at school (or in their intimate relationships), something which would have broken through stereotypes. "What's the T" isn't a total waste of time only because some of the women still have moving things to say, share their sense of fun with us and, let's face it, it's not hard to drum up a few minutes of poignancy in any film about trans women's lives (Cassandra tells us about missing her dead brother). Sad to say, I didn't think "What's the T" really explained the question contained in its title nor did the subject justice. And, believe it or not, just because a documentary is about the trans community, doesn't mean it actually adds anything to the discussion.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Melting Away: Dana Domestic

Melting Away is a new film from Israel and the first one in that country to center on the issues of trans people. Director Doron Eran has said the film was partly inspired by the 2009 shootings at an LGBT youth center where he read how media coverage of the event outed a number of the victims and their parents subsequently refused to visit them in the hospital. There's little doubt the film is also greatly inspired by Dana International (Sharon Cohen), the Israeli trans woman pop star who became a controversial icon in that country after she won the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest. Melting Away is not a political film (nor does it make any kind of mention of Israeli/Palestinian issues) and is a small scale family drama which has more in common with a warm and uplifting LifeTime movie but, within its limits, it makes some moving (if highly optimistic) statements about how people's attitudes can evolve.

Assaf "before"

The film centers around the Shapira family: prickly, domineering dad Schlomo (Limor Goldstein), wife Galia (Ami Weinberg) and 'son' Assaf (played by non-trans actress/model Hen Yanni). The film starts off with the parents discovering their son's secret stash of women's clothes. Schlomo locks Assaf out of the house and, in a heartbreaking scene, ignores the son's pleas to be let back in during a rain storm. We only fleetingly see Hen Yanni portraying a young man—a good thing because she really more resembles a transmasculine person with her pretty, angular and androgynous face—but the audience gets the general idea. As usual in these films, Galia has mixed feelings about what they've done but goes along with her tyrant husband. Four years pass with no sign of Assaf, and the dad is now cancer-ridden and pretty much biding time in a hospice. Galia goes to a gruff private detective to locate their son (they still have the address of their son's gay bud). The private eye locates Assaf almost immediately at a drag club in Tel Aviv and, in a total nod to "The Crying Game" sees the now transitioned Anna sing an elegiac version of the Irish ballad "Danny Boy" (the lyrics reference a young man who is lost but there is someone dying out there missing and loving them... an interesting song choice). Anna initially says she has no interest in seeing the parents who kicked her out, cancer or no.

We next see the hospital with a bedridden Schlomo meeting his new private care nurse sent over by his insurance company... and surprise, surprise, it's Anna in a nurse's outfit and her own father doesn't recognize her! Yes, it's a somewhat absurd conceit of the film how someone who's only been on hormones for 3-4 years is altered enough to not be recognized by their own family... there are some later revelations concerning this which won't be mentioned because they're spoilers. Anna quickly becomes a big favorite of Schlomo's because she's a cute young woman who's doting on him and takes his guff. Eventually we meet Schlomo's younger brother, Itzak, an alpha male just returned from working in London who also doesn't recognize Anna as the person who was formerly his nephew and, almost immediately, starts shamelessly hitting on her. A subplot of the film is Anna's gay friend Shimi and his boyfriend who, rather bizarrely, live under the nose of Shimi's mom who is still in big denial he's gay or that the two are lovers. I have to say I've known parents who were in equal denial about their queer or trans children so, even though it's partly played for humor, it doesn't seem far-fetched.

Galia and a dying Schlomo

Without giving away too many spoilers, Nurse Anna is eventually recognized for her former identity by various family members, each having widely varying reactions to her current self ranging from violence, nastiness to complete acceptance. The best part of the film is its performers, who are uniformly excellent. Goldstein and Weinberg as the parents are completely believable and funny when warranted and hugely vulnerable and moving in turns. The actor playing Itzak captures the many sides of someone who can be a total sexist jerk one moment and a person who, after living abroad, finds his mind and level of acceptance is more sophisticated than he even thought.

Nurse Anna and her patient

The central figure of the film, played by Hen Yanni, is a hard character to pull off. She's clearly hurt by her parents but still desperately needs their love and acceptance.  She's both passive but also gutsy (or oblivious?) to try and pull off the nurse charade. To its credit, the film make zero attempt to discuss her transition or many other aspects of her life as a woman (with the exception of one possible reference she's done sex work to keep body and soul together). It could either seem hugely naive or extremely enlightened... but it's about time we had more post-transition films about trans people. Ms. Yanni does a good job with the character especially considering this is her first starring role. Maybe she doesn't bring all the depth to it a trans performer could, but she gets into the heart of the person and the woman she's playing and her unique, bony-faced beauty and stature work well for Anna. Nor does she ever give a false or cliched moment... which is saying a lot considering the hokey "trans" performances by many higher profile cis American actors.

Melting Away isn't an earth shattering film about gender or trans politics, but as a story of a family coming to grips with a child they don't understand, denial, abandonment, death and dying, and their own stubbornness, it provides many beautiful moments, no cheap laughs or lazy imagining of trans lives. I have little doubt there will be those around the world who accuse the film of "pinkwashing" life in Israel to eliminate more pressing issues of land, class, religion and separatism. For myself, I didn't feel as if the film erased those issues, but was just concerning itself with a very specific family dealing with a specific set of issues. If you can get past some of the unlikelihood of its central plot, it's one of the better trans-themed films I've seen in the past several years.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Valentine Road: the King murder's final stand

Marta Cunningham's new documentary Valentine Road takes an up close examination of the February 14, 2008 murder of the 15-year old from Ventura County, Larry King, by a 14-year old schoolmate of King named Brandon McInerney. McInerney shot King twice at near point blank range while they were in a computer class together and King died 2 days later. The case became a national cause celebre on the subject of school violence, especially against gay students and was featured on the cover of Newsweek Magazine and in virtually every mainstream media outlet. The 2011 trial of McInerny ended in a controversial hung jury but eventually, the accused ended up in prison on a plea bargain. The documentary, co-produced by HBO, proved a big success at the Sundance Film Festival, and will be showing on HBO sometime in October, 2013.

Valentine Road starts by going back and forth between the particulars of the two main figures of the film. Larry King, a petite, feminine gender-variant child who was given up for adoption, raised by unsupportive adoptive parents, and was living at a foster facility for teens at the time of the murder. King started crossdressing at school several years before their death, including heels, girl's jeans, jewelry and makeup and endured daily taunts and bullying from other students. Furthermore, several close female friends of King explain how their friend confided they wanted to be called "Letitia" and was identifying with a more transgender identity than gay boy.

McInerney was raised by an abusive dad and drug-user mom and the film, unlike some news accounts, doesn't pull punches in showing his violent side, including close circuit unprovoked attacks of other students at school and his increasing obsession with Nazi skinhead imagery. While Cunningham is moved by McInerney's background and clearly has issues with him being tried as an adult, she never backs off from his ultimate culpability or tries to soft pedal the racism and homophobia ingrained in Brandon, his girlfriend and much of the community they lived in.

At the same time, the film deftly interviews several teachers at the school, one of whom (who was also in the computer lab at the time of the attack) was clearly an ally/confidant of King's. She controversially bestowed the teen with a green dress, which was brought up in the trial as a supposed way she encouraged unacceptable behavior in King. Another of King's teachers spouts ignorant views about queer kids for the camera and pretty much dumps culpability for the murder on the victim. What makes the documentary quite remarkable is the degree of access Cunningham received from those in Ventura County both sympathetic to King's plight at the school and those who seem positively callous as to what the bullied teen experienced. In an outrageous scene, after the trial a number of jurors (middle class, white women all) gather together with Cunningham for a coffee klatsch to guilelessly discuss why they voted to acquit McInerny. As Cunningham explained in the 'Q&A,' most of the persons she interviewed didn't take her seriously since she was a straight woman of color, seemed to have no agenda in making the film and came off as a bit of a soccer mom herself. Several of these sequences with apologists for McInerny go beyond cringe-worthy into profound exposes of ingrained racism, and cultural homo/trans phobia. Balanced with this is the story of King's teacher (the one who gave the dress) who was, in effect, blamed and railroaded by the school district and is working at Starbucks as the documentary is being filmed.

What I truly appreciated about the film is how it firmly rebuts the trope that "two young men's lives were ruined (equally?) by this event." (something I've heard often repeated in media and online) In a stinging final scene about his fate, Brandon is seen celebrating his high school graduation in prison, wearing a cap and gown, warmly surrounded by his family and prison officials as he's bestowed his diploma. He will be paroled sometime in his mid-late 30s. Cunningham ends the film with a shot of King's small grave marker and explained she wanted a clear contrast between the two teens' fates who, while they both underwent difficult childhoods, one has a possible life ahead of him while the other's is irrefutably over. Moreover, the director explained she had no interest in pursuing interviews with McInerny since King was unable to speak for themselves. Good for her for at least fighting the urge to inexorably link the murderer and the victim of his hate crime, a pitfall many such documentaries fall into.

As powerful as Valentine Road is, there are still a few shortcomings which, viewing the film as a trans person, made me uneasy. She never really goes too deeply into how King was made into an iconic gay matyr even though it's pretty clear relatively early in the film that Letitia King was a trans girl and not a gay boy. She does a good job showing some of the warped logic used by the defense team to basically paint King as a 'sexual predator and bully' but doesn't really discuss how one of the defense attorneys was an out lesbian (and said so in court) while she was presenting a defense which hinged heavily on gay/trans panic, which is illegal in California. I also felt with all the talking heads in the film, at no point was any perspective given about what trans teens actually experience in school or how difficult it is to even identify as trans. And ultimately, both in the credits and 'Q&A,' Cunningham continues to use male pronouns and the first name Larry for Letitia King. When I questioned her about this at the showing, she replied "it might have to do with the fact he was dressed as a boy when he was murdered."It's a curious explanation since, in cases like the Jorge Steven Lopez murder in Puerto Rico (another murdered "gay teen"), media coverage ignored how Lopez was presenting as a woman at the time of their murder and still categorized it as the murder of a gay boy. I sometimes felt Ms. Cunningham didn't have a lot of understanding or perspective about trans teens or how their issues are frequently misrepresented as gay issues.

Its insistence in misgendering apart, Valentine Road is a powerful, disturbing documentary all the more amazing it's made by a first time director who doesn't come from a filmmaking background.  Once shown on HBO it will no doubt become the definitive statement on this trial and, for the most part, we're lucky it's so cogent and thoughtful and resists falls into clichés. Valentine Road is skillful at balancing personal tragedy with explorations of messed up social norms, bigotry and, especially, how so many project their own issues onto a horrific situation like this. And speaking of that, what concerns me at this juncture is how her gravestone (and the documentary) still read "Lawrence King," which means a trans girl is going to be further misgendered in perpetuity. It's hard for a non-trans person to understand how that is a fate equal to death for many trans people, and a legacy no trans teen should have to imagine.

Monday, May 20, 2013

WIldness: gentrification as an art installation

Wildness is a recent documentary which premiered at LA Outfest last May, showed at last year's Frameline Festival and South by Southwest but is only now playing the US LGBT festival circuit in a broader way. It's directed by queer artist Wu Tsang, (who uses male pronouns on his website) and written by Tsang and Roya Rastegar. It concerns an old school Latino gay bar, The Silver Platter, on the edge of LA's MacArthur Park (where someone left the cake out in the rain) but, in recent decades, has specifically become a gathering place for trans Latinas. It's a complex film (or really, several interwoven films) together with a meta aspect of self-critique as befits Tsang, who is primarily a performance and installation fine artist with some impressive credentials.

Hipster Wildness promoters (Tsang is second from left)

The film starts out with a highly self-conscious narration of the bar speaking for itself in the voice of one of the trans women who frequent it. The narration talks of the bar's history, the women who find their relaxation away from being marginalized, waxes poetic about the neighborhood, culture, queerness, etc. At no point does Wildness or its credits explain who wrote this narration (I'm assuming Tsang and Rastegar) and, for what's ostensibly a documentary, quite a bit of commentary is snuck into  this aspect of the film. It segues into a fairly traditional documentary portrait of "look at the gender variance... isn't it fascinating" in much the same way Diane Arbus or many others have previously done. We meet the bar's owners (an older latino man, his gay son, the son's lover and the older man's cis daughter, who is essentially the manager).  A telling moment is when the owners, other than daughter, say they're kind of uncomfortable the bar became increasingly frequented by trans women and how they liked it better when masculine gay men were their customers. The trans women from Mexico and elsewhere in Central America are shown doing lip syncing, (of course, putting on their makeup) sharing laughter and letting their hair down. Most are skewed older, except for a 20-year old trans woman who is one of the main camera subjects.

But 10 minutes into the film, it takes a sharp left turn and Wu Tsang is introduced as the film's central figure. The queer, androgynous Tsang moves from Chicago to LA, is looking for community and decides the Silver Platter is it. It's from here that the film veers heavily into New Journalism. As I mentioned in a prior post, New Journalism was pioneered in the 60s by Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Truman Capote and others as a genre of non-fiction with a stylized and fictional coating to it where the author and their search for answers becomes one of the main characters and core of the work. It breaks through a false assumption of documentary impartiality but can also make a documentary subject so personal and shot through the filter of the artist/writer/filmmaker that it starts to resemble fiction (which can also make it highly entertaining). In fairly short order, Tsang gloms onto the club and convinces the owners (who, I'm sure saw Tsang as a young, very educated queer hipster with connections to white club kid dollars) to give him and three of his cis friends Tuesdays at the Silver Platter for an ongoing party night which they name "Wildness." It quickly becomes an upscale queer/performance art scene celebre but with zero connection to the trans women who inhabit the club the other six nights. The other three people who run the club with Tsang seem to lack any identification with the seedy trans space they're pretty much cannibalizing for its coolness quotient. Tsang keeps focusing on the idea of "safe space" for these trans women with little thought that what he's morphing the club into is something they can neither afford or really ever likely to belong to.

Within a few months, the club becomes fabulously successful but also a harbinger of gentrification to come. Eventually, the LA Weekly wants to do a story on it (pretty much the uber-hipsters' death knoll that's sure to flood it with college kids, celebrity scene tourists and suburbanites). In a painful to watch section, gay columnist/club slug James St. James drones on mindlessly about the "trannies" at the club and you can palpably hear the queer clubbers and their wannabe allies leering at the "Mexican transvestites... har, har." The article in the LA Weekly not surprisingly turns out to be a nasty piece of transphobic objectification droning on and on about trannies, he-shes and shemales. Tsang is outraged, waging an internet campaign against its social activist author, Sam Slovick and finally forces Slovick to apologize to him. The film never really asks what Tsang's part was in this debacle nor clarify if Slovick and the paper ever really apologized to the women at the club or its ownership (which, while they didn't like the tone of the story, seemed to be glowing in the piles of money rolling in from "Wildness" nights).

Along the way, Tsang gets involved in some of the internal politics of the club and naively questions whether their hyper-successful evening of artsy hipness is throwing the equilibrium of the space off-kilter (duh... something which the trans women clearly express in a guarded way even if they're curious about the interlopers). Ultimately, flush with success, the Wildness team rent a storefront next door and try to open a legal clinic for trans women. It's a good gesture, but I couldn't help thinking they were doing some kind of penance for potentially stealing this space from the women... one of the few for trans immigrants in LA. I won't tell the outcome of the story but, needless to say, the Silver Platter is still there, hugely more expensive than it used to be, and it you look on Yelp, it's all younger white kids talking about the transsexuals and "transvestites" and the now pricy drinks. Yup, it's pretty much become an 'Africa USA' kind of "watch the trannies" safari (there are other spaces like this, such as Lucky Changs in NYC and AsiaSF in San Francisco... overwhelmingly for cis well heeled patrons to ogle at trans women of color).  I suspect this film was ultimately good publicity for The Silver Platter after all. As so often happens with gentrification, the earlier outsiders/developers who move into the minority space make initial attempts to "honor" the history of the neighborhood before the drink prices shoot up to 4 dollar signs.

The film shines in its capturing the environment of the neighborhood, the moment in time (2008), the sounds (it has a great salsa and electronica soundtrack) and, when it allows the women to speak for themselves, can be quite moving. It also has a certain level of self-examination about Wildness, its cultural and trans appropriation... but never probes too deeply or bothers to ask what queerness really means for these women and if there really is an LGBTQ community which unites because of Wildness (which the film tries to limply suggest). This makes it perfect for LGBT film festivals which love to believe such sentiments as they show films about gender variant people of color yet overwhelmingly cater to cis, white, middle-class patrons who very likely know few trans people much less trans latinas).

I walked away from seeing "Wildness" with WILDLY mixed feelings about Tsang. He tries to posit himself as "one of The Silver Platter girls," but considering he doesn't speak Spanish and his work has been seen at the Tate, Whitney and umpteen Biennials, I'm skeptical about him blending in with impoverished trans women from El Salvador who are in the US without papers. He clearly loves the women and cares for their well being but the film never really delves into what they think of him, his continually filming them (the film suggests a fair number are afraid of the INS finding them), his gender presentation much less his friends (who sound nothing if not condescending towards the women).

Wildness, the documentary, ultimately churned up a lot of feelings for me about race, class, gentrification, trans vs. queer vs. gay and even what gets to be defined "art" and what isn't. Personally, I loved seeing the performances by the trans women and drag queens and found myself cringing at the 25-years-on Pyramid Club ripoff fare offered up by Wildness and its craaazy, 2008-and-still-punky habitues. What I valued most from the film was the questions and contradictions I felt it (inadvertently?) posed while most of the narration and ongoing soliloquies by Tsang I found self-consciously earnest and motivated by his inner fear of  coming off as an appropriative artist jerk. In the end, he seems like a nice, sincere queer person but really, androgynous or not, yet another artist explaining the 'transgenders' he got to know. I kept feeling this story would have been better told by another filmmaker who could have given real, honest perspective about the cultural and class tectonic jolts suggested in Wildness without being the film's pivot point.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Laurence Longways: Xavier Dolan in transland

Montreal wunderkind director/actor, Xavier Dolan, who had a cult/festival hit at the age of 20 with his initial feature-length film, "Je Tue ma mere" (I killed my mother) is back 3 years later with "Laurence Anyways" an exploration on becoming an outsider and its impact on relationships. Dolan centers the film on 30s-ish academic/poet Laurence and his passionate relationship with Fred(erique), his bipolar filmmaker girlfriend. Starting sometime in the late 80s, their tempestuous, sexy and fun-loving relationship goes on a roller coaster ride when  Laurence, seemingly out of nowhere (to Fred), starts to ID as a woman. Fred, boho as she is, still wants to be in a relationship with a man and is blindsided by the news. Thus begins a 2 hour and 48 minute explosion of alternating music video imagery to 80s/90s tunes and neo-French nouvelle vague intensity as the couple and their families have one argument in spat out Qubecoise French after another.

Xavier Dolan:
Hipper, queerer and more accomplished than thou.

Why Dolan set the piece 20+ years ago is never entirely clear. It may be he wished the subject of being trans to be more transgressive and forbidden in that pre-Internet time, which is curious because it's not as if it's really much better accepted today and, in many ways, he doesn't really seem to understand the context of trans in the 1980s terribly well. Or maybe he just liked the music from that era (think "Fade to Grey" by Visage and you get the picture) and decided to frame his story in that era. Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) goes through a period where he's distracted while teaching class  and sits in a graveyard while listening to his Walkman. Fred (Suzanne Clement) who, prior to the disclosure, seemed hyper and over the top in love with Laurence. This is shown by several (interminable?) scenes of their having fun together, involving Fred spontaneously bursting into snippets of goofy operatic soprano and getting it on together in a carwash. Initially, she is overwhelmed by her boyfriend's gender admission and leaves 'him.' Upon spending a few days with her bourgeois and gauche family, she longs for Laurence and returns. She buys Laurence (in French the name is used for men and women) her first wig and pushes her to present as female while teaching at school. Yes, Laurence is Julia Serano's classic archetype of 'pathetic trans woman' (as opposed to the sexy deceiver trans woman) and appears in one ghastly outfit after another forever trapped in a world of people smirking at her and looking hopelessly out of place.

Clueless, pathetic trans woman, Laurence.

And this is where the film goes kind of haywire, especially for its era. Laurence's first day teaching "en femme" is more of a genderfuck than something anyone trans from that era would do. She wears a too tight women's suit, heels and short skirt and makeup, but makes zero attempt to do anything with her hair... especially bizarre because pre-transition Laurence obsesses over her female student's hair in class. Laurence views the day as "revolutionary." As someone who's been through this experience (and was also a teacher... albeit of children not young adults) I can tell you that political expressions of power are the last thing someone going through this would feel and this struck me as a clear outsider's projection onto Laurence's situation. An objectification of what that achievement/travail would mean.

Laurence's first day at school ensemble... am I passing yet?

And indeed, for all the queer-positive charge of the film, it actually falls back on a lot of old school transsexual film tropes—transition being about selecting clothes (incompetently) and putting on teenage slut makeup. She has one mention of self-loathing at not being able to look in a large mirror. There is virtually no other aspect shown to her transition other than a 1 second reference to being on hormones and having electrolysis (which is usually a huge ordeal for most trans women). No real exploration of her feelings about her body, her facial hair, her head hair, her nose, shoulders, hands, much less penis. And, because a male actor is playing the role, Laurence's looks (other than rather ratty looking extensions) never really progress or evolve past this first day at work. Moreover, Poupaud shows little evolution of Laurence in terms of expressed gender through the decade covered in the film. He shows her awareness as an outsider, but little to nothing about the PTSD or profound experiences one frequently has in transition. Poupaud the guy at the beginning of the film is practically interchangeable with Poupaud playing someone who's been on hormones, gone through many hours of painful electrolysis, and lived as a women (much less a trans woman) for a decade. While he's a clearly a good actor, he seems somewhat miscast for the role and unsure in which direction to take it.

Warning: Possible Spoilers
Eventually, Laurence is laid off by his school administrator while his gay male co-worker, and blousey cis woman teacher buddies remains silent. In another curiously chosen scene, Laurence, just after the firing, is hanging out at a clearly blue collar men's bar (pretty much the last place someone in her situation would go). A Quebecois redneck starts to hassle her, they get in a fight and she wanders the streets dazed with bloodied face. She calls up her sophisticated French mom (played by Natalie Baye, French acting icon from the 60s-70s and favorite of Truffaut) who wants to help "her son" but is afraid of her endlessly-tv-watching hubby's intolerance. At the same time, Fred loses a key job opportunity with a US film company because of her choice of partner and the relationship goes down a dark hole. Fred is disgusted by the lack of sex and being seen as an outsider and stuck with a freak in a relationship, goes dolled up to a big film industry party by herself and hooks up with a slick businessman with whom she starts an affair.

Where are we going with this?

Laurence is found by "The Roses" a queer-dream family of old ladies, queens and young gender variant boychick who live in what looks like a victorian ballroom. It was almost impossible to tell if they were supposed to be trans women (which is where I felt Dolan was kind of going with it) or that this was an older generation of queer/faghag alliance. In any event, you'll either think they're a hoot, a total tired cliche from another era or both. There should be a big, flashing neon sign... Laurence finds her queerness... vous comprenez? Without giving too much more of the plot away, Fred moves to the burbs, gets married, has a kid while Laurence writes her first acclaimed book of poetry and paints a brick pink on Fred's upscale house to remind her of "them." There are several more get-togethers and breakups for the next 90 minutes.

The Roses: everything's a giggle and a swish

The film is, IMO, just too long for it's own good. One 'could-be-cut' scene after another slows and dulls the film. And the visuals, while often beautiful, have a lot of commercial work/music video stamp about them: backlit snow/flower petals/particles floating in the air, a butterfly coming out of Laurence's mouth (butterfly, get the symbolism, get it?), bleak landscapes and a huge cascade of water enveloping the suburbanized Fred as she reads her ex-lovers poetry. It's very pretty but you've seen it before in many car ads. And I'm not even mentioning an oddly chosen scene where guy-in-a-dress Laurence meets a trans man (played by yet another cis male actor) who passes perfectly, has a hot girlfriend and lives in Laurence's dream destination (an isolated Island off the coast of Newfoundland) and recreationally uses opium to numb his boredom.

A pink brick... je me souviens

This isn't to say the film doesn't have it's powerful moments. Best of all is a scene in a working class coffee shop during brunch. An old bag waitress starts making entitled, offensive remarks about Laurence until Fred literally explodes into a amazing soliloquy of outrage which goes on several minutes. You can feel the entire world pushed back during her fiery declaration and it's a truly revolutionary decree of "I'm mad as hell" and a sign of Clement and Dolan's talent. Some of the Rose Family sequences, campy/hokey though the family is, seem right out of "Shortbus" in the queer sisterhood category and the truism, "when your family rejects you, find a new family." There are some interesting exchanges between Laurence (10 years later) and a publishing company pr woman who is interviewing her for her new book. They have a cis/trans dance of entitlement and defensiveness which felt familiar to me in some of my interactions with certain cis women of my own age. Then there is the performance of Suzanne Clement, who is abosolutely brilliant at finding Fred's many shades of crazy and obsession. She carries and, in some ways, takes over the film and often seems to overpower her fellow actors especially Poupaud (which could be an insightful show of character, but sometimes feels as if Fred, not Laurence, is the title character).

10 year on, Laurence is still wearing powder blue
suits specially tailored to make her shoulders look bigger

Is Laurence Anyways (recently aided in finding distribution by Gus Van Sant) a classic of trans/queer cinema? Well, it sure has its moments and images (maybe too many?) It's either a film which has a rather old-fashioned, naive view of what being trans is like or really just doesn't care that much and is using being trans as a chosen cataclysmic event to throw the relationship into chaos and issue revolutionary queer decrees. (**Warning: amateur therapist theory coming**) I kept feeling Dolan views Laurence and Fred as two sides of himself: the outsider queer poet and the tempestuous insane filmmaker, meh. For a 23-year old who's produced three full-length feature films, he has a lot to be proud of, so I can accept some heavy-handed symbolism. It's audacious filmmaking if not always thoughtful about its title character. And I suspect many queer young people Dolan's age will love this film's passion and it will provide their generation's view of what it meant to be trans (for white academics... back in the 80s-90s... anyways). The film, which won a Queer Palme d'Or at Cannes 2012 will be featured at many LGBT film fests in the coming year. You've either been forewarned or tantalized by the prospect.