Body Talk: Conversations on Transgender Cinema with Caden Gardner: Part Two

Body Talk is an ongoing series of conversations between Caden Gardner and I about Transgender Cinema as we prepare to write a book on the subject. Part two is on the 1982 Robert Altman film, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

CADEN GARDNER: Robert Altman’s 1982 film Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (an adaptation of a short-lived play by Ed Graczyk that Altman directed and most of the film’s original cast were in) was always intriguing to me as a title before I even saw it. I remember seeing a preview of it on the old version of AMC, when they were competing with Turner Classic Movies as a classic movie channel. I knew it was about a group of friends who loved James Dean and that Cher was in it. Those were the things I knew before Robert Altman, Karen Black, or Sandy Dennis officially being in my orbit as a cinephile. I was a James Dean fan first but never got around to watching it. That was before DVR and Tivo, but it’s a title (likely a play off of William Inge’s play Come Back Little Sheba) that stuck in my mind. Willow, how did you come across this film? For me, personally, even once I realize Altman directed this film, I still wasn’t urgent to check this out before say, McCabe & Mrs. Miller or The Long Goodbye.
Willow Maclay: I came to cinema through the internet for the most part by cutting my teeth on various film forums. The first of these was the now defunct Rotten Tomatoes message board. Over time that place became toxic and the majority of the members on that website who posted in social chat threads moved on to splinter forums of splinter forums, but throughout my entire time there I’ve been in contact with a handful of people for more than a decade now who have influenced my taste in movies to one degree or another. One of those people was film critic, Justine Smith. I immediately gravitated towards her taste in movies, because it felt parallel to my own interests as a cinephile. When I was younger I learned a lot about movies simply by looking up to people who I felt knew more than me, and over the years I’ve followed Justine’s writing, which I’ve always respected. I bring her up, because she’s vital in bringing the film to my attention. She wrote an essay for Sound on Sight (now popoptiq) that originally drew my attention to the film. It was the words “contextually sympathetic portrayal of a transgender character” that caught my eye. I had to watch this movie, because at the time I didn’t think I had seen much in the way of positive representations of transgender characters in cinema. It was Justine who initially brought the film to my attention through her writing and luckily I like the film and the character a lot more than she did.

CG:  I too caught wind of the fact that Karen Black was portraying a transgender character before actually watching the film. By then I had acclimated myself into more works by Robert Altman, the major ones he had in the 1970s such as Nashville, 3 Women, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. I had been curious about how the character would be treated and also guarded. A director that was emerging as a favorite of mine was approaching this subject matter and character that has and still is under-represented. I haven’t watched Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons for reasons that amount to: I love Fassbinder, and I could see where he could be attracted to the subject matter of a trans woman. but I am not rushing to seek it out. I am skeptical, and afraid of feeling like I will not take to it, and that he may misfired on the subject matter and character. But Five & Dime was somewhat of an improvement for not portraying a trans woman as a man in drag, but instead having Black a cisgender woman play the role of a post-op trans woman.I had heard mixed word of the characterizations of Black, herself becoming a favorite of mine as I watched her turns in Five Easy Pieces and Nashville, being “exaggerated” but also heard that she played the character of Joanne with dignity. But it amounted to me finally seeing it and I was knocked out. Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is an ensemble film that wears its play roots proudly in staging and conceit, with the past and the then present, 1955 and 1975, in conversation with one another among a group of friends who have changed, have not changed, are facing disappointment, denial of reality, and trauma in different forms. It’s a film very much about womanhood and while there are a lot of knots in the conceit around Joanne that I do want to pick apart, I do want to say, I think the fact the film treats her journey and story with the same seriousness and being right alongside the stories of these other women for its time was impressive and refreshing.

 WM: Come Back to the Five and Dime also wasn’t my first Robert Altman film. Not even close. I watched Nashville, 3 Women, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and even lesser movies like Thieves Like Us and Popeye before checking out 5 and Dime. If I had heard about Karen Black playing a trans woman earlier I likely would have gotten around to watching the film sooner, but I think coming to the movie later actually helped me appreciate it more, because I knew what to expect from a Robert Altman film. You’re absolutely right about the film wearing its stage play leanings right on its sleeve. When I watched the movie for the first time I was completely blown away by the image of Sandy Dennis’ character Mona reminiscing about old times while holding an old photograph of the Jimmy Dean Disciples and behind her through a mirror the moment that picture was taken plays out in real time. As if she’s bringing this memory to life. It’s a moment, and an image that still makes me cry to this day if I’m watching the movie. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and a pure cinematic conjuring of what I think this movie is ultimately going for in its winding narrative(s) and theater background.

I think what makes your final point so strong, and this movie in general, especially with regards to its place in something resembling a transgender canon, is that there is an equality in her struggles. She isn’t a sideshow or a sidekick narrative. It isn’t there for shock value or anything repulsive (which is fucking incredible for 1982). She’s there, because she was always a part of this sorority, and the film understands that while she has changed, and her relationship to these people has morphed into something different, there is still an essential familial connection that brings these people together despite their differences. To put it very bluntly she’s just one of the girls. Another woman in a narrative comprised entirely of them with the lone exception being the metaphysical ghost of James Dean.

CG: I definitely would have gotten to this movie earlier had I known about Karen Black’s character too. I keep thinking back to those old AMC promos that were promoting it in the early 2000s and thinking how none of it that, something that takes over the second-half of the film, is teased nor indicated. I remember looking at older reviews of the film and found the overly dismissive Vincent Canby review (that’s redundant) and he called Joanne’s ‘secret’ to be ‘the film’s biggest antclimax’. I’d like to know what the hell a climax is for Vincent Canby, but perhaps what surprised him was because the character of Joanne is not made out to be a joke or tragic figure or, as other transgender roles have been treated, a misunderstood martyr.

This is not to say Joanne is not misunderstood. The film does present her before being out as a trans woman and before transitioning as Joe (Mark Patton), who takes a lot of abuse from men and women for behavior that were these little steps Joanne made towards who she ultimately got to live her life as in full. In the flashbacks of Joe, known as the lone boy of the group at the time and wears nothing but overalls in the Texas heat- with the exception of The Disciples of James Dean red windbreaker that all the club members wear- cross-dressing is mentioned, name-calling that amount to referring to Joe as a woman are mentioned, and the fact Joe is in a group with Sandy Dennis’ Mona and Cher’s Sissy as a trio who perform songs of The McGuire Sisters, an all girl trio. Patton, best known as the lead in the cult classic and homoerotic A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, is not just simply a placeholder for Karen Black’s character to emerge from a shell. His body language and movements for the character of Joe are in conversation with Karen Black’s Joanne. Joe is not just a sissy but somebody with a lot of heart, pent up frustration, and hurt over being attacked and ostracized, and that does turn violent. Joe has had enough but not without trying to reach out to Mona, somebody who was protective of Joe (she says something to the effect that if God does not believe in Joe then she cannot believe in God). But her heart is with James Dean, who in the flashbacks is announced to be filming Giant in a town nearby the film’s setting of McCarthy, Texas and Mona desperately wants to be an extra on the film. 

WM:  You bring up Mark Patton and I want to talk about him a little bit. I got to know the actor first through A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, which is also a performance of anxieties surrounding a latent queerness the character is hiding within, and I was really struck by that performance. On top of being a great final girl, with a scream that could rip the paint off of a wall, he’s really great at conveying this deeply traumatic interior self due to real world circumstances of something he can’t really hide. As an actor, I think he’s brilliant in these two roles and I think they’re within the same ballpark and are strong for some of the same reasons. In A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 his anxieties surrounding his own queerness manifest itself through the body horror of becoming Freddy Krueger. Which is a brilliant play on internalized homophobia and the trauma of growing up queer. I’m not sure if the film has been reclaimed as a horror classic yet, but I think we’re definitely getting there and so much of that has to do with Mark Patton. It’s a great performance. 

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)

 CG: To return back to the subject of martyrdom, James Dean is the ultimate martyr as a Christ-like figure for the story. There’s a cutout of him from Giant, not actually in the film, but in the promo stills, (a film that opened when Dean was already dead from a car accident) that hangs in the Five & Dime like Christ on a cross. Altman two decades earlier did The James Dean Story, an experimental documentary that dealt with James Dean’s instant fame and posthumous legend that surrounded him. That documentary, in fact, opens with the solemn film premiere of Giant where fans of Dean were gathered to see him one last time on-screen. With that, Altman was the perfect director to tap into this specific piece of fanaticism and cult figure/folk hero of James Dean that’s present in this play and film. Sandy Dennis’ Mona is teasingly referred to as Mona Magdalene by Cher’s Sissy for the fact that Sandy Dennis claimed to have mothered James Dean’s son, Jimmy Dean (who we never see). Her level of worship is something of a pathology that I do liken to a Tennessee Williams heroine and it is slowly revealed that she is in denial about Jimmy Dean’s parentage and quite possibly has denied her son, a son she claims to be mentally retarded, any agency as Sissy declares that the boy is normal and Mona mistreats him because the truth is, her Jimmy Dean is not the son of James Dean. 

This revelation in other hands would probably be the most grotesque thing, but with Dennis’ the stuttering and bipolarity of the character feels real, sad, and tragic. Karen Black gives one of the great turns in all of film, but Dennis is just as good. Cher as Sissy is a strong-willed woman but has a lot of insecurities and disappointments that happen to her body and in her relationship with a lost lover. Like most of Cher’s on-screen roles, she’s tough and good-humored, but Cher always makes sure to slowly open up her vulnerabilities in a natural way. It arguably goes against the more theatrical and melodramatic arcs and performances of Dennis and Black, but for me it all works. There are so many shots of Cher just laying on a table absorbing the drama and tension that pervade the Five & Dime store, and it feels just right and true. Altman’s always been a great director of actresses and it makes sense that even though the play with this cast failed on stage that he believed in it enough to film them. These close-ups of Black, Dennis, and Cher just stick in my mind so much.

WM: I think you’re absolutely right here about the casting. There’s no one they could have hired who would have been better in these roles than Karen Black, Cher and Sandy Dennis. 

I’m struck by Mark Patton’s turn in this film as well, as the earliest incarnation of Joanne. She is stricken with this very powerful sense of femininity that the character is unsure of engaging with on the same level as her friends. She knows that there’s this real struggle within herself to accommodate the belief systems of small town Bible Belt Texas with how she’s feeling herself. She’s the town queer and everyone knows it. Cis people know before we do sometimes. When I was in middle school I went by the name Chris, because my middle name used to be Christopher, and I was called Christine all the time and bullied endlessly for my own femininity. I think of the Laura Jane Grace lyric “they hold their breath not to catch your sick” on Transgender Dysphoria Blues and Patton is exemplary at locking into that mindset. I think he fundamentally understands that as an LGBT person himself. Joe’s really comfortable around other women, because the character Patton’s playing is one, but there’s also the weight of societal impositions holding Joe back, because it’s blatantly disgusting in the eyes of just about everybody in the 1950s to have been gay or transgender. Growing up in similar circumstances I can see a lot of myself in the characterization, but I don’t think it’s only great because of relatability. It’s wonderful, because there’s depth to what Patton is doing as an actor as it relates to his surroundings and the mindset of this young woman whose body and life are in chaos. I get that, and I think it’s a really potent idea with depth relating to transgender cinema specifically. 

You bring up the fact that Patton and Karen are working together in unison. That’s a tremendous point, because in rewatching the film recently I got the sense that there was no disconnect between the two women I was seeing portrayed on screen. The body language is the same, the hesitation is identical and the shadow cast by Texas, time and trauma hangs over both in this very specific way that they both understand. Karen’s characterization is really beaten down by the years, but Patton’s is too. The thing about trans people is they’re born adults for better or worse stripped of a childhood in some cases, but more often than not aware of a problem within their body at a young age that works as a cross that no child should ever have to bear. I think both actors understand this somehow, because it’s very visible in the body language of their performances. Who would have thought a movie could have 2 good cisgender performances of transgender characters??? That’s almost unheard of. 

 CG: I remember trying to research the choices behind the casting of Joe and Joanne in the play and in the film. In the supplements of the film’s American BluRay, the writer Ed Graczyk is interviewed. He does not really go into why he wrote on a trans character but noted the casting process specified Joe was to be played by a man and Joanne would be played by a woman, with Altman and Graczyk both saying no to actress Sally Kellerman’s suggestion that she, up for the role of Joanne, could play both roles (this often is the norm for cis men in playing transwomen but later in 1986, there was that time Vanessa Redgrave in that TV movie on trans tennis player Renne Richards called Second Serve played Richards prior to transitioning and after). And, unfortunately, that is where my research dried up. The play and film did not really get enough exposure in its time to really hear more in-depth from both Patton and Black about their choices, any research Altman and Graczyk did, or if there was any assistance from trans women in the work. 

I was always really struck with the understanding that both Patton and Black had about using their body and sense of alienation to really capture the trans experience, often posited as being defined by the transition. To transition medically is costly and is not available to a lot of trans people immediately. I myself am very lucky to have a job that won’t fire me for being trans and health insurance that helps pay for some but not all of my transition, but I had to save for years to be able to afford to do this. That’s not without sacrifice and feeling that in a lot of situations and opportunities that I had to make decisions out of survival and caution, holding back. Joanne is able to transition because she lucked out on her mother’s death giving her an inheritance of insurance money. It’s something that helped her medically transition and also saved her life, leave town and get away from people who only saw her as an object of scorn. 

WM: I couldn’t really find anything either of these actors said about their roles in this film either or what went into their preparation or even why they wanted to play a transgender character. One unfortunate side effect of how slow general acceptance of transgender people has been is that Karen Black died before we were ever really a topic of discussion in the mainstream media. It’s a shame, because I think now is the time to reclaim 5 and Dime as a masterpiece and specifically her performance, but she won’t be here to see that happen. It’s really depressing. 

CG:  Let’s get into Joanne and Karen Black. What I love about Karen Black’s entrance in this film is her walking back into the Five & Dime, in a way, testing if she can be recognized. How stealth she is to this group, Mona later on projecting the image of Joe on Joanne. I think you asked me once about going stealth as far as simply presenting as male without my trans status known. I never answered you directly but it’s a complicated situation for me where, due to my circumstances of finances and certain securities that I do have, I have to stay where I am and that situation usually results in people who have known me for years see me going through ‘the change’. I’ve never gone through the level of trauma that Joanne has and know how lucky I am, but when I was beginning my transition and the coming out process there was this impulse that I had in grappling with, that if shit hits the fan, should I leave and could I leave my surroundings? That is often a trans narrative, and one I was privileged enough to work around, but has its continuous hiccups. I have friends and family who are slippery on pronouns and name, just like Joanne’s friends are with her in this film. We give those folks leeway because it’s not out of malice, and they are people we love and care about. Joanne is the same, she gives her friends some rope and is able to forgive, with the exceptions of a snicker of ‘Sister or Mister?’ query by Sissy where she gives a very controlled response of, ‘Sister!’ and when Kathy Bates’ Stella Mae makes invasive questions about whether or not, Joanne’s half-man/half-woman like she saw on TV (editor’s note: gotta love trans rep on tv!), Joanne, again, so cool and collected, states plainly, ‘Just tell them I’m a freak. They know what that is.’

 WM: I think the thing I love the most about Karen Black’s performance, and I do think it’s the best ever given by a cisgender person playing a transgender role, is that she fundamentally understands the mindset of her character as it relates to her situation and her body. You’re absolutely right that she’s testing just how far she can go in terms of being “stealth”. Stealth for those of you who don’t know is a term we use when a person can function in society and be perceived as cisgender 100% of the time and for the most part rarely has to deal with the burdens of being transgender. I love her entrance, because she’s trampling through her old stomping ground and they can’t quite put their finger on why this woman feels familiar, but they immediately recognize her as a woman, and that’s very telling. They gender her correctly 100% of the time, and It only becomes more complicated in their eyes when she outs herself to them. I want to note that I love the way she does this with a wry little “surprise!”. This is hypothetically exactly the way I would out myself to old high school friends at a reunion if I were given the chance. That felt real as hell to me and definitely connected to transness in a way that few movies ever do about the subject. With her body I think she conveys these very specific notes and intricacies of our experiences. Notice the way she’s completely covered up despite having a body to die for. That’s left over internalized transphobia and body hatred. She only uses her body as a tool when she’s absolutely comfortable in the situation, and she knows that she can do that, but otherwise her flesh is guarded by cloth. I always like to note the scene where she’s posing by the jukebox and performing a kind of seductive burlesque as she tells a story about running into her abuser years later. The way she sashays her hips and runs her hands up her body is the flipside of this where she feels she has total control over her skin. That’s rare for a trans person, but not completely out of the question, but there’s a kind of unprecedented joy in knowing she has this power over herself she previously didn’t have at all. I love that. I’ve felt that myself after coming into my body. 

I’m fortunate in the sense that I could go stealth, like Joanne, if I wanted to, and for all intents and purposes I am in day to day life. I’m perceived as a cisgender woman without fail, but I’m similar to Joanne in the sense that I got the fuck out of dodge and left my hometown in the dust. I also experienced a lot of really unfortunate instances of abuse by people back home so leaving was necessary. The Canadian healthcare system gave me easy, affordable access to hormones at an early age and I am grateful for the benefits I have up north, but I do recognize most folks do not have this option. I’m always curious about how my old hometown would feel walking in my own shoes with my perception now. Could I walk in front of family or friends and they have no idea who I am? Could I exist as a woman in a space I otherwise couldn’t earlier in my life? Could I have control where I couldn’t earlier in life? Joanne testing the waters of how she’s perceived where she grew up is the same thing. It’s a really interesting thought process and totally tied into how we’re perceived and what kinds of bodies are considered acceptable by society (being seen as cis gives us an extreme amount or privilege) and that in and of itself is extremely rare in cinema, especially about transgender people oddly enough. The question of transgender cinema, if you’re going to make a film about us, has to be centered around bodies. It’s the entire basis of why we’re different in the first place. That’s where transgender cinema has to go through, both in the perception of transgender people and the interiority of living with a transgender body.

 CG: The, “surprise!” line is so amazing. Even just the first image of her looking into the window of the Five & Dime, with her sunglasses at the end of her nose to peek in is just a striking image. I joke it’s a, ‘Surprise, bitch!’ gesture but her purpose to be there is for the 20th anniversary re-congregation of The Disciples of James Dean, her one sense of community that she had and what we are led to guess from her expositions about life after McCarthy, Texas, her only real sense of community, for better and worse. 

Going back to hearing original feedback of Black’s performance as Joanne being “exaggerated”, I get a little annoyed. I agree with you that for me she is in complete control of her body. She’s drunk at points in the film, so of course she’ll act a little looser but you feel this is a woman with poise, confidence, and some incredible inner-strength in coming back with a purpose in being accepted again by her tribe without compromise. And she is welcomed back. They love her. They have verbal spats and spars, but it does feel that Joanne is being entrapped by her own nostalgia. We know and can feel the pain and hurt that reverberates as she walks around the place and finds herself at odds with Mona’s mania, Juanita’s prejudices, and Sissy’s blind eye when talking about past events that involved her. You can argue she is hostile with Juanita in calling her dead husband a drunk, but her reasons and hurt are not unfounded. She is not without empathy towards the other women, she cries for Mona in realizing how delusional she is after witnessing that long-winded monologue of meeting James Dean and conceiving her son and she does cry again for Sissy’s own painful personal body revelations. Joanne is not the only story at play, yet she is central and intertwined equally with these other women because her story is a woman’s story. 

 CG cont. :I was thinking about this film a lot in relation to ever returning to reunions for college, my fifth reunion passed last year. While I have a few friends who know, a lot of people, people who I have admittedly let go of as I was experiencing this because it felt too complicated to let too many people in on, do not know. If I do ever return for a reunion, I expect I am going to think about Joanne. Hell, there are restaurants that I have returned to since transitioning and I keep wondering if I’ll be recognized or not, and I will think, ‘What would Joanne do?’ Joanne is just a character that will always be on my mind. One thing that is key for me in Black’s performance and in Altman’s directorial choices was the sense of the gaze being put on her. She can see Mona looking at her and seeing only Joe, and frankly, it gives her a headache. Ultimately that gaze and literal projection is no longer there. Joanne can look in the mirror, an effect that Altman uses to literally look into the past, and always see Joanne while others around her are still catching up. 

 This play and film gets some grief in feeling like a rehash of Tennessee Williams and William Inge (playwrights I adore, so of course I was going to love the shit out of this), characters full of trauma, mania, reflecting of mistakes, and the sense of ‘passing through’ melodramas that are Midwest and Southern regionally specific. I think perhaps a large part of the cis audience can miss what we find in this. Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean manages to treat the perceptions characters have on trans people and how a trans person reacts without feeling persecuted or bending to compromise honestly and realistically. Performance is key, of course, with Karen Black and Mark Patton serving Joanne and Joe so well as characters that are not two characters but of one whole person. They portray the rare trans character on-screen that, as a trans man, I strongly responded to in ways where so many other films with trans characters have failed. I also just want to say, I am sad Karen Black couldn’t live to see this movie get more attention. There’s a part of me that always wished I could thank her for this performance. I did notice Five & Dime was playing in Los Angeles during an Altman retrospective and I still feel like this film is ripe for discovery to so many people. It is a film that has many merits beyond the character of Joanne, but for me that character is the heart of the film and does deserve more attention for striking a rare and impressive sweet spot (and again, this was somehow in 1982).

WM:  The film is absolutely about more than Joanne, but you’re right that she’s the focal point. I think everything hinges upon her return and reveal. The entire conversation and mood shifts around her, but the great thing about this movie is that even with Joanne as a centralizing figure where everything kind of runs through her we do get to know all of these other women so fully and intently. It’s a great women’s picture in the aftermath of new hollywood where masculinity kind of cleaved everything else away. I mentioned earlier that the best way to access something resembling successful transgender cinema is to make a film with bodies in mind, but in addition to that I think you need the fully fleshed out writing. A movie won’t be transphobic if the character is written well. I’m a firm believer in that notion and Joanne is absolutely stellar. As are her cisgender sisters, Mona, Sissy, Stella, Edna. All of them really. I think in this movie we fundamentally know all of these women in and out and how they function, and the actors to their credit are so instantly keyed in to these people that it feels like a hangout movie. A tense, oftentimes aggressive hangout movie, but time and unhealed wounds will do that to you. 

Time and memory is what I wanted to bring up next. The film obviously, beautifully, conveys this nostalgic glow for a time of the past where things were maybe a little less complicated, for all but Joanne at least. What I love is that we can feel the passage of time through these characters, and with Altman’s filming techniques here we get this really harrowing sense of what exactly has damaged these people and how they do their best to recover and live through their own struggles. 

 The passage of time is this vital ingredient to transness. Sometimes we focus too much on a before and after, but in that time frame we come into ourselves and become the person we are. It’s like a shroud lifting. The complicated thing about this is that everything beforehand doesn’t just go away, and in this movie that’s reflected through memory and how these characters react to Joanne now considering the memories they have of her in the past. It’s this interesting dynamic where our lives in some respects don’t really start until transition, so there’s this wasted time and regrets of not having a fullness of life. At some point that has to be reconciled with some sort of observed or considered childhood even if it was compromised. I think Joanne accepts her life before she transitioned for what it was, but has regrets that it had to be life she had to live, and she had to leave the only family she ever knew. That’s a nuanced, complicated feeling that’s specific to our struggles and I think Karen Black absolutely nails it. I think this is what she’s referring to when she talks about “regrets” in the movie. Not that she transitioned, but that she was powerless to do anything about her situation beforehand. What do you think? What’s your interpretation of that thorny scene?

 CG: When Joanne arrives in town and is just a stranger to Mona, she states, ‘Time is such a nebulous state to wait for’ to which Mona replies, ‘And patience, they say, is a virtue’. I am firmly in Joanne’s mindset. It can feel like such a haze to be in as far as trans experience. So often we see our stories fragmented as a before and after, that we have been corrected by certain therapies and procedures. But that is simplistic. We still carry parts of our past with us even if those past lives had a dissatisfaction and sense of feeling not whole. When I reached my understanding and was able to confront being trans, I felt like there was a sense of relief, but also a feeling that I am running behind (trans time is totally real) and have a lot of catching up to do in life. Time is such a nebulous state to wait for, and at a certain point you cannot wait, you gotta act and Joanne acts to be who she truly is. 

You are referring to a scene where I believe Sissy asks if she regret transitioning and her response is a quick, ‘Only when I think about it.’ I’m sure there will be some trans people and cis allies who will have alarm bells go off in their brains during that scene, but for me that was a loaded question met with a loaded answer (and also Graczyk is a cis man, so it can be as simply true to just say he fumbled this a little and the rest of the text contradicts it). Joanne gets more and more comfortable being herself and it is clear she is of herself in a way that the many of the other women are not. Sissy has lost a lot and Mona has lost her mind and is possibly abusing and repressing her son. I would say of the trio, Joanne is in the best place. She came back to McCarthy in a goddamn yellow Porsche! But to answer your question directly, I think it is about the fact that what she had to lose and has regrets over that, even if I think Altman and Graczyk acknowledge that there is no way Joanne could have survived another moment in McCarthy. But I think about that last moment Joanne has with Mona, in being romantically rejected and that Mona began insisting the child they conceived together was instead a dead movie star’s child. That is rough and heartbreaking. To have a dead symbol favored over yourself and you were already psychologically struggling. I never experienced anything close to that in my life but I have a lot of regrets of people and opportunities that I have lost along the way because I was internalizing a lot of shame and embarrassment for identifying trans but feeling like I had nobody to turn to, even if the optics of my surroundings would lead people to believe the opposite. I cannot imagine being put into the position of answering people’s questions on my decisions and my gender identity, but people are nosy and curious. And we see Joanne has limits too, but that line about regrets is revealing. Joanne knows this wasn’t an all-curing experience and has complicated feelings. For her to be able to afford this, her mother died. She lost somebody who understood her, or at least a major part of her, and she lost her tribe, because to stay in McCarthy risked its own death sentence for her. So, the power she attains comes at a price, but she had no power prior. Joanne understands this, and seems to be introspective, and in constant meditation over it, another reason why I love her and relate to her.

 WM: I think it’s vital to say that transitioning doesn’t fix everything, and I think that also ties into her line about “regrets”, because I know that the consideration with that line is a concern among some viewers, but I think hearing it within the whole context of the film it becomes more complicated than a simple answer would supply. You have to dig deeper. To transition is to save yourself at all costs, but along the way you’ll lose things as well. In my case I lost my hometown and my entire family. These are not easy things to deal with and it’s positively unfair. Like Joanne I knew that staying meant death for me, and I knew I was going to lose everything except myself. I’m fortunate because I’ve blossomed since then with my body nearly being where I want it to be and various other benefits, but I still carry around the scars of trauma and loss from my childhood. Joanne certainly does too. To me she feels like the most lived in transgender character I’ve ever seen portrayed on screen acted by a cis person OR a trans person. There’s something so pinpoint about her while also giving off this tremendous wellspring of gestures with her body and moments of clarity in her dialogue. I think one of the most beautiful things about this movie is that when she comes back things aren’t easy, and they’ve changed, but by the end of the movie it feels like she’s just one of the girls like it always has been. They don’t know how to talk to her because the language isn’t there, but the spirit is. She’s just one of them, and I find that really touching despite all the hell they go through in this haunted chamber piece of ghosts and memory. I think it’s really telling that even Juanita, who thumps her bible proud, refers to her as “miss” when all is said and done.

It’s this huge reconciliation and ultimately a hopeful moment for Joanne, and there’s not a lot of moments like that in other films about transgender characters where usually we come to the end of a film in a body bag or humiliated for the sake of gaining sympathy from cisgender viewers. It’s not a movie where it’s as simple as saying it’s a nice portrayal, because this is a messy, complicated movie, but it’s also compassionate and with a master like Altman at the helm it’s so finely attuned to detail and people. And that’s all we really want to be in movies is just people. Not a thing or a trope or an idea so you can pat your back for having liberal politics, but a person. A human being.

CG: I love that final interaction with Juanita. We see Joanne reach for Juanita in a small prayer, but rejected (it’s so subtle and Cher is talking during this moment, so your attention veers towards Cher but it happens and it feels so true, honest, and sad all at once). But she gets affirmed from Juanita in being called “Miss” while at the same time, Juanita still not able to extend her hand too far. She is God-fearing woman who once feared Joanne to be a communist and yet when faced with her in the now, she does begrudgingly accept her in her own stubborn way with still some ways to go. Yet, as you mentioned, Joanne is accepted by these women, who have not seen her in 20 years. Mostly because she is more of the fully formed, more vibrant version of the person they had always loved. We as the audience feel that and understand that because of masterful approach in direction and performance. The interpersonal dynamics in this have touches of melodrama and theatricality, tied to its play origins, and yet, for me it does feel lived in. You feel like these characters are carrying regrets and belief systems that have been damaged and adjusted over time while also carrying those same stubborn thoughts that they had in 1955. This film as you noted is a hangout movie with hostilities but they are hostilities that come with people you know and love, and with a trans woman at the center it was a Robert Altman film in the 1980s that had an opening space to see a character that we transgender people can identify with, one that was treated like a real person, and played with understanding and nuance that should not be rare, but with that rarity, I treasure it even more.

For additional reading you can check out Caden’s piece on the film, James Dean and Giant here 

Under the Skin’s Transgender Allegory

Originally posted in 2014 at The Vulgar Cinema

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a vague science fiction picture loaded with images both abstract and very blunt. The content of those images twists around many different ideas, but my reading of this picture is specifically about what it means to be a transgender woman in a society that doesn’t see that as normative behaviour. There is a distinct lack of straightforward representation of Transgender Women in media so we often search for subtext within art, and Under the Skin is packed with themes on Gender Identity. It comes eerily close to evoking a similar tone to those feelings of alienation, dysphoria, and reconciliation that come with being a transgender woman. It all functions through the allegorical storytelling of finding out what it means to be human, but inside of that narrative Glazer stumbled upon what it’s like to be transgender.

The opening scene of Under the Skin is a birth. She’s not a child, but a fully grown individual. In that sense she did not have a childhood. She came into this world as an adult and had to live her life as a young woman. There is no learning experience for Scarlett Johannson’s character (who I am going to call Amy for brevity sake since she is nameless throughout the film) that she can fall back on coming into womanhood. It is a blank slate as evidenced by the pure whiteness of the colour scheme in the scene. She exists alone and she walks into a world where she is both an alien not understanding how to be human and a woman not knowing how to be perceived as every other woman. In the scope of transgender idealogy there is often a feeling of death and rebirth when coming out. For many individuals (myself included) childhood doesn’t go as planned and when you’re finally ready to be yourself and be a woman you walk into a world that you have to relearn. You’re born as an adult much like Amy without enough of the basic knowledge that comes with being given a cisgender girlhood. 

Glazer follows her birth with another scene typical to transgender experiences. Shopping. Amy finds herself in a new world and like many trans women she sees what other women around her are doing and tries to adapt. Glazer punctuates this scene with banal images of women trying on make up and looking at clothes so Amy does the same thing. She turns over a simple pink top and examines lipstick. What’s wonderful about this scene is how he plays it for both it’s mundane-ness and it’s exploration. As trans women the idea of shopping as yourself for the first time for clothing is often times wrought with confusion. I know that I bought the first things that I saw that fit well enough and got in and out as fast as I could, because it was an alien experience. It was an entirely new world. One that I felt like I should have always been a part of, but new and scary nonetheless. It’s a really simplistic scene but captures those feelings of unsureness remarkably well. He closes this moment with Amy putting on lipstick just like all the women she saw in the store. It’s her first learned behaviour in adapting to what society thinks a woman should do, and those same lessons are learned from trans women who do the similar things for safety.

The prospects of dating while trans are quite frankly horrifying. The danger of male violence is around every possible romantic interaction, and while this is also true of cisgender women transgender women are sometimes murdered before and after sex just for not having the right equipment (something I’ll get into later). What is seen as a larger Predator-Prey narrative can be dissolved into a metaphor on failed romantic relationships. The first few men she encounters in this film fall prey to this darkened room and disappear into a void. Oftentimes read as a Black Widow narrative I think it lines up with struggling to find someone who will see you as you see yourself instead. These men are lured by Amy but when sex comes up things turn disastrous. Glazer flips the point of view from Amy to that of the men in these scenes. I think in their mind they do not see Amy as normal in the way they would most women and their “deaths” are moments of panic over sexuality. Amy is left to search for a real romantic interest and these trysts with men leave no lasting impact on her. They just further her otherness and her alienation as she retreats back to her van, her safe place and falls back into introversion. It comes as no real surprise when she makes her first real connection with another person he has also been ostracized by society for having neurofibromatosis. They connect in a way that she cannot with those other men, because they don’t understand her being an outcast. He does, and their short moment together is one of the more tender moments in the film showing great empathy on Glazer’s part for those on the fringes of society due to things they cannot control.

The transgender themes only intensify in the second half of the film when Glazer becomes obsessed with mirrors and body. When Amy finds herself in the home of a man she feels secure with she finally starts to get the feeling that she can comfortably be herself. She’s been in pursuit of some inclination of a connection previously and she seems to have found one here. She also becomes hyper aware of her body and for the first time in the movie it doesn’t feel like something she’s carrying around, but rather a home. There is one scene in particular that is striking and plays differently from every other scene in Under the Skin. Amy stands nude in her room bathed richly in warm colours like red and yellow instead of the normal blacks and washed out greys of Scotland. Her body shines in the presence of this room and she walks slowly to a mirror to examine herself. She twists in front of the mirror and looks at her form and it feels right. The music swells slightly as she turns around and looks at her soft back tracing down into softer curves. Her body has always been pale and ghostly, something of a mystery up until this point where it breaks through like the sun. Amy appears to be on the verge of tears at times in this scene, because she is happy with the way she looks. This plays directly into the feelings many transgender women eventually have with their own bodies. Society is constantly telling us through various outlets that our bodies are disgusting, to be made fun of and not desirable and that builds up into a mammoth wave of self hatred that takes years to undo. There are moments though where everything is peaceful inside of ourselves and things shimmer if only for brief moments and like Amy it feels like the sun is shining through us. These moments may only last for a few minutes, but in a lifetime of haze and grey the sun feels like the best thing in the world, and Glazer taps into that feeling really strongly in that scene.

However, as I mentioned above those moments are often fleeting and can be capsized by moments of dysphoria at any second. Under the Skin’s examination of gender dysphoria becomes especially apparent in the scene when Amy opens herself up to sex with this man, and realizes she cannot do it the way she wants to, because her genitals do not match up with her body. She’s locked out of a pleasure in a way that only transgender women who have dysphoria around genital discomfort experience. The scene is one of Scarlett Johannson’s finest moments in the picture and her discomforted stare out of a window after she realizes she cannot have sex echoes pain. The film would go back to those feelings of alienation and dysphoria as soon as she realizes that as much as she sees herself as a woman she doesn’t check off every category that could make her cisgender. It’s very hard to display dysphoria  well in cinema and it’s rarely been attempted. In my own personal experience it’s like a fog that runs over my entire body and mind and keeps me from being able to do anything. I avoid mirrors and feel internal sense of loss over things I cannot change. I avoid my body as much as I can and wait for the buzzing in the back of my head to calm down long enough so I can return to normal functionality. Glazer taps into some of that in the last third of his movie. Amy has been introverted and withdrawn for the entire film, but it intensifies when she realizes her genitals do not work, and that’s a very transgender specific problem.

The greatest fear I have as a Transgender Woman is being murdered for existing as myself. It seems like every week I read about an assault or a death to a fellow sister just trying to live her truth, and it’s something that’s always in the back of my mind when I go out in public. Will someone see me as an imposter and punish me for trying to be myself? Will they cut short or damage a life that has only really just begun? The final scene of Under the Skin shows what happens to some women who aren’t seen as normative, and it’s gut wrenching to see a real life concern I have reflected in this tale of an alien in human skin. Amy is burned alive at the end of Under the Skin for not appearing to be who she says she is by a man who was going to rape her. She cradles herself in her final moments. She didn’t get to live long and there’s a hollow sadness to this scene. I’ve read about it in news reports all the time about women like me facing the consequences of existing, but I’ve never seen it so bluntly reflected in cinema. I don’t think it’s a cautionary tale or a warning to blend in better, but instead a mirror to horror that should be examined and changed within the world. What makes this even more horrifying is that this isn’t just fantasy for trans women. This ending is a reality. A Trans Woman was burned to death last month in an event that too closely resembles the final moments of this movie.

I’m at once repelled and drawn to Under the Skin, because it so closely resembles a mindset that I live with as a Trans Woman. It’s not a pretty portrait of being trans, but it’s one that I feel is accurate as an allegorical telling of our place in this world for a society that doesn’t want us. It’s repulsive, but stunning in how easily it slips into a truth about living as a woman who is not like everybody else. We don’t all burn, but at any moment we could and it sticks to us like glue every day as we navigate the world as aliens in the eyes of most cisgender individuals, through it all we’ll always be grasping for that moment where we feel the sun inside of us.

Female Filmmaker Project: Saute Ma Ville (Chantal Akerman, 1968)

“Saute Ma Ville is the mirror image of Jeanne Dielman”
Chantal Akerman

In Jeanne Dielman there is a woman who lives her life through rituals. She cooks and cleans every single day. It’s mechanical, perfectly shaped and fills her life with purpose. When there are slight breaks in those tasks the woman of that film begins to fracture. Jeanne Dielman shows a structure to live in. Saute Ma Ville seeks to destroy those structures.

Saute Ma Ville is a phoenix film. It is destroying the old guard to bring life to a new generation. In this case it is the women of the 1960s not wishing to live the types of lives their mothers, aunts and grandmothers were forced to endure. While Jeanne Dielman is a more radical statement by tapping into the mental state of women and delivering a portrait of time and procedure Saute Ma Ville is more like a blunt instrument. The title even infers a simple act of destruction: “Blow Up My Town”. In that respect Chantal Akerman’s first film feels similar to the energy and exuberance of Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, but Akerman’s technique is different and entirely her own, even if Daisies and Saute Ma Ville are sisters in arms.

Chantal Akerman was only 18 when she made this film, but her filmmaking is already developed. Her insistence on framing around tight spaces and entering into the mindset of specific characters is present, and she is adept at capturing poignant moments of singularity- a recurring theme throughout her entire career. The parallelism of her camera to her characters is one of her trademarks and in Saute Ma Ville it strengthens Akerman’s chaotic turn as an implosion. Her camera is energetic which contrasts heavily with the work she would do in New York a few years later (the work her reputation as a difficult filmmaker is built upon), but the excess of movement calls for what she wants to convey. Her character is a blitzkrieg and can never stay still for more than a couple of seconds so the camera follows her. Her voice echoes over the images in a lilting, angelic humming that clashes with the violent nature of the acts she is committing to totems of femininity of the past. The brooms are broken, the lotion is everywhere and the soap is on the floor. Everything is out of place, because it must be to start anew, and Akerman’s zipping camera work personifies her character with resolute confidence.

Chantal Akerman stars in this picture, and in her own words she’s a Charlie Chaplin-esque kind of character whenever she is in her own movies, this one included. Akerman is jovial, singing, a smile forever attached to her face as she moves around the kitchen knocking anything in her path to the floor. This is a death dance, but instead of being somber it is celebratory, because the end of this prison is liberating for Chantal and speaks to a larger theme on the kitchen as a woman’s place. In 1968 Saute Ma Ville could also easily be seen as an oncoming storm, a film that literally represents the dawning of second wave feminism. When Chantal writes in lotion on a mirror with her hands “IT’S ALL OVER” she doesn’t mean her life, she means the past. When she finally kills herself on top of an oven in the final frames of the short she’s destroying the idea that a kitchen is a woman’s place while also damning the kitchen as a place of life lost for those women who toiled away in that confined space. The women Chantal watched growing up, and the women she’d make movies about for the rest of her career.

As a first statement Chantal Akerman came out of the gates swinging with a rough snapshot of feminist thought. She’d never accept those queer or feminist labels that are key to her work, but I believe she was absolutely aware of the type of cinema she was making. She wouldn’t return to this type of work again until 1974 with Je, Tu, Il, Elle and her filmmaking acumen would evolve as she was introduced to experimental cinema, but as it stands Saute Ma Ville is an interesting first chapter for one of the great filmmakers and an introduction to everything Akerman would give the world.

Queerness and Corn: Tom at the Farm (Xavier Dolan, 2014)

The two images above offer a snapshot of the stylistic differences one can come to expect from Xavier Dolan’s attempt at stripping down his aesthetics to suit the text surrounding his queer thriller, Tom at the Farm. In Laurence Anyways and Mommy, Dolan’s style could be more easily associated with fashionable romanticism and blunt metaphorical imagery (especially in the case of Laurence). Tom operates on a different level; replacing the vibrancy of colours with muted browns, and grandiosity substituted for something more altogether minimal.

What is most fascinating about the sudden shift for Dolan is how it plays into how queerness operates on a metropolitan and regional level. In some ways, arriving in this small town, and in making this movie Dolan has closeted what has distinctly made him a remarkable filmmaker to date, and that is perhaps the greatest metaphor he could have offered in visualizing the differences between small town and metropolitan queerness in Canada. It doesn’t completely work, but it’s a fascinating idea. When push comes to shove Dolan can’t help, but overemphasize things. Aspect ratios shift, Tom’s (played by Dolan) hair matching the cornfield exactly as he sprints in a breath-taking sequence, and the karaoke flashback seems more appropriate in his previous films. The closet then, cannot hold Dolan, just like it cannot hold Tom.

From a form perspective Tom is perhaps Dolan’s greatest achievement, because it doesn’t falter nearly as frequently as his previous movies when matched up against the themes he wants to present. Tom is about sheltering queerness, and the danger of the closet. The violence present throughout the movie and threat of more violence is most present when Tom is confronted with his dead lovers (Tom is attending his lovers funeral) brother (Francis) who is doing the best he can to keep his brother’s bisexuality a secret from the other citizens of this small farming town. In a scene later on Tom is talking to a bartender who tells him about a time that Francis ripped another man’s mouth open for even bringing his brothers sexuality up. This is made even more interesting by the sense that Francis is also queer. There’s a real attraction between Tom and Francis that ponders the idea of this picture becoming closer to a persona/swap narrative than a thriller based around the reveal of queerness.

There are moments of softness between the two, like this moment where Francis helps Tom wash the blood off of his hands after helping deliver a baby calf. They share a dance together later on, and Tom even admits to wanting to stay at the farm house and help Francis run the place. Is this some attempt at delivering themes on stockholm syndrome or has he fallen in love with Francis because he reminds him of his dead lover? There, however lies the problem of Tom at the Farm, it’s too overstuffed, despite being an exercise in Dolan’s minimized style, to deliver on many of the ideas that are presented in the script.

The ultimate undoing is vagueness. Dolan has previously laid things on incredibly thick to get a point across. He does that in an incredibly beautiful way in Laurence Anyways, but when that is inverted into a chorus of maybes and almosts as it is here it feels like a betrayal. Perhaps, that is the ultimate point of Tom at the Farm and why the eventual ending feels closer to relief  rather than catharsis, but it feels unsatisfying to leave so many of these ideas about internalized homophobia, small town bigotry, and the parallel love/hate between Tom and Francis barely explored. Instead when Tom finally gets away he buries everything behind him. He’ll never fully understand this week, and we won’t either.

Existing: Transgender Representation in Sense8

It’s easy to say representation doesn’t matter when you have all of filmed media to choose from. White boys grow up knowing they can be anything and do anything, because film and television lets them know that they are the heroes and makers of their own stories. They can go out and achieve whatever dreams they want, because the entire world is at their grasp as long as they work hard or in some cases luck into it, but that isn’t the case for everyone else. When characters on television and film represent some sort of cultural identity and definition, especially in the case of minority persons, the few characters that actually end up having their stories told become of utmost importance to those with little or no representation. It’s even rarer when one of those characters is created by someone adjacent to the lived experiences of that minority character. More often those narratives and characters are constructed by the same white men who grew up wanting to be writers, and that isn’t to say they cannot create great characters that aren’t of their own lived experience, but it can be revelatory to see that character in the hands of someone who truly knows the ins and outs of a lived experience another person may only have tertiary knowledge of. In the case of Sense8, Lana Wachowski has given trans women a character so wholly different from the normal palette of transgender women in film and television that she feels like a springboard moment in what is hopefully more respectful and understood characterization of an often completely botched segment of people in film narratives.

The history of transgender female representation in movies and television is a constricted, damaging, limited, and completely toxic presentation of our lives with only a few bright spotlights throughout the last 100 or so years of movie making. Before the advent of Netflix’s transgender duo (Nomi in Sense8 and Sophia in Orange is the New Black) there wasn’t a significant role for transgender women where they could play a character who wanted to be more than a corpse (CSI, Dallas Buyer’s Club) , a murderer (Dressed to Kill), a joke (Family Guy, Ace Ventura) or a sex worker whose life decisions were damned by whoever was writing the character (Law and Order). There wasn’t an opportunity for us to exist beyond these confines so preconceived notions of who we are formulated in the minds of those without any direct relation to transgender people. It painted a portrait of a non-existent humanity, something (not someone) to be feared, mocked or pitied for having decided to become a deviant.

Even well meaning liberal motion pictures like TransAmerica and Dallas Buyer’s Club reek of allyship and an understanding that our bodies are constructed through maleness, rough exterior, and a kind of damaged femininity that is more akin to clown make-up and dress-up rather than an internal sense of womanhood. In those pictures we cannot escape a body that came to being through an assumed male socialization, because in these pictures transgender women are not women, but men to be pitied for having taken on the guise of womanhood which is in and of itself a deeply misogynistic line of thought that completely undermines who we are, how we got to be, who we are, and how our bodies are structured. Notice how transgender women are almost always portrayed by cisgender men, because in the opinion of Hollywood there is no way we can achieve a body capable or close to the cisgender female beauty standard placed upon all women by society at large so instead of showing real transgender bodies Jared Leto, Jeffrey Tambor and Eddie Redmayne occupy our space and define our place as women through masculinity. When they do write transgender women as beautiful characters or love interests for men it’s never enough to actually give them a happy ending and romance, but instead our bodies are upended by a reveal that categorizes us as male by focusing on a phallus. The man in the relationship has been tricked, and the entire relationship has been an affront to his sexuality. Take for instance the scene in Family Guy where characters vomit upon knowing they’ve slept with a transgender woman, only to have creator Seth MacFarlane say this is the natural reaction of men afterward. This both distances the narrative away from a transgender woman and focuses on a misogynistic, male viewpoint and a token punchline in a joke that our bodies are vessels of disgust. When dissecting that idea even further one finds that our humanity is then weighed on our attractiveness and our ability to please men, which goes beyond just a transmisogynistic idea of our standing in culture, but women as a whole, because if women’s narratives in film or television are only there to be attached to the pleasures of one man then this is wish fulfillment instead of reality, and strips all women of anything resembling character, cis or trans.

This is obviously a problem, and becomes exhausting when looking for anything resembling direct text relating to transgender lifestyle. Personally, I have always looked for subtextual readings of motion pictures where I could find something genuinely relatable to my own life experiences. I wrote about this earlier this year when I analyzed Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin as a transgender narrative, and while that film means a monumental amount to me it’s closeness towards transgender themes are something created by accident and completely in the realm of subtext. Girls like me don’t exist in the pictures is something I used to say to myself. I’m a young woman, and I look like these girls on the screen, but they don’t have my dysphoria or the problems present in my life. I didn’t find a single relatable character to my own personal existence until I watched Paris is Burning and found a closeness with Venus Xtravaganza who wanted nothing more than to live a normal life, and make her body complete in her eyes by having vaginoplasty, but in the final moments of the movie her body is disposed of, cutting short a life that was in it’s earliest chapters and extinguishing the chance she had at feeling home in her own skin some day. It’s devastating, it’s documented, and it’s real. I was left aghast at the brutality of the world, and wondered if I’d ever make promise on completing my own body or if someone would take that chance from me someday. It’s uncertain, because we aren’t safe even 25 years later. Paris is Burning is the greatest piece of transgender art that has ever been created, because it offers a glimpse into the lifestyle, bodies and humanity we have to offer this world. We are completely driven by the same desires and goal oriented ideas about career-making, family and creating a lasting effect on this world that all humans are even if our time is shorter. I fully believe we can change the ideas presented about our worth of life, and in the last few years there have been significant strides in the mainstream media regarding our lives, but things still have an exceedingly long way to go, but the trickle effect of gaining agency on our own narratives is beginning.

I’m forever grateful of what netflix is allowing to happen on their network, because they’ve finally given me a mirror in a fictional narrative of someone who I can finally say is like myself. When Nomi is introduced on Sense8 she’s having sex, her body is there for the entire world to see, and it’s not sorrowful to gaze upon her flesh, because it’s like mine. It belongs to a woman, not a man acting. Her sexuality is treated as belonging to her, and it’s her orgasm that the show is intent on capturing. This is agency, and the reveal of her girlfriend using a dildo on her afterward presents this as a narrative that won’t end with her feeling betrayed at knowing her body completely, because she loves every inch of her. They embrace, and their queerness is beloved by this show. Their warmth goes beyond the bedroom as well, and in a later scene at a pride gathering Nomi is confronted by a trans exclusionary radical feminist who refers to her as a colonizing male. This visibly upsets Nomi, but something remarkable happens just moments later when her girlfriend defends her place as a woman and in the LGBTQ community. Nomi is crying and then simply says to her girlfriend “No one has ever defended me before”. That is love. I know it because, the same thing happened to me just 24 hours earlier to me when my boyfriend called out some people for using the word “Tranny” when I was visibly upset by it. The parallel example of these two things happening alongside one another really hit home that this is my show. This is the truth. This is made for me and not for cisgender people. Nomi belongs to people like me, and after 23 years of existence I have someone. I guess girls like me do exist in the movies after all.

Female Filmmaker Project: SuperDyke (Barbara Hammer, 1975)

If Themyscria is a supposed feminine ideal and a place of paradise for Amazonian Women in Wonder Woman then Barbara Hammer’s movies seek out to create Themyscria for lesbians within her cinema. SuperDyke specifically works as a document to a very specific time in queer rights where the mainstream was just starting to get wind of queerness and a post-Stonewall, Second Wave centrism on lesbian feminist identity was becoming more pronounced. The idea of SuperDyke extends beyond the political though as Hammer’s lens once again finds its greatest meaning in the personal, quieter moments of sexuality instead of the more on the nose examples of women kissing in front of a bus with words like “Lesbian Express” scrawled across the front. Those moments, however, are not brought down by the superiority of Hammer’s more sensual, individual eye as they remain fun, tongue in cheek and at the time radical because of their intention of taking the queer space and extending it into the public eye. Another fun moment which calls back to it’s comic book title is a scene where two women kiss in a phone booth, don vibrant yellow tank tops which say “SuperDyke”, and step out into the open. The image is both interesting for it’s cute call-back to the Amazon signs at the beginning of the picture to represent a Wonder Woman, as well as being a lesbian version of Clark Kent to Superman, and the political context of it meaning a coming out of the closet.

Hammer keeps the filmmaking interesting as well, and it’d have been easy for her to go back to the quick cutting and dissolve heavy imagery of her previous shorts Dyketactics and Menses, but here she goes for home video, with fleeting moments of interaction between her lesbian superwomen to create a portrait of life, love, happiness, and rightful personhood. The film is structured into a few sections, “On the Street”, “In the Home”, “In the Court”, “At Macy’s”. Each representing a facet of life as seen through the eyes of her filmic figures. In the House is the most impressive as Hammer focuses on the foreplay of two women in a way that calls back to the way she shot sex in Dyketactics, but without the aggressive abstraction of constant dissolves. Here, she focuses on the smaller moments of sex, like the rubbing of shoulders, the look in another woman’s eye when being in a complete state of effervescence, and the thrill of existing within one another. In that moment queer cinema never feels more present and alive. Away from the tragedy of Hollywood martrydom, and fetishization of the unknown, queer cinema lives and breathes in Barbara Hammer’s worldview, and it’s beautiful.

Female Filmmaker Project: Dyketactics (Barbara Hammer, 1974)

Dyketactics: tactile cinema by way of lesbian expression and complete reclamation of the body in the face of a longstanding history of male gaze upon women’s bodies and the fetishization of queer women’s sexuality. Notice how Hammer subverts the idea of nudity in imagery throughout art in her insistence to show the vagina in extreme close up instead of the more male associated fixation on breasts. As Hammer would recall in this interview with BOMB magazine, at one screening for Dyketactics in the 70s a man screamed at the close of the movie upon being shown a vagina to which the women in the audience replied “Haven’t you seen one before?”. One can infer that he had not been this close and personal before seeing Hammer’s short, and there in lies the power of the image. The meaning of saying “This is my body, and it is not for your consumption or your sexualization, but instead it is my reality”. This also supports the theory that this is not cinema made for men, but with it’s everflowing love towards lesbian sexuality and the female body it would reject all things male, and it does. The recurring image of the camera in the hands of women taking pictures of their own bodies is another example of the control in which women have here, and the lens being shown focused specifically on genitals and breasts shows a specificity towards taking control of parts of women’s bodies that men otherwise seek to control (breasts through the male gaze, and genitals through reproductive lawmaking).

Dissolves are the most consistent cinematic technique on display here with images surging in and out of one another with an ease and grace that is only empowered by the insistence upon showing fleeting moments of touch. A foot glides up against a calf, a hand runs through a blade of grass, a mouth clasps over areola, and everyone is nude or in an embrace through all of this. Hammer drops all semblance of the dissolve in the final minute and instead shows two women in the process of having sex. Her camera glides through the sweeping curves of their bodies and slides around limbs and crevices of flesh. Closing on an image of two women wrapped up together as close as they can possibly be, symbiotic, as one.

Barbara Hammer week at Curtsies and Hand Grenades will continue tomorrow with a look at Menses.

You can watch Dyketactics on Vimeo here

Bound (Lily and Lana Wachowski, 1996)

Female Filmmaker Project

Despite the majority of the world knowing The Wachowski’s for The Matrix and big budget action I think their strongest effort is Bound. This is in large part thanks to their strong visual sense and confident framing. While watching this last night I was highly impressed with what I was seeing, and it’s a shame they haven’t really made another smaller film like this since they became huge Hollywood figures. After they made The Matrix they have worked exclusively on big budget pictures, but Bound is something different, and I think their best images were created here.

 I love how much the film lingers on hands, both as a sexually powerful body part and as an image for their evolving closeness, love and warmth. The film is never really overtly selling their romance as one for the ages, but it’s the subtlety of hands joining instead of grand gestures that punctuates the love they felt for each other. I like the little differences between their hands as well. Corky’s (Gina Gershon) nails are cut to the quick with no real emphasis for grooming while Violet’s are painted, and while still relatively short, heavily manicured.

The Wachowski’s also judiciously frame the film in overhead symmetrical shots. My favourite of these is Corky and Violet in bed together after they make love for the first time without being interrupted. The door is only barely open putting just the faintest of light on their bodies, their black clothing clashing with the floor and they are close together. It’s a lovely frame. The image of Corky in the closet bound and gagged, trapped essentially, is a distinctly queer image. While she’s trapped due to her problems with the plan and not her sexuality it still calls up the idea of being in the closet and not free with one’s sexuality.

 One of the more surprising aspects of Bound’s visuals was how much I felt the architecture was inspired by giallo pictures and more specifically Dario Argento. The architecture of the home’s is very sleek, floral and edged much like Suspiria but without the colour palette. Instead Bound goes for the traditional blacks, whites and greys of noir, and even colours like red seem muted and only really shine when blood splatters against white.

Sex positive feminist Susie Bright worked on Bound as a consultant during the sex scenes, and in her analysis of the film she’d say that Bound scenes of sexuality are coded as being “wet”, and she praised the film for showcasing aspects of lesbian sexuality on film without oversexualizing the characters. There is one scene in particular that in my mind calls up the idea of the film being “wet” and it happens right before Corky and Violet have sex for the first time so I think she’s onto something. The point of view of this scene is with Corky and while she is working to retrieve a piece of jewelry for Violet we get a feeling for her attraction for Violet in numerous ways. The camera focuses on Violet’s legs for a moment, then shows Corky’s hands around a pipe with water leaking out, she’d twist until the pipe loosened and she’d retrieve the jewelry for Violet. When Corky is framed again Violet is standing right next to her and the scene feels steamy because I think the Wachowski’s did a good job of visually representing her thought process in the imagery of this scene.

 As much as I love Speed Racer I think Bound is the Wachowski’s strongest film in all visual aspects. While their style has developed into something connected with big blockbusters and huge action I think it would suit the Wachowski’s well to go back to something smaller. They show a confident understanding of what makes noir and queer cinema work, and I’d love to enjoy another film of theirs as much as this one again. Here’s to hoping they do some day!