On the Changing Cinematic Language of Action in John Wick 3

On Matt Lynch’s brilliant letterboxd account he has stated multiple times that “no one is shooting action like this” in reference to the John Wick films, and he is correct. Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves have introduced a new language into action cinema, one that they refer to as “gun-fu”. It’s a new language that you would assume many would attempt to copy, but few have even attempted to do so. It speaks to the level of skill and technical brilliance one has to have in order to establish something that is unique only to its own world. Right now Stahelski and everyone associated with John Wick are reaching greater, newer heights in action cinema that years from now we will pinpoint as special in the same way fans of genre do so for the likes of John Woo and George Miller.

Despite the John Wick series introducing an entirely new cinematic language in the clear, graceful way Keanu Reeves moves through a mountain of enemies in an isolated space it isn’t like we haven’t been building to this moment. Chad Stahelski is a director with a distinctly unique take on action cinema, but much of what makes up “Gun-Fu” is emphasizing building blocks of action cinema past, and the fact that the John Wick movies are in conversation with the full breadth of action cinema makes them utterly delightful for those of us who love genre. Before getting into the nuts and bolts of what makes Stahelski and Reeves form so special it is important to first underline what actually is “gun-fu”. To be very blunt, it’s a mixture of musical choreography, judo and gun violence. Stahelski and company are comprehensive in their movement, blocking and setting. Reeves himself has even compared this to dance in interviews. The central figure of the mayhem is Reeves’s Wick and the camera follows his movement. It’s in lock-step with how he processes battle. The dozens of enemies he kills aren’t given weight, because it is intoxicating to watch him clear a room. They do this by never giving them facial features. These are the men and women who have no chance at killing John Wick. The bigger threats are introduced by way of dialogue and larger set-pieces, but Wick has become popular largely due to these instances where Wick empties a room. If you pay close attention to the violence it’s all relatively simple, clean, and effective, much like Wick himself. He never exposes himself in the environment and the most necessary aspect of his own defences happens to be taking an arm or another limb and manipulating their body so they cannot fire a gun. He does this through a series of judo-throws, rolling armbars and leg-takedowns. If his enemies can’t use their hands, they can’t fire a gun, rendering them useless. This is the fundamental truth of John Wick and in cinema this has been around since Akira Kurosawa made Sanshiro Sugata in 1943.

Mixed martial arts has been massively popular in North America going on fifteen years now. With the introduction of UFC to Spike TV in the mid-00s it opened a public audience up to an entirely new world of physical combat and sport. Cinema has only been catching up relatively recently. Gina Carano’s expert work in Stephen Soderbergh’s Haywire (2011) was the first shot across the bow of introducing an action cinema obsessed with mma. In a closed-quarters scenario encounter in a hotel room with co-star Michael Fassbinder they ushered a new kind of physicality to action cinema. Made all the more intoxicating due to the gendered nature of the fight. The consistent idea of women in action cinema is to use agility, speed and techniques such as head-scissors takedowns and movement that verges on professional wrestling’s understanding of lucha to keep up with the stronger, more physically domineering men. In Haywire though she stands toe to toe with Fassbinder and uses limb manipulation, positioning and a scientific approach to understanding the human body to gain an advantage over her opponent. None of this is sexualized, and it’s maybe the best action sequence in any movie this decade for everything it would come to represent going forward in the physical combat of pictures in Hollywood. The John Wick films essentially work around the same ideas of understanding the human body, and in John Wick 3 the curtain is finally pulled back. John returns “home”, to the people who taught him, and what are they doing? Amateur wrestling and Judo. It’s a cinema of the human body, and in an age when green-screen stands in for much of the action in Hollywood produces it is overwhelmingly satisfying to watch a film that understands the human body can do things so much better.

Chad Stahelski doesn’t just get his kicks over MMA though, and the other aspect of carnage which inspires his action cinema language comes from first and third person shooter video games. The notion of clearing a room of bad guys is fundamental to making John Wick a satisfying action movie, and that is also what makes the video games that function on the same idea work. He doesn’t use cinematic form to copy the games, but to manipulate their function with that of cinema to create a symbiotic effect. No possible target is ever killed off-screen. We can see them in frame coming and in real time we see John Wick react. Pins to be knocked down, but it’s in that split second of recognition that we see through Wick’s eyes. We can understand his thought process as soon as he moves to take an arm or fire a weapon. Stahelski worked on The Matrix films as a stunt-coordinator and a lot of the CGI in those movies functions similarly to video game action and anime of the period which emphasized the very best aspects of those mediums. He learned well from The Wachowskis to use everything.

John Wick 3 even reaches back to wuxia during the final confrontation of the film. This series of movies is gun and martial arts obsessive, but above all else the human body is the ultimate tool. When confronting two assassins hired to kill Wick he finds himself completely outmatched and outsmarted. He keeps reaching for his gun to put them away, but the gun doesn’t work in this scenario. It’s obvious signalling. When they knock Wick down and reach to kill him they let him live, more interested in proving themselves than spilling blood. They’re honoured to fight with him and Wick understands that in order to compete with them he has to disavow the gun. Instead, he takes off his belt to make up for his slower movements compared to their ability to fight with small knives and great agility. He has to be smart and when he eventually overcomes them he lets them go. Understanding that this was an exhibition. That may seem strange to some audiences who aren’t familiar with martial arts from the east, but for anyone who loves Lau Kar-Leung it makes perfect sense.

The John Wick movies are a total overdose of action cinema unique to the mind of Chad Stahelski. If you follow the insides and outs of the genre it is infinitely rewarding to see where the filmmakers are pulling from with each film. In earlier John Wick pictures they used EDM and pop music structure to introduce battle, and now they’ve fully come into their own as a total representation of everything action can be and stand for. There’s nothing new in the plotting of John Wick 3, as much of it revolves around the same rules and mythos of the high-table and notions of honour and revenge, which is beginning to resemble Yakuza politics more and more. The reason why people come to these movies is the action sequences, and outside of maybe Paul W.S. Anderson there’s no one better in mainstream Hollywood at the moment. I can’t wait to see where they go with the fourth film and beyond. As Matt Lynch said, “No one’s making action movies like this”.

The Question of You: Destiny in the Work of the Wachowski Sisters

Revolution must happen. Morpheus (Laurence Fishbourne) knows this in the depths of his soul. He knows the world was taken from humanity so he tries to find his own personal Jesus to change the course of history. God, by way of the Oracle, has already told him that “the one” would save Zion from the corruption and decomposition of Earth. Herein lies his faith. When Neo (Keanu Reeves) accepts the responsibility of joining a guerrilla military operation to overthrow the machines he joins the religion of the underclass, and like Christ he has to find his divinity within his own humanity. Choice and belief is paramount towards any religion, idea or decision and for Neo the choice is between a rejection of the truth, and therefore a complicity in the violence of the oppressive class, or the potential hard life of the soldier-activist-god to make both himself and the world a better place. Neo chooses to believe  

Lily and Lana Wachowski are filmmakers who choose to believe as well. Their belief, like that of their heroes Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, Speed Racer, Corky and Violet, is in the creation of their own destiny or their own meaning in life. When asked about  viewer experience  during The Matrix in 2012 Lana Wachowski responded[1]i “Can the audience go through the three movies and experience something similar to what the main character experiences?’ So the first movie is sort of typical in its approach. The second movie is deconstructionist…And then the third movie is the most ambiguous, because it asks you to actually participate in the construction of meaning.” You have to decide for yourself. 

This belief in the power to choose is what drives the Wachowskis’ narratives, and their conviction in the the possibilities of human decision-making also informs their empathy, love and understanding of characters and the world. They trust their audiences to ponder the actions characters take, and whether or not the end-goal is worth the difficulty along the way- this is definitively humanistic. Because The Wachowskis work with hero narratives they create earnest, endearing movies, showcasing the understanding they have in the flawed, bold, decision-making of their heroes,whether they’re making good or bad decisions. This has made them two of the most optimistic authors in the whole of genre cinema. But it is their ability to transcend subgenre after subgenre while navigating these ideas of choice and destiny that truly makes them interesting and worthwhile artists.  

In their first film, Bound (1996), The Wachowskis uncork a tightly wound bottle of vintage film noir eroticism. The story of Corky (Gina Gerson) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly) is in the visual eroticism of touch. Throughout the picture The Wachowskis linger on body parts, as if evoking Claire Denis through a lesbian lens, and while the film never quite reaches the levels of human contact in her pictures it remains a worthy route to examine a same-sex romance powered by lust and held back by societal and personal roadblocks. In Barbara Hammer’s seminal 1974 short film Dyketactics, she practically rewrote the book on female queer sexuality through a cinematic lens. In that short film Hammer focuses on hands as a tool of the orgasm, shot in close-up the stimulated vagina, and used dissolves to gracefully move her camera in and around the female body. For Corky and Violet it’s also all in the hands.

In Bound, the Wachowskis work in this same mode, and while they cannot utilize the daring, open, female nudity of Hammer’s erotic political short due to studio restrictions, they channeled her spirit. With the help of sex consultant Susie Bright, The Wachowskis were able to tell the story of Corky and Violet authentically, and the images of their open sexuality became resonant within queer themes in cinema. The films opening moments play out with a standard femme fatale first impression like Humphrey Bogart meeting Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep, but both in Bound both of these characters are women. Corky with short hair, dark jeans, and a white tank with paint stains all over her clothes is resolutely butch. Violet, in contrast, is introduced wearing a slinky black cardigan, a low-cut dress exposing cleavage, and perfectly applied make-up and styled hair. She’s a trophy wife of mob lackey Ceasar (Joe Pantoliano). Violet is perfect, doting, passive, feminine, and always pretty as a picture, but she has secrets she keeps behind closed walls. She’s gay, and she’s going to steal Caeser’s mob-cash while framing him along the way.

All in all, Violet’s plan is a Hell of a way to come out of the closet. She needs a partner though, and what started out as a seduction quickly turned to love for Violet for Corky. Violet needs to untangle herself from a marriage to the mob, but Corky has past demons of her own, including a 5-year prison sentence for robbery. What unspools from this narrative yarn is an exercise in queering the noir while also playing into its tendency for tightly woven stories of bad men and worse women who scream cinema by their sheer presence, a quality that Tilly and Gershon have   in spades. Gershon is evoking the world-weary toughness associated with your typical, almost always male, lead. Her sarcastic drawl, stiff upper lip and constant raised eyebrow in the face of adversity are from a woman who has lived through it all so give it your best shot. She’s going to come back fighting. Tilly on the other hand uses the preconceived notions about her intelligence and demeanor to get what she wants. It’s classic stereotyping. She’s a ditzy girl who needs looking after, but that’s only what she wants men to see, because it couldn’t be farther from the truth. She’s smart, with a knack for planning and getting what she wants, because she knows how to use her own power.  

Bound is the only film of its type that The Wachowskis ever made, but some of their directorial tendencies they’d come to be known for are present. One stylish sequence, where the plan Corky and Violet have concocted plays out in real time while they deliver the explanation of said plan in the past tense, recalls the opening race of Speed Racer – it’s a deft means of handling exposition.. In that race, Speed’s backstory is delivered as a young kid watching his deceased brother try to set a track record in a heated race: his brother’s ghost serves as his own personal pace car. In their usage of camera wipes, The Wachowskis clearly define the heroes, villains, and everyone in between by capturing these characters at various points in the lifeplot of the film before leading up to the end of the race. Essentially all the cards are laid out, and every character is given a motivation and an alignment that plays out in the movie. The wipes are used to deftly move through their life with overlapping rhythm, which delivers all the background of the movie in one scene. The Wachowskis, are, after all, moral filmmakers, and believe in the choice to do good. Robbery is not usually something akin to grace, but for the oppressed to rob from the rich, à la Robin Hood, in Bound, it reverses a sin into a blessing. Corky has to make the choice to align with Violet, and does so out of a blossoming love between the two, and Violet has her own decisions to make regarding her coming out. The Wachowskis pay close attention to how these contrasting forces clash, and in the end Corky and Violet, the heroes of their narrative, overthrow Caesar, the mob, and the straight world.

Frequently, Corky and Violet are framed with walls, closets or doors disrupting the onscreen space. After the two of them have sex for the first time a closet door is seen with a sunbeam coming out of the cracks. This is the possibility of the belief in the self that is frequently present in their theology. Corky and Violet remain together in the film, as true loves succeeds (another theme in their work), and The Wachowskis call back to their focus in tactility. In the final moments Corky and Violet clasp their hands in Corky’s brand new pick-up, riding off into the sunset, ready to conquer anything that may come in their path. It recalls and corrects the sisterhood-trumps-all ending of Thelma and Louise, but Corky and Violet aren’t platonic and they didn’t have to die for their freedom, which is a radical message in and of itself for a movie about queer characters.  

The Matrix begins in a similar fashion to Bound, but instead of a tracking shot in close detail through a closet, the camera moves through the neon greens of text, code and computerized language in a digital zoom. The introduction of computer altered camera-work is the first noticeable addition to The Wachowskis arsenal, and becomes something of a calling card throughout their career with Hong-Kong influenced martial arts refashioned through an American lens of computerized athleticism and wire-work. The influence of the first action sequence would be copied for years to come in pictures ranging from Charlie’s Angels (2000) to Inception (2010), but the effects of bullet-time, slow-motion martial arts, and wire-work are hardly ever as graceful as they are in the green, dilapidated cage of The Matrix.

In this first sequence, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is ambushed by police officers and agents after her secure line with Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) is hacked. With her hands raised behind her head, a police officer approaches in a split-diopter shot, followed by a medium shot of her breaking that same police officer’s arm in a moment of fluid camerawork and coherent action storytelling. The scene becomes legendary when she follows that strike with an aerial kick to the face and the camera follows her in a slow-motion 360 degree pan. The scene concludes with a Jackie Chan homage when Trinity kicks a chair into a police officer’s face, runs up a wall and escapes after dispatching a final police officer. All of this is completed with simple, logical action that gets the viewer from point A to point B, with the added inclusion of reality-bending camerawork to add to the allure of the unreal nature of The Matrix. This scene sets the tone for the entire franchise. 

The Matrix is set up immediately as a chase film. Trinity’s escape of the agents in the opening scene is a smaller part of a larger microcosm of the trilogy as a whole. The structure of unseating the power of the Machine City in which the A.I. Lives and controls human existence through the computer programming of The Matrix is always dependent upon the resistance group being in motion. There are certainly moments where the philosophy of The Matrix takes centre stage, but these moments are only brief stages of calm before an oncoming storm hits once more. This is most notable in the second film The Matrix Reloaded where Morpheus, Neo and Trinity attempt to free the key-maker (Randall Duk-Kim) from the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson). The Merovingian portion of the film is a series of interconnected sprawling action sequences intertwined with well-constructed geography set amid an endless highway that treats humans like Frogger and cars like Burnout. Funnily enough before all the guns are drawn the Merovingian utters “It’s only a game. It’s only a game”.    

The Merovingian is a man/program of class. He has underlings, won’t be seen in anything less than high fashion and even has a trophy wife (Monica Belucci). The class systems of The Wachowskis’ films have always been drawn with relative frankness and easily definable imagery. This is most significant in Speed Racer and Jupiter Ascending, but dates back to The Matrix and even Bound on a micro level. They are filmmakers of the underdog and the defeated heroes who fail along the way only to learn their worth and the importance of their morals. Reaching a philosophical high ground has always been important to The Wachowskis and while they’ve never discussed the nature of Christianity or Buddhism in their process it seems to inform their character decision-making.  

The Merovingian’s mansion is laboriously programmed with fine marble, exquisite portrait, and crests bearing his initial “M”. Holding the wealth, even in a computerized world is sinful, and his ties to the machines who place the humans inside The Matrix only make him more dastardly, just like Royalton in Speed Racer. The destruction of his mansion then carries the weight of the falling class system, and the nature of justified violence when provoked. The Wachowskis seem to take a lot of joy in the destruction of his statues, utilizing the slow-motion bullet cam technique they popularized in the first picture by showing each piece of his constructed wealth crumble. This informs the narrative of class for the chase at hand and the potential world-saving skills of the key-maker who must escape. For what is freedom and wealth if not gate-keeping? Jupiter Ascending ponders this very notion as well. Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is a house cleaner from a family of first generation immigrants, but she’s also the heir to a throne on the planet Jupiter. It’s the kind of Young Adult novel plotting that has seen such success with movies like Divergent and The Hunger Games, and like those movies Jupiter Ascending asks questions about power and how we use that power for good or evil. Jupiter finds herself thrust into a world of wealth, power, beauty, and limitless resources. She can have it all at the expense of others and rule her land, but Jupiter is bereft of corruption. When the curtains are pulled back on the House of Abrasax she recoils. Jupiter Jones is gifted her own version of a key by way of her inborn right to power on Jupiter, but like Neo and company she resists and attempts to overthrow a corrupt higher power. With a key you can enter that world and shape it in a radical way.

In the first portion of the Merovingian sequence, Neo fights off a group of the Merovingian’s servants, all of whom are holding sword-based weaponry, in a circular room. The round room works to the Wachowskis favour, because of the circular camerawork and swift pans that they had mastered at this point in their careers. The action resembles the choreography of the great Lau-Kar Leung, and takes obvious inspirations from the pacifist nature in his movies, along with the hero’s journey of finding himself with discipline and hard work. In the first film, Neo learned Jiu-Jitsu and other martial arts techniques almost immediately, but when it came to learning how to jump across a building it meant failing on numerous occasions.  

In Lau-Kar Leung’s pictures, the hero has to be humbled before he can find strength, and Neo follows that same path. In The Matrix Reloaded, he is a master of craft and in full belief of his god-like abilities to move inside The Matrix. The Wachowskis achieve the effect of fluid grace among invincibility in the fight with more wire work and attention to weaponry and geography. The structure of the room is displayed through the camera movement as Neo moves up the stairs, down, back up and down again. The symmetry of the room creates a nice cohesion between the movement and the image and when Neo finally lays waste to all of the Merovingian’s henchmen the camera settles for a moment in a long shot to show a perfectly symmetrical shot of Neo standing among the bodies with the room decorated by debris in equal measure.  

A quick look of concern from Trinity when Morpheus says “freeway” is enough myth-making to relay the danger of the road they’re about to travel. The minimalist storytelling of that line delivery is carried over into the chase where one highway becomes an endless straight line into hell. The beauty of the sequence is in the juggling of movement between cars and the hero-villain dynamic. Overhead camera shots create a push and pull between the moving vehicles and cars crash when bullets plunge into their metal flesh. The passerby vehicles become aerial at any destruction creating a confetti effect behind the action and eventually tumbling in front. Evasion becomes key to survival and with the added problems of internal fist-fighting in Trinity’s car between Merovingian’s chief twin henchmen and Morpheus the scene becomes almost unbearable with adrenaline. The clear minded camerawork, and lack of gritty, visceral impact moving the camera out of the action create poeticism between the action and movement as they become one. When tensions rise to a boiling point with death inches from our heroes, Neo flies out of the sky like Superman and saves everyone from the reaper’s hand.

The action between vehicles in The Matrix Reloaded was a good test run for The Wachowskis Crayola-anime dream Speed Racer. Lily and Lana have always owed a real life debt to anime for directly inspiring the work they created with The Matrix. The Matrix, after all, looks like it came directly from the same world as Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell with its rainy dystopia of green-gray-black imagery peppered with philosophical leanings and questions of the body. Considering their love of anime and East Asian filmmakers The Wachowskis should have known better than to adapt Speed Racer with an all white cast standing in for this Japanese story. It’s a blackmark on what is otherwise, their most formally daring work to date. One can’t look at Speed Racer without commenting on this issue and grappling with it to some degree. It dampens their thematic interest in narratives of the people and righteousness, and in time will look poorly upon them as we advance as a culture into a more progressive age. As is, Speed Racer is one of their best films, but it cannot reach the upper echelons of their finest works, Bound and The Matrix for this reason. It fits comfortably in their filmography, but not without bringing up this fault in their creative process, which they clumsily made once again in their worst film, Cloud Atlas.  

In Speed Racer, The Wachowskis wanted to make a real life anime, and they did this by using high-definition video cameras and placing the foreground and background in focus to replicate the animation style. To this day no other film looks quite like Speed Racer due to this effect. The jarring adventurous use of camera wipes to replicate the turning of the page in Japanese manga and kaleidoscope editing tactics unfold with images layered on top of each other in successive fashion to create a colouring book of supercharged rainbows, peach-amethyst sunsets, and dizzying races that previously only existed in animation and video games.

The Wachowskis use all of these techniques to deliver a narrative that is not unlike that of Neo, Trinity and Morpheus. Like Neo, Speed (Emile Hirsch) is faced with a decision about where he allies himself in a war for preservation of the world. Speed has to either race for the Royalton corporation or choose his humble trappings as a family owned driver on the big circuit, and by refusing Royalton Speed would be risking his career, because they own Racing. Speed’s father (John Goodman) is completely distrusting of Royalton Owner E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam). Speed chooses his family and sets about to unearth the corrupt business practices infecting the racing sport he loves so much. For Speed racing is his religion and this task is his own Zion, and Royalton with all his cronies is Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and the machines that rule the world.  

For Speed to save the world, he needs to win The Crucible, a Wacky Racers meets Death Race 2,000 (1975), underground race that cost his brother his life when he was blackballed from racing professionally by companies like Royalton. Speed Racer picks up where The Matrix Reloaded leaves off, but instead of including practical effects, Speed Racer opts for digital craftsmanship and technical perfection in the movement of vehicles. In the various tracks of The Crucible, cars fly as much as they drive, and driver skill is built as much upon belief in their vehicles as ability. When Speed eventually wins The Crucible with help from Racer X (Matthew Fox) and finds his way into the Grand Prix, he has his chance to change the world. It’s a beautifully sculpted sequence of neon hot wheels gliding in high speed. Paint swirls and colours bleed into one another, and the only constant image is Speed’s determined face. Meanwhile, using the wipe editing, Speed’s backstory is relayed once more, showing us the stakes of Speed’s mission. Racing is his life and he believes in the power of doing what you love, and believing in what you love. Winning the race means saving his loved one, and he drives his heart out drifting and crashing, flying and spinning in mid air, and ultimately finding a way to burst through the walls of racing’s blackened history and into a checkered whirlpool like an inverse of the spiral image of Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.  

 Speed’s relationship with racing is built upon an earnest, sincere love, and his destiny to make his family proud. Neo had to believe in himself to become a god and save the world, but more importantly he wanted to save Trinity whom he loved with all his heart. He brought her back to life once, but he couldn’t do it a second time in The Matrix Revolutions, but in her final moments she got to see the Sun, and she remarked it was so beautiful. The Wachowskis make their movies on these larger emotional moments. These moments of pure cinematic magic where their admiration for character and earnest want of love come through whether it be platonic or romantic. They traverse subgenres of action cinema like Anime, Noir, Young Adult and Cyberpunk, but their heart remains the same and they’ve always been filmmakers of sincerity, even when the world gets cynical. We all need something to believe in and The Wachowskis give us that through their movies, which believe above all else we can define our destinies and become heroes of our own story.

On Trauma and Violence as a Ripple Effect in Rob Zombie’s, “Halloween II”

“Halloween 2”

In the documentary, 30 Days of Hell, which chronicled the making of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Rob states right before shooting the motel sequence that the real horror is in making audiences feel for victims and by extension they’d experience vulnerability themselves. He wants audiences to feel awful; to feel scared. I’ve always liked this thesis on horror, and as I’ve grown older myself and began to truly understand my own fragility and vulnerability that comes with having a body like mine I’ve gravitated towards horror films that truly reckon with that central idea. The fallout of horror, or horror in post, is more interesting to me than “of the moment” scares. It is in the aftermath of violence where you can truly analyze horror and its place in a real world as it pertains to bodies, power dynamics and the thin line between life and death. Films like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Something Wild (1961) and Halloween 2 (2009) investigate how someone copes with horror, both in real time, and in day to day life. A true misconception that horror movies repeat over and over again is the notion that everything can be okay after you’ve experienced a horrific event. If you’ve killed or escaped the monster in question you’ll be fine, but this is a lie. There is always scar tissue. If your body is damaged you will carry that injury forever. In Halloween 2 this extends far beyond Laurie Strode (Scout-Taylor Compton) and reaches outward, touching an entire community and everyone who came into contact with Michael Myers. It’s one of the smartest films ever made about trauma and the aftermath of violence, because Rob Zombie understands it is never a singular event. It’s a domino effect, and for Haddonfield, damn near everything has been touched by the terror of Michael Myers.  

The upheaval of Haddonfield from your everyday American small town into a wheezing husk, still in recovery from violence, is almost a mirror image to what happens over the years in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. I’ve compared the work of Rob Zombie to that of David Lynch before, in the similarities in shot selection at the end of his remake of Halloween (2007) to that of Laura Palmer screaming bloody fucking murder in season three of Twin Peaks (2018), but I think this comparison extends beyond just that one specific scene and what it conveys. If you look at the world of Twin Peaks in the early 1990s,  shortly after Laura Palmer has been killed, it is one of bright oranges and browns, with beautiful wooded paneling inside every house, and sunshine. The Haddonfield of Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake is similarly lit brightly, with the amber warmth of everything people love about fall, but if you look at his Halloween II fall has turned to grey. The sun never shines on Haddonfield after Myers returns to that quiet town. Halloween festivities aren’t fun when you can see on the outskirts, advertisements for books and landmarks celebrating and monetizing the terror wrought by Michael Myers. It’s a sidelining of the actual victims. The loss of a soul. Likewise if you look at the newest season of Twin Peaks there is a similar sense of loss. A crime that shook the rafters and changed the town forever is now commonplace.  Violence just is, and in terms of form, the movement of Lynch from film to digital robs Twin Peaks of its beauty. A shadow has fallen on this town, maybe forever. The choice to move from the 35mm of Halloween (2007) to super grainy 16mm in Halloween 2 gives the film a rough texture it wouldn’t otherwise have. It mirrors what’s happened. How can there be beauty in a place where all elegance has died? It is difficult to move forward when you can still see the scars of the past.  

In a previous essay I compared Laurie Strode to an exposed nerve, and this is never more true than in her relationship with fellow survivor, and best friend, Annie (Danielle Harris). Annie is a “constant reminder” for Laurie of the horrific event involving Myers that happened two years ago, because she has visible scarring on her face. They love each other, like sisters even, but trauma and horror has created a chasm between the two of them that’s willing to fracture their relationship entirely. Laurie and Annie find themselves in screaming matches with one another on a frequent basis, because neither can reconcile the previous event and move forward. It’d be downright impossible to ask them to do so. Annie’s father, Sheriff Bracket (Brad Dourif), tries to comfort both, but fails to do that for any consistent amount of time. He’s taken in Laurie and he treats her like his own daughter, but he cannot broach the topic of trauma that divides them. He doesn’t understand it. He will soon.

They feel like a family, but there’s this chilly coolness in every room in that house willing to shift and warp the scene under its grip, and the same could be said for Haddonfield. Parents brandish guns in attempts to murder Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), who they blame for creating Michael Myers and then profiting off of the death of their offspring with his true crime book. Even Loomis has slipped off the deep end, unwilling to confront his own guilt and the horror he experienced, instead trying to gain some level of agency over the events by shaking them off in a foolish attempt to distance himself from the blood. Sheriff Bracket would threaten to kill Loomis, after finding the bloody corpse of Annie later, in what is one of the most empathetic, graceful and downright upsetting moments in the history of horror movies.  

In the films of Rob Zombie death matters. He wants you to understand the motivations behind victim and murderer alike, and that equality between the two makes his work downright strange in the context of the genre. Wes Craven attempts this in his earlier films like The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), but neither reach the formal highs that Zombie accomplishes when he shows us how Annie dies, and why it’s awful. When Myers confronts Annie he appears like a monolith before her, she doesn’t see him. She barely comes up to his chest, her body swallowed up in the void-like appearance of Myers’s dark clothing and frame. When she discovers Myers she retreats, and Zombie uses slow-motion to let the moment hang on for longer than comfort would allow. Annie knows she’s about to die. The sound falls out entirely except a thrumming hum of static. She runs, but then the screen goes to black and still images of her retreat are edited in along with soundclips of her terror. We can only hear her scream. It’s up to us to determine how she died. When Laurie finds her much later Annie’s covered in blood, approaching death, and Laurie is despondent. She knows exactly what has happened, but she doesn’t run away. She doesn’t care if Myers is still in the house. She stays with her friend and sobs, begging her to stay with her. Scout-Taylor Compton’s harrowing pleas of “Annie don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me. I can’t live without you” sever the heart. This scene of Laurie sobbing over her dead friend lasts minutes. We have to sit there and feel what she feels. All of the guilt, shame, grief and love she had for her best friend spilling out of her in wailing sobs. Scout Taylor-Compton goes as deep as an actor can go, and it’s so easy to feel everything she’s conveying as an audience member. Because Zombie holds the camera for an extremely long time on this scene it’s impossible to shrug this off as a death that doesn’t matter. This isn’t a kill count movie. Everything matters. She only abandons Annie when Michael knocks down a door with a wooden axe.  

This is a slasher film that aches. There is no enjoyment in the bloodshed here. Only sorrow, and that’s compounded later when Annie’s father answers the 9-1-1 call that came from inside the house and upon arriving discovers his daughter’s body. He’s warned by other police officers not to go in there, but he pushes them off and screams “Where is she?!”. Dourif is rigid here, barely keeping it together, a volcano of all encompassing grief about to erupt out from underneath him, but he has to see her. He has to look at his own baby girl to know that she’s gone and when he does he falls. A wail escapes his lips and he slams his arms down, rejecting what his eyes obviously see. He grunts “NO” before finally giving himself away to what he’s feeling and he sobs for what he’s lost and how he’s failed her. That would be enough to set the scene apart in the lexicon of Slasher movies, but something special happens: familiar music starts to swell in. It’s music that was used in Halloween (2007) before Deborah Myers (Sheri Moon Zombie) killed herself watching Super 8 movies of young Michael after she realizes she’s lost her family. It’s a sense memory for viewers that recalls the familial tragedy of the first film, but then an image of Annie, no more than seven years old, holding a loving dog in her arms, with an innocent smile across her face appears on screen. We cut back to Sheriff Bracket laying on the floor crying, and then there’s Annie again, as a child, with an entire life to live. Maybe it would be a good one. Maybe it was before violence. We have to ask ourselves these questions. We have to consider her. Bracket is helped out of the room, but he’s mentally gone. He holds himself together with a memory of her, his love for her, and what made her a real person. The girl who just got a puppy. All he’ll ever have from this point forward is a memory. This is the true nature of the death of a character, but the tragedy is in losing someone who very obviously lived a life. We grieve for Annie in that moment, because her father does, because Rob Zombie’s form mirrors Sheriff Bracket’s sorrow.  

At this point, it’s very unimportant if Michael Myers lives or dies. He’s already taken everything from this town and its people.  

If there is a message to take from Rob Zombie’s Halloween films it is that violence is not singular, but wholly ruinous in the lens of someone. When we look at the news each day and see that another violent murder has happened, or another school shooting has claimed another life we tend to internalize this as something that couldn’t possibly happen to us, but violence does happen. It’s often random or ambivalent, but it’s there in the outskirts of our lives and it stains. Someone lost somebody and a life matters to someone. It reaches out, makes the world strange, and modifies the way you live your life if you were lucky enough to survive, but there’s no moving past it without it affecting you. It’s a scar. You don’t have to dwell on it, but you know it’s there.  

Convenience Store

Transition feels light. Like a flowing riverbed, curving in and out of rocks that broke free when you spoke your name, and claimed your flesh. No longer was she something without form, or grace, heavy in her step giving way to something agile, something free. Twirl for the first time in your bedroom with that skirt you have hiding under your bed, but put it away before the shame takes hold. Take the same skirt out a little later and let its fabric touch the skin, and the sun, yours for all to see. It comes with a little belt to cinch the waist, to pull you into being, but it’s icing on the cake, because you already let the word “woman” escape your lips. At this convenience store there are a lot of girls going about their day. Another girl is taller than you, another shorter. Average by the grace of god. Just another girl in a group of girls, because you made her be. You only came down for a pack of spearmint gum, but this ended up being more, a birth, a witness, a claim. Not a boy in sight. Not even you. Spearmint always feels chilly, but she’s never been so warm.

Broken Mirrors: Perfect Blue 20 Years Later

Mima Kirigoe (voiced by Junko Iwao) is a pop idol. She’s the lead singer for the J-Pop band CHAM, and she’s about to perform her last show, before leaving the music industry to try her hand at acting. Working security just below the stage is a man who looks disturbingly out of place. He is a black hole amid the glow of the stage design’s birthday cake pastels, ballerina costuming and upbeat, bouncy pop music about lost love and the possibility of romance. He is ghostly pale, with raven’s hair draped over the right side of his face. His eyes are noticeably small (placing him in direct contrast with the large, expressive eyes that normally accompanied anime characters at the time). He doesn’t speak or emote much at all until he sees Mima. He is enraptured in her every movement, gesture, and pivot. He points his arm out toward her. Director Satoshi Kon fixates on this man’s point of view as he sees Mima with a mixture of lust, possessiveness and envy. The image blurs around the corners to force Mima into clearer definition, and from this man’s forced perspective Mima dances in the palm of his hand like a ballerina music box. She belongs to him in that moment. He will do everything in his power for that to be true forever. Mima has no knowledge of his existence. She continues to sing…

A woman learns early that her body isn’t her own. It’s a disorienting effect to walk down the streets and have the peace of mobility disrupted by the howl of the everyday man, who was also taught a lesson in his young age: that a woman’s body is his. It could be the unwanted touch, the snap of a bra from the class-clown at the onset of puberty or the later realization that your own choice of whether or not to have a child is up for debate. You can point to your doctor and say something’s seriously wrong, because menstrual pain is overwhelming and debilitating and not be taken seriously. You can even stake your claim that you are a woman, in flesh and blood and soul, and need hormone replacement therapy and be told to further prove your own validity to a professional who knows your body better than you. In day to day life, we can retreat from this reality in the space of bedrooms that we turn into our own, in the company of friends who share similar concerns or in the locked doors of an apartment you barricade yourself within when things get too heavy, but these spaces are shrinking with time. Our reliance on the internet, and the integration of social media into our own reality is cleaving the body as a safe space. The internet crosses all moats, strides across all barriers and knocks down all our doors. On the internet, anyone can have access to you at any time, and we have welcomed that reality with open arms, and women, by and large, have been the victims of this dissolution of distance between reality and the online world. We should own the right to exist freely in our own bodies, but we do not, and now, anyone, any time, anywhere in the world, can make that a reality. We are passengers in our own skin, the meat upon the market; the dolls boys play with. 

Mima is being watched. There is an initial image of the apartment complexes fading into the horizon of a pitch black sky, but in one window we can see light and a woman moving about. The camera pulls in until we realize it is Mima rummaging through her mail. She’s been given a letter which simply gives her the name of a web address. Because she doesn’t have a computer she has no concept of the internet or what a url even means. It’s practically a foreign language to her, but our stalker doesn’t know that and persists regardless. The opening shot in this scene of the camera pulling in could be from the stalker’s point of view in some consideration and the letter only makes the scene more horrifying, because Kon is forcing us to sit in this predator’s shoes and consider his mindset, but in addition to that we know Mima is defenseless. The letter is a dare, to excite the stalker and pull his victim closer into his webbed trap. Mima, being ignorant of what this letter actually means, brings it to her manager Rumi-Chan the following day and she knows exactly what a url is, but also doesn’t see malice in this language. Rumi-Chan helps Mima buy a computer and later sets it up in her bedroom. When she visits the website, which is like a LiveJournal about her every moment in day to day life, she doesn’t see the violence therein, but merely thinks someone really knows her well. She pulls the curtain closed, but that act doesn’t bring safety. The internet makes such precautionary measures meaningless. What Mima doesn’t realize is that by engaging with this website, and reading it, she has already been violated. She cannot be herself if there is another, separate entity, framing her in a different light, and claiming to be her. There is the Mima that is real, and the one that is perceived, and the internet blurs the soul of the two.

The camera rests on the closed curtain. Forcing us to look for far longer than is comfortable. Many movies about voyeurism, even popular ones like Rear Window and Blue Velvet, use the act of the voyeur as audience surrogate to incite thrills above the art of becoming uncomfortable in the act of looking where one is not supposed to look. To Blue Velvet’s credit David Lynch understands how to utilize time in an effort to enhance future discomfort. This is most prominent during the first interactions between Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Hopper’s characters which turns violent, uncomfortable and abstract very quickly, but this is not without the thrill of Kyle McLachlan looking around the apartment first. The fundamental difference between Rear Window, which is all thrills, Blue Velvet and Perfect Blue is that in the latter examples there is the danger of the voyeur being caught, which makes the audience less complicit in the act itself. There is morality there, but in Perfect Blue there is no chance of being seen. We’re too far away, but looking nonetheless, and Mima has no clue whatsoever that our eyes are upon her. This is the psychology of movies in a nutshell, and by placing the central question of voyeurism in a shell of female vulnerability the images become complicated, knotty and uncomfortable, because we are looking from a position of power, as a predator, and she is there to be seen. The brilliant thing about Satoshi Kon, however, is that in time he blurs the image until we have no control over what we’re seeing. We become lost at sea in the narrative of his characters and become unsure what is real and what is fantasy, and who we are looking at to begin with, and that is never more the case than with Perfect Blue.

Mima begins her new job the next day and one thing is clear: The old Mima is dead. Meet the new Mima. While Mima was in CHAM she was the perfect pastel ideal of femininity in the sugar coated lyricism of Japanese Pop Music, but now she’s moved into pulpy trash television. The show she is working on is a riff on The Silence of the Lambs, and judging by its barely there plotting built upon transgressions, blood and violence, it would have fit in right at home in the budding market of Japan’s V-Cinema contemporaries from the likes of Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Mima only has one line in her debut appearance, but immediately she’s surrounded by the grisly carnage of filmmaking, as the producers quickly decide to make her character a rape victim, with multiple personality disorder. This is where the producers say, “It’s fine. Jodie Foster did it, right?”, but Mima’s concerned about her image, and so are her agents. She decides to do it, because she wants to be a “real” actor, but this begs the question, “why is this the most valued cinematic image for a woman?”. I fully understand that the limits of genre force characters into boxes, most of them being heavily gendered, but that still doesn’t negate the fact that for a woman to survive in this fictional world of movies, and in the real one, they often have to go to psychological extensive extremes that men do not have to. In order to be taken seriously as an artist, if you are a woman, you must give your entire body. That is the commonly held idea of our societal value in movies.

While Mima is coming to grips with her decision to go through with the part, the man with the raven’s hair can be seen in the distance, tearing a hole in the scenery, much like he did at the concert. He doesn’t fit anywhere, but he’s there, watching Mima, completely unnoticed. As an image, this is a powerful metaphor for the daily life of being a woman. You can be free, to a point, but the lingering shadow of potential violence and trauma stemming from gendered persecution doesn’t dissipate. Men will always be here, and we will never know who may be the villain of our story. We pray we never find him, but we know we have to look. The internet, by extension, makes this even more difficult to parse. Everyone has access. Anyone can reach out and make life strange, worse, torturous if they choose to do so.

Mima begins to realize the website dedicated to her isn’t a joke after the person claiming to be her insists the Mima who is participating in bikini photo-shoots and tv shows that involve rape isn’t the real Mima. This unsettles her to the point where she realizes she is now in danger, and the person who has been blogging as her online is not a benign entity but something altogether more insidious.

Japan were one of the only countries to have a finger on the pulse of an incoming world that would be completely online. It was during the mid to late 90s when anime properties like Serial Lab Experiments: Lain (1998), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Perfect Blue (1997) began to paint a portrait of a world where there was no distance between the version of you that was flesh and the doppleganger of your own creation that existed online. At the same time the United States were making films that are now, in hindsight, not at all revelatory on the topic of internet anxieties. These were films about internet rebels: hackers, thieves and spies, but that wasn’t everyday people. In Japan, it was high school girls, entry-level musicians, and police officers who became entangled in the problems of the internet. Hollywood wouldn’t make a worthwhile film about the internet until The Matrix (1999), which was heavily influenced by anime. We have to look to Japan to understand our looming future. What these initial films signal is strikingly similar to our own current state of existence on the internet. In the context of Perfect Blue, it isn’t different from the real life stories of online harassment actresses like Kelly Marie Tran or Daisy Ridley experienced after the image of Star Wars shifted into something that immature manchildren rejected. The sad state of things, however, is that a lot of women who are online have gone through similar experiences of abuse without the benefit of being able to log off due to the intersecting roles of capitalist structures within an online world. For those, there is no respite from the dangers of the internet.

The central question women have to navigate on the internet is, “How do you have agency over your own body when there is no escape from outside forces?” Before the internet there was the seclusion of a personal home or bedroom, but these barriers do not exist when every house has a wifi account. Google maps has pictures of your street if someone wants to find it, and with social media there are pictures of everyone everywhere. Social media at its absolute best is the possibility for positive connection, but one would have to be naive to think that there wasn’t something vicious lying under the surface that could find its way into your life if necessary. Perfect Blue is brilliant, because it has a fundamental understanding of these problems. For Mima the inability to escape her stalker, either online or in day to day life, causes her to misinterpret her own body. She begins to lose herself in the role of the character she’s playing on the show, and she doesn’t recognize herself anymore after the decisions she’s made, in large part, because she’s been reading her stalker’s blog. This blog is essentially a gaslighting tool that has caused Mima to question her own validity and truth. The loss of any and all agency is the greatest crime her stalker has committed, and he has done this all in the guise of being a hurt fan. Sound familiar?

It all comes back to that opening shot of the ballerina dancing in the palm of his hand. That’s the key image to understanding how the stalker, now going by Me-Mania, interprets his relationship with Mima. Mima belongs to him. Things escalate, as they tend to in cases like this, and Me-Mania finally confronts Mima after a long day of acting has caused her to be completely lost in her own thoughts, and he attempts to rape her. Me-Mania is framed and shot like a hovering reaper before this moment, a harrowing villain drawn to look as ugly as humanly possible. He’s an intimidating presence, but the strangest thing happens when he speaks: he’s pathetic, whiny, petulant, complaining that he didn’t get what he wanted. Thus the core problem of toxic masculinity: ownership of women, the dolls boys play with. The producers took advantage of Mima, because she was a young actor, her fans revolted when she made the decision to become an actor, and her agents question every move she makes. Mima continually fights for her own agency, and the ability to merely be herself, but when working in an industry that essentially asks viewers to take a part of you this is almost impossible. Doubly so with the advent of the internet where everyone is now the star of their own following, whether it be on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. We are all now Mima.

Perfect Blue is an apocalyptic slasher, the ultimate crystallization of everything we came to fear about the internet before it became synonymous with living. In the 90s, anime had a rougher sheen, images had more texture and the genre arguably saw its zenith as an art-form\\ with the likes of Mamoru Oshii, Hideaki Anno, Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyzaki and Satoshi Kon pushing the genre forward in creative modes that have since been largely ignored in favour of clean, almost exclusively digital images computerized into a perfect package of sunny, un-challenging narratives. Perfect Blue sits in the middle of these two eras as a perfect, magnum opus of everything that would come to pass about a life entangled with the internet, while challenging viewers with everything that situation would bring. It isn’t a pretty picture, but it’s the real one.


It is difficult to know within the deepest pits of your body that you’re supposed to be a mother, but you cannot conceive. It’s living with a whirring dissonance whose volume depends on the circumstances of any given day. We by and large don’t consider that trans women may want children. We are told that we should be happy having the physical and many of the same biological characteristics of cisgender women, but we never ask trans women questions about pregnancy. In my case, being an intersex trans woman with an underdeveloped, non-functional uterus and incompatible genitalia, I feel particularly close to something just out of reach. The need to be a mother and my inability to act on that overwhelming, heavy, internal desire, with my own body is my own cross to bear. I’ll never get pregnant. I’ll probably never have a child of my own.

But I have this image of myself as a mom that I carry around with me on harder days. I have a daughter. Her name’s Rachel Erin Maclay. I can’t give her life, but I can give her space in my own mind. I can carry her with me, and even if I can’t manifest this idea of her into flesh she still resides within my own body. I don’t think that’s nothing. She is a fragment, an idea, a possibility, and through all of this I can see her. She exists here, in my heart and soul, and if that’s where she always is, then I will be thankful that she has given me that much. As her mom I know I will have done all that I can, having rammed up against the edges of the limitations of my own body, and still kept the idea of her alive.

This little girl inside me pulls a white rose.

Top 50 of 2018

2018 was seemingly endless, and characterized by personal and global grief. It would be foolish to assert that this did not in some way effect the movies I sought out last year. When my cat passed away very suddenly it sent me into a tailspin where I was incapable of doing just about anything for the better part of six months. This meant that I spent most of my time rewatching films I knew I already loved or were perfect for whatever mood I was in at the time. I obsessively rewatched the work of David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Rob Zombie for this reason. Movies that are tough. If you were to look at my newer viewings there’s a pattern and that would be the frequent appearances of films from the New Hollywood movement, highlighting the work of Jane Fonda specifically. Our film industry is not getting the job done in criticizing the total failure of the United States government to combat climate change or do anything of importance besides lining the pockets of wolves. That is not the case in the 1970s which has proven to give me something resembling solace in the fact that public figures like Jane Fonda were willing to say things like “this is inhuman” and pointing the finger directly at those in power. I think I’ll be watching New Hollywood well into the current administration, because Iron Man is never going to say our President is corrupt. Alan Pakula will.

*everything is eligible except movies from 2017 and 2018*

1. Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971)
2. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (David Production 2012-2018)
3. Breakaway (Bruce Conner and Toni Basil, 1966

4. Little Women (Gillian Armstrong, 1994)
5. Gunbuster (Hideaki Anno, 1988)
6. Taipei Story (Edward Yang, 1985)
7. Two for the Road (Stanley Donen, 1967)
8. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sidney Pollack, 1969)
9. Porky Pig’s Feat. (Frank Tashlin, 1943)
10. Fantasmagorie (Emile Cohl, 1908)
11. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Frank Tashlin, 1957)
12. Kate Bush: Live at the Hammersmith Odeon (Keith MacMillan, 1979)
13. The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin, 1956)
14. Starstruck (Gillian Armstrong, 1982)
15. What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor, 1932)
16. Cash on Demand (Quentin Lawrence, 1962)
17. Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978)
18. All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
19. Fight Zatoichi, Fight! (Kenji Misumi, 1964)
20. Drunken Angel (Akira Kurosawa, 1948)
21. A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954)
22. True Stories (David Byrne, 1986)
23. Gaea Girls (Kim Longinotto, 2000)
24. “Amelia”- Trilogy of Terror (Dan Curtis, 1975)
25. Nightmare (Freddie Francis, 1964)
26. Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1932)
27. Artists and Models (Frank Tashlin, 1955)
28. Swing, You Sinners! (Dave Fleischer, 1930)
29. What’s Up Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972)
30. Avalon (Mamoru Oshii, 2001)

31. Phantasm IV: Oblivion (Don Coscarelli, 1998)
32. The People vs. Larry Flynt (Milos Forman, 1997)
33. Maggie’s Plan (Rebecca Miller, 2015)
34. Godzilla vs. Mothra: The Battle for Earth (Takao Okawara, 1992)
35. The Intern (Nancy Meyers, 2015)
36.Tout va Bien (Jean-Luc Godard, 1972)
37. The Line, The Cross and The Curve (Kate Bush, 1993)
38. Kill the Day (Lynne Ramsay, 1996)
39. Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (Hajime Sato, 1968)
40. Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)
41. I Could Never Be Your Woman (Amy Heckerling, 2007)

42. A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964)

43. The Mummy (Terrence Fisher, 1959)

44. Mermaids (Richard Benjamin, 1990)
45. Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1969)
46. Variety (Bette Gordon, 1983)
47. “The Watcher”- Thriller (John Brahm, 1960)

48. The Hands of the Ripper (Peter Sasdy, 1971)

49. By Hook or By Crook (Silas Howard, 2001)

50. The Linguine Incident (Richard Shepard, 1991)

Green and White: A High School Graduation, Lost Girlhood and Adolescent Stasis

On the day of my graduation they sorted us into two separate groups based on gender. This was something they always used to do, even if it felt archaic. It was our school’s own way of keeping things segregated and uniform. Our school was big on that word: uniformity. If you didn’t fit a certain degree of wealth, skin pigmentation or overall presentation you were mostly left to your own devices. That’s how I got to my own graduation day, despite not really having the grades or the work ethic to have earned that diploma. I was smart, that much was sure, but I couldn’t have accounted for just how badly things would turn at around my thirteenth birthday. 

When transgender people discuss their first puberty they say things like “it hit me like a ton of bricks” or “something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it”, but those diagnoses didn’t really fit what happened to me. Puberty didn’t hit me like a tidal wave or any other exaggerated environmental descriptor to metaphorically mean “unwanted erections” or something else that was just as sinister. No, puberty didn’t really hit me at all, and that was the central problem. I went through life looking like a large twelve-year old with a featureless face and enough accumulated weight to hide the fact that I didn’t have curves or muscles. It was my body’s own way of shielding me from any concrete gender designation. I hardly felt real at all. Part of that was my own doing, but in truth it was a coping mechanism to deal with the issues I was having in my absent adolescence. I needed a girlhood, but what I grew up with couldn’t rightly be given that word and all that comes with it. What I experienced was something more akin to stasis where I waited on my body’s systems to finally come alive and turn me into the woman I knew that I was. It’d be years before this happened, but I already knew what was wrong with me. I was transgender, but I couldn’t transition in that environment.

Spending each morning vomiting or making up excuses to miss school, due to the anxiety of having to present as male and being horrified of how other boys would react to your own latent femininity isn’t much of a childhood. As the years went on and everyone began to consider me an adult, despite the image of my own body, I became more distraught at my complete lack of a future, and this all came to a head on the day of my high-school graduation. 

Sliding a green gown over the shape of my body felt wrong. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just accept what gender was given to me in life. Pushing an objective fact like “you are a woman” to the back of your mind in hopes of stamping it out entirely doesn’t really work when something as mammoth as gender comes into play. It effects everything. How you’re seen, how people react to you, and what kind of life you’d live. Our society is built upon these very ideas, and they haven’t changed much with wave after wave of feminism begetting worse men and elected officials. As badly as we’d like things to change assholes keep making things difficult. So if everything is effected by gender and people expect you to live as someone that isn’t who you are it damages every single facet of your life. I knew this when I stood in that church waiting to celebrate with all my classmates. Most were happy, others unsure, but only I was quiet. 

I walked upstairs and sat in am empty pew, resentful of god, but still willing to pray for help. Before I could get much further than “Dear god” a teacher of mine sat down beside me, and said, “you’ve always been a little bit of a loner haven’t you?”. I could have cried if my body would have let me. Maybe this was God’s own way of speaking to me, because she did calm me down enough to keep me from having a panic attack. She said, “whatever the future holds. It will be yours”. I still think about those words to this day. 

When I walked downstairs it didn’t take long for me to start spiraling again. Most of the other boys were talking about potential military service or going off to Junior College to play football. Someone asked me what I was going to do after high school, and I told them I was going to be a writer, but I wanted to say I was going to become a woman. In rural Kentucky, there’s not much worse a teenage boy could want to be, and you especially don’t say these things in a church. It wouldn’t be long before the actual ceremony took place, and I sat there without talking to anyone, stewing in my own mind, standing at a cross-roads looking for an answer that was obvious, but one I was too afraid to reach out and grasp.   

Miserable would be an understatement when I saw every girl in my graduating class lined up alongside me in white gowns. I remember looking down at the definition of my own perceived maleness, stained in emerald. This is how the world saw you. This is the childhood they gave you. This is everything wrong with your life, illuminated in the colour of a gown that isn’t white. I thought of everything I lost that I’d never have in my own hesitation to state my own girlhood. I wanted nothing more than to be on the other side of the aisle. A daughter to be proud of. Someone with a future. A woman. Instead, I was an obituary waiting to happen, we all are, but mine was going to come too soon for reasons never stated. As I grabbed my diploma, adorned in gold with a name I had long ago forsaken, I had this feeling of utter failure cascading around me. I’d never get these years back or these chances at being myself. They don’t make movies about teenagers who refuse to live, and they don’t write songs about teenagers who barely exist. They won’t remember you if you fade into the background. It’ll be like you were never there. 

I didn’t throw my graduation cap up in the air. I didn’t see the point of it. I didn’t see the point in much of anything those days, except obsessive thoughts of longing over a person I wanted to be, and grieving over her non-existence. The image of me, sitting hunched over, wearing the colours of my own assumed funeral as the optimism of everyone else tumbled around me, must have been a striking image. Everyone moved forward. I sat still. Caps fell to the ground like rain. Except this one person who wore it like a cross to bear. I’ll never heal from what I lost in my absent girlhood growing up. A quiet reminder that you cannot build a house without a foundation.  

Today, I rarely ever wear the colour green. My best friend frequently tells me that I look great in that shade, but I’m not quite ready to reclaim that colour for myself. 

I do wear white.
I’d give anything for that to have always been true. 

Body Talk: Conversaions on Transgender Cinema with Caden Gardner: Part Eight

Body Talk is an ongoing series of transcribed conversations on Transgender Cinema as the two of us prepare to write a book on the subject. This installment of Body Talk is on the trap narrative in genre cinema.

Willow Maclay: If I were ever in a situation where I had to start dating again I would fear for my life, because I’m perceived as a cisgender woman by society at large, but I am not one. I’m an actual living late plot twist, and if someone wanted to murder me for this reason they likely wouldn’t face jail time. I would have it coming, because I was a liar. I was scary. I pushed him too far by saying I was something that, let’s be real, no one considers you are, unless you’ve had surgery, and I haven’t had surgery. That’s still some time away, and it could always be pushed back again, so I live as a late act twist that never had to be revealed, because I’ve been fortunate enough to fall in love with a man who loved me for me, and wasn’t threatened by the inbetween-ness of my genitals.

This is not the case for most people. I am not the majority, and I am lucky.

In a larger cultural sense it all started with Psycho (1960). It was the late act reveal that a character wasn’t who they were supposed to be, and it was the demonic femininity of men in dresses and lace that became the lasting image. Yes, she was stabbed in the shower and the music pierced us all, but the killer behind the blade was a man who thought he was a woman, and genre filmmaking have been milking this for all its worth ever since.

This doesn’t happen in real life, but the closest image we have to the manic tranny with a blade between her legs is that of actual transgender women. We are the broken and the damned and worse than that, we might just be psychotic. We might just kill you. There are more instances of trans woman appearing as murderers in movies than there are good films featuring actual trans women in meaty, acceptable, dense roles that approach their humanity with something resembling respect for the difficulty it takes to be trans. The murderer has persisted. We haven’t.

In this segment of Body Talk we’re going to be discussing that plot device. Caden, when did you first see a movie that used this narrative trope?

Caden Gardner: We’ve talked about this in the previous installment of Body Talk that primarily dealt with cis actors in trans roles. That conversation also spilled over into cheap third act reveals of characters who, ‘Are not what they appear to be’. Some of that ranged from The Crying Game to Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. These characters are not murderers, but unstable and in the latter’s case a villain, with the comedic effect of the reveal played for gross-out laughs and showing how normalized the trope had become. I remember the ongoing gag in the Austin Powers series of removing a wig from a character who appeared to be a woman with Austin exclaiming, ‘It’s a man, baby!’ So I saw the jokes first, how situationally, the panic and anxiety was normalized by the status quo and how the ugly stereotypes within those fears became the punchline. Then I got into the fear and panic at the heart of earlier films than those comedies.

Now I had seen Psycho but I always found Norman Bates an incredibly sympathetic, tic-filled, ball of anxiety. Anthony Perkins gave Norman depth, layers, and even humanity, where you can retroactively, after the twist, realize how at war he is with himself. Hitchcock allowed you to root for him when he was covering up Marion Crane’s murder by sinking the car. I had seen Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake which sexualized Norman’s voyeurism. Van Sant opted for a shot for shot remake so the contemporary knowledge of this twist informs everything Norman does, and after so many Psycho knock-offs where transness is at the forefront and tied explicitly to the twist it becomes an entirely different experience, and not a better one. To move away from Psycho, slightly, one such example of this trope that I came to know very early in my life was Robert Hiltzik’s 1983 slasher Sleepaway Camp.

I’d like you to get into that, but before I do, Willow, as I think you eloquently stated your position on that film and twist in Cleo a few years back.

WM: I similarly don’t have many problems with Psycho, even if I think the last ten minutes is an unnecessary and ultimately clumsy act of explanation. What separates Psycho from many of the films we are going to be discussing in this installment of Body Talk is that it is not fundamentally hinged upon the twist ending. There’s a lot going on in Psycho and cinephiles, at least, remember much much more than Norman’s cross-dressing and murdering. The craft in that movie is maybe the zenith of Alfred Hitchcock’s career. If one wants to argue that Hitchcock was a master of control then Psycho is the last movie where that is easily apparent. I find his period after Psycho fascinating, because he loses grip of his movies, but that’s another conversation. Psycho is a totem for a reason and I love it, even if it unintentionally spawned many poorer copy-cat films.

One of these is Sleepaway Camp , which you brought up. I’ve seen that movie a half-dozen times for one reason or another. The only movie I outright hate that holds that distinction. I wrote about it for Cleo Journal, but the gist of my problem with Sleepaway Camp is that it intentionally makes the reveal horrific and the movie only works as a late act plot twist. Everything beforehand is slop to say the least. If it weren’t for the fact that these filmmakers wanted to show a girl with a dick the movie wouldn’t be remembered. One could argue that final scene is useful in pointing out how cisgender people view transgender bodies. I don’t think that’s a bad idea, but I think it’s a cynical one, that doesn’t carry as much weight when placed against the brunt of that characters struggles to deal with her own body. Angela isn’t trans, but her body is how cis people perceive transgender bodies and the co-signing this film has for the horror of the onlookers is damning. It’s a horrifying image to have Angela slack jawed, completely nude, caught in mid-scream, heaving like a demon. It is even worse that those onlookers react with total disgust of her body. They don’t find her murders horrific, but she has a dick? That’s the scariest shit ever. There’s no covering that up and reclaiming the image. It’s the only image people talk about with Sleepaway Camp, because the movie is otherwise shit. It’s canonized, because of that image. An image that doesn’t have the cultural staying power of Buffalo Bill tucking in his genitals, but it is nevertheless synonymous with the phrase “chick with a dick”. Being one myself, I can tell you, it’s not all that tantalizing. It’s boring, mentally arduous on a personal level, and tucked away all of the time, but that doesn’t sell. Flaccid never does.

CG:  Sleepaway Camp makes Angela (Felissa Rose) a timid creature (and I do mean creature, the film is too trashy and low-brow for any humanity in anybody, but especially her) that then becomes a dehumanized monster by the end. It dates back to her crazy aunt that the audience gets doses of through flashback. Angela is forced-femmed (for lack of a better word) by that aunt, her history rooted in a trauma to a horrific accident that claims members of her family, that includes her sister, the real Angela, that is shown in the flashback that begins the film. So Angela is living as a woman and being socialized as a young feminine girl. This was not her choice or inherently innate to her. She never outright states that she saw herself as a woman. I recall that people treat Sleepaway Camp’s twist as a surprise but the film does leave clues that honestly have the subtleties of anvils. Angela is confronted by girl bullies for her timidity, sniffing her out like she has something to hide from the get-go. She doesn’t go swimming, she doesn’t take her clothes off, and she does not shower in the presence of others. As if saying to the audience “What’s up with that?” and these bullies will not quit trying to figure her out. What is disturbing about this film for me is that it emboldens the suspicions of those wretched characters by having that twist with Angela exist. The film, unintentionally, almost predicts gender gatekeepers who want to harass any ‘not normal-looking’ person who goes to their preferred bathroom or dressing room of fucking Target in Anytown, USA that can then extend into law with not so enforceable anti-trans bathroom bills and ordinances in those areas of the country. I think there could have been many films where the version would be to humanize Angela, or give her depth, a sense of who she is or how she relates to her body in being socialized female when she has this whole history about her. But she lives by the twist and dies by the twist in that image that is haunting not for the body count she leaves, but in how the film can treat that character type, thinly drawn mind you, with such animosity and inhumanity.

People can be quick to dismiss any concerns about this film as, ‘It’s only a movie’ or ‘It’s just a cheap slasher’, but for me we have gone through a lot of genre films that explore the body and gender in fascinating ways and also see how even when seeing real monsters like Jame Gumb in The Silence of The Lambs, that there can be moments of humanity in seeing pain and confusion and not just a cheap twist, thrills, and kills.

WM: As a diehard fan of the genre I’m typically more forgiving of horror films for being uncaring, but I think Sleepaway Camp is merciless in a way that isn’t fun to watch at all. I’ve heard better things about the sequels, in that, they have a sense of humour about the subject matter, but I haven’t watched any of them to date. I know Laura Jane Grace (Against Me!) is a big fan of Sleepaway Camp, but I don’t see the value in reclaiming it unless you take up an entire fuck the world attitude, which I wouldn’t begrudge any trans person for having, but that isn’t me. Moreso than being offended, I find the entire affair just catastrophically boring, even for the relatively conservative structure behind slasher films. My main issue with Sleepaway Camp, beyond the obvious, is that if they were going to go with that ending why not lean all the way into it and make it so completely offensive all the way through, negating the twist, and basking in the glow of being a fucked up movie instead of half-assing it by sweeping the big reveal under the rug? It’s just annoying, and it’s not the only movie of this type to exist. In a larger cultural sense though, it’s probably the most famous example in the horror genre of this trope outside of Psycho. Sleepaway Camp definitely has more cultural staying power than something like Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, which annoys me all the more, because at least Dressed to Kill has the common decency to be well made. De Palma, as much as he annoys me sometimes, was never asleep behind the wheel. He always directed something 100%, but Sleepaway Camp? It’s barely a movie, but in the horror community it has been canonized. Their opinion being that It’s worth getting through the slog, because you’ll get to the girl with the dick. The only image in the movie.

CG: The early 1980s Slashers, basically Friday The 13th (speaking of a Psycho rehash) and after, had a habit of being in conversation with the genre by responding to one movie’s ridiculousness- be it kills or twists- and outdoing it. Resulting horror films were in conversation with Friday the 13th , because it was a huge success, and even Friday the 13th itself was in conversation with Psycho and Halloween (1978). They took the twists and the formula and embellished it in their own mold, but the results, were as you state, half-baked and cheap. I probably do read like a moralist, I actually do love a lot of the horror films from that era, even some that are well, not exactly expertly made cinema and have a nihilist streak about humanity, but I find the canonization of that film to be a mistake in taste. I am sure some of the appeal is the sleaziness and trash, the lowbrow of it all that horror nerds can embrace in ways cineastes and more mainstream audiences do not.

This brings up Brian De Palma. His cinema is sleazy and trashy, but well-done in a way where his commanding scope and playfulness in artifice gave him a lot of respectability (his fans ranged from Pauline Kael to Quentin Tarantino) and currency that still endures today with a lot of cinephiles and film critics in our age-group. He recently had a birthday which on social media seems to give an opportunity for cinephiles that I follow to rank his films. Unsurprisingly, even if I am left quite disappointed, Dressed To Kill seemed to come up frequently as a favorite of people who profess their love of De Palma. I always have an impulse whenever I see it come up in conversation to explore why people like it and reconcile that with the fact that it is definitively a transphobic film.

To be clear, I do not want to #CancelBrianDePalma or act like there’s a moral failing on the part of these people, some of whom I do consider good friends, for liking the movie or finding something to like in the film. I have curiously heard people who have written books that feature Dressed To Kill, state that it is not about transness but goodness. But I bring you this: from the maestro himself who was informed entirely about the film’s transwoman killer from real-life trans woman Nancy Hunt whose story from Phil Donahue he places into the narrative of his film. It is an unsubtle wink and clue of the twist that still angers me upon reflection.

WM: I’ll start by being very upfront that Brian De Palma and I have a complicated relationship as filmmaker and viewer. I adore some of his films and consider them to be all time favourites, like Carrie, which we’ve both praised, and Blow-Out, which is without a doubt one of the best films of the 1980s. My issues with De Palma, and these issues are only mine, is that I’m annoyed by his treatment of women. I get frustrated that, without fail, especially in this period, they seem to be killed in exceedingly gruesome ways after their sexual usefulness has been wrung dry. De Palma’s a very horny director, which is fine, but I don’t get a huge thrill out of watching him have an obvious hard-on for the women in his movies. Does this make me a prude? Probably. Does it make me a hypocrite, because I love Dario Argento, who does basically the same things? Also probably. We’re made of contradictions. I’m allowed to have mine, but with Dressed to Kill it is a different issue entirely, and that’s one where I think he runs into this gigantic problem of mixing the absurdity of the late act plot twist in Psycho with real life problems transgender people have. Psycho is not a relatable target in any estimation, but Dressed to Kill certainly is for two reasons. First the inclusion of Nancy Hunt and also due to the discussion of sex reassignment surgery which is a mirroring scene explaining transness, poorly I might add, that is an homage to Psycho’s transvestite explanation. Norman was never a transvestite in Psycho, but Robert Elliott is canonically transgender and De Palma uses that as a crutch for his worst tendencies as a director towards things like castration anxiety, the femme fatale and domination.

The problem is that all of these autuerist tics are only noticeable in the form if you’ve seen half a dozen Brian De Palma movies, but if you’re coming to Dressed to Kill as a new viewer it just looks like a blanket “psycho tranny killed women because she couldn’t be one herself” story. I’m not saying movies have to reflect reality and every movie about a trans character has to be nice. Far from it; what I am saying is that it becomes a problem when something that works on an individual level becomes a pattern, and the murderous tranny is definitely a pattern. I have much less problems with these movies compared to the issues I have with the trope. I think Dressed to Kill, in particular, is a really well made film, but when you’ve seen this story more than a dozen times it becomes boring, and it doesn’t really do transgender people any favours in real life that our entire cinematic language hinges on a late act twist.

Did I ever tell you the story of when I came out for the first time on a film forum back in 2011? Well, one person commented, and I’m still friends with this person, “what a twist!”. If that isn’t transness at the intersection of movies I don’t know what is, and the shame of it all is that we could be a lot more if given additional narrative space.

CG:  You never told me about that! I felt similarly that when I came out online- and I admit to being pretty guarded about my online anonymity for a very long time- that there were days of reverberations where some responses were akin to it being a twist ending. Not all gave this commentary of ‘I didn’t have a clue’ or ‘I didn’t see that coming’, but many did see it as a narrative of sorts, as though I had planted and stunted this as a plot thread when in actuality, I was in a very bad place mentally. I felt helpless and it felt was necessary that I come out because it was an election year and one side was absolutely more hostile and transphobic than the other (hint: it wasn’t the Democrats). I have mixed feelings about how I went about it- but that was mostly because I was also in an alcoholic fog and my nerves and mode of behaviors operated differently then as opposed to now, which hey, now I actually am open, out, and have a lot more control because I am transitioning and not trapped in hostility, shame, and the closet.

Now back to Dressed To Kill, I looked back on the way the film was seen then and now, constantly feeling disappointed that nobody who seems to want to champion the film can really ever confront ‘the twist’. It can often just be mentioned in a sentence, admitting to trans woman serial killer as ‘cartoonishly stigmatizing’ as The New Republic did a few years back but at the same time declare that critics should surrender their prudish sides and embrace DePalma’s ‘pure cinema’. Or you can talk around it, in the name of spoilers I suppose, and just use catch-all phrases as ‘sleazy’ or ‘bizarre’ in the twists the film has. Some do not so much dismiss the transphobia but label it as pulp treatment of something real. Then you have a little more problematic readings, some of which I think unconsciously white-wash the transphobia of the maker, by labeling Robert Elliott/Bobbi as schizophrenic and pretending that was DePalma’s intention when he admits he crafted and was inspired by trans women and then linking it to Jekyll & Hyde ‘two sides’ of a person who switches upon sexual stimulation. Now, of course DePalma’s knowledge of transness is off as he only sees the surface but he made a deliberate choice to insert Nancy Hunt’s own image in his movie. He uses clips but if you look up Nancy Hunt, you would also know that she similarly rejects trans as trauma and trans as pathology, viewing the mental health community as hostile towards trans people rather than helpful to her and many people in her position. Hunt lives forever in certain transgender archives but she is used ghoulishly in a film where the director laughs and chuckles like the Keith Gordon character about the idea of a trans woman.

Keith Phipps, to his credit, did confront the transphobia of the film when Dressed To Kill was released on the popular arthouse label The Criterion Collection. But he appears to be an anomaly to cinephiles and critics that probably do not really see the problem of the movie in the way that you and I do. As far as De Palma himself, it perhaps comes off like I hate him. I hate this film, although I find it revealing in ways that he may have not intended, even beyond the transphobia. But I like a lot of his work and quite a bit of it is built within his sense of cinematic language and artifice. However, as Kam Austin Collins succinctly put it in his Letterboxd log, you may love that Museum of Modern Art set-piece, the split diopters, and unreal quality of the moviemaking of fake outs upon fake outs but, “The transphobia is real”.

WM: I love Kam (read him at Vanity Fair). For my money he’s the best working film critic right now, and he’s absolutely right. Dressed to Kill does have an unreal quality of moviemaking that lays on top of this pretty vile center. Isn’t it frustrating that Brian De Palma may have more natural talent as a director than maybe anyone who has ever stepped behind the camera and he mostly uses it to worry about his dick? As far as just pure fucking cinema there are few directors with more skill or have made movies that are as luxurious to watch as De Palma. However, more often than not he almost always does something that creates distance in my ability to fully appreciate his works, and that’s most readily apparent in Dressed to Kill, which is a movie I championed before I came out, but afterwards was hesitant towards showering praise upon. I could more easily ignore the shitty political nature of the movie before I came out, because I was foolish enough to think that wasn’t me, but now I just find it annoying. I’m not even offended by its clumsy handling of gender politics, I just find it dull. Like, by the end it’s, “oh this is obviously a riff on Psycho. I don’t give a shit”. De Palma was like his dad, Alfred Hitchcock, in his ability to completely control all aspects of technical filmmaking, but De Palma’s career is without the same barriers Hitchcock had which negated some of Alfred’s worst tendencies toward women. As a stanch supporter of Marnie, I’d be wary of calling this a bad thing, but it certainly makes me wonder what Brian De Palma could have done in a system where some of his decisions were checked a little more often, because Dressed to Kill is almost embarrassingly a copycat of things better than that movie: Psycho, and giallo plotting. Even the films best scene: the elevator murder is lifted almost directly from the climax of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, even down to the outfit Bobbi is wearing.

CG: “Isn’t it frustrating that Brian De Palma may have more natural talent as a director than maybe anyone who has ever stepped behind the camera and he mostly uses it to worry about his dick?” That is a pretty inescapable route to take for even his admirers, as the Jake Paltrow-Noah Baumbach documentary on De Palma shows (and I would recommend watching in relation to some of his films and again, De Palma’s unconscious revelations and confessions about his own relationships to his work, other films, and his personal life). When Pauline Kael, notoriously anti-Hitchcock but pro-De Palma, gave a write-up on Dressed To Kill, she wrote that De Palma has a self-awareness that makes his films have a vein of humor due to how open De Palma is open about his id, “What makes it funny is that it’s permeated with the distilled essence of impure thoughts. De Palma has perfected a near-surreal poetic voyeurism—the stylized expression of a blissfully dirty mind,” believing that Dressed To Kill is a great example about the inherent voyeuristic nature of movies. And I get that appeal and how uninhibited De Palma is, but it is also why I find Dressed To Kill narrow. He was in therapy at the time, but seems to hate psychological readings of the sexual stimulation of a beautiful woman when aimed at himself or his characters.. And of course this male gaze has a certain preferred image of a woman. It is a cisgender woman, not women like Nancy Hunt as he clearly does not consider trans women to be women at all. The uninhibited nature of his work that exists in Body Double, such as the ‘Relax’ sequence, does feel more genuine and not as isolating as opposed to Dressed To Kill where the authorial voice of the film finds people like myself to be disgusting and something to laugh at, or consequentially, nightmare fuel. Dressed to Kill notoriously opens with an insert of a naked woman in the shower that is supposed to be Angie Dickinson’s character- but is so obviously not and De Palma knows it- and if that’s what turns the guy on, then good for him, but he clearly sees trans women as men clothed head to toe in wigs passing through and absolutely not wanting to explore anything beyond the surface. It always frustrates me that when a bad boy director is celebrated for liberation and rebellion , but ends up showing there are actually lines drawn in what they find acceptable and that the ideas of other kinds of people existing beyond their ideal, coveted image of femininity go ‘too far’ for them.

While De Palma’s biggest fans that I know are straight men, I do know plenty of queer people and cis women who also think he’s great, but this film was enough to keep me at a distance. What’s not to like about De Palma?’ was something I’ve heard. Hell, when I read a recent piece on Dressed To Kill it said verbatim, ‘If you don’t like this [Dressed To Kill], then you don’t like movies.’ I know that people often are in the mood to rehabilitate Dressed To Kill as, like William Friedkin’s serial killer film Cruising, it had protests and vocal dissenters for the movie at the time (not for the transphobia to be clear, but for the violence against women in the film— at the hands of the transgender serial killer). It was a film that in De Palma’s own words did good business. Yes, it got Razzie nominations (I mean, so did Kubrick’s The Shining) but I think the canonization and reclamation of Dressed To Kill for the canon missed more points of view along the way in terms of looking at it now and its cultural significance. But it is a lot more attractive to treat the film as an object of buried treasure or hidden gem which Dressed To Kill is treated as than it is to listen to a dissenting opinion.

WM: I know plenty of trans women who love Dressed to Kill, as well as Sleepaway Camp, and I find no problem with this even if I have my own issues with these movies, but I would genuinely love to hear what it is about those two in particular that speaks to them. Maybe it’s a level of honesty from cisgender voices of how we’re actually viewed without the semblance of political correctness bearing tolerance of our own gender? Or it could be as simple as thinking Dressed to Kill has stellar camerawork and Sleepaway Camp is too goofy to take seriously, and again, these are good enough reasons to like a film, but I have larger culturally specific reasons why these movies in particular rub me the wrong way. One major issue I have with Brian De Palma protesting to psychological readings of his movies is that if we were to push away at these things then I’m unsure what depth De Palma has other than as a sexual charlatan or his admittedly, fantastic camera work, which again, is fine, but I find that lacking in girth. De Palma is most interesting to me when I’m trying to figure out how he feels about women in his movies, because that’s absolutely his central hang-up. The Fuck and Kill mentality. Marriage never really comes into the equation. I can see on some level why cisgender women like De Palma’s women and his eroticism, because it’s brutish, tough, and these women are generally arsenic and don’t give a fuck and there’s definitely something appealing in that, but his treatment of transgender women is completely fucking different. We’re the great American nightmare. The total destruction of the male body. The malleability of our flesh into that of a woman’s is horrifying to him or at least perversely interesting, which might be more honest than not, but when I watch Dressed to Kill I get the sense that he finds bodies like mine absolutely disgusting (disclaimer: I’m closer to Michelle Pfieffer than Michael Caine, sorry Brian).

Part of me wonders if Brian De Palma could potentially have bedded a trans woman by mistake and then felt his heterosexuality capsize as a result. I don’t think that’s an insane thing to think, no? Pure speculation on my part, but he has this strange mixture of self-hatred and lust when talking about or engaging with transness. In the cinema of De Palma if the body of a woman is the ultimate act of cinematic ecstasy then the body of a trans woman is the total destruction of orgasm. A trans woman is castration, and therein lies his greatest anxieties. Dressed to Kill is fascinating for these reasons. It’s the kind of movie you could talk about all day in the context of De Palma’s work. Where it’s more boring is in the greater landscape of trap narratives in movies where it’s mostly the same old thing.

CG: Yes, we are not seeking to bury and ban Dressed To Kill, but the film’s significance is tied to a trope that, as we noted, involves revelation or a twist that’s tied to transness in this negative way. And I totally get your speculation on the root of where this came from (De Palma insists it was just from seeing Nancy Hunt he also grew up in a New York City where the Warhol Superstars were in the same film underground he started in the late 1960s, I find it unbelievable if he did not find himself in the same space- if by pure incident- with cross-dressers or trans women at some factory party to watch independent films), as I often speculate why does there exist moments in movies where a pickup of a trans woman for sex leads to a shocking revelation and male outburst for being ‘tricked’ (think Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting). Even on a more intellectual level, I wonder what is Jesse Singal’s deal (and I am not alone) over his obsession with trans women in his writing. But to get back to our mining through this narrative, I want to return to Psycho as the genesis even if it is not dealing with cross-dressing or gender dysphoria. We have of course talked about the riffs and knock-offs but what is fascinating is how quickly the knock-offs also produced the connection of this reveal to the villain or killer ‘not being who we think they are’ as far their gender and done so in genre-film, B-movie fashion.

WM: There are so many throwaway scenes of cis men fucking trans women and throwing a fit that give absolutely nothing back to the movie it would be impossible to count them all. This goes doubly for throwaway scenes where cis guys clock a trans woman and make fun of her. This even happens in Zodiac (2007) of all things, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why that scene in particular exists. Is it to reaffirm we’re in San Fransisco and cops are jerks? Seems pretty fucking basic considering Fincher, but that scene has also stuck out to me as a microcosm of  issues of transness depicted on screen, and in a larger macro level when that scene is pulled out to its fullest length that’s when you get things like Dressed to Kill. I don’t think cis people get how fucking exhausting that is and how much you have to reconcile to watch movies and realize that these things are just going to happen. Or even, god’s inferior child, Television. For example, There is not a sitcom that exists that won’t take a jab at trans people, and we don’t even worry about these things, because there’s bigger fish to fry with our own issues. Like our passports being denied and the living hell that is the current government of the United States.

CG:  William Castle’s 1961 Psycho knock-off Homicidal is a doozy and laughably trashy in its twists and turns. Its killer is a double-role for Jean Arliss (a pseudonym for Hal Ashby’s wife Joan Marshall) who plays Warren and Emily. So the twist is that the audience sees Emily commit murders and she notably, despite being described as Warren’s fiancee, is never in the same room as her groom-to-be. In the dialed-up, pure William Castle, 3rd act Emily is revealed as Warren, complete with a classic wig removal. Then, much like that awful psychologist explaining it all in Psycho, we get an explanation. Warren was socialized male but- and this is where it really gets crazy- he was biologically born female. His father wanted a son and his mother insisted to keep up the stunt (that apparently worked in ways that are a little unclear— I don’t think Castle and company thought all of this through but complaining about plot-holes from William Castle is just barking up the wrong tree) that included the county clerk marking the birth certificate male. I think there was far more work done to Warren in this ‘forced masc’ tale as we get an allusion to Christine Jorgensen’s sex-change operation by the line, “Then Helga took Warren to Denmark. What happened there, we don’t know”, as the American Jorgensen in the 1950s got her operation in Denmark (similarly, Ed Wood’s 1953 film Glen or Glenda was inspired and marketed as being connected to Jorgensen’s story that caught global public attention). Warren became Emily, fully living, socializing, and possibly getting the medical assistance in hormones and operations but returns home to collect inheritance money, having to return to Warren, a life full of trauma, confusion, and haunted by ghosts and figures of her past. The film is silly and as I speak to the characterization of Warren/Emily deeply problematic, but I see this as necessary to point to the fact that the evolution of the Psycho narrative is more than just Ed Gein (who also inspired The Silence of The Lambs). Clearly, this narrative has been a point of entry into some of the biggest tropes and misconceptions about transgender characters.

WM: I find William Castle’s capitalist urges really earnest. He was a the filmmaker equivalent of a big tent ring leader of the wackiest carnival that ever came to home and there’s something appealing about that kind of salesman. It’s hard to be offended by someone who made The Tingler and whose sole interest in life seemed to be scaring teenagers right at the point where they started to make out during his terrible movies. Homicidal isn’t really any different than the other movies he made, but of interest to us, because of some gender fucker-y. Earlier in this installment of Body Talk I said I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with Sleepaway Camp if it knew how to lean into the absurdity of its source material. Well, this is exactly what I’m referring to when I say lean into your batshit insane idea. So, it’s more fun than harmful. It’s difficult to raise your pitchforks over something this silly, but let’s get into something that is silly on paper, but isn’t in execution.

Caden I want to know what you think of Sion Sono’s Strange Circus, because it flips the gender on the opposite spectrum of this typical trope, which more directly effects you.

CG: I’m admittedly not well-versed on Sion Sono’s cinema and Strange Circus was, to my knowledge, the first film of his that I’ve watched. It is fascinating as it does go back to you mentioning the exhaustion of viewing media as a trans person, where these movies constantly clock or misgender their characters. The character, Yuji (Issei Ishida) is gender fluid but believed to be male assigned at birth assistant to our protagonist. Yuji is constantly peppered with uncomfortable questions about his ‘asexual’ appearance. For a film that is full of sex, rape, and trauma, Yuji at first appears like a sissy stereotype for his long hair (in being trans male, it is admittedly difficult to ‘pass’ with long hair, although Yuji’s hair veers close to David Bowie in Labyrinth) and lanky physical appearance. Basically, Sono’s rude, invasive characters who quiz Yuji about his look are proven right with Yuji admitting that he was actually a female assigned at birth and that his traumas and mental illness inform his identity which to that point, then becomes synonymous with his trans identity. How predictable, how boring.

What is disappointing is Sono desperately wants to be among the misfits and outsiders, with Strange Circus having a kind of cabaret pretension, as this is where the film starts and ends, the film’s named after this club of cross-dressers and drag queens. The extremity that Sono likes to fashion that he is doing though, much like De Palma’s limited uninhibitedness in Dressed To Kill, falls short with the ‘tranny as killer’ trope. Yuji is unstable and in a circle of rebels with piercings and body modifications that symbolize their identity that are remarkable changes in their physical appearance, when Yuji reveals to them his ‘secret’ these exhibitionists are now shown mouth agape. Hypocrites. Yuji is seen as going ‘too far’. I’m reminded of Dressed To Kill of the lead character being haunted by Yuji in her dreams much like Robert Elliott/Bobbi haunts Nancy Allen. It is the flip side, so this is to say, trans men, although not as frequently, also take it on the chin in the trap narrative, which for every banal shot taken at androgyny and transness in something like a square family sitcom the trap narrative also finds its way into certified “cool” film directors like De Palma or Sono.

WM: So many of Sono’s films seem desperate to me, and while I like some of them, like Love Exposure and Suicide Club, I find his tics really aggressively on the nose. He’s working in a similar mode as Takashi Miike where he tries to follow these outsiders and misfits, but fails to capitalize on his freaks. Miike on the other hand sympathizes, pointing to a cultural reason for “why” these characters are outcasts, and emphasizes their own humanity, even if they turn out to be evil characters. Miike makes sure his characters are heard, even if they’re wrong. Sono on the other hand just points and asks the audience to “look”. Strange Circus is the worst film of his I’ve seen, because it so desperately wants to be trangressive and taboo in a really intellectual way, but what does it have to say about gender at all really? I can’t think of anything, even in the context of Japan’s more easygoing nature towards drag queens and cross-dressing in their entertainment. In Japan these representations are typically played for laughs, but like a trojan horse they emphasize the faults and struggles these characters face, which honestly gives them more depth. That’s key in genre cinema anywhere on any subject you want to tackle, but with Sono I typically don’t see depth and that is never worse than in Strange Circus. I don’t get why anyone would want to check out this movie when Visitor Q exists. That film is complicated, uncomfortable, formally daring but has guts in what it’s actually trying to convey about gender, family units and violence. The only new wrinkle in Strange Circus is that the gender of the typical trap trope is reversed, which is maybe meta, but it’s certainly thin.

CG: I thought a lot about the cultural context in Japan with Strange Circus and just found that I got a lot more out of twisted Oedipus Rex snapshot of ‘gay boy’ culture in Japan from Toshio Matsumoto’s 1969 masterpiece Funeral Parade of Roses as far as transness, and outsider narratives go. I similarly feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with Miike but I definitely agree with you that I sense he gives his characters a better chance for the audience to understand and even empathize with their extremities and peculiarities. It really can make a difference as far as saying ‘pay attention’ to the audience rather than insist on the audience give a gawking ‘look’ when it comes to portraying trans people in film.

And to go back to misfits vein that Sono strives for but falls into the trap narrative trope, I think about Tetsuro Takeuchi’s Wild Zero where a character is revealed to be trans and while the male protagonist becomes incredibly anxious and put off initially about this revelation Takeuchi has the film’s Greek Chorus, the J-rock band Guitar Wolf, tell the lead character Ace that love has “no boundaries, nationalities, or genders” and that he should get over that hang-up and follow his heart, which has him be in love with the trans woman, Tobio. Wild Zero does not really subvert the trap narrative (the body reveal happens), it confronts the anxieties around initial stigma in being trans and in love and falling in love with a somebody trans and then just goes with it in a pretty sweet if simplistic way amid the backdrop of an apocalyptic zombie invasion (there are just bigger fish to fry!). I dig Wild Zero for many reasons but it being a respite to the trap narrative goes a long way for me.

WM: I think with films like Wild Zero, various work from Takashi Miike, and even aspects of Homicidal we can see an “other side of the coin” effect with how to handle transness and typical tropes in genre cinema. Whereas some of the other films we’ve discussed like Sleepaway Camp and Dressed to Kill fail in various ways. I don’t think the intention we ever had here is to say that genre cinema is bad from a moral perspective, but that it needs to be smarter about applied tropes. I think there is a good film to be made about the trap narrative in genre cinema by subverting it and shifting the positional power therein but I haven’t seen one that quite fits what I’d want yet. I don’t need an empowerment movie necessarily, but one that understands the game, and by and large these directors who work primarily in genre cinema that we’ve discussed thus far, struggle with these things, and it comes back to needing more trans people involved in cinema. When our perspective gets heard. maybe then the narrative will shift from the trans woman who is a trap and in turn a murderer to the trans woman whose trans status is revealed and more likely to be killed, because that’s the reality underneath the trans trope. We’re the ones that suffer both in cinematic representation and in reality where we face the danger of being killed just for being trans. That’s what cinema has to learn.

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

Dante “Tex” Gill
Body Talk is an ongoing series of conversations about Transgender Cinema as we prepare to write our book “Corpses, Fools and Monsters: An Examination of Transgender Cinema:. This installment is on the question of Cisgender actors playing Transgender characters.

WILLOW MACLAY : Caden, it was about three weeks ago when news dropped that Scarlett Johansson was going to play Dante “Tex” Gillin a movie about his life entitled, “Rub and Tug” and for the most part cisgender people seemed surprised that there was a controversy. This is just the latest example of a cisgender actor playing a transgender person in a movie through outdated cross-gender casting, but the major difference here is that Scarlett actually stepped down from the role, but the film sadly, doesn’t seem to be going forward.I’ll admit that I was dubious of Rupert Sanders being allowed to make anything that could be considered a motion picture again, but it’s frustrating that this movie has just proven that for mainstream Hollywood it’s either cis actors playing trans characters or nothing at all. Typically, it’s cis men playing trans women, the legacy of which has been nothing short of damning, but this would have realistically been the first mainstream film about a trans man since Boys Don’t Cry, which we’ve already crucified. Rub and Tuglikely would’ve been compromised under any circumstances due to Sanders complete lack of talent, but I want to hear your thoughts on this issue, and later in this discussion we’ll get into the history of cisgender actors playing transgender characters.

CADEN GARDNER: The Rub & Tugpress release initially seemed to be dubious about Dante “Tex” Gill’s life story being a trans one. Tex Gill identified as a man,It appeared that those working on the film saw it as an Albert Nobbs situation where a cis woman disguises herself as a man for societal reasons rather than the root cause of gender dysphoria. There was an instant ferocity in the internet blowback after the film was announced, to which Johansson foolishly said: Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment”. This statement is essentially a defence built around the status quo of cis actors in these roles, and the ways in which they’ve been accepted by prestigious film and television voting boards. It is interesting that Johansson never mentioned an instance of a trans man role. She only brings up Huffman, a cis woman playing a trans woman, and Tambor and Leto, cis men, both playing trans women. It was incredibly tone-deaf. Johansson and her people definitely were leaning on the fact that Hollywood has given permission for her and other cis actors to take these roles like masks and costumes and bypass hiring a trans actor for the role. Honestly, when I got wind of Lukas Dhont’s Award winning film at Cannes, Girl,I found myself slightly taken aback by that film being cis actor in a trans role. I thought we were past this. I thought A Fantastic Woman and Tangerinewere signifiers: films that got critical plaudits and made noise on the Hollywood industry radar. I thought that cross-gender casting was becoming something of the past and that we were going to be getting more trans stories as played with trans actors. I felt so naïve to have thought that. So when this announcement happened, I was hurt by the news of the casting , but even moreso by how Johansson handled our criticism. I wanted the project to sink once she made that statement and frankly, I am glad it is gone. Then of course, through this whole controversy, I heard from cis people who seemed confused, as you said, by why this would be controversy. It was after all, ‘just acting’, according to them. I had many arguments over this casting dating back to Girl mostly on the conceit of casting and this continued with Rub & Tug, going from trans women as the target of this mis-casting to trans men. It was exhausting, and frankly, I felt even less heard and understood (Editor’s note: Take a look at how many trans women, including myself, who were asked to cover this issue compared to trans men). I felt many cis people, consciously or not, showed their true colors in reacting to this debacle. They seem mad that I wanted this project to sink given the circumstances. I’ll just repeat for this piece my reasons that I restated over and over: I do not know a trans man, myself included, who wants their life story told from the perspective of a woman. I do not know a trans woman that wants their life story portrayed by a man.

I do not think this is at all difficult to understand but what I am noticing is the power of telling stories on the screen, be it television and film, is that cis people do not want to abdicate a sliver of control. They are interested in our stories but on their terms. This was just another case. It died, but I doubt it will be the last time.

WM: You nailed it with that last paragraph. I, similarly, thought we were past this with the release of both Tangerine and A Fantastic Woman. I don’t like AFW, but that’s not because of Daniela Vega, who is excellent, but because the film is only interested in her oppression through redemption. I thought there would be a shift where we slowly chipped away at preconceptions of transness on screen, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in mainstream Hollywood. Television is a little bit different, and we’ll get to that later, but when there’s money on the line they only want big money stars. I found that to be an awkward excuse as well, where cis people would say things like “it can’t get made unless it has a big star attached and there are no trans stars that an average person wants to watch” I saw that excuse a lot and it was mildly humorous because they pointed out the problem without realizing it. There are no trans stars and the reason for that is they won’t fucking cast people like us. You can’t become a star if you’re not even given the chance to compete. There has to be a starting point, somewhere, in mainstream movies. We’re still waiting for that to happen.

A Fantastic Woman (2017)

wm cont: I was asked by the CBC to be a guest on their film program for Q Radio on this very topic, and there was 100s of comments in my mentions afterwards like “I guess superheroes can only play superheroes” or whatever, but if they had actually taken the time to listen to me they would have known my reasoning that I’ll repeat now: “if you would find it ridiculous for Colin Firth to play the Queen of England in cross-gender casting or any other man playing a woman, why make an exception for transgender people? If it’s because you don’t actually see us as who we are then that’s a problem you have to fix.” Cis people know in their heart of hearts if they REALLY consider us as who we say we are, and this whole ordeal has pointed me in the direction of a lot of people who don’t see us as the gender we are, but the one we were assigned at birth. Hollywood thinks that way.

CG: Yeah, and cis people really gave us no solution when they essentially asked us to wait our turn. When is that happening? What exactly is your idea of progress for our community? They do not answer because they do not know or they do not care. When there is this opportunity available to tell a trans story, why should we not speak out and protest this when there are actors in our community who could play Tex Gill? Again, they will just say it is acting, and then mention things like ‘I don’t need an actor having cancer to play a character with cancer’ because I totally like my gender dysphoria compared to a deadly disease, truly. There are no trans stars but there can be if given the opportunity. I would rather see some Hollywood player, be it a major Hollywood producer, or an actor, actress, or director with cachet push to tell these stories. If it means, loading the cast with known names but in the service of also raising the profile of the trans actor at the center with their story being told, I can support that. Instead it is more or less stuff like the ScarJo controversy and something similarly with her Avengers co-star Mark Ruffalo producing an independent film called Anything about a trans woman sex worker played by…. Matt Bomer. Ruffalo assured us he got woke” when pushback to his film’s casting led him to watch one trans web series, but the casting and movie still happened. It is just so ridiculous but I suppose I should be thrilled that people were aware about the controversy and pushing back, but it also just seemed like this was people attuned to ScarJo stepping into shit once more in their eyes rather than just focusing on the casting problem itself. At least that was how I saw it and why I fear this will still happen again in the future.

It’s really rare for Hollywood to tell a transgender story or even feature a transgender character. They need to recalibrate. All of these performances are going to look offensive in one hundred years. The industry is having another kind of identity crisis with their current filmmaking models. There exist only two modes and no in-betweens. You have the big studio action tentpoles for the spring and summer and the others are prestige films, the so-called “Oscar bait” dramas that give the studios their air of respectability in the fall and winter. It’s there where we see transgender stories. This decade we have seen a wave of prestige films that included trans people as a major part of the narrative, if not the very center of the film. But, as you mentioned, these films were the compromised versions of a trans story. I am talking about The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyer’s Cluband the performances given by Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto. I should be unsurprised that people seem to think that the culture at large- or rather, the extremely narrow and privileged sect of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences- rewarding these performances was a signifier of the supposed quality and authenticity in these performances, but they were deeply surprised to find out that trans people hated these performances.

The Danish Girl

WM: I think there’s this notion that we should be happy we’re served a meal, even if it’s fried dog shit. That’s what it feels like to me when these movies come out. They cloak themselves in respectability politics or messages and position themselves as important movies for our cause, but any lasting positive impact almost never happens. Images inform culture and if the only image of trans womanhood is a guy in drag then that’s all we’re going to be, but my body flies in the direct face of these notions. I have the hormone levels of a cis woman, breasts that grew from my body through estrogen, same as any cis woman, a pair of XX chromosomes, because I’m intersex, no adam’s apple to speak of and if I may be vain for a moment, absolutely killer legs. But even if I didn’t pass and didn’t have these things I still wouldn’t have a body like Eddie Redmayne’s or Jared Leto’s. My body is different. Our bodies are different. Trans women aren’t built like cis men and Trans men aren’t built like cis women, but I think some cis people are a little surprised by that truth, and have been very slow to learn. We’re still getting articles about the shock and awe of trans women being able to breast feed for example,when we’ve been doing this for a long time.

I want to get into the nuts and bolts of these performances and why they don’t work. Let’s start with Eddie Redmayne, who plays trans woman, Lili Elbe. Redmayne plays her like an alcoholic with sensory disorder and a paraphilia for things like stockings and lingerie. Redmayne’s conception of womanhood is ORGASMIC, with heaving exterior moans and blurred vision. A trans woman if she were on the verge of climax at the very notion of womanhood. Like a fictionmania fetish story made real, and Tom Hooper directs it with cinematic form that feels like dried semen on hosery. It’s a gross movie, and Redmayne’s gigantic expressive acting shutters any way to understand the interior of Elbe’s life or who she was as a person. The portrait of Elbe is one of an insane fetishist who died reaching for the perfect orgasm to meet her fetish of surface level womanhood. It’s telling that the final image of the movie restructures her as a piece of fabric that gets blown away in the wind. I suppose one could argue that is a happy ending if you’re sadistic and only watch these movies out of sheer exhibitionist curiosity, but in truth it’s offensive. I’m not sure any actor could have saved this movie as it was conceived, but the end product is maybe the worst possible depiction of transness I’ve ever seen and Redmayne’s performance somehow tops Leto’s mid-crucifixion martyr with a death wish and a perfect bikini wax in the equally bad, but somehow not as awful, Dallas Buyer’s Club.

The Danish Girl

CG: Redmayne’s idea of gender dysphoria is so indicating and contorting in ways that feels like a bad 1960s sci-fi TV serial. The trembling his character has in reaching down below her waist, particularly in that scene where Lili goes to a peep show and mimics the cis women performer, is so laughable and infuriating all at once. The film treats the character’s male presentation and female presentation like two separate identities and womanhood for Lili in this film is getting an uncomfortable proposition from Ben Whishaw (Editor’s note: Poor Ben Whishaw) or wearing an androgynous pantsuit out in the park trailed by two gawking men straight out of a Tex Avery cartoon. Then there is the central relationship of Lili and her wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander) where the triggering moment that sets this whole “journey” in motion is Gerda making Lili pose with a dress for her painting. I should note that even if the casting was done better, The Danish Girl is a truly reductive portrait of two famous artists. The film manages to trivialize their relationship and turn these two real-life Bohemians into neurotic messes who want to play house, but a very constrained conservative one. There are several bedroom scenes of Lili assuming more femininity with Gerda, and is treated like a fetish object. Again, back to the 60s sci-fi TV camp that is happening with this performance, Redmayne treats contact with the dress like a mad scientist who gets exposed to his deadly formula that now spreads disease through the body. It is all so preformative and exaggerated, dialed up into something that by the end renders Lili Elbe as someone so glum and upsetting in a really reductive, useless way. She’s Icarus flying too closely to the sun, but that’s most films about trans people made by cis filmmakers.

Martyrdom and transness are interlinked in these films and that extends to Jared Leto as Rayon. Where Lili Elbe was a real person, albeit The Danish Girl was speculative fiction by a writer and the adaptation even further twists a lot of facts, Dallas Buyer’s Club made a fictional composite character of Rayon. According to screenwriter Craig Borten, the creation of that character came from research in interviewing trans AIDS activists. And yet, the leaked script that I saw of Dallas Buyer’s Club constantly spoke of Rayon in male pronouns and referred to the character as a cross-dresser.Even if the final product presented a trans woman you have the fact that Rayon is misgendered and deadnamed constantly, even referred by McConaughey’s protagonist as ‘Mr. Man’. You can say that is the product of the time but with the exception of one moment, Rayon almost never pushes back or reacts in a way of hurt in being dehumanized this way. Additionally, the film hardly ever explores her story. We get bedroom décor of T. Rex and glam rock (my kingdom for a Todd Haynes trans movie), assuming that’s her connection to queer life. She frequents gay bars of Texas that are apparently chill with trans women. And what of Rayon’s life? Well, she puts on a full male presentation, an ill-fitting suit, to ask her father for money. Rayon left a charmed life and that moment is treated like a cheap revelation that is only in the service of the central protagonist’s story. Rayon returned to Ray (Matthew McConaughey) to get her father to give her money from her life insurance policy to pay off her debts with her homophobe turned friend and business partner Ron. Rayon’s story is treated so superficially: a series of various wigs, cheap makeup, faux fur coats, and mirror shots. Cis people love showing us looking in mirrors, particularly in giving ourselves a pep talk about our looks but it is best to see us completely exposed. Except you know, Redmayne and Leto do not have trans bodies. It is a man in a dress and every mirror shot underlines that over and over. Those mirror shots confirm for me I am watching bullshit but apparently for cis people it’s revelatory, but in truth, they are looking at something that is not us by their own design. It’s their conception of transness, not our reality.

Dallas Buyers Club

WM: It’s a dissection, piece by piece, an outfit, something to construct rather than something inherent. To show a trans woman with real breasts would be to say that this isn’t an act. Rayon is built, rather than someone who is. And Leto did absolutely nothing to dispel these notions with his waxing comments and general method acting macho swagger of playing woman. A fake woman, but that’s trans women at the movies. These movies aren’t even about trans women. They’re about tragic men who died because they followed a foolish notion that they could become women. These movies for a second don’t treat these characters as women. Not at all. I’m not sure any of the films we are discussing during this series does, but some of our other examples we will get to like Dog Day Afternoon, at least have a current of decency throughout.

I want to get to your mirrors comment now, because that’s the resolute language of transness in the cinema as conceived by cis people. It’s a model of vanity, a reflection of who these people “truly” are, and a way in which to try and slam together something resembling a metaphor image, even with no real depth. It isn’t just trans women who get this treatment either. We’ve brought Boys Don’t Cry up before, but the scene where Hillary Swank as Brandon Teena poses in front of full length mirror so we can see the full dimensions of Swank’s body is one of the most dangerous ever put in cinema with regards to transness, because it unravels identity and points a giant fucking arrow in visual language to Swank’s dickless briefs. It’s genitals as destiny, forever and ever amen. On the opposite side of things there’s a scene that is almost identical to Swank’s in Under the Skin, a film we both love, and it has completely different intent. In that scene it’s a realization that the alien’s (Scarlett Johansson) body is hers, warts and all, and how she can find an identity in herself. It isn’t directly saying there’s anything wrong with her body or something is amiss. It’s just hers, bathed in amber lighting as Mica Levi’s music swells to something resembling warmth for the first time in the film. The visual language of that scene is acceptance. The visual language of Boys Don’t Cry, Dallas Buyer’s Club and others is political posturing and genital hysteria.

Boys Don’t Cry
Under the Skin

CG: I want to get back to your comment about Jared Leto and method acting. I absolutely think the whole ‘living as a different gender’ (and let me note that is not what gender dysphoria is, gender dysphoria is being at odds with the sex you are assigned at birth) concept and conceit is something that absolutely appeals to actors in the same way that playing an athlete or packing on a lot of weight does. They want their Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull moment but to me it just comes off as Robert Downey Jr’s performance of Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder. They are suffering for their craft and want the plaudits and the credit for playing us, but they do not seem to care about how offensive it is and that it is not their role to play. What they are doing is something in the Hollywood tradition of a different kind that is closer to red face, yellow face, and black face. They are crafting something based in makeup and appearance- through their lens, of course- all on a surface level in playing somebody they are not innate nor inherently. It is something that Hollywood allowed and gives them permission to do until consumers back off and then it suddenly is acknowledged how bad it is and was, and only then does it get condemned. It did not suddenly become that but was built on years and decades of mistreatment and misrepresentation that included dangerous stereotypes and even well-meaning portrayals in prestigious films of the time period that were trying to get awards. These are problems and particular errors in casting that are entrenched in Hollywood history and there is a certain level of complicity to be found in actors not really understanding the trans experience. Laverne Cox and Trace Lysette are out there, but are actively ignored in favour of cis men looking to make their name. They see it as a challenge to ‘lose themselves’ in the role and in their day to day life through method acting. Joke’s on them, I only saw fucking Jared Leto in a dress.

Laverne Cox and Trace Lysette are out there, but are actively ignored in favour of cis men looking to make their name. They see it as a challenge to ‘lose themselves’ in the role and in their day to day life through method acting. Joke’s on them, I only saw fucking Jared Leto in a dress.

Laverne Cox
Trace Lysette

WM: It’s frustrating to say the least. When Dallas Buyer’s Club was initially released I had been out as a trans woman for a couple years, but I was still living at home with my parents. My mom wanted to see the movie, because she was a rabid fan of all things Matthew McConaughey. He’s one of her thirst actors, but her rental of this movie worried me, because I knew there’d be questions afterwards that I’d have to answer. My parents knew I was transgender and here they were watching this movie which co-signed all their anxieties about who I was, and frequently when we’d get into fights my Dad would dangle Rayon in front of me as “that faggot in the movie”. That was their image of transness. These things stick, and I’m not sure cis people 100% realize when that happens. Culturally, when you bring up transness you’re still likely to get comments about Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, and while we both like that movie you cannot deny that the image has stuck.

CG: Now to return this discussion on mirrors, Swank’s bagging briefs in Boys Don’t Cry still makes me wince on memory. Most of the rare occurrences of trans men in movies have images like that one. BDC is genesis. The films I bring up in this case are 3 Generations by Gaby Dellal and 52 Tuesdaysby Sophie Hyde. Like Boys Don’t Cry these movies are about trans men and are directed by cis women and well, I could definitely tell these were by people outside of my life experiences. The trans men in these movies are, Elle Fanning playing a trans teen in 3 Generations, and Del Herbert-Jane as a trans man who is dealing with transitioning amid having the worst teenage daughter (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) in human existence. The funny thing about these two movies are that they check off every conceivable box of a trans narrative: there are many mirror shots and body shots of these actresses getting masc, by leaning in on the revelation and transitioning as the entire story. Boys Don’t Cry made the choice of a cis woman in a trans man role because Brandon Teena was by reports too poor to go on hormones and these films also have cheats in their fictional narratives in justifying cis actress in a trans man role and keeping her around during the whole damn movie.

3 Generations makes the entire conflict around Ray (Elle Fanning) getting a consent form signed by both of his parents to start hormones. His mother (Naomi Watts) supports him, but remains conflicted, and his distant father (Tate Donovan) does not whatsoever. Every instance of physical transition happens offscreen. Elle Fanning is so lost in trying to convey maleness, masculinity, and expressing something about having a trans body, and there’s the obligatory mirror shots and a dramatic haircut you’d find in movies of this type.

3 Generations

52 Tuesdays was more infuriating. I will admit that I have an age disconnect to trans men of a certain age, some of whom went through motherhood before transitioning, and that made me wonder if I ever had a chance of liking this movie. However, this film thought it could pull a fast one and had a Deus Ex Masc-hina. They outright refuse to have this character transition, because James (Del Herbert-Jane) has a rare condition. The character stops taking testosterone so you don’t see him develop any more masculine traits that you see and hear early on, like his voice dropping or putting on muscle mass. This is why I hate transition narratives. They never ring true and yes, it is a dramatic experience of changes it is not just the only story or the only form of transition that we do when we come out. Physical transition is just one part of it and despite films keying in on that, they all seem to fail. It never feels real, just contrivances looking from the outside and never feeling that somebody like us has a grip on these narratives. Brandon Teena passed before hormone replacement therapy to the point where he had girlfriends, but we don’t focus on how that happened. That isn’t physical. That’s something else altogether.

52 Tuesdays

WM: Oh my god, I love you for coming up with Dues Ex Masc-hina. Can we just use that forever? The thing that always blows my mind about these movies is that these characters have next to nothing in terms of an interior self, and isn’t that supposed to be one of the things an actor looks for in a role? As of late these performances are just gymnastics, showy, mastubratory acting that has no depth whatsoever. It’s like saying “look at my abs, it took so much work!” and Leto has always done this sort of performance. Somehow he’s worse in Chapter 27. Somehow he’s worse in Suicide Squad. The fact that we’ve let him stick around is the greatest sin of the millennial goths who popularized 30 Seconds to Mars in the first place.

I admittedly, haven’t seen these movies about trans men, but your description of them sounds painful. One thing that has always bothered me is the logical fallacy of cross gender casting when it comes to trans people. If we absolutely must show the entire transitional process in the movie or have flashbacks then wouldn’t it make the most sense to let the trans actor play the previous version of themselves? Because realistically if a cis man can play a trans woman in a movie then wouldn’t that same line of thinking apply for trans women playing a more masculine version of themselves pre-transition? Because if this is all about transformation then why does it not apply to us? We’re the masters of that shit, aren’t we? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: mainstream transgender depiction is vulture cinema for cisgender actors to make their name. It doesn’t matter if a real life trans person died, a cis person will be there to pick up their mantle and tell it like it is. Barf. And It has only gotten worse in the last 5 years with increased visibility. We’re in the mainstream now, so we can be sold. Not art by us, but art sold to us by cis people. We’re just another demographic, but we don’t watch these movies. We hate these movies. So how do we fix that problem? I honestly don’t think they care. It was better in the 60s, 70s and 80s for trans depiction than it is now in some respects and that’s absurd. In 2018 Candy Darling would not get to play a cis woman in anything, but that happened in the late 60s. Hypothetically, if all things were perfect and there was job equality in the field I wouldn’t have a problem with a cisgender woman playing a transgender woman or a cisgender man playing a transgender man. My issue is when you put a man in front of me and call him a woman. Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining. That’s when you lose me in this day and age.

Candy Darling
Stephen Dorff in I Shot Andy Warhol

CG: It raises the question (and I think we know the answer) that Hollywood has no clue what the difference is at all between somebody trans versus some dude who puts on a dress to play trans. Granted words have changed over time and what people considered cross-dressers, drag queens, and transvestites were and are trans women. I question how the late Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling could have made a mark in culture in transcending the films they were in and rubbing shoulders with A-listers at clubs, but film then has this dead period of nobody from the mainstream or the underground to take their place and follow in their footsteps. Even when the likes of a Mya Taylor come along she and many other trans actresses get pushed aside for men to play these roles, sometimes in the very stories of these figures. Stephen Dorff played Candy Darling in I Shot Andy Warhol,which is still wild to me. Given Candy’s whole relationship to hormone replacement therapy that casting is something I doubt she would have given approval.

WM: Stephen Dorff playing Candy has always bothered me. In a piece I wrote on Women in Revolt I talked bout this a little bit, but every single cinematic portrait of her has characterized her as a man, and she detested that completely. It’s even more tragic if you consider the lyrics to the Velvet Underground song “Candy Says”, specifically the stanza that asks “I’d like to know completely, what others so discretely talk about, what do you think I’d see if I could walk away from me?”. The answer to that question in terms of Hollywood is that they saw her as a man at worst and a drag queen at best. That’s the real truth of the matter at hand: to cross-gender cast in these roles is to cosign societal notions that our gender is fake. We aren’t who we say we are.

CG: It does become clear that it seems the rare ways for a trans movie to get what it is doing right is not just hire a trans consultant or a trans coach, but also have creative pull, beyond the role of a consultant. The Danish Girl and Transamerica had trans consultants, but spare me if you think those films are about our community. For me Tangerine worked because the actresses had some say. Even if there is well-meaning intent in telling a trans story, having us absent leaves some major probability that things will be amiss and just flat-out wrong. This can even happen when telling a true story like Dog Day Afternoon, a film that I love, and still a film where I do find it admirable on certain levels for even engaging with a trans love story, and having a character talk about having gender dysphoria. But you know, screenwriter Frank Pierson and director Sidney Lumet preferred going with Chris Sarandon for the trans role (John Waters player and trans woman Elizabeth Coffey did try out for the part but did not get it, supposedly for being seen as too feminine) and they saw the character as being closer to transvestite than transsexual despite well, the whole plot of the bank robbery being set in motion was to pay for the character’s sex change. Despite all of this I feel like that is a product of the time and that it was still significant and important that the details of the story were not completely white washed even if some of it in hindsight is now awkwardly presented. I am also not the biggest fan of Chris Sarandon’s whole body language in the film, constantly clutching his robe, although the character’s major tell-off about Pacino’s character whining that ‘he’s dying’ when he is the architect of his problems and the problems of others showed the movie wanting its audience to side with the trans character. That’s powerful. Sure, when her trans status is revealed a cop tries and fails to hold back a laugh, it is still a product of its time in many ways. My trans therapist told me that many trans people, himself included, in that time could see that film, while having some healthy criticisms of the performance, presenting their life experience on screen without animus.

Dog Day Afternoon
Elizabeth Coffey

WM: I really want to dive into Dog Day Afternoonnow, because I think it’s the only film we’re talking about in this segment that we actually both love a lot. Despite loving that film, I do have some criticisms. I, too, am not particularly fond of Chris Sarandon’s robe clutching, woman on the verge of collapse at any given second neurotic wife. I don’t love that, and think that Elizabeth Coffey would have likely been better in the role, because she would have cut through what little bullshit there is in that film. I find it depressing that Coffey was turned down because she was too pretty, and that, if anything, should be our obvious entry point into the image of trans women in mainstream cinema. Coffey isn’t the only trans actor who has run into the “you’re too pretty to be trans”problem. They don’t want a pretty trans woman, because they see us as men and if we appear like any other woman on screen that disrupts the narrative, even if that is the truth. That’s where they keep us at a distance.

All this being said, I think Dog Day Afternoonis a near masterpiece, Sarandon’s wonky body language and the frustrating 5 o’ clock shadow aside. It’s a shook up 2 litter bottle of pop ready to burst at any second and its centre is a man (Al Pacino) who is going to any lengths to get surgery for the woman he loves, because the world has fucked them over and it costs too much for any poor person to afford. That’s real. I appreciate Lumet including the title card for Elizabeth Eden stating she’s “now a woman”. The language is old, but the sentiment is there, and it is a happy ending in cinematic terms.

I do think there’s a scene in the movie that honestly mirrors our experiences with trans casting and it’s with John Cazale’s character insisting he isn’t a homosexual when that is announced on TV. He protests, but there it is on TV, something he asserts is wrong, but that is now the narrative. With us, we can look at the screen and say “that’s not us” with cross-gender casting, we can look like cis people, and in Candy Darling’s case look like a fucking supermodel and they’re still going to run back into the arms of the men in dresses trope.

CG: Lumet’s direction to Sarandon, after going through many bad casting auditions for the character of Leon(the character’s name in the movie. The real life woman was Elizabeth Eden) saw the character as a full-blown neurotic, tragic Tennessee Williams heroine(Editor’s note: Tennessee Williams cast Candy Darling as the lead in one of his play, Small Craft). Lumet wanted the characterplayed as an exasperated housewife. The results are Chris Sarandon being closer to sitcom matriarchs like Edith Bunker or Weezy Jefferson, but I think Lumet’s note was not a bad one. You do still feel these two- Pacino and Sarandon’s characters- have a very domesticated relationship and they are not playing dress up, it is real and so are their arguments, miscommunications, and doomed quality. It is normative but does not strive for, ‘They’re just like us!’ type of pleading to the audience. Lumet and Pierson were extremely aware of the need to still be delicate in telling this story that had the potential to not be taken seriously. Lumet was furious about how audience test-screenings took the relationship and the images of the “gay” wedding in the film’s newscast segments. But they were showing these two people getting married and one of them has committed this crime on behalf of the other, even if she did not want him to do this for her. Those were the facts of the case and they were put on-screen, that while still imperfect, are at the center of a truly excellent film.

And I love that the title card at the end of the movie as you said, places the real Elizabeth Eden in a much better place, especially compared to everyone else in the movie. She has moved on, her romantic partner went to jail, Sonny’s ex-wife, who he does not care about at all, are in the welfare system to raise her children. You come off with the impression that the ‘freak’ that some characters and even some of the audience previously snickered at by the end has her life together much more together than one expects or is conditioned to assume with trans characters, based on so many tropes. And a lot of those tropes that you and I have seen came after Dog Day Afternoon.

Elizabeth Eden

WM: It’s strange to me, that Dog Day had little effect in reshaping how we see transgender cinema. There wasn’t a huge call for Hollywood to shift afterward. Where changes did happen to some degree, and DDA had some effect, was in pretty broad interpretations of queer cinema involving gay men. Cruising, I think is a bastard son of DDA in some respects.

I love that phone call between the two. Lumet just moves back and forth between close-up and for a moment the heist element slips away. It’s just two people talking, like they always have, and sharing a language and rhythm of their own. Pacino is excellent, but if there is an argument to be made for Sarandon it’s in this scene. It gives us a window into their relationship, and “why” he’s doing this for her. They have a rhythm that he and his ex-wife do not. It’s theirs, warts and all, and he wouldn’t be doing this if there wasn’t something between them. Elizabeth Eden sadly passed away from AIDS in the 1980s, and even if Sarandon looks nothing like her she at least gets that note at the end of the movie and Sonny did use his money that he got from the film to pay for her sex change surgery. It’s an epic love story, a total fucking anomaly in cinema with transgender elements and one of the only films with cross-gender casting I’ll go to bat for, even with some minor complaints here and there. I love Dog Day Afternoon, and a lot of it would still even be radical to this day, but Hollywood would never make this movie now. It’s too complicated, messy and real. That, and the fact that Disney controls everything now.

CG: Dog Day Afternoon would not be made by a major studio today. It would not be made with the level of talent in front of and behind the camera as it did in 1975. That would not happen. I think 1970s America cinema, despite so many of my favourite films coming from that era, were admittedly heavily hetero-masculine. Dog Day Afternoon even feels like an anomaly as far as having one of the biggest stars in an explicit LGBTQ relationship. There may have been international cinema (Fassbinder) and underground cinema with LGBTQ characters getting more attention, but what took over were stuff for the masses that pushed aside that level of visibility for our community. After Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood became heavily invested in monoculture and as a result were less audacious in telling narratives of characters off the beaten path. Trans figures like Candy Darling (although she passed in 1974), Holly Woodlawn, and even a trans punk rock singer like Jayne County was emerging (who would appear in films, like the incredibly great German queer film, City of Lost Souls) may have had presence in the culture as far as being photographed, subjects of visual art and music, but they were not really breaking out in feature films that were beyond the underground cinema. What can we conclude over why this happened? Well, Hollywood’s ultimate 1970s downer ending was the 1980s. Ronald Reagan was elected and there was conforming to this ideal of the lost nuclear family from decades ago. Hollywood was not Ronald Reagan conservative, but they still had to placate to conservative audiences and a universal culture, but LGBT people were not part of that, and you’d be hard-pressed to say we are today. There were still thriving pockets of culture in the LGBT community at the time- as we see in Paris Is Burning- but it was subterranean, not the type of visibility available at your neighborhood multiplex. If you were gay or trans, well, then film treatments of you at that time by Hollywood were pretty retrograde. Afterwards you had the HIV/AIDS crisis and hysteria based on prejudice and ignorance from mainstream society. Not to mention drug epidemics that was met with ineffectual, ‘Just Say No’ campaigns. Warhol Superstar Jackie Curtis died, and so did many like her. To be different then meant the possibility of the world turning their back on you and that also included a lot of visual media. The gap of suddenly having very little visual media looking into the trans experience brought further ignorance and misunderstanding. It is really an indictment on American popular culture that the only times there could be anything remotely close to a trans presence in pop culture was by appearing on Phil Donahue and not really being seen as a person, but as some anthropological subject. Come see the bearded lady.

John Lithgow in The World According to Garp

WM: To chart transgender cinema in Hollywood is difficult, because there are these gigantic gaps where there is nothing. You’d get an occasional film here and there like The World According to Garp(which I like), but Lithgow’s portrayal isn’t the main plot line in that movie or anything. Lithgow took the role with dignity and had no foolish aspirations towards becoming acting royalty through transness, which is appreciated. He is fine in context of the period and the practices of the 1980s. He does not touch Karen Black in 5 and Dime, but who does?

I like that you mention Phil Donahue, because I think it was around the mid-80s when the trap narrative, or GOTCHA, reveal started popping up in movies, and we’re going to get to that in our next instalment in Body Talk, but it became such an overbearing presentation of transness. It was a trick. You never even had a character like Sarandon’s in DDA who was openly trans from the start but these later examinations of transness in post, and that was popularized to some degree by Psycho, but really came into fruition with The Crying Gamewhose revel overpowered the rest of the movie in a cultural sense later being spoofed by Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, WWF Monday Night Rawand Family Guy while also giving reason for Jerry Springer’s entire existence. It’s hard to talk about that movie without its cultural placement as THE trap film, but Jaye Davidson isn’t horrendous as Dil. It’s one of the more put together characterizations of a trans woman being played by a cis man. She’s very much her own woman. I just wish a trans woman could have been given the right to make her name off of a movie that was about to be wildly popular, even if its popularity and staying power are dubious in context.

CG: I love The World According To Garp. What’s significant about that is the film is playing in this wild, quirky key a la Harold & Maudewas that everybody from George Roy Hill to Robin Williams to Glenn Close to Lithgow were all so game into adapting the John Irving novel to the big screen. The Irving novel states that Roberta is a trans woman and provides her a biography as an ex-football player whose knowledge of the game gets ignored for her decision to transition and cannot get a job announcing football games. She is not this distrusting character with a secret. She’s open and Irving posits her as somebody the reader the audience should like because, ‘Garp loved her’, in Irving’s own prose. There are so many insane things that happen in the film as far as plot and character arcs that Roberta just is a character among the chaos. As far as Lithgow’s casting, the character is funny but Lithgow does not make Roberta a joke, but a funny character with feelings and ambitions, more than a device for the more central characters and more than a quirky ornament for the film. It’s casting for the time, but given what we have seen about trans military service members it is not unheard of that trans women can come from hyper-masculine environments and sure, I do like to imagine how that casting would have looked like with a real trans woman but Lithgow is pretty good. That said let’s not get this twisted. One good characterization does not open the doors for so many terrible ones before and after, especially after.

WM: The fact that Roberta even has a dream is note-worthy, because that’s rare in portraits of trans women. In Tangerine, Alexandra (Mya Taylor) wants to become a singer, but beyond her can you think of any other examples? I can’t. In these movies trans women seem to want to just file into line as a stereotype, which is not the case. Yes, I want to be a wife and mother, but I also want to be known as a writer my entire life. I have dreams to keep challenging myself to get better. What does Redmayne’s Lili Elbe want to do in The Danish Girl? She wants to be a girl and sell clothes. She doesn’t have to paint anymore! (p.s. that’s sexist)

Mya Taylor in Tangerine

CG: In a culture that birthed Jerry Springer, ‘A chick with a dick’ type of retrograde presentations of transness offricially become a revulsion and a joke. Livelihoods become plot twists, secrets and marks of those individuals being untrustworthy. Even before The Crying Gameand Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, there was the otherwise very junk food comedy Soapdishthat spoofed soap operas with a top of the line ensemble cast. In that movie, the third act includes revealing Cathy Moriarty’s plotting, backstabbing villain to have be a trans woman leading to Garry Marshall’s television executive character to exclaim, ‘She’s a boy’ and Robert Downey Jr.’s character, who was sexually involved with Moriarty’s character being on the verge of vomiting- quite similar to how Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura reacted to finding out Sean Young’s character was previously the vindictive ex-Miami Dolphins place kicker and Stephen Rea’s Fergus in The Crying Game finding out Dil is a trans woman. Gosh, a lot of men throwing up over this type of revelation.

The Crying Game’swhole plot takes a while to reveal itself but then takes over the whole movie, and there is no way to talk around it. Then it just became a Miramax (fuck Harvey Weinstein) pushed commercial phenomenon and there was a lot of critical complicity. I found out the twist of this movie before seeing it, and a lot of that film got its mileage from critics like Roger Ebert writing these coy reveals and winking to their readers with a, ‘Trust me. You’ll want to see this and tell your friends to see this but make sure to let them go in cold about that twist’. I cannot really say Neil Jordan’s film transcends that trapping as in the script of the film, it does make the revelation pretty much a conflict for Dil and Fergus and the script does write the scene as a, ‘She is really a man’ type of hushed tone but with an explosive revelation. I think Jaye Davidson gives the character a lot of dignity and depth but feels very at odds with the writing. Dil defends herself from Rea’s simultaneous initial rejection and allured fascination over her. Still, the film does something similar in having Dil in male form and that is when it gets maybe even more infuriating than the genitals reveal. I know of trans people put in that unfortunate position of having to wear clothing of the gender they were assigned at birth even as they identify trans, but here it is taken as a, ‘Well, she can live this double agent type of femme fatale because she’s really only wearing different clothing’. The character loses a lot of power towards the end and even her living, not dying like a martyr, is based on Fergus stopping her from offing herself, and frankly, it getting to that point in the film where Dil is suddenly a shifty, suicidal, mentally unstable person feels so uncharacteristic and an 180 degree switch from the sultry, seductive, confident, independent woman that viewers fir saw. That is not really on Davidson but unfortunate writing built off of several misunderstandings and misrepresentations.

The Crying Game

WM: The Crying Game is frustrating, because there’s a version of that movie they could have realistically written, and chose not to where the character was this sultry femme fatale. In those terms Dil stands on her own in this characterization, because it’s not like you can point to other examples where trans women played these types of characters. The writing undoes a lot of the good will established earlier on though like you said, and I’m in complete agreement with your other statement that these performances that have existed in the past and are contextually acceptable doesn’t mean that it’s okay to walk back down this path again today. Trans people have always been acting and for transgender cinema to truly feel lived in and authentic we have to actually be here don’t we?

I want to shift gears slightly to what film looks like when we are present by talking about a couple movies and a few recent television shows. I have not seen Pose yet, because acquiring FX in Canada is tricky and expensive, but I have watched Sense8, which was spearheaded by The Wachowski sisters and there are transgender actors playing transgender characters. I was really drawn into Jamie Clayton’s character Nomi and wrote about her briefly on Curtsies and Hand Grenades as a kind of revelation to finally see someone with a body and a history like mine on the screen. I cannot undersell the magnitude in which it affected me to see her in that role. I could only describe it as feeling like a blanket. Nomi’s character went through some shit with her parents so she felt real to me, but it was also this realization where I came to grips with the fact that it was possible to no longer be invisible. It had a profound meaning for me similar to Laura Jane Grace coming out and being mentioned on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. These were early moments in my own history as a transgender woman that I’ll never forget. I never realized how important it was to see myself on screen, because it had never happened with me before, but I finally felt that with Jamie Clayton in Sense8 and I think she’s great in the role. A totally perfect fit for The Wachowskis world of underdogs and connected human experiences.

CG: Pose is incredibly important remedy for the previously billed- by the mainstream entertainment press and not by the trans community, to be clear- ‘groundbreaking’ television series for trans people, Transparent. Despite that show giving exposure to various kinds of trans actresses, it was always still based on compromise in casting Jeffrey Tambor (editor’s note: Fuck Jeffrey Tambor) as Maura. Poseis unique and remarkable for doing a few things that on paper seem so simple. It centers trans people in front of the camera and that is boosted by the quality of writing and directing by trans people behind the camera (previously mentioned in Body Talk Silas Howard, who directed an episode, while Lady J wrote episodes, and Janet Mock did both). Posecarries a lot of responsibility in covering the 1980s ballroom scene in giving an incredible amount of visibility that most people can only reference Paris Is Burning, if they even saw that at all. And then of course it is carrying the responsibility of opening doors for trans actresses and trans talent in our presence. I knew of Mock, Lady J, and Howard before this show, although that doesn’t mean the entire Pose audience did and I hope that means more opportunities, and I hope this means more talent behind and in front of the camera get to be part of projects in production. I know of a few other shows that have a trans actor or even a trans person on their writing staff, but I would like to see those experiences centred like Pose. I do not want Pose to be the only game in town because at some point, it is not going to be on. Then what?


I will also note that yes, Sense8also existed and luckily, despite being short-lived got a proper sendoff recently. The Wachowskis are so earnest and both Lana and Lily definitely used their experiences in their trans identity to inform Jamie Clayton’s character. That whole argument she gets prodded into by a TERF-like figure, calling her a ‘colonizer’ on her gender feels like something that only we usually experience online and off-line in certain spaces. I felt similarly with Pose where multiple characters had anxiety about being misgendered even in supposedly ‘open-minded’ places or feeling the wrath of their family members who harbor disdain for them transitioning. It goes a long way to have characters on-screen and know that what they are doing and saying works because they not only get you,they are you.

We are real. I do think sometimes these discussions reveal that they don’t actually see us. We are treated like an abstract concept sometimes and so I thought it was important for our community to put our foot down on the ScarJo matter. I still felt like some people were not convinced and just think we were selfish for protesting this and I also felt like trans men in media still feel under-served. Netflix’s Queer Eye notably had a trans man makeover and while it had its bumps and was imperfect, I really felt like Skyler, the trans man, having his journey and story in plain view on Netflix was a good antidote to a lot of the bullshit that surrounded Rub & Tug. Still, not everybody has Netflix and it is clear that some people still do not get trans stories. It makes sense since they are spoon-fed some terrible, undercooked, inauthentic, and very much harmful narratives about our experiences.


WM: I think that’s our most important point. SEE US. LISTEN TO US. It is not incredibly hard. If 50,000 trans people say this casting is fucked maybe we know what we’re talking about? I think you hit the nail on the head by saying that cisgender people sometimes think of us as abstract concepts. There was a poll recently where a high percentage of people said they didn’t know a transgender person firsthand. I find these results unsurprising, but illuminating in how they view us. How can they possibly care if we’re not real? The truth of the matter is that we’re flesh and blood just like everyone else. We have wants and desires and needs. Our place in the world is informed by our experiences that we’ve had with gender, dysphoria and presentation and we have interesting stories to tell about lives that are sorely under-served. It’s hard to imagine a transgender life going into old age, because no such image exists. It’s hard to even exist as a trans person, because there’s little format or structure for how to get there without direct help, because there’s little cultural awareness of our issues. We only exist in the past tense in art. Our unique experiences are going to influence the kind of cinema that gets made about people like us, but Cinema also has a chance to shift the narrative. The ball is in their court on this one and if they continue to play dirty we’re going to speak up. We’ll stop when they start actually listening to us. We’re still waiting….