Saturday, October 25, 2014

True Trans: In Celebration of Transgender and Gender Variant People

Laura Jane Grace
One woman sits in an abandoned studio strumming gently on a guitar. She wears black clothing, her nail polished is a little chipped, and her hair obscures her face, She isn't singing, but these sounds emitting from her guitar provide background for a chorus of voices that were muted in a past life.

The chorus of voices is what makes Laura Jane Grace's True Trans a radically important online series. The transgender narrative is oftentimes sculpted outside of our hands. Whenever you see documentaries about transgender people they discuss surgery in ominous tones, they linger on childhood photos and present these bodies as science fair projects or worse side show attractions for those curious in seeing a before and after. It's damaging when we can't speak for ourselves, but Grace is turning the trans documentary on it's head and making it a celebration instead of a curiosity. Her goal was to meet transgender and gender variant people on the road to connect in some way, and what she has done is bring to light a true narrative from those individuals she interviewed instead of the type of linear transition story that usually sits underneath the transgender documentary category.

What strikes me personally about this show is how often these narratives intersect with my own. I can remember the first time I ever saw a transgender person on television, and just seeing that there were other options was a staggeringly emotional experience. I was always too afraid to confront those feelings head on, because of my religious upbringing and parents who were ultimately difficult after my coming out, but I always knew in the back of my mind that was where I would eventually be. Our Lady J mentions at the end of episode Four that in one moment of thought she considered what she would do if she was on a desert island and how she would imagine herself, and she saw herself as a Woman. This isn't entirely different from my near constant wishing I would wake up in a body that aligned with how I saw myself.

There's also the consideration of realization of dysphoria which I can remember vividly in my own life. I was only three or four years old. I went to bed like any other night, but my mind sent me off into what was essentially an alternate version of my life. Everything was just as mundane, and there was nothing of note in this dream except for one small change. In this dream I was a girl. A reflection looked back at me in a flowery dress and pigtails and I couldn't have been more disappointed when I woke up and saw a boy staring back instead of that girl that I knew I really was. For Grace that moment came when she was just as young as I when she saw Madonna perform on television. That's who she wanted to be, and she mentions the disappointment of knowing that it wasn't quite feasible. There are other things that link these stories like drug use, suicide attempts, and music as an outlet, but the one unifying theme is dysphoria. Blue (another transgender interviewee) mentions that it varies from person to person, but in some cases it's a living hell.

Paris is Burning
Dysphoria is in many cases the key to all of these feelings. It's why we want to change our bodies to align with how we see ourselves, and it is demoralizing to see our true selves unrepresented in mirrors every day of our lives. “It's as important as the air your breathe” is one phrase used to describe the necessity of having a comfortable body. The entire discussion centered around dysphoria in episode 2 subtly deconstructs the myth that trans healthcare is based around cosmetic procedures, and it's all done through letting transgender people speak up about their own lives, and in the context of the documentary I don't think it's been handled this well since Paris is Burning, and even then that film wasn't 100% about our lives.

True Trans isn't as formally ambitious as that documentary either, but they share a similar celebratory tone around their subjects as well as performance being a key part of identity. Paris is Burning focuses on ball culture while True Trans shifts it's lens towards punk rock. Laura Jane Grace got into punk rock in the first place due to it being about “smashing gender roles”, and others discuss how glam rock punks of the 70s featured many bands where gender roles were challenged. In essence art seems to have opened up the doors for an older generation of transgender people featured in this doc as an outlet. They didn't have the internet and no one was talking about gender variant people on television so these punk rock bands in some way slightly cracked open the doors even if they weren't actually transgender. At least they were questioning gender in the first place.

I believe art has the power to shape our world views and challenge what we see as normal. It can be a radical unseating of systematic power,, and it can get people thinking. I also believe in the personal as political theory. What makes True Trans more than just a fascinating documentary on lifestyle is how those two things intersect to make something that comes off as an important work of art. It isn't necessarily cinematic with it's 60 minutes style talking heads documentary style filmmaking, but it transcends it's own formal limitations by allowing voices to be heard that were once stamped down by a society that wouldn't listen. I go back to those days when I watched transgender documentaries on the discovery channel when my parents were in bed hoping to see another person like myself on television if only for a moment. I craved that visibility because I didn't want to be alone in this world, and it's not like I knew anyone who was transgender. Ten years later this show is now available for all those out there questioning or curious. Something this celebratory is going to have a positive impact for those who need it, and those who view it curiously not even knowing what a transgender person is like will see our humanity. If it changes one mind or helps out one person who really needed it then it's powerful in all the ways art can sometimes be. I know it will help others out, because it's already made me feel like a stronger person for having viewed it.

Monday, October 6, 2014

John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns

31 Day Horror Challenge
Cigarette Burns: Directed by John Carpenter
Film Write Up #2

What is the nature of cinema? What is the nature of horror? John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns asks these questions through the lens of the horror landscape of 2005, but in truth this was something that had been building for a long time. The definition of horror is revulsion, and in the context of cinema the horror film can do more than just that, but it’s primary focus is still to repel or scare. In the 70s you had The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which evolved into Cannibal Holocaust and filmmaking kept moving further and further into the world of extreme violence within horror culminating with films like Saw,Hostel and the French New Extreme movement to encapsulate this feeling that horror was moving towards something far more graphic. Just how far could horror go when we’ve become so desensitized to violence that there are literally no more rules for what you can show? A better question is what does a film have to do nowadays to truly shock? In Cigarette Burns a hypothetical film exists that is so terrible and so horrific that it cannot be shown without causing murder among its audience members. 

John Carpenter came to us through that cinematic realm of fright, and he made his home on the margins or terror, and this is his eulogy to a genre he didn’t have much use for anymore. John Carpenter is not the man who is going to rely on torture to get a rise out of his audience and he certainly isn’t going to be the man to break that trust that one character mentions here (audiences trust directors to guide them, but never take things too far). He grew up idolizing Howard Hawks, and even if his intentions got dark (The Thing) he was still aiming to entertain an audience. He wasn’t going to punish them with long takes of the worst aspects of humanity, because ultimately he is a humanist. He may make pictures about the end of the world, but his band of misfits are going to go out swinging if it kills them. However, in Cigarette Burns Carpenter seems a bit defeated. His strengths as a filmmaker are still present, but there are no heroes in this movie, and one could hardly consider it a film within Carpenter’s oeuvre, because it goes so far out of its way to damn the audience and the genre it’s discussing. What’s wrong with us that we want to see such horrible imagery? What if the horror of the on screen image in horror pictures was suddenly turning up in cinemas due to the effect of a film? Would we deserve it for wanting to see such horrible things? Cigarette Burns answers with a resounding yes.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

31 Days of Horror: House on Haunted Hill

Film #1: House on Haunted Hill
Directed by: William Castle

A piercing scream echoes through the black fog of the first frame in House on Haunted Hill. Horror in a nutshell. A singular moment that encapsulates the desire every director wants to achieve who works in this genre of revulsion. Audiences flock to cinemas to be frightened by the unknown. They wouldn't dare wish these occurrences on themselves in their own real lives, but in those dark areas of cinema they can almost reach out and touch terror. Safety in not wanting to feel safe. The beauty of screaming, death, ghosts, terror and the end. It's beautiful isn't it?

One house, five people, ten thousand dollars to anyone who can survive, and thus opens up Castle's playground. House on Haunted Hill has always reminded me of a board game. The premise just screams dice rolling with friends. Castle is a populist director to the fullest degree, and he wanted his cinematic experiences to even sometimes more closely resemble amusement park rides. House on Haunted Hill falls very much in line with the type of gimmick filmmaking he was known for, but this time it's handled in the plot, and enough winking at the camera to offset any sort of suspension of disbelief. He wants you to know you're watching a movie and most of all he wants you to have fun. 

Vincent Price is the grandmaster of ceremonies here, and while the plot sidesteps survivalism for the perfect murder everything still runs through his dungeon master etiquette. He's the man with the money, and the power, and he's exactly why some of these guests are planning to kill tonight. It doesn't always make a ton of sense, but Price is such a pro that he can carry even the most convuluted of plots (and this one is pretty silly). He's basically the reason to watch this movie, and since I'm a huge Vincent Price fan there is more than enough to warrant this film's pseudo classic haunted house film status, even though it couldn't be further from a pure haunted house picture like The Haunting. 

William Castle isn't exactly a craftsman in image or themes, but he knows that his films are horror pictures of simple pleasures, and really that's enough when the players are this game. However, there are a couple of inspired sequences. The opening that lays out the exposition of the picture and the rules of the game so to speak is extremely strong. The scene featuring the one servant of the house floating by on a skateboard is also one of the best jump scare moments in horror from this time period. There isn't much to grasp onto underneath the narrative's dual premise of perfect murder and haunted house, but I can't help but embrace a film where Vincent Price has skeleton friends and the final moment is a warning that the audience is going to die next. It's pure schlock, but I love it.