Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Stranger than Fiction

Because they take so long to make, it's hard to trace patterns of influence among documentaries. In spite of that, it's also hard not to see the widening influence of Capturing the Friedmans. What once was played for shock is now stripped down to raw emotions. This is especially true in two (relatively) recent entries into the transgender documentary subgenre. This is a welcome development, even if it hasn't completely erased the cliches of the form (you can still play the transgender documentary drinking game with these movies if you like), but it has greatly diminished them (so you won't get sloshed). There's an uncanny similarity between them, too.

Red without Blue (2007, directed by Brooke Sebold, Benita Sills, and Todd Sills) was first out of the gate, documenting the lives of a pair of identical twins, one of whom is gay and one of whom is a transsexual. Mark and Clair Farley are clearly close, but, as the film unreels, they were also clearly unhappy as young people. The film describes their upbringing in Missoula, Montana with a raft of home movie footage and photographs, intercut with footage of the principles as they were when the documentary was made. Rather than focus on Clair's transition from Alex (which is the elephant in the room), the film is more interested in exposing the wounds that make their family what it is. As such, it gives each member equal weight. When their mother admits that she doesn't think of the twins as her children anymore, but rather as young people she knows, it speaks to a kind of estrangement that most families can't endure. And, of course, theirs doesn't. It's a raw film that touches on a suicide pact, molestation, and the alienation of queer youth. The movie frames all of this in a kind of dream narrative, a film collage accompanied by languid indie pop that kind of takes the edge off of some of the emotional charge, but it might be hard to watch otherwise. Even so, that both Mark and Clair seem to emerge as relatively happy people is kind of miraculous.

All of this seems like a warm up for Kimberly Reed's Prodigal Sons (2008), though. Reed is herself the subject of the movie, and like the Farley twins, she hails from Montana and returns there during the course of the movie. Like Red without Blue, Prodigal Sons is about siblings, in this case Reed and her adopted brother, Marc. But where a screenwriter might have been able to come up with the story of the Farleys, there's no way one could have come up with the story of the McKerrows.

Reed used to be a golden boy when she was growing up as Paul McKerrow: uncommonly handsome, the quarterback of the football team, the dream of every parent. Marc, who was adopted at the time that Kim was conceived, always dwelt in her shadow. Both siblings underwent life altering transformations later in life, Kim underwent gender transition while Marc had a horrific car accident that resulted in the removal of part of his brain. All things considered, Kim was by far the luckier of the two. And after all of that is established, and after we've seen Marc rage at his sister who remains a golden girl after her transition, even after we've seen that Kimberly is fundamentally well adjusted even in the context of a potentially awkward high school reunion in Montana, the narrative drops a bombshell concerning Marc's biological parentage. All the while, Prodigal Sons, like Red without Blue, is documenting the relationships involved with a striking and uncomfortable intimacy. It's a bitches brew, to be sure, and if the film ultimately leaves a ragged end, well, that's life I guess. It doesn't necessarily provide a tidy narrative. It's a bracing film.


Deborah said...

I have a strangely nit-picky question. You say "one of whom is gay and one of whom is a transsexual." Now, I know you as an excellent writer, so I assume you did this on purpose.

I've seen people say that someone is "a gay" rather than "gay," and the tone is always vaguely insulting. I've also seen people referred to as "transsexual" rather than as "a transsexual." Is that also insulting? And if so, why?

Okay, I'm the same person who wants to know why slang is replete with nouns indicating fellatio but only verbs indicating cunnilingus. So maybe I'm insane. But I'm curious about this.

Deborah said...

okay I'm just doing this to get email on the comments.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

You know, honestly, I didn't give it much thought. I usually refer to myself as "a transsexual" because I think of it as a noun, while I think of "gay" as an adjective. Of course, both words are kind of fungible, so they function both ways, but that's just the way I hear it in my head. Oddly enough, I always hear the word "transgender" in my head as an adjective and always bristle when I hear it used as a noun. Go figure.

For what it's worth, I don't find "a transsexual" insulting. There are plenty of other words out there to describe trans people that I DO find insulting, so no need to pathologize a word that isn't loaded with negative connotations (yet).

Vulnavia Morbius said...
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