Sunday, June 17, 2012

Open and Shut

This is part of the LBGT Blogathon hosted by YAM Magazine. It's also a prelude to next week's Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Caroline over at Garbo Laughs.

The problem with wishing for something in a movie is that once you get it, you start wishing for more. Some people--me, for instance--are never satisfied.

I'm hard pressed to think of another movie that's as sensitive to the diversity of bodies and expressions of sexuality or lived experiences than Open (2010, directed by Jake Yuzna). More than that, it doesn't punish its characters for their bodies or sexualities, either, though it does complicate their lives in ways that are inextricably linked to body and sexuality. At a very basic level, this is a movie about longing for love and not finding it, or about finding love only to find it fleeting. I think these are universal themes, even if the characters experiencing these are probably alien to a hetero and or cis audience. I think this is a good thing. This is something I long to see in movies about trans or non-cis people but never really get. That it confronts the audience with sometimes alien expressions of love and intimacy is even sweeter.

Open has two stories: the first follows Cynthia, a nurse at a plastic surgery clinic who becomes enamored of Gen, one half of a couple who practice pandrogyny. Pandrogyny involves two people who are so identified with one another that the physically alter their bodies to become identical (or as identical as possible within the possibilities of science). Gen and her partner, Jay, are loosely based on Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye. Genesis was the front man for the avant garde music collectives, Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV and was an adviser on this movie. The other half of the movie follows Nick and Syd. Nick is a cis gay man. Syd is a gay trans man. They hook up at a rave and form a bond. Both couples spend the movie wandering around Minneapolis as urban campers. Cynthia has left her partner. Gen is on her own because Jay is out of town. The two wander together until Cynthia professes her love. Gen rejects her, her longing for Jay having acted as a leitmotif through the film. Syd is hit by a car as he and Nick are biking around the city and in the course of being treated for his injuries discovers that he is pregnant. This freaks him out because he's taken a dose of testosterone since the window when his pregnancy could have occurred. Nick doesn't care, and wants to stand by Syd, but Syd pushes him away.

While I'm sure that the very idea of "pandrogyny" is probably freakish to most audiences, I find it beautiful. It's not without precedent in movies, either. If you want, you can see the fusion of identities in Persona or Single White Female as vaguely related. If you believe certain rumors about Michael Jackson, Jackson was pursuing a version of pandrogyny, as well. This is all horrorshow, though. Open is a movie that celebrates it as essentially loving it rather than exploits it for horror or othering. The movie isn't really about pandrogyny, either, so much as it's one facet of a variety of gender expressions in the movie. It's nice to see a trans-themed movie including a trans guy in the proceedings, and the film arguably includes intersexuality among its concerns. The write-up of the film on Netflix notes that Cynthia is a "hermaphrodite"--a fact confirmed by director Jake Yuzna in interviews, and Gaea Gaddy, who plays Cynthia, is certainly profoundly androgynous and was certainly cast to raise the question with an audience--but this isn't something supported in the text of the film. What you don't get in this film is a transition narrative, which is a mercy. The closest it comes is a monologue in which Gen laments that transition doesn't solve your problems, it just imposes the need for a shitload of concealer and makes you scared to go out. This movie is beyond that.

This is all fodder for a genuinely interesting movie. All of it. It's a kind of movie I've longed for over years of being disappointed by dodgy transgender depictions. This doesn't indulge in the dominant culture's stereotypes of what trans* people are like: they are not pathetic or psychopathic or punch lines. All of this, in itself, is laudable and an enormous relief. But, as I say at the beginning of this post, once I get something, I start wanting more. In this case, I wanted Open to be a better movie than it is, because when you get right down to it, it's not very good. It smothers all of its interesting elements under a somnolent pair of narratives that never really connect to each other, and throws in random digressions like the bricklayers discovering a room full of stuffed Africans in a forgotten room of the British Museum and a Marie Celeste-style story of a busload of kids that vanished into the aether. It's rambly and unfocused. It compensates with arty shot compositions and a droning minor-key piano score. The film is shot in such a way as to turn the city into a kind of desolate existential wasteland that amplifies the loneliness of all of its characters. Interiors are painted in vivid, saturated colors that also have the effect of isolating the characters, as if they've been placed as art objects inside the film frame. In spite of the essential warmth brought to the film by the actors, the formal elements of the film are alienating. And warmth isn't enough. The actors are all mostly non-actors, as it so happens, and they do the best that they can. They compare favorably to most of the performances in microbudget mumblecore indies, but performances are almost always one of the weaknesses in movies from this sector. Of the actors, Morty Diamond (Syd) gets off easiest. He's got an ease in front of the camera that eludes his co-stars.

And while Open avoids most of the common pitfalls in trans depictions, it stumbles over others. For example: it ties identity to the body and fetishizes body modification as a direct challenge to gender as a whole. The scene in which Cynthia playacts the modification of her own body while staring into a mirror, especially in light of her pursuit of Gen, is more suggestive of a fetish than of an identity. This is problematic. More problematic by half is the plot twist of the pregnant trans man, a new trope to add to the meme pool, one that was stillborn as a stereotype the instant that someone converted it from tabloid headline into plot device. Open is late to this one. The L-Word beat it to the screen. I'll admit that there's a part of me that smiles at this, because in it there is the revelation that for all its artiness, Open has a streak of exploitation in it, too. Jake Yuzna is the son of horror filmmaker Brian Yuzna, after all.

Still, this is progress. Baby steps, I suppose.


Caroline said...

Baby steps, indeed. At least this film sounds like it's willing to risk inching out into unfamiliar cinematic territory, even if it's a little timid about it and has to fall back on a few old tropes for comfort.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Yeah. It's a relief to not clench my teeth at trans depictions, but this can be kind of a slog. I'm glad it's short.