Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Road Not Taken

Somewhere in the middle of Gun Hill Road (2011, directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green), my viewing companion commented: "No way she survives this movie." The scene we were watching involved a young transsexual girl who was buying black market hormones from an older trans woman. After the transaction, the older woman asked her if she'd like to be "pumped?" Both my friend and I flinched at that. "Pumping," for those who aren't immersed in trans culture, is the practice of injecting silicone into areas of the body in order to give them a more feminine shape, usually the ass and hips, but sometimes the breasts and face. This is a profoundly dangerous practice, since the silicone that is often used is not medical silicone. Sometimes, as in this film, it comes from a caulk gun. Seriously. A cisgender audience is likely to react with horror and disgust at such a practice, even if they succumb to the freakshow attraction of it. Why would someone do that? Both my friend and I are trans, though, and I think we both understand the desperation gender dysphoria instills in trans people. The desperation and the poverty and the pressure to conform to beauty norms. My reaction to this movie is largely personal, so you'll have to pardon me when I wonder what I might have done to myself had hormone therapy not reshaped my body to my satisfaction. Don't get me wrong: there's still horror. We've both seen the results of pumping gone wrong, but we're both reasonably educated and possessed of white privilege. The character in Gun Hill Road, though? She's from a completely different cultural paradigm.

The story in Gun Hill Road follows Enrique, a petty criminal who is just finishing his sentence. The only blot on his behavior in prison is an incident with another prisoner whom Enrique attacked with a shiv, presumably because he's gay and has had designs on Enrique. Enrique's family, meanwhile, is moving on without him. When Enrique is released, it's like he's come home to people he doesn't even know. His wife, Angela, has been having an affair in his absence, and his son, Michael, is not the paragon of masculinity he had hoped to find. Michael is living a double life. Out in his own world, Michael is Vanessa, who identifies as a transsexual woman. She refuses to use the boy's bathroom at school. After school, she performs at poetry slams in her preferred identity. She's taking black market hormones. She's seeing a guy. The guy wants her for sex, but he's embarrassed to take her out in public. Enrique is horrified by his son. He takes a pair of scissors and cuts off her hair, tries to inculcate an interest in baseball, and takes her to a prostitute to try to introduce her to "straight" sex. This last is filmed like a rape scene, mostly because it IS a rape scene. This is the last straw for Vanessa. She packs her things and leaves, forcing a confrontation between Enrique and Angela. Angela knows that Enrique has been drifting back toward crime. She vows to send him back to jail if he doesn't find her child for her. Enrique reluctantly complies, and during his cruise through the local underworld encounters the man he tried to shiv in prison. He beats him to a bloody pulp. Perhaps this is a catharsis, because when he eventually catches up with Vanessa, he realizes that not having his son would leave a hole in his being, even if his son is his daughter. Unfortunately, his search causes Enrique to miss a meeting with his parole officer. The reconciliation is nipped. The final shot of the movie is inscrutable: Is Vanessa relieved? Glad? Sad? Remorseful? At this point, the movie becomes a sphinx.

This is a movie that "gets" the experience of trans people in a way that is unusual in cinema. So many depictions of trans people are built from the false preconceptions of cisgender filmmakers that it's kind of a shock seeing a transgender narrative that rings even halfway true. It starts with the casting. Vanessa is played by Harmony Santana, who is herself trans. She's good in the role. Her narrative is one of sexual awakening, crossing from innocence to experience. Some of those experiences are traumatic: there are two scenes of intercourse in this movie, and it's surprising that the one that is a rape isn't Vanessa's introduction to taking a man inside her. That scene is awkward, like most first time sexual experiences, and a little unsatisfying to boot. The scene with the prostitute, though, is a surprising inversion. There is no consent. Vanessa is visibly repulsed by the prospect of having sex with another woman. And yet it goes on. This is not a film that depicts any kind of universal trans experience. This by itself elevates it above crap like TransAmerica (note: there IS no universal trans experience). But it's entirely credible as the experience of this particular trans woman. Both my friend and I were surprised that she makes it to the end of the film, but by then, we knew that this is fundamentally an After School Special with gay sex and foul language. It retains at least one bad habit common to all "sympathetic" movies about trans people: it suggests that our lives are joyless and nothing but difficulty and hardship. There is no joy in Vanessa's life. Even her first love affair ends in awkward recriminations, and there's no heat in it even when it's a going concern, only apprehension and fear.

Enrique's story, which runs in parallel to Vanessa's story, is more problematic. The movie elides the notion that Enrique may have been raped in prison, and that this is the reason for his raging homophobia (and, by extension, transphobia). This seems entirely contrived to create a conflict for the film. Moreover, Enrique's change of heart at the end of the film doesn't really jibe with either the character or the narrative that has been posited. The end veers into film noir territory, with redemption just out of reach. I don't believe his story, mostly. Esai Morales is fine as Enrique, but it's a character he could play in his sleep. His performance consists mostly of glaring at the camera.

This is another film that I wish was better than it is. I'm greedy. Believe me, I'm tickled pink by the trans depiction in this film. It's accurate and sympathetic (as opposed to being merely sympathetic), but once I get what I want, I start making demands. This film is kind of airless and I'm at a loss as to why that is. It's well-shot, in that contemporary haze of camera filters and post-production color design and wandering cameras. There's nothing wrong with the performances. But it's glum in the way that only social problem films can be glum. It's no fun, either as cinema itself or as a story. It plods. While I don't regret sitting through it and while I applaud the trans depiction here, I can't really love this movie. This film is utilitarian at best and when it comes down to it, I really, really want a good trans-themed movie with highs that go with the lows, maybe with some laughs, but definitely with some powerful emotionality. I want a film that's completely drunk on the joy of cinema. Or the joy of life itself. Instead, we get small beer like this.


Renee said...

Honestly, at this point I think I deserve my own tag. :)

And yeah, you totally nailed it.

Aubyn said...

I've been reading a lot of Kael lately and your review reminded me a little of her old problem with "good intentions" and the tendency to reward a film for what it's trying to say minus any joy in the experience. So yeah, sounds to me like your greed is justified.

By the way, I've read some of your reviews on films like Transamerica and The Christine Jorgensen Story, but have you ever posted a list of your favorite transgender films? Because I for one would be curious to hear your thoughts and I'm always up for recommendations.

I like Esai Morales so it's a pity to hear that his character didn't amount to much. Do you think the movie would have been better if it had just jettisoned his character arc and let Vanessa carry the story?

Anyway, thanks for an interesting review, as always, Vulnavia.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I don't know if this would be better without his character. I meant to talk about the way this movie centers itself around a cisgender male character in response to the trans character, which always prompts me to say "But what about the menz?" in an affected whine. But the central conflict of the movie and its admittedly terrific final shot are contingent on his story. So I don't know.

As for favorite trans-themed films? Oof. That's tough. There are so few good ones. Prodigal Sons, maybe? Quanto Dura O Amor? Breakfast on Pluto (but categorically NOT The Crying Game). Problematic as they are, Almodovar's Bad Education, All About My Mother, and The Skin I Live In are all films that I kind of love, but holy crap do I have to twist myself into knots to defend them in light of how they depict trans people. Ditto Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Frankly, the director who best "gets" the trans experience from my point of view is David Cronenberg, and his films aren't explicitly trans themed (M. Butterfly excepted). The motif of transformation that runs through his early films has resonance. That scene in The Fly where Brundle is poking at himself in the mirror looking for changes in his body has a strong shock of recognition, as does the scene where he's horrified at the stiff unwanted hairs that are appearing on his body. And Videodrome totally dabbles in this, with that vaginal slit that forms in Max Wren's abdomen. He should get together with Rose from Rabid, who grows a matching phallus from her armpit. The New Flesh appears to be transsexual in nature.