Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Another Mermaid

There's a statue in Copenhagen of Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, looking mournfully back out at the sea. This is it right here:

This is one of the saddest pieces of art I've ever seen, based on the most bittersweet of fairy tales. Whenever I think of the lives of mid-20th Century trans people, I think of this statue for some reason. Not because I think they've suffered some irretrievable loss, mind you, but because so many other people believe this. This is an attitude that persists unto the present day. In my own life, I cannot count the number of well-meaning cisgender acquaintances who have come up to me and said: "It must have been very hard for you," with that note of condescending sympathy. Maybe the condescension is something I only hear in my head. I'm sure it's sincere, but, man, it gets old. And it's so clueless.

Copenhagen itself is where Christine Jorgensen underwent her surgery, substituting her fins for legs, and if you believe the end of the movie version of her life, The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970, directed by Irving Rapper), she suffered nothing but heartache in the bargain. The movie has that same condescending sympathy. The form of the movie--styled as a 1950s weepie--builds this into the very fabric of the narrative. And it's so earnest! Mercy, it's earnest! So much so that it barrels right through its own cluelessness. This is a combination that usually results in really bad movies, and this one, it turns out, is a howler.

As the movie opens, we meet Georgie, a little boy who would rather play with dolls than play football, who doesn't fight back when he's bullied, and who wants to please his father. His father deceives himself, for the most part, and when Georgie gets in a fight on the playground, he tells his dad that he threw the first punch to make it seem that he's manlier than he is. Georgie grows up to be a photographer. His natural beauty attracts the attention of his boss, manly Jess Warner, who turns out to be gay. After Jess attempts to rape George, George has a crisis of faith. He doesn't know who he is, but he has suspicions. He begins researching sexual disorders and stumbles on a line of research that sets off a light bulb in his head. He goes to Professor Eastbrook, a sex researcher who has been experimenting on the hormonal components of gender identity. George's consult with Eastbrook reveals that George has a hormonal imbalance, in which estrogen is much higher than normal. Eastbrook refers George to Dr. Dahlman in Copenhagen, and Dahlman agrees to perform a radical new kind of surgery on George to bring his body into conformity with his mind. Once the news gets out about this, George--now Christine--is hounded by the press. One reporter in particular gets close to her, and they both begin to have feelings for each other. Can she possibly marry and find happiness? Well, no. The movie doesn't permit her that. How could it? Isn't sympathy enough?

There's so much wrong with this movie I don't even know where to begin, but let's start with the feel of the film. Apart from some harsh language and a few shots of breasts, this movie looks like a time capsule from the 1950s. Director Irving Rapper was best known for weepies like Now, Voyager, and this film--his first in since 1962--is all of a piece with that filmography. It's overwrought and melodramatic, and these elements are ill at ease with the elements permitted by loosening censorship standards. This is also a movie that seems blissfully ignorant of movements in cinema throughout the 1960s. It seems almost completely untouched by the French New Wave or the Italian Neo-realists, both of whom were already making inroads into American cinema even ten years earlier. This seems kind of quaint, actually. It's like a lost Douglas Sirk movie, but without Sirk's native facility with symbolism, to say nothing of his facility with actors.

The actors here are stiffs, particularly John Hansen in the lead. In his voice-over and in his mainline performance, Hansen is pure community theater. Surely cast for his prettiness rather than his acting ability, he constructs his character from a bunch of stereotypes. Christine doesn't come off as real in this movie, though that's no shame when NOTHING comes off as real. It's the danger of melodrama, I suppose. The filmmakers don't help things much by altering Hansen's voice in post after Christine takes the stage. This last bit is particularly othering, too, because Christine doesn't sound exactly human.

As I elide a couple of paragraphs back, this movie doesn't resemble my own life in any particular, and that's pretty disappointing to me. Most people crave representations of themselves in the movies they see, and I'm no different. This movie is a pretty stark failure in that regard. So far as I know, it doesn't resemble the lives of any other trans people I actually know, either, but I don't want to speak for them. Can I say that this isn't how it was for Christine Jorgensen? Well, no. She was a consultant on the movie, so who knows? But I DO know that they've fudged a bunch of the verifiable facts of the story such that the entire thing is untrustworthy. The portrait of trans lives constructed for this movie is rife with stereotypes and misapprehensions about the nature and treatment of gender dysphoria. Interestingly enough, while it doesn't resemble reality, it does resemble some varieties of transgender slash fiction, combining the tropes of the effeminate youth who discovers that they have a glandular imbalance/intersex condition/whatever, and winds up transitioning. There's a morbid focus on the transformation, and a fetishizing of certain objects as inherently "feminine." Christine even winds up with the helpful enabling aunt. It also replicates some of the homophobia one often finds in TG slash, and the depiction of Jess, the predatory gay, is a bundle of gay panic. The notion late in the movie that trans people don't function normally in sexual situations is equally odious. In any event, my point here is that this is fundamentally a fantasy, constructed of dated cisgender notions of gender roles, and that this is fundamentally exploitative. There's not any cinematic attraction inherent in this movie--it inhabits a form a that had been moribund for at least a decade--so it relies instead on an uneasy conflation of melodrama and freakshow. I told a friend that the movie of which this most reminded me was Nicolas Ray's Bigger than Life, but after a bit of reflection, it reminds me even more of Chained for Life, a sour exploiter starring conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. It has the same feeling of exploitation minus, perhaps, the feeling that the actors themselves are being exploited.

Christine Jorgensen deserved better.


Halle said...

Sadly, when a movie is made on some factual topic, the movie becomes the history for many people, and that really stinks.

As far as the condescending attitude, this extends to anyone with a situation in their life that we do not understand. It is always so much better to say "tell me what it has been like" than to make the assumption that somehow you know how awful it has been and start gushing.

Mykal said...

Vulnavia: Another absolutely fascinating perspective. I would have never, in a million years, seen this film this way.

I am reminded of a conversation I recently had with a Haitian young man I work with. He wondered why, in all the charitable media campaigns regarding his country, were Americans only asked to feel pity for a county of starved, miserable wretches? Why, he wondered, were Americans not asked to restore a great culture, and a great people, worthy of support as peers? I had never looked at it that way.

To him, and you, I say that humans are more flawed than most ever understand, and sometimes pity and sympathy, even to the point of exploitation and blatant condescension, is the best that can be offered. What should be, often, will never be.

More's the pity.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Mykal.

I think you've hit the nail on the head with this: "Why, he wondered, were Americans not asked to restore a great culture, and a great people, worthy of support as peers?" I think it's because Americans, as a privileged class, don't view Haitians as peers. (I'm speaking generally, of course). It's the nature of privilege to condescend to a lack of privilege, I think.

Caroline said...

I would never have thought of it in a million years, but you're so right: this film and Chained for Life DO have a lot in common. Both are faux-educational exploitation pieces that are supposed to inform their audiences about an "abnormal" way of life, that really just end up othering their subjects even more in a heaping mess of exploitation-disguised-as-honesty. From my perspective (which is a cisgender one), this movie could've been worse; in fact, I was expecting worse, which is probably why I was so pleasantly surprised that it wasn't completely awful in its depiction of Christine. At least, in my eyes, which are of course different from yours. But I guess giving a movie credit for not painting its transgender character as a complete freak or monster doesn't say much for my expectations of early(ish) cinematic representations of transgender identity.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Caroline.

The other movie that The Christine Jorgensen Story reminds me of is Doris Wishman's Let Me Die a Woman for obvious reasons. I think I actually prefer it to this, actually, because I think the sympathy expressed in that movie is a bit more genuine, and it actually allows its transgender participants to speak for themselves, in spite of the outrageously exploitative things in the movie. I really need to write about that movie, but it's a hard movie for me to watch. The surgical footage kind of puts me off my lunch.