REVIEW — Tangerine (2015)

FilmJuice have my review of Sean S. Baker’s endlessly superb Tangerine.

Released at last year’s Sundance film festival, Tangerine is an intensely human and intensely beautiful drama about an African American trans woman sex worker who gets out of jail only to discover that her long-term pimp-slash-boyfriend has been hooking up with another woman. Shocked, saddened, and enraged by the fact that her boyfriend’s new squeeze is rumoured to be cisgender, the film’s protagonist rampages around North Hollywood in search of answers and vengeance.

As I explain in my review, Tangerine is a technical triumph in so far as it was made entirely with tools that are within the reach of amateur filmmakers. This means no expensive post-production processes, no experimental HD digital cameras, just a couple of old mobile phones and a lot of vision. However, aside from being a technical triumph, Tangerine is also a film about the emotional lives of trans women and so speaks to the humanity of a group that are frequently misunderstood, slandered, and oppressed even by people who would normally consider themselves progressive.

 

Aside from being a moving and insightful character study of both Sin-Dee and Alexandra, Tangerine also goes out of its way to comment on broader issues of gender and sexuality. For example, there’s a lovely scene quite early on when an elderly Native American complains to a taxi driver about his mother’s decision to name him Mia as while the name means ‘red bird’ in Cherokee, it just sounds like a woman’s name to Anglo-Saxon ears. The old man then goes on to joke that his mother might as well have looked out the window and named him after some animal droppings, such is the hardship of growing up with a name that does not fit your chosen gender. Now, imagine if your problems regarding gender extended beyond your name to your entire body. Imagine if your every effort to make your physical body and personality a better fit with your gender provoked more pain and more abuse. Imagine both of those things and you may be part of the way towards understanding what it means to be either Sin-Dee or Alexandra.

 

At time of writing the state of North Carolina has just passed a new law making it a lot easier to discriminate against LGBT people and the thin end of the wedge was the idea that protecting a trans person’s right to use the toilet of their preferred gender would somehow make it easier for rapists to gain access to women’s toilets and locker rooms.

Aside from being little more than a right-wing myth with no basis whatsoever in reality, the mere framing of this argument shows the extent to which supposedly enlightened lawmakers are willing to speak of the transgender community in the same breath as they speak of criminals and deviants.

Thankfully, the constitutional basis for these new laws is already being called into question and hopefully they will not be in place for long. However, the fact that people in this day and age could support such laws and present such arguments speaks to both the importance and the timeliness of Tangerine. This is a beautiful film and it is more than deserving of your attention.

Greek Pete (2009) — British Rituals of Displacement and Avoidance

Andrew Haigh’s debut film Greek Pete is neither particularly novel nor particular striking. Set in the world of London’s gay escort scene, the film is a scripted drama inspired by the lives of its non-professional actors and shot in a pseudo-documentary style. In other words, it’s a hybrid piece similar to Jersey Shore and The Only Way is Essex albeit with somewhat less theatricality and spray-on tan.

Having watched Greek Pete, I almost decided not to write about it but it occurs to me that while the film’s themes and characters are never quite as interesting as they needed to be, the film actually reveals quite a lot about Haigh’s interests, methods, and the quintessentially British way in which he approaches drama. This makes Greek Pete almost a textbook example of an immature work that is only of historical interest given the quality of the work that would follow it.

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Stranger By The Lake (2013) — Places Made of People

It is now quite common to speak of a need for greater diversity in the media that we produce and consume, but where does this ‘diversity’ reside? Are we calling for a more representative creative class or media that speaks to the desires and interests of a more diverse population? Clearly, taking a monolithically straight, white and American cultural form such as the contemporary Superhero film and adding a few token non-whites and non-straights would do little to improve the situation. One diversity-container that frequently gets overlooked is the idea of ‘spaces’ and how those spaces help to shape experiences and build cultures. This is something of a pity as LGBT cinema does spaces better than almost any other form.

The unrivalled king of gay spaces is the French director Jacques Nolot. One-time lover of Roland Barthes and protégé of Andre Techine, Nolot has devoted his cinematic career to the marginal spaces around gay culture. His second film Glowing Eyes is set in a porn cinema and explores not only the fluid nature of the identities and relationships created by the space, but also the importance of such spaces as venues for experimentation and self-expression. While Glowing Eyes is all about a space that allows entrance to different forms of sexuality, his third film Before I Forget examines the end game and the almost post-apocalyptic spaces opened up by disease, death and the end of gay men’s lives. These is a lovely scene in Before I Forget where Nolot’s character lets himself into an old boyfriend’s house in order to secure something of value for all those years of companionship. What he finds is that the dead man’s family have swooped in to pick the place clean forming an unspoken case for gay marriage at least as powerful as the one buried in the subtext of Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. Structured like a thriller, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the lake is perhaps not quite as brave as Nolot’s thunderously un-commercial works but his desire to recreate and explore a gay space is no less fascinating.

 

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Shinjuku Boys (1995) — Even When Words Fail

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. What Wittgenstein actually meant remains a subject of philosophical debate but we can read his comment as a reflection upon the two-way relationship between our perception of the world and the ways in which we talk about it.

Intuitively, facts should always take precedence over language and whenever we encounter a fact that does not fit with our use of language, we should simply update our vocabulary to better reflect the facts on the ground. While there are certainly institutions and groups who try to educate people about ‘correct’ language use, the meaning of a word is always determined by the way it is most commonly used by a given population. What this means in practice is that while experts may be forever inventing language that is a better fit with current thinking about a particular phenomenon, having those new terms filter down into general usage is subject to the same structural biases as any other attempt at changing the way that people think.

The problem with the rigidity of our spoken language is that the vernacular often contains concepts and assumptions that are not only out of date but actively harmful. For example, if we define masculinity in terms of having a penis then someone who identifies as male despite not having a penis must simply be wrong about their gender. While there was a time when our culture was quite happy to make this type of judgement, our understanding of gender has now evolved to the point where terms like ‘male’ and ‘female’ are becoming increasingly hard to pin down.

The language of gender and sexuality has evolved with almost unprecedented speed over the last few decades and new conceptual iterations seems to generate more and more political heat as words are fought over by people with different needs and ideas. If the limits of our shared language mean the limits of our world then the battle to control the conceptual underpinnings of our language is also the battle to control our world.

Directed by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, Shinjuku Boys is a documentary about a group of people who were assigned female at birth but identify more closely with the male gender than the female. Made all the way back in 1995, I am sure that many of the terms used in this documentary are horrendously outdated but while Shinjuku Boys may struggle with its pronouns, it does show how people will continue to perform and negotiate their genders even when words fails them.

 

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REVIEW — Silent Youth (2012)

FilmJuice have my review of Diemo Kemmesies’ almost silent film Silent Youth.

It would have been easy for Silent Youth to come across as either a dry technical exercise or an incomplete proof of concept; Little more than seventy minutes-long, the film is best understood as an exploration of how a romance might evolve in the absence of spoken cues. However, while that description may invoke memories of weird experimental works like Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence, Diemo Kammesies’ first film is actually a really quite affective and effective love story involving two young men who are too terrified to speak about what they feel, let alone who they are.

Silent Youth is a beautifully shot film that positively revels in its long silences. However, despite shifting from one pregnant pause to another, the film never feels repetitive as each of the silences reflects a different mood and another stage in the boys’ burgeoning relationship. Sometimes the silence is framed with sunlight and uncut grass in a way that evokes warmth and lust, other times the silence finds Kirill leaning back into a darkened corner as a means of capturing a momentary panic over the decision to have sex with a man. Despite this being his first feature film, Diemo Kemmesies’ direction is subtle but assured and the performances he coaxes from his actors are nothing short of mesmerising.

My review points out that Silent Youth can be seen as an art house film that makes use of storytelling techniques developed in the era of silent film but — on a more visceral level — this is a film about living in the shadow of homophobic violence and finding a way to reveal your feelings to another person without getting your head kicked in. Kemmesies establishes this fear of homophobic violence quite early on when Marlo’s love interest talks about being stripped naked and beaten up during a visit to Russia but while that fear is never again alluded to, it does explain why Marlo’s lover is definitely the more cautious of the two.

The fact that I didn’t initially pick up on this subtext says something about the lightness of Kemmesies’ touch but it also says quite a lot about yours truly: I can completely understand being reluctant to express one’s interest in another person for fear of being rejected and spoiling a potentially rewarding friendship but fear of being physically attacked either for expressing an interest or rejecting one is definitely outside of my lived experience. I guess this would be one of those ‘check your privilege’ moments then…

Boys Don’t Cry (1999) – On the Inhumanity of Sexual Categorisation

When people talk about gender and sexuality, they usually do so from within the context of a broad social narrative. Arguably the most popular gender narrative of the day is that we (in the West particularly) are in the process of weaning ourselves off of a particularly toxic and reductive understanding of human sexuality. According to this narrative, we have progressed from what was essentially a tri-partite model of human sexuality (straight male, straight female, and Other) to an N-partite model that allows not only for differences in sexual preference but variations in relationship models, different sexual practices and conceptions of gender that rely upon variables other than genital shape and chromosomal configuration. Under the logic of this narrative, a three-box understanding of human sexuality is repressive and so the more boxes we add to our model, the closer we come to a theory that reflects the enormous complexity of human sexual identity. In an ideal world, everyone would fit into their own universally recognised pigeonhole with nobody left puzzling as to how they fit in or who they are. Though giddily utopian, this narrative is not without its critics.

Back in the 1970s, the French philosopher Michel Foucault began to examine the different ways in which humanity has conceived of sexuality. He concluded that, far from being a historical reality, the above narrative was a construct of the 1960s and that, much like previous models of human sexuality, it contained the embryo of an intensely problematic political programme. Foucault argued that the urge to determine the ‘truth’ about a particular phenomenon and break it down into distinct categories tends to go hand-in-hand with a desire to control the phenomenon. For example, while most people do have a conception of race, their conception tends to be a lot less exacting that the systems created by governments intent upon dehumanising particular groups of humans. Thus, while most Westerners are now content to use the term ‘mixed race’ to describe people of mixed racial heritage, previous generations have used terms like ‘mulatto’ and ‘quadroon’ to determine not only which races were mixed but also in what proportions. Though pointless in the West today, these linguistic categories would have proved extraordinarily useful for societies that practiced apartheid, slavery or any other systematic abuse of different racial groups. Indeed, the first step towards the Final Solution was the creation of a legal framework allowing Nazi officials to ‘objectively’ distinguish between Jews and non-Jews on the basis of their parentage.

Though Foucault stops well short of drawing a parallel between how people used systems of racial classification and how people use systems of sexual classification, he does express profound concern over our assumption that more precise systems of top-down classification are somehow a sign of progress. After all, ‘Octaroon’ is a more precise term than ‘Black person’ but nobody in their right mind would consider it progressive to begin pigeon-holing people on the basis of their having one Afro-Caribbean grandparent. Systems of top-down classification require measurement and basing someone’s identity upon their ability to satisfy objective scientific criteria is intensely dehumanising… we see this not only in the Victorian and Nazi obsession with skull sizes but also in the grotesquely gynaecological language applied to the Trans* community when the need to fit people into pre-existing categories invariably devolves into discussions of genital shape and chromosomal configuration.

Kimberley Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry won awards and captured hearts by drawing the world’s attention to the real-life story of Brandon Teena, who was betrayed, raped and murdered by a group of friends who believed that Brandon had misrepresented his gender. When the film was first released in 1999, many people described it as the story of a woman who ‘passed herself off’ as a man in an effort to reconcile her desire to sleep with women with the universal homophobia of 1990s Nebraska. Since then, awareness has expanded and so most people now think of the film as a tragic story about how an intolerant culture treats transgender people. However, while both sets of readings say quite a lot about our need to impose clear boundaries on ambiguous phenomena, a better reading of the film is to take it as an attack on the process of classification itself.

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Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) – Orgasms and Spaghetti Bolognese

BWC1The world of art house film has become a tediously reverential place. Raised on auteur theory and acutely aware that it lacks both the cash and cachet of commercial cinema, the people who write about art film are prone to treating its institutions as temples and its practitioners as living saints. Once filled with experimentation, transgression, provocation and very human failures, the cultural spaces of art house film are now given over to callow hagiography and propping up the careers of once great talents. As one might expect of a milieu that looks upon dissent as an act of economic sabotage, there is a tendency to treat the recipients of major festival awards as worthy regardless of whether their films are any good. Thus, to say that Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour is the most controversial winner of the Palme D’Or in decades is actually a good thing… turns out that there might be some life in the old dog yet.

While the controversy has many heads, the one with the longest teeth erupted prior to the announcement of the Palme D’Or when the New York Times’ senior film critic Manohla Dargis wrote about the film in what she would later describe as “399 words dissenting words”:

It’s disappointing that Mr. Kechiche, whose movies include “The Secret of the Grain” and “Black Venus” (another voyeuristic exercise), seems so unaware or maybe just uninterested in the tough questions about the representation of the female body that feminists have engaged for decades. However sympathetic are the characters and Ms. Exarchopoulos, who produces prodigious amounts of tears and phlegm along with some poignant moments, Mr. Kechiche registers as oblivious to real women. He’s as bad as the male character who prattles on about “mystical” female orgasms and art without evident awareness of the barriers female artists faced or why those barriers might help explain the kind of art, including centuries of writhing female nudes, that was produced.

“Men look at women,” the art critic John Berger observed in 1972. “Women watch themselves being looked at.” Plus ça change….

When people voiced their disagreement, Dargis took the bait and expanded her ideas in an essay that draws on a blog post made by the creator of the graphic novel that inspired the film. Writing in French but translated for Anglophonic consumption, Julie Marot praised the style and vision of the film whilst not only distancing it from her book but also from the real-life experiences of actual LGBT women:

I don’t know the sources of information for the director and the actresses (who are all straight, unless proven otherwise) and I was never consulted upstream. Maybe there was someone there to awkwardly imitate the possible positions with their hands, and/or to show them some porn of so-called “lesbians” (unfortunately it’s hardly ever actually for a lesbian audience). Because — except for a few passages — this is all that it brings to my mind: a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and me feel very ill at ease. Especially when, in the middle of a movie theater, everyone was giggling. The heteronormative laughed because they don’t understand it and find the scene ridiculous. The gay and queer people laughed because it’s not convincing, and found it ridiculous. And among the only people we didn’t hear giggling were the potential guys too busy feasting their eyes on an incarnation of their fantasies on screen.

In other words, the 2013 Cannes Film Festival jury gave the most prestigious award in world cinema to a piece of grotesque cultural appropriation; a film that took an original graphic novel by a gay woman and filtered it through the beliefs and proclivities of a straight man resulting in a series of needlessly explicit and exploitative sex scenes that owe a good deal more to the tropes and techniques of pornography than to the emotional contours of LGBT life.

Though in and of itself disappointing, the jury’s decision is made infinitely worse by the fact that Cannes Film Festival has an absolutely terrible track record when it comes to the representation of women in general and LGBT women in particular: Since the Palme D’Or assumed its current form in 1975, the award has had only one female winner (Jane Campion). In the year that Blue is the Warmest Colour won the Palme D’Or, there was only one female director in competition and the previous year saw none at all. While the slightly more edgy Un Certain Regard prize has a much better track record of allowing women to compete, men still dominate the list of winners. The problem is not just that the Cannes jury gave its most prestigious award to a straight man’s vision of a lesbian relationship, it’s that it chose to give that film an award despite having completely ignored all the films made by actual LGBT women including Chantal Akerman, Andrea Weiss, Ulrike Ottinger, Barbara Hammer, Lana Wachowski, Monika Treut and Lisa Cholodenko. It is almost as though the Cannes Film Festival only discovered the concept of a non-straight woman when a straight man decided to film a couple of straight women pretending to go down on each other. Given that art house film likes to present itself as being interested in different ways of seeing the world, this addiction to the straight male gaze is complacent, corrosive, wasteful and so completely unacceptable that every passing year brings nothing but shame to an institution already in urgent need of reform.

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