July 24, 2014

Queering The Bible: Was Eve the first Transgender Woman?

Recently, the local paper where I grew up, The Daily Star, ran an article highlighting the experiences of a transgender man, Julian Pecenco.

As surely as the sun sets in the West every night, a few days later a transphobic letter showed up in the opinion section written from someone from my hometown of Otego. The letter itself is not worth linking to, but suffice to say it threw out the same old claim that God made Adam and Eve, man and woman.

The first problem with this claim is purely logical. If Adam and Eve were the first, and thus only two people that God made at that time, that would mean that God would have been restricted to two genders right at the outset. Therefore, we cannot assume as the population grew, that there is anything to say that God did not intend for more genders to become a part of the human population. And if we consider the existence of intersex people, it would appear that any Creator God (if there was indeed a mystical creator of the universe) then we have support the idea that the only reason God only created two sexes at the beginning (if we accept a literal reading of The Bible) was because he was limited to two individuals to create sexes for. And if you really want to get technical, there are also species that can transition between biological sex, which would also be evidence that God does not seem too intent that any of his creations should be stuck in one role for life.

The second problem with saying that God creating Adam and Eve, man and woman, is that, well, this is not precisely what happens in The Bible. That is, there are two different creation stories recorded in the first two chapters of Genesis. The first chapter lays out the "God created the world in 6 days and on the 7 day he rested" that creationists like to cling to. But more importantly, it dictates that God created man and woman on the same day. The second chapter is the one that gives the story of Eve being created from Adam's rib. The discrepancy between these stories is what led to the insertion of Lilith, or Adam's first wife, into the Genesis story.

However, it's not Lilith I want to talk about, but the story of Eve. If Eve really was created from Adam's rib, then Eve was created using Adam's man rib. And by man rib, I mean that rib came from a body God himself had assigned as male. And given that Adam never protested the label, who are we to question it? Thus, if Eve was created from a male assigned body part, but ended up a woman, would this not mean that Eve was the first transgender woman? At the very least, God seemed okay with the transitioning between sex and gender right at the outset of creation.

I'm just saying, if you want to read The Bible literally, then this where one winds up.

Queer Issue: Gay Nazis and Transgender Serial Killers: How Filmmakers Queer up Historical Villainy

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, is a film that depicts 4 Italian fascists torturing, and ultimately murdering a group of innocent youth. In spite of it being hailed as the most controversial film of all time, I find it little more than a mere curiosity. Defenders of Salo claim that it is an edgy and radical indictment of Italian Fascism. Others just call it torture porn. I myself fall into the latter category although I would also addd that it is unfortunately as queerphobic a film as they come.

I have not in fact watched Salo all the way through, I fast forwarded through the Circle of Shit sequence. But the rest of the film is only just about as unwatchable. I tried watching it a second time at one point, only to make it far enough through to feel confident that my earlier reading of the film was not entirely incorrect. Honestly, the Pasolini appears to have included no greater message in Salo other than people can be horribly cruel to each other. Or maybe it was supposed to be that Fascism creates an particularly virulent setting for people to become especially horribly cruel. In either case my response is, "excuse me while I call in Captain Obvious for a rescue mission".

Salo is particularly problematic with regards to the depictions of the Italian Fascists engaging in same sex activity, sodomy, and rape. Rape is rape, wether the victim is male or female but Pasolini depicts the Italian Fascists raping of the male characters as representing particularly heinous behavior. From the way these scenes are filmed, it is clear that Pasolini intends for we, the audience to be just that much more shocked by the male on male activity, over the other scenes of torture, rape, and general depravity. For this reason, I cannot agree with the claim that Salo represents a "radical" vision, but instead I must stress the point the point that it presents a completely conventional viewpoint with regards to sexual politics.

Just as Salo presents it's sexually liberated libertines as unmistikably queer, so too does The Damned present the NAZI SA Sturmabteilung as engaging in a gay orgy, with the officers pairing off before being disposed of on the Night of Long Knives. This is on top of The Damned's most ardent NAZI supporter, Martin, being shown engaging in a variety of queer behaviors, including his iconic drag impersonation of Marlene Dietrich.

Then there is Germany, Year Zero, which includes a NAZI trying to seduce his young charge into joining the NAZI and Homosexual lifestyles. Germany, Year Zero by the way, is apparently prestigious enough to be given a Criterion Release.

Of course, mainstream films (if Salo and The Damned can be considered mainstream) are not the only ones to link same sex desire to Nazism, pretty much every Nazi sexploitation flick (a genre which includes titles such as Love Camp Number 9 and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, includes at least one lesbian officer amongst the NAZI's ranks.

Of course, both the NAZI's and Italian fascists persecuted those they caught engaging in same sex activities. After the Night of Long Knives and the assignation of Ernst Röhm (the openly gay commandant of the SA), the NAZI's stepped up their persecution. In the end, around 15,000 men and women would be imprisoned in camps such as Buchenwald. There they would be the victims of medical experiments, including efforts to create ex-gay therapies.

By using homophobia to condemn fascism, filmmakers commit the ironic sin of promoting a message easily found at any neo-Nazi rally.

Which brings us to the way transgender characters are presented, particularly the image of the transgender serial killer. This is an image that continues to persist up to the present day. The serial killer Ed Gein has served as inspiration for films such as Silence of the Lambs and Psycho. More recently, The X-Files: I Want to Believe paid homage to Silence of the Lambs by borrowing (or ripping off, depending on ones perspective) the plot of Silence of the Lambs, although it should be noted that the villain of I Want to Believe bore little resemblance to Gein.

But once again we have the issue of history and cinema being at odds with one another, for there is almost no evidence that Ed Gein was transgender or engaged in gender non-conforming behaviors. Instead the story of him trying to wear female body parts appears to have been created entirely out of media sensationalism.

Contrast the above examples to the frequency of stories of LGBTQ historical figures who managed to achieve greatness but who inevitably wound up being straightened out when it came time to tell their stories on film. Enigma wrote out Alan Turing from the story of the development of the Enigma machine altogether, the device which helped crack German codes used during World War II and (potentially) saved thousands of lives. Apparently, on the silver screen queers can only be Nazis, we cannot fight them.

More recently, Dallas Buyers Club took a bisexual hero in the fight against AIDS, Ron Woodroof, and presented him as straight.

When it comes depictions of transgender and transsexual historical figures, it gets worse, as their stories typically never making it to Hollywood in the first place. Their is a distinct paucity of transgender historical figures in motion pictures. Mike Newall's Stonewall never mentioned Sylvia Rivera, nor had any character that could act as a stand in, and it looks as if Roland Emmerich's upcoming Stonewall flick will follow a similar path.

Remember this, when people argue that films don't have to present an individuals sexual orientation, it's not so simple as presenting a character as straight or queer when the patterns of who gets straightened out and who does not, is not random. When Hollywood only presents queers as killers or NAZI's, while ignoring the stories where we are the heroes, it does nothing but reinforce the message that we are dangerous, creepy, and immoral. But the LGBTQ community is not composed (at least entirely) of killers and Nazi's, in spite of what some apparently want the public to believe. There are heroes amongst our ranks and it is important that their stories get told as well. But it is also important to remember that the villainy attributed to us, is all too frequently exaggerated.

July 19, 2014

Queer Issue: The Unfortunate Straightening Out of Hollywood Redux

It is easy to get caught up in analysis of LGBTQ related films that focus on movies in isolation without consideration of larger patterns. But those larger patterns can be more revealing than any in depth analysis of a single film can accomplish. When it comes to the presentation of characters based on LGBTQ historical figures, there are plenty of examples of films that have had no problems presenting their characters sexual orientation and gender identities with a reasonable degree of accuracy. There are also plenty of films that have even exaggerated the queerness of their characters, while on the opposite end of this issue are those that have downplayed or straightened out the sexualities and gender identities of LGBTQ historical figures.

The question then becomes, in what situations are LGBTQ historical figures most likely to retain their sexualities and gender identities or have them exaggerated and when are they going to be straightened out?

To analyze this issue, I divided up films based on LGBTQ historical figures into the following categories: Killers, Criminals and Other Villains, Neutral, LGBTQ Activists and Pioneers, Artists, and Generally Heroic. I also included films that presented certain historical figures as queer, even if the gender identity or sexuality of the historical figure has not been well established or is otherwise known. In order to include as wide a range of films as possible in this analysis, I have included films that are heavily fictionalized or merely used certain historical figures for inspiration. Films in this category are marked with a ✦. Films made during the Hays Code, which banned depictions of same sex sexuality, are marked with an asterisk.

Here are how the results broke down:

Accurate or Exaggerated:
Kill Your Darlings
I Shot Andy Warhol
Heavenly Creatures
The Krays
Bloody Mama
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Silence of the Lambs✦
Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde✦
The Damned✦
Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS✦
Texas Chainsaw Massacre✦

Straightened Out:
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith✦

Criminals and Other Villains
Accurate or Exaggerated:
I Love You Phillip Morris
Dog Day Afternoon
Boys Don’t Cry

South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut✦
Angels in America✦

Straightened Out
Mommie Dearest

Accurate or Exaggerated:
Queen Christina

Straightened Out

LGBTQ Activists and Pioneers
Accurate or Exaggerated:
The Christine Jorgensen Story

Straightened Out:

Accurate or Exaggerated:
Gods and Monsters
Ed Wood
Love is the Devil
Next Stop, Greenwich Village
The Hours

Straightened Out
The Libertine
Saving Mr. Banks

Shadow of the Vampire✦
Night and Day*
The Agony and the Ecstasy*

Generally Heroic
Accurate or Exaggerated:
J. Edgar

Straightened Out:
Dallas Buyers Club
A Beautiful Mind

Lawrence of Arabia*

Percentages (Excluding fictionalized cases and films made during the Hays Code):

Killers: 100% Accurate
Criminals and Other Villains: 75% Accurate
Neutral: 100% Accurate
LGBTQ Activists and Pioneers: 100% Accurate
Artists: 60% Accurate
Generally Heroic: 33% Accurate

If a queer individual wants their sexuality or gender identity to be presented accurately by Hollywood, kill someone, become an LGBTQ activist or do nothing noteworthy. You also stand a pretty good chance of your sexuality and gender identity being presented accurately if you choose a non-homicidal life of crime. However, if you want to become an artist or do something influential outside the LGBTQ community, you better be prepared to play Hollywoods' heterosexualization lottery.

June 4, 2014

Queer Review: Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

Blue is the Warmest Color
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Writers: Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix. Based on the book Le Bleu est une couleur chaude by Julie Maroh.
Cast: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Salim Kechiouche, Aurélien Recoing, Catherine Salée, Benjamin Siksou, Anne Loiret, Benoît Pilot

A talky French drama about two women falling in and out of love, Blue is the Warmest Color shows the evolution of a complex and multifaceted relationship. While glacially paced, this is a movie that offers plenty of rewards for viewers with the patience to read the Bible from the beginning all the way to Job. Seriously, the lists in Genesis of who begat who take forever to get through and anyone who can make it through those parts will have no trouble with this film.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a typical, if rather introverted, French teenager. When Adèle first has sex with her boyfriend, she finds the experience unsatisfying. At a lesbian bar, she meets Emma (Léa Seydoux) and the two begin a passionate relationship. Eventually the two move in together with Adèle taking up a career as a teacher, while Emma pursues work as a fine painter. However, their domestic relationship leads to a routine that leaves Adèle lonely and Emma unsatisfied. When Adèle has an affair with one of her coworkers, Emma kicks her out. More time passes and Adèle has trouble moving on. When she receives an invitation to an art show featuring Emmas' paintings, she goes and manages to find closure to this chapter in her life.

The Queering
Blue is the Warmest Color is filmed with explicit scenes that are designed more to develop and advance the characters than they are to titillate or arouse. Of course, as a gay man, I cannot say I can really judge how titillating they actually are. Of course, this being a character focused piece this a slow moving meditation on the nature of love and relationships. There is little effort to focus on queer or lesbian issues specifically. Adèle goes through a period where she is clearly questioning her sexuality and has to face homophobia from friends when the suspect that she is dating a woman, but this becomes a non-issue once she moves in with Emma. Futhermore, the characters never come out to anyone that the audience is made aware of. As it is, outside of a scene where Adèle marches in an anti-austerity march, the film is largely apolitical.

This doesn't stop the film from raising questions about depictions of female sexuality and desire. Given that the director is a man, the male gaze is of course utilized but as far as I could tell, never subverted nor averted. However, Director Kechiche does raise questions about it. In one scene, a character comments on how men are the ones who most often depict female sexuality in spite of the fact that men cannot know what women really experience when it comes to sex. It's a philosophical question and one reflective of Platos' views of art in general. Plato, as it were, had a pet peeves was that since our world was merely a copy of his beloved Forms, then the highest thing art could aspire towards was being a second hand imitation of a copy of a copy of the "original" forms.

It makes sense then, that Kechiche films Blue is the Warmest Color in a cinema vérité style with many hand held camera shots, no voiceover, and a minimal soundtrack. Blue is the Warmest Color tries to be real, even while it acknowledges in sometimes subtle ways that it's not. Furthermore, all we ever see of Emmas' drawings or paintings of Adèle are brief glimpses, yet there implications that the Kechiche is trying to frame Adèle through the same lens that Emma views her in. That is just as Emma paints Adèle on canvas, so too does Kechiche attempt to present Adèle through the eye of the camera.

When people refer to the "male gaze", they invariably mean the "straight male gaze". But this raises the question: Is there a difference between the straight male gaze and the lesbian gaze and if so, what is it? Furthermore, can a difference between the two gazes be established at all without resorting to gender essentialism?

At the end of the day, it is Kechiches' willingness to address this issue that sets Blue is the Warmest Color apart. At nearly 3 hours, with little action, combined with the slowest of plots, it would seem that this would be a drag to sit through. It is a testament to those involved that Blue is the Warmest Color manages to be engaging from start to finish.

For fans of dialog heavy films that focus on characters over action or plot, this would be worth crossing the most depressingly warm blue ocean in existence in order to see.

The Rating
3 out of 4 stars.


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

June 1, 2014

Queer Review: The Matador (2005)

The Matador
Director: Richard Shepard
Writer: Richard Shepard
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Hope Davis, Philip Baker Hall, Israel Tellez

A fun romantic comedy between about two men falling in love, one of whom happens to be a hitman who is finds his ability to kill failing him at critical times. Also, there are random shots of a matador inserted for no apparent reason other than to justify the title.

Aging hitman Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is starting to lose his nerve when it comes to doing his job. He hides it well enough, but there are times, such as when he sashes through a hotel lobby wearing nothing but a tight pair of speedos, when it becomes painfully clear that he is losing his mind. Then he meets Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) and the two have a brief fling before Julian is forced back into doing his job. When Julian fails to kill a critical target, his life is put in danger from his employeers and thus he turns to Danny and his wife Bean (Hope Davis), hoping that the sparks the two shared for each other will be enough to get him out his predicament.

The Queering
Most of the humor in The Matador is low key but generally effective. Brosnan and Kinnear display a fair amount of chemistry with each other as their characters flirt with each other in a hotel bar and bond over drinks. This is their meet cute scene. Eventually the two go on a date where Julian shows Danny the best method for killing a person. Also, it happens to be at a bullfighting tournament where we get the aforementioned shots of a matador and bull fighting. Before the two had met, Julian had been trying to deal with his issues by having empty sex with woman. It's only when he meets Danny that Julian opens up at all and is able to find any meaning to his life.

The first half of the film is better than the second, which is where the pacing starts to drag. In fact, I started to wonder if the project had originally been conceived of as a stage play, given the way the latter scenes focus increasingly on dialog and character over plot. There's a lengthy sequence which is set entirely in Danny and Beans' house and has the feel of a stage production due to the way it focuses entirely on dialog and character revelations, while the plot comes to a virtual standstill. The climax is equally low key and a few plot twists simply do not work in the context of the film due to them being poorly set up.

When The Matador was first released, it received favorable reviews but failed to find an audience. This is something of a shame although the film lacks the panache to go in for the killing blow that might have elevated it to a higher level. As it is, this is an enjoyable diversion but failed to become a classic for obvious reasons.

It would definitely be worth getting in a fight with a bull with only a flimsy cloth as your weapon in order to see The Matador.

The Rating
3 out of 4 stars.


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

May 31, 2014

Queer Review: Philomena (2013)

Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Peter Hermann, Sean Mahon

Thanks to astounding performance by Judi Dench, Philomena manages to present one of the most complex screen protagonists to arrive in theaters in recent memory. Loosely based upon the non-fiction account related in The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, Philomena tells the story of a woman searching for the child that was forcibly taken from her when she had it out of wedlock.

After having been fired from his gig as a government advisor, journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) finds himself at loose ends. When he is first approached with the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), he is reluctant to pursue it due to his snobbish attitude towards "human interest" stories. However, he does meet with her and learns more of her story. Philomena Lee was a young mother, who gave birth in a Catholic convent in the 1960's after a sexual encounter at a fair. In order to pay for having the child, Philomena worked for the convent for four years, but the convent sold the boy to American couple. When Philomena and Martin investigate, they find that all records of the adoption were burned and current leaders of the convent uncooperative. Following a lead, the pair travel to America, where they discover that Philomenas' child had his name changed to Michael and after growing up, had become a top ranked member of the Republican Party before passing away from AIDS in the nineties.

The Queering
Shaming is a powerful way to make people conform to excpected norms and nowhere is that more apparent than when it comes to the issue of human sexuality. At it's heart, this is a film about the power of shame and the ability to overcome it. Philomena Lee was shamed about a sexual encounter she had as a teenager and then shamed into keeping quiet when she was forced to give up her kid for adoption. Michael, her son, was also shamed into the closet about his sexual orientation while he worked his way up the ladder within the Republican party. Martin Sixsmith points these issues out to Philomena Lee when the two travel to the U.S. while looking for her son. Of course Lee surprises him by showing a great amount of forthrightness when it comes to sexuality in general.

Much of the humor in the film is derived from the interaction between Lee, who reads romance novels and the more cynical Sixsmith, who finds her naïve. One extended sequence has her describing the plot of a trite romance novel while he looks like he wishes he could anyplace else. However, the most interesting parts of the movie are the philosophical debates that come up between the two. Given that these debates are clearly influenced by each characters' life experience, they are more interesting than your typical dry philosophical debates about "Is there a God?" or "If there is a God, why would he allow suffering to exist?" As an atheist, Sixsmith has no issue with criticizing the Catholic nuns who kept Lee and Michael from reconnecting before the latter died. Surprisingly, Lee remains a devoted Catholic to the very end, even after it is revealed that the nuns kept Michael from reconnecting with her when he traveled to the orphanage to find her.

As for Michael Hess, I found myself wondering what life would be like for a man who chose to work for the Republican Party, rising all the way up to become Chief Legal Counsel of the Republican National Committee. What does it take to work within a group that actively hates you? What did Hess think of Reagans' long public silence on the issue? Was the fact that when he traveled to the Ireland his face already was showing Kaposi's sarcoma affect how cooperative the nuns were?

Ultimately, the strength of Philomena lies in it's ability to be emotionally affecting without resorting to cheap melodrama. The performances drive the movie, along with the smart script and complex characters. A little philosophy on the side helps things immeasurably as well.

Philomena is just about worth the amount of effort one would use to track down a lost relative in order to see.

The Rating
3 and 1/2 stars out 4


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

May 26, 2014

Setting the Record Queer: Stonewall - Those Who Forget History Are Doomed to Repeat the Same Myths About it

I can recall back when I was a young teenager having breakfast one morning when my mom, while flipping through the newspaper said, "I see that Independence Day is rated PG-13".

"Uh uh," I replied, not really paying attention. I had seen trailers galore up until that point and my snobbish teenage self (go figure) had decided that the movie had looked boring and derivative.

"Do you want to see it?" my mom asked.

"No," I answered, although at this point my curiosity was peaked a little. Why would my mom of all people want to see what was essentially a sci-fi shoot-em-up? Well, a shoot-em-up where aliens shoot up major cities with flaming walls of flame.

She shrugged, and said, "Well, I thought it might be educational".

The advertising at the time for Independence Day had been so ubiquitous with giant alien space craft blowing up human civilization that it took took me a moment to realize what was going on here.

"Um.... mom," I replied, "you should know that the movie Independence Day isn't actually about the American Revolution..."

Skip ahead 18 years and the openly gay director of Independence Day Roland Emmerich, is now promising to make a movie about an actual historical event. Specifically the Stonewall Riots that launched the LGBTQ rights movement.

When it comes to getting the history of the Stonewall Riots "correct" I am leary of Emmerich for reasons that have nothing to do with his reputation as a purveyor of derivative action flicks, but because of Emmerichs' involvement in the film Anonymous which relays the story of Shakespeare but is set in an alternative universe where the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship happens to be true. For those unfamiliar with the theory, it posits that William Shakespeare was not the "real" author of the plays, sonnets, and poems now attributed to him. Long story short, it's a conspiracy theory that has little basis in actual historical facts.

What might be the Osfordian Theory's worst sin though, is the way it erases (possibly unintentionally) some of the best evidence that William Shakespeare experienced same sex desire. By this I mean the conspiracy theory here ultimately sets out to explain why Shakespeare dedicated his romantic sonnets to a man by eliminating the possibility that the dedication was romantically inclined. As such the Oxford Theory posits that the dedications are evidence for the conspiracy, rather then the icky possibility that one the finest English writers ever (or so English scholars say, I could barely understand him personally) had same sex desires.

What I find troubling at this point in the production (which is set to begin filming this summer) is that thus far it appears to focus on white, gay characters. The IMDB page for the movie lists Jeremy Irvine, Calab Landry Jones, and Karl Glusman as those who have been cast thus far. In addition, the plot is described as:
A young man's political awakening and coming of age during the days and weeks leading up to the Stonewall Riots.
Note that it says "man". Not "trans man". Not a "drag queen". Just "man". Also is it just me or does it sound like this is the plot of the 1995 Stonewall film directed by Nigel Finch? I realize that being about the same event could easily lead to similar plots on their own, but Emmerich sounds like even his historical epic is going to be a rip-off.

Whatever issue Emmerich has with being derivative, historically speaking this is a problem because it means that the next Stonewall Riot flick is going to be regurgitating the erasure of transgender/transsexual and gender non-conforming people of color from queer history. In addition, there is the history of transgender rights activists, such as Sylvia Riveria and Martha P. Johnson, also being erased from the Stonewall Narrative.

Even the films' Facebook page gets in on the act by stating:
"Stonewall" will tell the story of the men and women of the modern Gay Rights movement and the establishment where it all took place: The Stonewall Inn.

And in casting calls for extras for the movie, the only word that shows up is "gay". Not LGBT, not Queer, gays only. Bisexual, lesbian, and Transgender, Transsexual, and gender non-conforming folks need not apply.

Normally, I wouldn't make a big deal out of mere word choice, but the erasure of transgender, transsexual, and gender non-conforming folks in addition to people of color specifically from the Stonewall Narrative has gone on for too long and is simply too extensive to be allowed to pass without comment.

In any case, one can only hope that Emmerichs' Stonewall has more in common with the actual riots than his movie about Will Smith saving the world from aliens had with the American Revolution. Too bad the prospect of that actually happening looks about as good as the world ending in 2012.