Category Archives: Experimental

against a trans narrative (Dir: Jules Rosskam, 2008)

Film: against a trans narrative

Director: Jules Rosskam

Release Date: November 20, 2008

Country of Origin: USA

Runtime: 61 minutes
Synopsis:

Through reenactments, interviews, and both informal and structured conversations, filmmaker and subject Jules Rosskam deconstructs the idea of a singular trans narrative. His reflexive film acts more as an intersectional conversation and discussion instigator than as a traditional story-telling documentary. The scenes in the film, which vary in type from confessionals to individual/group interviews to reenactments to dinner table conversations to “behind the scenes” footage, not only respectively contain challenging and controversial conversation, but also engage in conversation with each other, working cohesively to deconstruct the idea of one cohesive trans experience.

Rosskam, often using his own experiences, aptly addresses some of the most pressing, yet coded and hidden topics of FTM trans experiences both through reenactments and his own narrative. These topics include navigating the healthcare system as a transperson, transitioning while in a relationship, evolution from one part of the queer community to another, personal physical comfort in contrast with social perceptions, and constructions of both feminism and masculinity. While representing several experiences of FTM folks and those who surround them, the film also seeks express the importance of individual experiences and the multifaceted and varying aspects of physical and social gender transition.

The film also captures sociopolitical stances of a time around 2008 through its subject’s statements. This was timestamp was particularly noticeable in a conversation about feminism; a group of men are prompted to discuss feminism, and one states, “I wouldn’t go out and say I’m a feminist… I identify as a feminist but I don’t know if that’s a thing I should say.” Rosskam, who certainly engages with more current ideas about feminism and gender, introduces ideas that are just now (in 2015) starting to enter more mainstream vocabulary. Most prevalently are the concepts of passing and an idealized narrative; “the idealized narrative of what it means to be trans has become so pervasive that ultimately we’re all in process to get to a certain endpoint, and that endpoint is to be passable and read as a man or a woman in a world. And then if you’re not passable and read as a man or woman in this world, then clearly you haven’t finished yet.” Rosskam further challenges the binary that sits at the core of the idealized narrative, using footage of himself talking to his girlfriend about his social transition: “I’m afraid you’re going to lump me in with men – and I don’t see myself that way, I don’t identify myself that way.” Furthermore, Rosskam directly confronts the intersectionality that is too often ignored when discussing trans issues and narratives by asking his subjects “how do you think that your race and class impact your transition?” and related questions.

While Rosskam’s film is not a comprehensive view of trans lives, it offers a glance at many pivotal (and often silenced) issues. His involvement in the film (which ranges from confessional footage of himself, to vlogs with his girlfriend, to him appearing on screen to sync sound with audio) gives a humble tone of reflexivity and determination for self growth within an ever-expanding, intersectional, and complicated community that exists within a world designed to work against exactly the identities fostered in his community.

Related Subjects: Gender Studies, Feminist Studies, Queer Studies, Health Studies, Identity Politics

Critic Responses:

“Employing roundtable discussions, confessional on-camera monologues, acted-out skits, rehearsals of the acted-out skits, and rather fine rap poetry, the film can be applauded as an important tool for classroom use, but as a finished product for mass appreciation, Against is too haphazard, too unstructured, too insular. It’s a slightly amateurish paean to academic solipsism broken up by numerous episodes of power.”

Brandon Judell, CultureCatch

“It is inarguable that documentary is meant to create a motion, but “Against a Trans Narrative” does more than this. It creates a conversation, which is the first step towards understanding. Watching films such as these will encourage people to push for an open dialogue about how to make not only Colgate, but society more accepting.”

Reyna LaRiccia, Colgate Maroon-News

Bibliographic items:

Raun, Tobias. “Out Online: Trans Representation and community building on YouTube.” Roskilde University. http://rucforsk.ruc.dk/site/files/40335798/Tobias_final_with_front_page_pfd.pdf

Rosskam, Jules. “The ties that bind are fragile and often imaginary: Community, identity politics, and the limits of representation.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0740770X.2010.529256

William, Gabe. “How I knew I was Trans: My Story and the Trans Narrative.” Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jo3Qav6cLtY

 

Dreams of a Life (Dir: Carol Morley, 2011)

Filmmaker: Carol Morley
Year: 2011
Country of Origin: England
Running Time: 95 min

Promotional Poster, dreamsofalife.com

Promotional Poster, DreamsOfALife.com

Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life asks a question – “Would anyone miss you?” It is posed through the story of Joyce (Carol) Vincent, a 40-year-old, well-liked woman who died in her London flat in 2003, but whose body was not discovered for three entire years (by bill collectors, nonetheless). Almost completely disintegrated in the middle of her living room floor, Joyce Vincent’s only company was a television set that never turned off and half-wrapped Christmas presents for unknown recipients.

Framed primarily through interviews with people who knew Joyce Vincent in different capacities, and artistic re-imaginings of what Joyce Vincent may have been like (performed by British actress Zawe Ashton), Morley tries to piece together Joyce Vincent’s life and why, at the end of it, nobody knew that she was gone.

Dreams of a Life is a wonderful film for examining how staged dramatics can function within the realm of documentary film. Zawe Ashton transcends her role as an actress and becomes our conception of Joyce Vincent’s happiness, sadness, and the loneliness that underpinned her existence. The interview segments provide insight for framing Zawe’s actions, as people who knew Joyce Vincent in real-life remark at length about how beautiful, charming, and wonderful she was, but are completely at a loss for why nobody – themselves included – realized she was gone. The film is self-reflexive in this way, as Morley challenges the interviewees to understand why they failed Joyce Vincent. They are offered newspaper clippings and other material about Joyce Vincent’s life and death, and they react (usually with surprise) on camera. This eliminates the typical staginess of the documentary-interview, but is in direct contrast with how formally the interviewees are physically framed.

Dreams of a Life does not provide answers as much as it provides questions. It challenges the viewer to examine their own relationships with friends, family, and the world around them. It asks the viewer to explain why no one realized Joyce Vincent had disappeared. The haunting question that the film leaves viewers with is no longer “Would anyone miss you?” but “Why should anyone miss you?”

 

Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press (Dir: Ulrike Ottinger, 1984)

Filmmaker:
Year:
Country of Origin:
Running Time: 150 min

Format: 35mm, color

Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse shows the progress of a media conspiracy led by Frau Dr. Mabuse (Delphine Seyrig) to create, corrupt and destroy the ultimate celebrity, Dorian Gray (Veruschka von Lehndorff). Though Dorian begins as a wealthy man with no occupation but a seemingly endless string of appointments, read to him by his Chinese manservant, Hollywood (Toyo Tanaka), Dr. Mabuse starts Dorian down a more sensational road. At a performance of an opera about the takeover of the Happy Islands (modern: Canary Islands) by Don Luis de la Cerda, Infant of Spain (also played by von Lehndorff), in which Dorian’s onstage counterpart falls in love with the current queen of the Happy Islands, Andamana (Tabea Blumenschein), Dorian falls in love with the actress, who is also named Andamana. Their love forms the basis of the newspaper stories published by Dr. Mabuse’s media conglomerate, as the opera forms the basis of the story of the film. Notably, the narrator of the opera is played by Hollywood and the Grand Inquisitor of Spain, who arrives to declare that the Islands must be exploited for all their natural resources despite what Don Luis would prefer, is played by Dr. Mabuse. Scenes from this opera, performed in expansive natural settings, are interspersed with the action of the film, when events replicate those of the opera. Other settings in the film include the Press Ball, in which every surface is covered with newspaper, Dr. Mabuse’s office, lined by televisions covered in barbed wire, with one central television showing the actions of the characters in the room in closeup, and the Underworld, which is actually underground, and looks something like a cross between a sewer (the hallways are formed by large pipes) and a garden (Dorian and Dr. Mabuse eat their dinner off of plates floated to them on the surface of the water in a fountain).

The film’s heavy use of symbolism, both from the opera and elsewhere, makes for a surreal experience. For example, when in a drug-induced trance, Dorian dreams of himself as a child being handed a pig’s head on a leash by a butcher, waking up to discover himself as an adult holding the pig’s head. He stands up and realizes he has been sleeping on a vaguely pig-shaped pile of rocks. This scene is reminiscent of a scene in the opera in which Don Luis de la Cerda goes exploring the “sea of stones” with a pig on a leash as a guide. Moreover, which may not immediately apparent to the viewer, Dorian Gray, the male main character, is played by Veruschka von Lehndorff, a female actress. Some of the otherwise unflattering and/or exotifying images of women and women’s bodies in the film, such as the comedic burlesque show involving full-figured women performing semi-nude ballet on point, their breasts and bellies rippling with every tiny step, and the Siamese twin sex workers whose dance performance for Dorian ends with them stepping down from their fountain-stage to embrace him, are tempered by this awareness of Dorian’s femininity. Andamana’s body becoming an object of the viewer’s gaze, as she performs mostly nude in the opera, is also somewhat changed by the fact that the reverse-shot of the audience consists only of Dr. Mabuse and Dorian, both actresses.

I believe the fact that Dorian is played by a woman is what prompts many sources to cite this film as a gay/lesbian film, but I would be cautious in that respect. Though there are scenes of gay men and lesbians in the Underworld, including a dance/knife fight/love scene between two male sailors (with mustaches), these are subordinate elements to the theme of performance and presentation in the film. The use of the opera throughout reminds the viewer that it is not only Andamana who is an actress. All the characters play staged roles, in the world of the opera, in the “real world,” as pieces of the media story of Dorian Gray, and in the world of the movie, as players for the benefit of the viewer. Only Dr. Mabuse cannot be seen on film, as a negative of an accidental photograph taken of her becomes an important problem for her plan. Those shown on film become objects of the media story, losing control of their own representation, and, in the case of Dorian, their own life.

Though very interesting and visually entertaining, the length of Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse is nearly prohibitive for an in-class showing. However, its visual elements and low-key yet metaphoric storytelling method as well as its direct exploration of the role of the media make Dorian Gray a useful resource for film and media studies classes, as well as any class dealing with film representations or new adaptations of literature. Moreover, since many scenes in the film are interesting enough on their own, removed from their narrative context, segments of the film may be used in class.

Internet Resources:

An anonymous Internet essay about the film that seems nevertheless to be sound:
http://www.ulrikeottinger.com/en/fdg-p.html

A photo of Dorian Gray holding a newspaper with the headline “Dorian Gray Dead”:
http://www.ulrikeottinger.com/img/fdg/00-47.jpg

Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse on IMDb:
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087167/

On Tripod
:

Rickets, Laurence A. “My Last Interview With Ulricke Ottinger: On Southeast Passage and Beyond.” Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, ed. Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.

Seiglohr, Ulrike. “Women Film-Makers, the Avant Garde and the Case of Ulrike Ottinger.” The German Cinema Book, ed. Tim Bergfelder, Erica Carter and Deniz Göktürk. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

Other Films by Ulrike Ottinger on Tripod:

Bildnis einer Trinkerin (Ticket of no return), New York, Women Make Movies, 1979
(VHS)

Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia, New York: Women Make Movies, 1989 (VHS)

Madame X, eine absolute herrscherin, New York: Women Make Movies, 2000 (VHS)