Essays, Movies, Personal Lens

Old Joys of Oregon

I was born in Oregon, and often I suspect my heart still lives there. I spent a good portion of my childhood in a small rural town in the Oregon countryside, and even after my family moved north to Washington (where I’ve lived ever since), Oregon was still our destination for vacations and day trips. I’ve taken enough road trips in and around the areas where Kelly Reichardt’s film Old Joy (2006) was shot that I was able to identify geographical errors– at least one of the towns visited by the protagonists is in the opposite direction of where they’re said to be traveling. These inconsistencies don’t cause me any irritation, to be clear: they make me feel elated. I’m not used to seeing areas I feel an intimate connection with portrayed so intimately on film.

And oh my, is Old Joy ever intimate. There have been some brilliant recent films set in the Portland, Oregon area, such as Leave No Trace and Lean on Pete, but those films are brilliant on the strength of their character work, and sometimes let the landscape take a backseat. Old Joy interweaves character with landscape expertly…or maybe it just felt that to me, someone whose soul is intricately and inexorably tied to the endless Evergreen trees, the Columbia River, the winding mountain roads, the creeks and rivers, the clouds.

oldjoy

Old Joy feels like a film about attempting to recapture something lost by the pull of time– an intimate relationship, a time of less responsibility and worry, a simpler existence communing with nature. It explores the futility of these attempts: The world encroaches in the form of garbage left on a beautiful mountain ridge, responsibilities of parenthood and career stress await back in the city, people on the radio never run out of things to say about the state of the government and society as a whole, and that relationship has changed. It may never again be what it once was, regardless of how much longing one person may have for the past, real or imagined.

The film also suggests that this progression of time and changes in life are natural. That sorrow is just worn out joy, transforming and breaking down as everything must with the passage of time. It also suggests, reassuringly, that moments of true peace and intimacy can be found, if only fleetingly. The entire film has a heady and powerful energy, but never more so than when we arrive at the hot springs. Mark looks up as he listens to his old friend Kurt tell a long, rambling story with a perfect conclusion, and the expression on his face is indescribable. It is a once in a lifetime moment.

old joy

I felt this entire movie in my very bones, because I’ve left Oregon behind. I will visit the Columbia Gorge, the Oregon Coast, and my eternal city-love Portland again, and probably sooner rather than later. But something has shifted, and it had shifted before I left. I felt my joy starting to turn old, the comfortable weight of familiar surroundings becoming slowly ever less comfortable, more constricting. This film is so evocative of its location, a location that I feel a deep and heavy connection to, that I was able to perfectly synthesize the setting of the film with the emotional journey of the characters. It felt like going back, in someone else’s shoes. A deeply comforting experience, and also one that gave me a lot to think about. When I go back in my own shoes, will I be trying to recapture something that has well and truly past? Will I be attempting to reclaim joy from sorrow? Would I be wrong to do so? In the meantime, while I ponder these questions, I’m grateful to Old Joy, for allowing me to revisit some old joys of my own.

Essays, Movies, Personal Lens

Confronting the Suffering and Salvation of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

(Content Warning: This essay contains discussions of child abuse, including references to physical violence and sexual abuse.)

I have the double-edged fortune and curse to have only hazy memories of the physical and emotional abuse I suffered in early childhood. I vaguely remember some of the events, but usually as an observer, a phantom outside my body watching it happen. I’ve succeeded recently in remembering the fear, which had calcified into denial over the years. My earliest memories of my abuser that I can access now are giant walls of fear, memories I had denied the existence of for years because of the often gentle and jocular demeanor he’d developed in the years since.

I was fortunate, I told myself, that I’d only been struck, beaten, verbally flayed and excoriated in my earliest years, where the memories were foggy and vague and supposedly couldn’t cause me direct violence. I ignored the fact that harsh tones or raised voices from others produced physical sensations of deep pain and bruising in my body; I ignored the continued low-level buzzing fear I felt around my abuser almost all the time; I ignored the way he could make me sob by clenching his teeth. I ignored my own anger, the pervasive instinct to attack anything or anyone who wronged me, the bile-producing sinkhole in my heart.

Eventually, I had to confront it. I had to dig down into the fog, searching for some truth and clarity, and I came to the unshakeable conclusion that the abuse I suffered will be affecting my soul for my entire life. It molded a key, primal part of my being. Only by staring into the fog do I have any hope of making it through.

Unlike Laura Palmer, I have no distinct memories of being sexually abused. I carry around enough dysfunction in that area of my life, and dissociated through so much of my early childhood, that I can’t conclusively rule it out, but I also have no concrete evidence to believe that was the case. Regardless, as an abuse victim, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me took on the power and gravity of a religious experience. The protagonist is an abuse victim who denies, who plays it cool, who casually puts herself in dangerous situations, who gets angry, who screams. Her abuser should be a kind caretaker, and mind-breakingly enough he often is, enough that Laura sees his abusive behavior as the work of a malicious spirit, horrified to find out the abuse is being carried out by her father.

The last act of Fire Walk With Me is essentially a passion play, and I’m definitely not the first person to see it that way. It’s easy for abuse survivors to see Laura Palmer as a saintlike or even Christlike figure, someone to identify with, feel deeply for, and look up to, all at the same time. I think this is the case because she’s so realistic, and her feelings are so keenly felt, but at the same time, the show and film highly mythologize her. It’s hard to imagine that a film about the repeated sexual assault and ultimate murder of a teenage girl could have much of a spiritual dimension, but Fire Walk With Me transcends the gut-punch of its premise, and the supposed limitations of its connections as a companion to a dense and complex television show, to zero in on Laura Palmer’s heart. And in her heart, I found mine.

Essays, Movies, Personal Lens

Personal Lens: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

(Note: This is not a review or analysis of Stephen Chbosky’s 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but rather a reminiscence about what the film once meant and continues to mean to me as a young queer person. A previous, slightly shorter version of this piece can be read here. Happy Holidays! – L)

When I saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower in the cinema in 2012, I was 17. I was just about to begin my senior year of high school. This would be my first time in the same school environment for more than one year at a time, the first time I hadn’t struggled in school to the point of a breakdown. I was happy, but I wasn’t celebrating; I was mostly worried about the fact that I didn’t have any friends.

To set the scene further: in 2012, I knew I was some kind of queer; for at least the past year I had been mentally describing myself as questioning. I thought I was a strange boy who wanted to look like Greta Gerwig for some reason, and I was pretty much exclusively into women but really, really didn’t want to call myself “straight.” For the past two years, I had been spending most of my time with my then-partner, who lent me flowy scarves and nail polish and let me be “the girl in the relationship.” Unfortunately, but this time that had resulted in two years of catcalling from strangers and harassment from my father, so these privileges were confined to stolen moments in bedrooms. I no longer wore the scarves to school. I didn’t know I could be a girl. I hadn’t come close to figuring myself out.

After a year each at two different weird alternative high schools in my dead-end Southwest Washington state town, I’d lucked my way into a program that would allow me to take all my classes at the local community college. The advantage of this was that school no longer felt like gears were grinding together in my head all the time; the disadvantage was that I put a lot of distance between myself and the friends I’d just managed to make by that point. As a result, my senior year of high school basically felt like a freshman or sophomore year, socially.

When I saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I viewed it as being mainly a story about a wonderful group of friends. I caught a glimpse of what I had been missing, holed up in a room with just one other person for the last two years. In between crying fits, I decided that when school started, I would make sure to do whatever I could to make friends.

Two weeks later, I started drama class.

Two months later, I had friends.

I was drawn to a classmate who I’ll call C. C loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and saw it at least three times in the theater. C was tall, flamboyant but gentle, and reminded me a lot of Patrick as specifically portrayed by Ezra Miller. C also wore makeup, earrings, and heels in class. I was enthralled, but also intimidated, so we didn’t talk as much as we should have. I didn’t know what to say to someone who was so clearly like me in a way I felt that I couldn’t be. C seemed to be a gay boy, something I was pretty sure I was not, but nevertheless…

I also got to know a classmate I’ll call M, and fell for her pretty thoroughly. We’d meet up in the library and discuss our writing ideas and the movies we liked; we’d study together and talk for hours. She told me about the queer-themed TV projects she wanted to work on, and inspired me to think about writing again in a way I hadn’t for a while. Even though my partner wanted us to have an open relationship and encouraged me to go for it, nothing ever happened. But I thought about her a lot. If it had been the ’90s, I probably would have made her a mixtape. (Like Charlie, I was that kind of a dork.)

Not everything about Perks is true to my high school experience. I was too oblivious to know where most of the parties were happening, too anxious to do any drugs, and I’ve still never been to a Rocky Horror screening. There were no cafeteria fights, no truth-or-dare drama. The feeling, though? The emotional fabric of this movie is 100% spot-on. Watching it again now, I felt like I was back. Not just in high school, not just with those friends, but back in a previous version of my head. Old pangs, old traumas, an old body.

After graduation, I lost touch with most of my classmates. M moved to Florida before I could say anything about how I felt; I was too shy to ask for C’s phone number. Plans fell through, I retreated back to my room and had a slow and painful breakdown that would ultimately span the next few years. I fractured. I have no concrete reason to believe that I suffered the kind of childhood abuse the protagonist of Perks has (all I have to go on so far when I process my traumas are suspicions and feelings), but I know the exact feeling being represented in the climactic sequence.

My breakdown played out in slow-motion, commencing two years before it plateaued, but eventually I started finding my way out, and into a more hopeful future. I realized that I wasn’t “just a boy with weird gender stuff going on” after all, that I could in fact be a girl, that I was in fact not straight (whew!). I finally got out of that dead-end town. I started confronting old demons. I’m in the process of confronting some of them still, but now I know who I am, and that makes all the difference.

M and I are very low-key friends now– she’s visited occasionally, and we’d text. We seem to talk less every year, and that’s okay. My crush on her lasted a long time before it finally faded and I moved on. When my shell started cracking and I began to rise from the ashes, she was one of the first people I came out to, and one of the first people to be unwaveringly encouraging and supportive of the real me. I still don’t know if she’s ever seen this movie, but the camaraderie it evokes will always make me think of her.

Last year I found C on Instagram.

…As it turns out, we’re both girls, after all. It seems so obvious now. I find myself thinking, a lot, about all the things I could have said to her.

I wonder if she still loves this movie.

I still do.

Essays, Movies

Don’t Call Me Evil Anymore: A Study in ’80s Vampire Queerness

First things first: Sam, the dorky young protagonist played by Corey Haim in Joel Schumacher’s flamboyant 1987 California vampire fable The Lost Boys, is definitely a gay icon. He’s got pinup posters of buff dudes in his bedroom; he sings about how he “ain’t got a man”; he’s captivated by Oily Shirtless Saxophone Man Tim Cappello; he’s the soft, sensitive human heart at the center of a movie often overwhelmed by cartoonishly loud competing male egos and toxic masculinity. Not that Sam is the only queer-coded character in The Lost Boys, not by a mile, but there’s one key difference– his queerness is presented as endearing, wholesome, even relatable.

On the other side of the same ’80s vampire movie coin, we find Charley Brewster, the protagonist of Fright Night (1985). Charley is heterosexual, and obnoxiously so. In the very first scene of the film, we’re introduced to him in a scene where he tries to pressure his reluctant girlfriend into having sex. He’s whiny, he’s oblivious, he’s entitled. He seems to have only one friend, his high school’s resident “weird kid,” who he bullies and berates. Who calls their one and only friend “Evil Ed” against said friend’s explicit wishes? Who calls the police on their new neighbor after voyeuristically spying on him and assuming, pretty quickly, that he must be a vampire because he bites women’s necks and moves coffins around with his boyfriend? Who assumes that a Vincent Price-style vampire killer from TV can, and would want to, kill actual vampires in real life? Charley Brewster does all of these things. That’s what we’re dealing with here.

Imagine my surprise, with these baselines in place, to find out that The Lost Boys and Fright Night are pretty much equally gay, just from different vantage points. I found both of them to be compelling viewing as a queer audience member, and I think they can both tell us a lot about mainstream attitudes towards queer people in the 1980s, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the height of public awareness of the AIDS crisis. Crucially, both films also stand as monuments to the way queer creators were able to subvert mainstream, conservative attitudes of the day in their art, finding ways to overtly depict queerness in a nuanced and sometimes even positive way through the guise of campy vampire-movie shenanigans.

It’s important to note that gay and queer themes in vampire fiction have existed for as long as there has been vampire fiction. The lesbian vampire novel Carmilla was first published in 1871, while queer (and again, specifically lesbian-coded) vampires have existed overtly onscreen since at least 1936, when the film Dracula’s Daughter premiered. There had even been at least one overtly gay vampire movie earlier in the 1980s: the depiction of vampire Catherine Deneuve’s explicit seduction of mortal Susan Sarandon in Tony Scott’s 1983 film The Hunger. These two films I’ve chosen to focus on are definitely not the only gay vampire movies up to this point; however, they feel significantly similar to me in ways that matter.

Both The Lost Boys and Fright Night focus on impressionable or naive teenagers being targeted by “worldly” and villainous vampires who are explicitly queer-coded, they both set up a central heterosexual romantic pairing that’s held up as an escape or salvation from vampirism, and they both represent vampirism explicitly as a disease, with deforming or debilitating physical effects and the nebulous possibility of a cure. A film like The Hunger focuses on adult characters who all seem extremely sophisticated, and the effects of a vampire bite more closely resemble a drug addiction metaphor; in these two films, it feels like…something else.

In Fright Night especially, the roots of the story in heterosexual gay panic and an outsider’s view of the AIDS crisis are pretty clear. The villain, Jerry Dandridge, is the epitome of the Predatory Bisexual archetype, living in an intimate relationship with a man while preying on women both sexually and vampirically. At the beginning of the film, characters like Charley’s mother acknowledge and then shrug off Dandridge’s potential queerness, seeming to take the attitude that if he’s gay and thus not interested in women, he’s just not very interesting. Other characters who assume he’s heterosexual find him intriguing, or attractive. Charley, who observes both sides of his affections voyeuristically, is portrayed in these early scenes as the one reasonable person who sees Dandridge for what he is– a threat to the peace and order of suburbia, Charley’s tidy heterosexual world. All of Dandridge’s most menacing moments are tied to his sensual flirting towards men and women– a moment where he shows overt affection towards his male roommate is played as ominous, and his later seduction of Charley’s girlfriend Amy is depicted as being sexy, but also perverse and dangerous. Jerry Dandridge is worldly, sophisticated, and bisexual; in the Reagan-era suburbia of Fright Night, that also makes him diseased and dangerous.

The Lost Boys, meanwhile, views its villains as somewhat more ambiguous and alluring, despite painting them in a similarly dangerous light. These vampires are stylish teens who drink blood from ornately carved decanters, fly around and party a bunch, and have a fun and unique sense for interior decoration. Unlike the disgust and animosity that Charley Brewster feels for the much older and more experienced vampiric villain in his story, victimized vampire-to-be Michael in The Lost Boys is seduced by and clearly attracted to head vampire David, who is portrayed as more of an alluring figure than a repulsive one. The vampires in The Lost Boys are a kind of misfit chosen family, a queer collective surviving on the margins, so even though they prey on people, they’re easier to root for. Their eventual true leader even turns out to be one of the most clearly heterosexual characters in the film, and his coercive acts are portrayed as more villainous than anything the Lost Boys do. Ultimately, the results are the same: all vampires must be killed or cured, and the status quo of heterosexuality is restored. But you get the sense that the film wants to really revel in the vampires’ shenanigans before getting to that part.

Despite what it may sound like, and much to my relief, Fright Night isn’t totally devoid of positive or nuanced queer moments. A lot of that is courtesy of the gay actors who worked on the film and the related subtextual moments involving the characters that they play. “Evil” Ed Thompson, played by future gay porn actor Stephen Geoffreys, is played as a somewhat-sympathetic outcast character who deals with bullying and ostracization, something many gay teenagers can relate to. The scene where Dandridge corners him in an alley and turns him into a vampire could be read as a seduction, but to me it played out more like an accepting embrace, an older queer person providing a disenfranchized younger one with a moment of solidarity: “You don’t have to be afraid of me. I know what it’s like being different. Only they won’t pick on you anymore… or beat you up. I’ll see to that. All you have to do is take my hand,” these are the words Dandridge says as he draws Ed into an embrace. Ed is treated as a conventional villain after his vampiric transformation, but for one scene he’s treated with dignity, and it feels profound.

Another character who can very easily be read as queer is TV star/”fearless vampire killer” Peter Vincent, played by Roddy McDowall with soft, lilting mannerisms. This character is adorable, and he’s played as completely genuine rather than feeling like any kind of overdone stereotype of a more feminine man– this is just what Roddy McDowall was like, and the film benefits a lot from his presence. That he displays ingenuity and eventually gets to be a hero feels even more revolutionary. He’s never portrayed as explicitly gay onscreen, but the fact that a gay actor is playing one of the most fun and heroic roles in the piece feels significant. This character is the source of much of the film’s fun and snark, and a lot of its soul too, as he grapples with potential obsolescence in the wake of movies about, in his words “demented madmen running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins.” His energy and charm go a long way towards making the movie enjoyable in a way it wouldn’t be if Tiresomely Het Charley Brewster was the sole main character.

There’s something to be said for the fact that, while Fright Night had plenty of queer actors on staff, The Lost Boys was directed by an out gay man, Joel Schumacher. While Fright Night, despite a lot of enjoyable moments, ultimately feels like a paranoid film about preserving a normative culture of white-bread heterosexuality, The Lost Boys takes place in a beautiful, fun, and seductive queer world…that happens to be depicted as dangerous and scary, despite its allure. Schumacher makes a huge difference, thoughin casting a very clearly queer-coded character as his most sympathetic protagonist. Sam is enthusiastic, empathetic, and he’s the core of his family. The film, despite its view of vampires as sexy queer villains who have to die for the social order to be restored, also depicts an unconventional family (a single mother, two sons, and an eccentric grandfather) as being preferable to a nuclear family unit with a conventional father figure. In the midst of a stiflingly conservative political and social climate, this was a quietly revolutionary story– a depiction of a family finding a configuration that works best for them, rejecting something seemingly more “normal” that proves to actually be toxic. The fact that a probably-gay teen is at the center of this loving and accepting family is even more revolutionary.

In closing, it’s clear that both these movies are definitely problematic. Equating villainous, predatory vampires with gay people, even subtextually, is a whole can of worms. Especially in hindsight, the subtext in these films is all too easy to read as ham-fisted gay panic– the damaging idea that overtly sexual and/or overtly queer people could be carriers of communicable disease. It’s also simultaneously true that both of these films are a ton of fun: they have unparalleled ’80s soundtracks, excellent practical effects, more amusing dialogue than most writers pen in a lifetime, and a lot of queer talent in front of and behind the camera. They’re mixed bags, but no matter how they end up playing today, they’re an important reminder of how Hollywood (and the queer people working within the mainstream film industry) endeavored to portray queerness between the lines of some of the most popular horror films of the 1980s.

Essays, Movies

War Widows and Warm Winters: The Power of Queer Films of the Past, Rediscovered on YouTube

Queer history is always being erased. We see it when trans people are told that their existence conforms to a recent trend, when discussions about Stonewall leave out important revolutionaries like Marsha P. Johnson and prior inciting events like the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, and we see it all too often in discussions of films and film history. In an age where folks on the LGBTQ+ spectrum are seeing more and more mainstream representation, every new film is heralded as some kind of benchmark for queer representation, and often rightly so. It can be frustrating, though, to see films that feel regressive or limited be championed for breaking new ground. When queer films of prior decades are discussed, they’re often mentioned as curiosities or footnotes and branded as hard-to-find; hell, even books I’ve been trying to read on queer cinema have been hard to find.

For a long time, I just sort of assumed that before, say, the 1990s, queer storylines and characters on film were relegated to subtext. My consumption of film was limited to discourse from cisgender/heterosexual/white/male critics and the IMDB Top 250, a narrow Film Canon made up of Only The Best Works of Film Art…works that for the most part were mostly made by cisgender, heterosexual, white, male directors. Then, I started finding films that blatantly proved this not to be the case. The movie Maurice, a gay love story from the famous production company Merchant/Ivory, was released in 1987 and did decent box office business. Why is it relatively obscure compared to their adjacently-released films like A Room with a View, I wondered. As I started to look, more and more films came up, seemingly out of thin air. Not subtextual examples, but multiple films from prior decades with main characters who were explicitly gay and/or queer. Where had these films been? I had to go looking for them.

The real surprises came when I started watching obscure and out-of-print films on YouTube, and searching there for films I read about that proved hard-to-find. I was shocked to find films that challenge the common perceptions of what representation of queer people was like throughout the 20th century, and even earlier.

For instance, the first film to directly deal with queer themes in often cited to be 1919’s Different From the Others, a film which is partially lost, or 1914’s A Florida Enchantment (also available on YouTube!), but just through searching for early silent films I found simple, blatant examples that pre-date either of those. The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894 or 1895), clocking in at less than a minute and considered to be one of the earliest films ever made, features two men dancing intimately. Even more compelling is Pierrette’s Escapades (1900), which features two women dancing and ultimately sharing a kiss. These films are quick, simple reminders that same-sex intimacy has been around on film for as long as the medium of film has been around.

Two of the biggest and most fascinating surprises I’ve come across in the obscure queer film archives of YouTube have huge historical significance for gay men and lesbians on film, and film history as a whole, but have been almost completely forgotten in mainstream discourse. The first of these is the 1965 Canadian film Winter Kept Us Warm, which I stumbled upon as a random recommendation, automatically generated by YouTube’s algorithms. It’s a lo-fi, micro-budget film that I watched with very little context, getting drawn into its hypnotic and deeply affecting tale of two male university roommates whose unlikely friendship coalesces into a deeper attraction. It hasn’t been preserved too well, and the audio is often hard to discern, but the interpersonal content of the film is as plain as day and has the open-hearted and vulnerable qualities of all the best romance films. I was mesmerized.

I assumed I had found a hidden gem, so imagine when I looked it up and found out that Winter Kept Us Warm holds a surprisingly important place in film history. Not only was it the first English-language Canadian film to be exhibited in international film festivals, but it’s also the movie that inspired a young David Cronenberg to go into filmmaking. After seeing the film, I wasn’t surprised that it struck a chord with him, but I was surprised I’d never heard of it given its inspiration for a highly prominent and acclaimed filmmaker. Winter Kept Us Warm isn’t in print in any form in the US. No DVD, no streaming rental. If someone hadn’t uploaded it to YouTube and the algorithm hadn’t suggested it to me, I never would have seen it or known of its existence.

Another, even more personally surprising film I discovered is The War Widow (1976). This one I found via an excellent Autostraddle article, which links to the film on YouTube. I was shocked reading this article– I had read extensively about lesbian films of past decades, and to my knowledge the earliest film where the lesbian couple ended up together without dying, breaking up, or being villainized was the ever-popular Desert Hearts in 1985. Yet, here was this film from almost a decade earlier, a film that aired on public television no less, positively depicting a romance between two women. I needed to watch it.

The War Widow left its mark on my heart in a big way. It’s essentially an extremely PBS-styled version of Carol, with a hazy aesthetic, tons of poetic soul-baring dialogue and, just like Winter but with even more positivity, romanticism and focus, an achingly intimate central relationship that positively melted me. The thought of people watching this on PBS in the mid-70s thrilled me. Where had it gone since then? Why had I not heard of it? These are the questions queer erasure leaves us with. If we’re preserving film properly, the cream should rise to the top, but here are two of the most intimate and thoughtful romance films I’d ever seen from their respective decades, long unrestored and unavailable. I’d never been more thankful for YouTube.

But what about transgender representation? As a trans person, I can attest that the only thing more frustrating than cis performers being cast as trans characters is the assertion that we’re lucky to get films about trans people at all, and that cis people playing us is somehow a new improvement and a stepping-stone towards better representation. I believed this for a while– YouTube once again proved my assumptions dead wrong.

A few months before I came out to myself and started down the path of transitioning, YouTube recommended me a British film from 1996 called Different for Girls, which focuses on the shaky romance between a middle-class trans woman and the working-class punk biker man who used to be her best friend and defender from bullies in boarding school growing up.  I watched out of desperation to see any kind of positive plotline centered around someone who was like me in some way I couldn’t quite yet articulate. Different for Girls is, by a charitable assessment, a problematic film– it focuses on a cisgender man’s difficulties understanding trans issues and often paints his frustration in a more sympathetic light than it should. It casts a cis man as a trans woman. Characters talk a lot about surgery. With all that said, it was important to me for two reasons: First, it’s a romantic comedy with a happy ending that treats its female protagonist as desirable, lovable, and a generally nice and cool person, without her trans-ness diminishing any of that. It also proves that filmmakers have been stuck on the cis-man-plays-trans-woman “stepping stone” for at least 20 years. It made me want to see if I could find more films like it.

Find them I did, and all kinds as well. I Want What I Want, from 1972, has just about every bad cliche from transitioning narratives you could think of, but it also has a main trans character played by a cis woman (suggesting that the filmmakers, at the very least, understand what a trans woman even is), and multiple fiery scenes where she stands up for herself and confronts her abusive father, something more empowering than absolutely anything on display in 2015’s The Danish Girl. 1970’s The Christine Jorgensen Story, meanwhile, just reminded me of The Danish Girl pretty much non-stop, hitting almost all of that movie’s major flaws point-for-point, albeit with a much shoddier aesthetic. You’d think that decades of this kind of treatment on film would be disheartening, and on some level it very much is, but watching these retrograde films of yesteryear actually inspired and galvanized me– if this kind of Cis Bullshit has been going on since at least 1970, what better time than now to stop making excuses, move on, and finally make better movies?

Of course, what I really wanted to find were films that satisfied my craving for authentic trans representation, visions of People Like Me that I was missing in mainstream films of both present and past. Once again, YouTube delivered. Ich bin meine eigene Frau (alternately translated in English as I Am My Own Woman and I Am My Own Wife) is a tremendously unique and extremely obscure German film from 1992, once again unavailable in the United States outside of the fuzzy, VHS-sourced upload where I found it. It combines documentary and biopic techniques to tell the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an astonishing trans woman who survived World War II, the subsequent communist takeover, and Neo-Nazi attacks, all while running her own history museum in the town of Mahlsdorf. The film uses two actors (at least one of whom seems to actually be trans!) to portray her at younger ages, along with employing her as an actor in later biopic scenes depicting her as an old woman. She often interrupts biopic scenes to give notes to the actors or explain how things actually happened, and the whole film is tied together with her narration and interviews, and scenes of her giving a tour through her museum.

This movie made me feel seen, and connected me with the history of trans and queer people as few films have. A narrative that spans from the 1930s to the 1990s shows what it was like to be a trans person across many different periods of history, while also giving us a trans person’s view of a broader social history that has little to do with her trans-ness– there are many long scenes where Charlotte talks about the historical context of the antiquated clocks or furniture in her museum, for example. It also upholds and celebrates Charlotte’s assertion of her own gender in a way I found tremendously empowering. The film never lets others get the last word on her, letting her define herself. There are scenes where she talks about how she doesn’t feel the need to take hormones or medically transition to be valid as a woman; she is her own woman no matter what anyone else thinks. These statements are tremendously revolutionary in a normative society where trans people often have to go to lengths they otherwise wouldn’t in order to be valued by society, and to hear them expressed in a film is a deep joy.

Another significant film that upends conventional ideas of trans media representation is the 1966 short documentary film Behind Every Good Man, a film that follows a trans woman of color as she goes about her daily routine and talks about her desire for a husband and family. In some ways, this film is very of its time, but it’s crucial in the way it depicts and normalizes the average day of a marginalized person. So often the lives of trans people are sensationalized on film, and especially in documentaries, but the central figure of this film is shown to be Just Another Person. She walks down the street, a man asks her on a date, she gets ready for the date, then he stands her up and she’s sad, but life goes on. That’s all that happens. Her existence is legitimized, not exploited or diminished. Films like this, even the really short ones, are reminders that we (trans and/or queer people) have always existed, and that if we survived then, we can survive now.

For me, a person who thrives on consuming media and especially film, a lack of representation can often feel like being strangled, suffocated, held back. I’m usually extremely happy to connect to films with protagonists who aren’t demographically like me— that’s a large part of what makes them such a joyous experience, the ability to experience other lives for a short while, empathizing and understanding with the inner lives of others that films can reveal. But just once in a while, I’d like to know that other people were having that experience with films about people like me, and occasionally I’d like to have that sense of comfortable, intimate identification that I so rarely feel. Watching these films has given me that feeling. They’ve given me bursts of oxygen in an often-alienating world, and for that reason, I’m left with a strong conviction that the internet is a powerful place, with platforms that can potentially be used as a salve against erasure. To anyone who’s struggling to find yourself in film history: dig around on YouTube for a bit. The history won’t come to you on its own, but it’s easier to find than ever before.

Essays, Movies

The Outer Techniques and Inner Emotions of Searching (2018)

For most of director Aneesh Chaganty’s debut film, the 2018 thriller Searching, we’re looking at close-ups of John Cho’s face. The emotional gauntlet that he runs while looking for his missing daughter is the focus of the film, so that’s not too surprising, but what sets the film apart is the context of these shots– the entire film takes place from the point of view of computer screens. Searching isn’t the first film to attempt this kind of style (the horror sequel Unfriended: Dark Web came out just a couple months previously, after all), but it is probably the most cinematic– the story takes place across multiple computers and at least one phone, there are montages, intercutting, zooms, a musical score, and no “found footage” gimmick or framing device to explain why we’re seeing what we’re seeing. Searching is classically cinematic in the way it functions, and that left me with some questions about whether its key moments are rendered more or less effective because of how the director chose to tell the story.

From its opening montage and throughout the entire film, it’s clear that Searching is trying to engage the audience’s emotions above all else. The use of computer screens to tell the story is a good framework for a solidly constructed mystery because it makes scenes where the main character sifts through information looking for clues a lot more visually interesting and allows information to be laid out cleanly, but that doesn’t feel like the main reason the film took this route. Aneesh Chaganty immediately makes it clear that his film takes place within computers and phones as an attempt to connect us to the emotional state of the main characters. The opening scene taking us through memories on an old family computer is designed to evoke nostalgia, but it’s also immersive in its familiarity and casual intimacy, setting us up to feel central character David Kim’s emotions along with him as the story progresses– we’re seeing his life as he’s chosen to document it, and the emotions he assigns to different people and events in his life.

With this viewpoint established, the movie remains gripping as the story progresses. Chaganty juggles lots of visual information with great skill, and as David becomes more and more distressed in the search for his daughter, we’re privy to what that looks like inside his head. Where the movie really shines, though, is how it also unveils to us the inner life of the missing girl, David’s daughter Margot (played in a multilayered, excellent performance by Michelle La). In a more conventional telling of this story, Margot might remain more of a goal than a character, with David’s emotions centered throughout– a Missing Daughter Movie about a father’s righteous pain. Instead, this film goes for something much more nuanced in the scenes where David investigates Margot’s laptop. If David’s computer is a window into his mind, a way for us to see the parts of himself he doesn’t demonstrate to the other characters, Margot’s computer serves the same function. The focus of the film shifts away from just his pain, and gradually into the inner life of a daughter he never actually knew. This is where the film gains its true power.

A conventionally-structured film would have no real reason to dip into Margot’s inner life or her past leading up to the disappearance, and if it did, it would need to do so by taking focus completely away from her father. This film manages to get both of their most emotional moments onscreen at the same time, with David being confronted by his daughter’s heartfelt video blogs and conversations with online friends, expressing viewpoints and feelings he wasn’t open to hearing when she was around. In one extraordinary sequence, he stumbles across a video she had previously taken of him, in a moment where she needed him to open up and he was unable to. It’s powerful stuff, illuminating her emotional needs at the same time as her father’s weaknesses and shortcomings. It turns a movie that could have easily zeroed in on one character’s pain into a nuanced two-hander, an examination of what the main character did to bring about the conflict of the film as well as his journey to resolve it.

In this central way, Searching is uniquely excellent at showcasing the emotional journeys of its characters in a way other films might have trouble doing. There are other aspects, though, where it seems more distant and less intense than it might have been. Most of the violent or intense moments in the story take place off-screen, and when we do see them they have a removed, objective quality that feels different from the rest of the film. When David begins to go full vigilante and tracks down an internet troll who brags about his supposed involvement in Margot’s disappearance, we see their in-person confrontation in the form of a YouTube video, and an almost-comedic smash cut to David’s bruised face afterward. In any other similar film, this would be an intense scene, but the film kind of deflates it. Later on, a video buffering error pauses a climactic confrontation at a crucial moment to create tension, before cutting away to the aftermath in a fairly anti-climactic way. These moments keep the audience on their toes, but they also result in a lack of really propulsive moments of the kind I tend to expect in a movie like this. There’s nothing wrong with the techniques used, but often in the back half of the film we end up catching up with characters after the most intense things have occurred, which takes the kick out of the proceedings somewhat.

At its heart, though, Searching stays compelling. Even in these aftermath scenes, where the moments of deeply intense anxiety and physical struggle are out of our grasp, Chaganty and his cast concentrate on bringing the emotion of the scene forward. This is a clever mystery, a well-constructed one, and technically it’s really more of a detective film than a thriller, but the impressive thing about it is that it never becomes too caught up in clues or minutiae. Whenever a new plot development occurs, the first priority is how it affects the characters. Regardless of any techniques used in the movie and how well they might work or not, this sense of intention is the most important thing. This is an intensely emotional story from start to finish, and it’s told that way very purposefully, so even when we become removed from the action, the movie never loses much steam. It doesn’t always have the propulsive energy the audience might expect from a thriller, but when it comes to depicting the inner lives of its characters, Searching does a tremendous job.