if you don't want to slog through the whole damn thing, please do scroll down to the end and read the half-page or so of melanie kaye/kantrowitz's fantastic essay "women, violence and resistance: naming it war" that i close with. and then go find a copy of the issue is power and read the whole thing.
i just got home from watching ticked-off trannies with knives. it’s been the subject of some controversy (of which more later, but look here for a taste and some links), so i hasten to say that i didn’t pay for a ticket. i saw it at an undisclosed location near the east river, under circumstances neither licit nor licensed – and that’s all i’m at liberty to say. the set-up was intended to create a thoughtful conversation and hopefully some insightful writing about the whole situation, and with the first goal, i’d say our charming host succeeded. a transcript will apparently be forthcoming, so you may be able to judge for yourselves soon. we’ll see about the second goal over the next few days; i’m optimistic.
if you don’t know these things about me already, it may be helpful as you read the following to keep them in mind.
i am a person who loves ‘genre’ works (of writing, film/video and theater) with a deep and unironic love. i prefer to follow samuel r. delany and refer to them as para-literature (para-cinema, para-theater), but i’ll be using ‘genre’ here for simplicity.
and also that i have been and on occasion am that obstreperous politico of a queen who wants you to know exactly what is Wrong With That. at length. who do i have to fuck to get a class analysis in here? thanks.
also note: i will be using Capitalized Pseudonyms for the other folks at the screening, because i don’t know what they like to be where on the internets.
things to talk about
before the post-screening talking really began, Chava pointed out that there were two conversations we could have: one about the film itself; one about the controversy (the film being programmed into the Tribeca Film Festival, the protests and boycott calls from MAGNET and GLAAD, the tempests on the internets...).
having seen the movie, i’ve got almost no interest in the first of those. so i’ll get that side of things out of the way really quick and move on to the second, which i think is the interesting one. in the course of that, i’ll have to mention other aspects of the film itself, but damn am i going to try not to.
because the movie is bad. mind-numbingly, heart-stoppingly bad. so bad that it’s very difficult for me to even focus on the part of its badness that is about being politically and socially fucked up. this is not a difficulty i’m accustomed to having. that bad.
i’ll give one example: midway through the movie, there is an extensive, many-minutes-long set-up for the transformation of the three protagonists into warriors capable of bringing the film’s revenge plot to its conclusion. the set-up is complete with a white guy in a martial arts uniform; make-up that can’t decide whether it’s appropriating kabuki, peking opera, or bollywood; and pretty much every other racist cliche that’s ever appeared in such a sequence. and after all that, there is no training montage. none. we’re talking not merely epic fail, but epic boring fail.
it put the damn cat to sleep before it could wander out of the room.
so i have two somewhat contradictory reactions to the appearance in high-profile spaces of artworks or artists who i consider actively harmful to the lives of folks i care about.
one is “don’t feed the trolls”. the straight white cisgender ciscexual guys at Tribeca Film Festival and the cisgender cisexual gay man whose name is on TOTWK are counting on controversy to get asses in seats and free publicity for an overpriced screening of a film that will be an absolute flop unless there’s something besides the movie itself to interest people. why help them out?
the other is direct action. when birth of a nation had its first new york city screenings, black women tore down the screens at least once (samuel delany gives an account of the action in his atlantis; i don’t know if his aunts, some of whom participated, talk about it in having our say). seems like a precedent to me. and screens were a hellofalot easier to replace back then, too.
hovering between these two responses, the thing i’m most certain of is that the boycott-and-flame-war approach is not particularly useful, especially in its GLAAD form. MAGNET is, i believe, a rather different story – it’s an actual grassroots group of actual trans folks – which is why i’ll concentrate on GLAAD – a high-budget nonprofit that has a long history of not giving a shit about trans folks (and, in fact, honoring some folks whose attitude towards trans folks sounds a lot like what they're now considering boycottable).
GLAAD depends on maintaining a regular stream of controversy to keep its grants and donations coming. the louder the better, the less related to the major ‘mainstream’ media world where its donors live and work the better. (in this, it is rather like the group whose name it adapted, the Anti-Defamation League, which eagerly pursues the slightest hints of anti-jewish feeling among folks of color, while just as eagerly ignoring the far more prevalent and powerful anti-jewish beliefs of the white christian rightists who share the ADL leadership’s right-wing zionism).
that means that GLAAD has a clear common interest with the Tribeca Film Festival in stirring up controversy around an independent film-maker’s low-budget production which would otherwise sink like a stone. they both please their core constituencies of well-off white cisgender cissexual men, justify their existence to their funders (“we show cutting-edge movies that are under threat of censorship!” / “we defend those hopelessly defenseless trannies!”), and risk absolutely nothing in doing so.
similarly, the film’s writer/director gets a ton of free publicity, and maybe even makes a buck or two off a movie that wouldn’t have made it (qualitywise) into the end-of-summer screening at the day camp i went to in elementary school back in the 80s.
please, can we maybe find some strategies based on wanting our enemies not to win? i mean, it’s great when we get to win, but if they win more there’s a problem somewhere. and the one thing i think we can say for sure about the current media environment is that when there’s controversy, the folks who stand to profit (literally, in dollars) from publicity win more. and we are not those people. we aren’t trying to turn eyeballs into cash; we’re just trying to have fewer of our people end up dead.
what’s the alternative? don’t do the festival’s publicity for them. instead, buy a few tickets and paintbomb the screen. leaflet the audience outside afterwards. let the festival do your publicity for you. don’t say a word about the movie. talk about the actual issues facing trans folks; promote trans filmmakers’ work; publicize the organizing work that’s going on in our communities.
but no! i hear some cranky queers cry. indulging in these direct action tactics is a mark of privilege! (sure, it’s a bit of a straw man in this conversation, but don’t pretend you haven’t heard the line a few ...dozen... times)
um... sure. if your imagination is verrrry limited. i won’t bring up stonewall or the compton’s cafeteria riot. i promise. why would i need to? let’s just think about effectiveness for a sec. and look at a historical example or two. how about the delany sisters’ birth of a nation action? they were the ones who carried it out because they were women, young, highly respectable-looking, reasonably well-off, and fairly light-skinned – folks who could instigate a minor riot and get away with it, and whose family could handle the consequences if they were arrested. or, to take it up a notch: what if, say, you want to assassinate the gestapo commander in nazi-occupied warsaw, and he never appears in public alone. how do you manage it? the blondest woman in your cell of communist partisans shows up alone and makes like his lunch date, bats her eyelashes at the guards, closes his office door, shoots him, and walks right back out. her name was niuta teitelboim. she did this kind of thing more than once.
it’s not exactly complicated. i mean, what with trans issues being the new black and all, there’s gotta be some ‘ally’ around with manarchism issues to work out who’s be willing to take the fall. send him. (tape his mouth shut first, though)
one of the interesting things about this particular flap is the way that ‘genre film’ status is being deployed. ‘genre film’ is being used as a universal cleanser for accusations of racism, misogyny, class prejudice, anti-queer and anti-trans prejudice, ad nauseum. as if it all becomes okay once it’s no longer in a ‘serious’ film. a perfect alibi. (in this interpretation, i’m building on things Downtown said about drag performance in tonight’s conversation)
now, that argument is obvious crap. russ meyer being a misogynist, or the makers of live and let die being racist doesn’t mean anyone else who follows their lead isn’t too. and that’s true whether or not you like faster, pussycat, kill! kill! (i did, when i last saw it more than a decade ago) or james bond flicks (i'm generally unmoved).
but it does raise the question of whether TOTWK is in any meaningful way a genre film.
i don’t think it is. its makers’ very willingness to proclaim it to be one makes it suspect to me. but even more so, the particular ways in which it is such a bad movie take it completely out of the category.
only an 'art' film is more committed to its formal pastiche than its narrative drive. TOTWK is built from the tropes of many genres slung together. whole scenes, settings, characters, costumes are lifted almost unaltered from earlier films. it’s impressive as an anthology, despite lacking the formal continuity that would make it an effective collage. but what it lacks absolutely is narrative propulsion – the one thing that requires no budget; the one thing that makes it possible for teenagers with camcorders to shoot in-camera-edited footage that works as an action movie, as a caper flick, as a horror movie; the thing, i'd say, that best defines the distinction between ‘art’ film and ‘genre’ work.
if a movie cares more about its reference-making, its surface textures, its auterist interpretability – no matter how ineptly executed those things may be – than getting from point A to point B with the maximum drive and cathartic payoff, it’s an art film, not a genre film. if ironic nods and winks are a key part of the way it tries to build rapport with its audience, ditto. it’s the frame of reference that makes the distinction, not the deployment of tropes – the relationship among the parts, not whether the parts are straight from the trope library. that’s why, i would say, reservoir dogs is a genre film and pulp fiction an art film. substitute, if you prefer, seven samurai and rashomon. or all that heaven allows and far from heaven.
and what in the world is more patronizing than an art film masquerading as a genre film? especially when it’s doing so at least in part to avoid taking responsibility for both its form and its content.
one of the worst things, politically, about TOTWK is its final line. the film closes by explicitly equating what it presents as specifically anti-trans violence (rape, assault, multiple murders, multiple and repeated attempted murders, &c) with the violence the targets of those attacks use in self-defense.
this, to me, makes it lose any shred of credibility it might have as a revenge fantasy film. the point of a revenge movie is that revenge is justified. that is where the cathartic payoff comes from.
and more to the point, the instant you equate the violence folks in power use to keep other people in conditions of oppression, you become a supporter of that oppression. and that’s true whether you’re equating anti-trans violence with trans folks’ active self defense, the south african army with the ANC armed wing nelson mandela led, or the israeli government’s bombing of gaza with palestinian armed resistance to the occupation.
i did wind up thinking, however, that as much as i want to see an actual, satisfying revenge fantasy film about trans and queer folks fighting back (and please, not just against the specific individuals who’ve attacked a specific one of us: we are more collectively minded than that - at least enough to spare a few bullets for dobson and stupak, i hope), what i really want to see is actual revenge. as in, active, physical resistance to the violence that targets us.
i’d love to know what would actually happen if (to adapt june jordan’s all-too-rhetorical question) every time they killed a trans woman we killed a known inciter. or an official in an organization that calls for our eradication. or a cop in a police department that does not protect us. or an elected official who votes to expose us to more violence.
or, at a minimum, someone known to have killed or raped a trans person.
there’s actually a fair amount of precedent for this strategy - in this country, in recent decades.
the fabulous melanie kaye/kantrowitz wrote an essay (republished in her book the issue is power) called “women, violence and resistance: naming it war”, which has a section (“forms of resistance”) which briefly touches on that history. she mentions the group of dykes in LA who allegedly ran decoys against the Hillside Strangler, killing ten men who attacked them before their efforts ran the Strangler(s, as it turned out) out of town and ultimately into the hands of the police. and, more critically, the group of women who are said to have castrated a rapist a month during 1974 (she points out the dubious blame-the-penis analysis behind the tactic, its horrific racial overtones, and the basic sketchiness of basing armed actions on court records from a deeply unjust legal system). and these are just the actions that she happened to have heard about through the feminist grapevine.
let’s not settle for fantasies, for once.
i could quote shylock, i could quote the GLF, i could quote the “i hate straights” pamphlet. but i’d rather quote melanie, on the difference tactical extremism makes to a movement for justice:
In a volatile, active time, organizers, leaders need to exercise caution. The task is to gather people’s energies, see that energy is directed to the point of greatest impact, and to protect people as much as possible. But this has been a dulled-out decade, just starting to stir again. The time calls for daring, risk, experimentation, and an unwillingness to settle for things as they are. This is a time for impatience.
[...] Radical demands and tactics push people’s expectations about what is moderate. Some of us had best be on the edge. How else will we know where it is? [...]
A movement that disowns its left inevitably moves right. It will fail to inspire those who are angriest, those who have the most rebellion in them. It will take pressure off the dominant culture, which can then point to moderate demands and call them “asking too much”. Good political sense demands a multi-faceted approach to any issue.
So too on the issue of violence. [...]
I am not urging that we land ourselves in prison. Yet we’ve barely even discussed the possibilities of extra-legal approaches. Walking the edge may be less perilous than we think. One of the costs of an apolitical atmosphere is that we come to see the tiniest disobedience as highly risky. [...] Surely it’s obvious that not all outlaws get caught.
In fact, some outlaws spark movements toward revolution. The unwillingness to endure abuse any longer springs from what is holiest in us, our desire for freedom and dignity. Listen to Lorraine Hansbury:
I think, then, that Negroes must concern themselves with every single method of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and non-violent. That they must harass, debate, petition, give money to court struggles, sit-in, lie-down, strike, boycott, sing hymns, pray on steps – and shoot from their windows when the racists come driving through their communities.
And, in the process, they must have no regard whatsoever for labels and pursed lips in the light of their efforts.
The acceptance of our present condition is the only form of extremism which discredits us before our children.
i can’t think of a better way to end this overlong rant than to follow melanie’s lead, and repeat (slightly edited) those last words of hansbury’s.
The acceptance of our present condition is the only form of extremism which discredits us before our communities, those who come after us, and those of us who have been killed while we limited the forms of our resistance.