Thursday, July 18, 2013

Female Trouble; The Divine Punishmnt of John Waters

The films of John Waters carry with them the theme of suburban unrest can result in individuals who live outside the law. From Pink Flamingos through A Dirty Shame he fixates on the outsider from the suburban norm and what the inability to conform can do to the psyche. His works raise questions about drugs, sex, rock and roll, family, sexuality, normalcy, heteronormative dominance, filth and its place in the human condition. His filth filled view of the suburban American dream when viewed in modern times is a surprisingly accurate take on where America was and is headed and what obsessions would become glorified in the current age of instant media and sensationalism. His knowledge that titillation was more important that morality remains a spot on critique of current culture and the instant fame of murders and thugs due to media saturation and repetition of their heinous crimes in the twenty four hour news cycle.
Waters uses saturation of shocking images and violence to make his point. His repetition of shock and horror to engross the public is at its slick best in Female Trouble. This repetition of shock and awe is common practice in todays xenophobic American Culture and was used to the extreme by George Bush and his comrades during 9/11 when all else was blocked from our televisions for three days showing us violence and promising the threat of more. It was shortly after we were blindly led into wars with little national resistance from the newly terrorized public. Dawn Davenport is the American use of fear in the shape of a large high school ruffian and she will get her way by asserting dominance like the US itself does. Waters knows who is to blame and so does Dawn and neither one is about to apologize for what will come next!
Dawns behavior in her school is not only pointing to the brazen high school delinquent authority issues. It calls into focus something far more troubling; the selfish greed our children are raised to feel as they are taught through media to succeed at any cost. Fame and riches are the goal and we can and should get them without lifting a finger. We are taught we are owed everting just because we are American. Businessmen, politicians and everyday people are clawing their way to the top bending ethics and subjecting morals to personal purpose. The character of the glutenous Dawn is repeated in characters today like Eric Cartmen on televisions South Park. He is the cartoon fourth grade Dawn Davenport and his behavior is still shocking to us because we recognize this inherent selfishness in our culture and realize our consumerism has trapped us in this cycle.
In his crowning masterpiece Female Trouble we see through the life of Dawn Davenport all that was, is, and will be the driving themes of todays mass media culture created by the masses for the masses in never ending loops. As the movie starts we meet Dawn Davenport and her delinquent cohorts Chicklett and Conchetta who are bored with life*s offerings in high school. Learning very little in classes they spend their time smoking, spraying their enormous hair do*s and eating a meatball submarine sandwich right out in class. When their behavior is called to the attention of the overwhelmed mousey teacher they use threats to gain power over their accusers.
This movie is a prediction to the rash of violence that students have been committing on each other in great numbers in recent years. Gun toting students who do not fit in to the model society are frequently turning to violence against their peers to express their grave discontent. Since the mass coverage of the 1999 Colombine high school shooting grabbed national attention and made a house hold name out of the frustrated students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who killed over twelve students. They became the required viewing for concerned Americans as they watched the students flee for their lives. We heard the sound of shots over and over like the loop of and experimental film. Every station and all day long for days we watched the events unfold until our brains were etched with their images. These images would be repeated as copy cat students disenfranchised with the suburban American dream shot their way through their despair, piling student bodies on the heap of discontent. Alarmingly the violence is now being served to the students of elementary schools as witnessed in Sandy Hook. Even the most vulnerable are at risk now for instant notoriety.
What many fail to see in Female Trouble is that Waters gives us the solution and the reasons to senseless violence. Firstly the movie blames poorly run schools; that are use more as containment devices for the youth population as their parents work at endless jobs to provide the American dream. Coupled with teachers low wages. With and education system that lacks funding and tools we instead ignore what this ignorance breeds in our children we continue to look to the next status symbol that will bring happiness. We are bombarded several hundred times a day by images of what it is we must achieve materially to find happiness. The aim to have it all, a house, kids, car and cha cha heels!
Dawn become pregnant instantly after leaving home, due to the disappointment on Christmas morning when she gets dress flats instead of the much desired cha cha heels. Her pregnancy is similar to that of Jesus in that there was really only one person involved as she rapes herself on a dirty mattress by the side of the road. We through Dawns experience are literally told that we are fucking ourselves. With no education and a man who refuses to accept his responsibility for the child Dawn has an at home birth where she chews the umbilical cord with her own teeth her life as a mother begins.
Dawn sets out to provide for little daughter Taffy by being a waitress, a go go dancer, and eventually turns to a life of petty crime to support her daughter and get on track for the suburban dream. As her criminal tendency grows so does Taffy and the mother act wears thin. Taffy is chained to her bed by Dawn and her crime pals for annoying them after a heist. This is Waters stabbing directly at the heart of American folklore; family unity. For years we watch Ozzie and Harriet, the Cleavers and Donna Reed raised polite children that lived in homes with white fences and aproned mothers who baked pies and lived a happy life. Dawns is a story we were not told until the idea that sensationalism sells took over the board rooms of Madison Ave.
Dawns plight has now become exploited in our current media we have the like of Nadia Sullman a down on her luck, plastic surgery nightmare who found a doctor willing to give her sextuplets. She has 8 children and millions of hours of coverage on national and international news and talk shows, media of all sorts have obsessed over her. We paid her to undress for our titillation . She even has an exercise video for sale. A cottage industry out of a selfish childish action involving the lives of innocents. Shows like Jerry Spinger and reality darling Honey Boo Boo use laughing at the poor and uneducated acceptable and entertaining while ignoring that gangs, religious zealots, and the hopeless had reached epidemic proportions in our society. The Dawn Davenports are leading to violence and reactionary behavior due to lack of education and the pursuit of hollow consumerist dreams. The American dream was cracking in the 1970*s and Waters knew a world full of Dawn Davenports was about to be hatched.
As Dawn become more of a celebrity in the criminal world, well on her way to become famed criminal like Bonnie Parket or Stephanie St Clair, she finds that crime does indeed pay. Having been accepted as a client at the famed Lipstick Beauty Salon where only the most beautiful of the underground are accepted as clients her status rises to the next level. The hairdressers are three queens Wink, Butterfly and Dribble who are a nelly, a mary and a speed freak. Gator, the lone straight hairdresser and star of the salon, is chosen by rising star Dawn to be her attendant and a marriage soon ensues. The vision of Divine, a drag queen, in a revealing dress of lace marching down the isle is a brilliant commentary on todays battle for * marriage equality * and the desire to mimic heteronormative behavior instead of embracing the rituals of queer culture. It is a stab at the idea of what marriage is and what it represents. It has become a privilege that brings with it status and tax breaks. When arguing for marriage equality the number one argument was to save money on taxes not to strengthen a commitment. It is our greed that drives us even in matters of the heart.
The wedding scene we again see Waters takes the normal and subverts it to the bizarre and questions the very ideals of normalcy. Even Dawn*s new mother in law Ida is a bizarre creature, played by the true live bizarre woman Edith Massey, dressed in tight revealing black as her beloved Gator continues down the straight heterosexual path. Ida had warned her son of the evil and depraved life of the heterosexual and tries without success to make her son gay and free from the constructs of the American dream and its devotion to following the rules and fitting in. If Divine as Dawn is the anti hero then Edith Massey plays Ida as the anti anti hero. She finds her new daughter in law intolerable and even dumps garbage into the newlyweds yard signifying the refuse of the consumerist herteronormative path her son has chosen, thus breaking her heart.
However Ida need not worry for her son Gator will soon leave Dawn, loose his job and move to the fair city of Detroit to find solace in the automotive industry. ( The irony in hindsight is even more cutting than in 1974. Certainly it is even a bigger joke to find solace in an industry that has all but vanished in America leaving Detroit a virtual ghost town. ) Gator and Dawn had tried everything from hammers and pliers to down right abuse. Gator had even tried to get poor old looking stepdaughter Taffy to share his bed or suck his dick. For all his pains Gator is left with nothing after his brief marriage to Dawn. He looses everything as Dawn plots her rise to stardoms next step.
But Dawn does continue to rise in fame eventually becoming a model addicted to flash bulbs, fame and injections of liquid eyeliner. Her new agents, the Fashionable owners of the Lipstick Beauty Salon, are the wealthy Donald and Donna Dasher obsessed with the underground. They are the lampoon of the Warhol phenomenon and the idea that slumming is a rich peoples pleasure. The Dashers for their own pleasure; since they have no sexual out let, introduced Dawn to the glamorous world of modeling and crime for their vicarious thrill. They photograph her as she act out and garners any attention and most of it negative. Dawn goes to dinner at the Dasher home and on the way we see regular folks gasp in shock at the delusional model prancing down the street rubbing herself and mugging every few feet. Upon arriving she deludedly exclaims, * I got Lots of attention on the way over. Everyone was staring at me. I feel like a Princess!*
Dawn has fallen into the trap of fame and believing ones own press. She is Lyndsy Lohan, Paris Hilton, Courtney Love, Alex Baldwin and a slew of other Hollywood elite who act out due to believing their own press and allowing themselves to act in beastly ways because fame has made them other. Dawn is the hoards of people who clammer to get onto a reality show like the Hills or Americas Next Top Model, to be famous and on TV, for no reason other than fame. She is the Kardashian girls cashing in on a sex tape and spoiled behavior to earn millions and to teach young girls that if you are snotty and conniving enough you can live the life of Riley without ever having to really contribute anything.
Dawn is a comment on the fashion industry; that since the seventies; had begun to create household names out of mannequins that took beautiful picture to sell the American dream in glossy magazines. Dawn believes she is the face of the time gracing the ads that made you desire what garment makers and ad men needed to sell.
Of corse Dawn is a 300 pound drag queen in reality. She is also living in a delusional state as almost all Waters films tend to be. Who else but Dawn Davenport who would continue modeling even after a horrible acid attack by her former mother in law who had just escaped from imprisonment as a rare bird in Dawns home where she lost an arm in her struggles. It is ludicrous to think that this is what models are like.... or is it? Gia a famed model in the early 1980*s often had her abscessed arm, from shooting heroin, covered up. Later the Supermodel Linda Evangelista would not get out of bed for under $10,000 a day. Beauty at any price, with the it girl of the moment, giving prestige to a product that is manufactured and sold by delusion of happiness being provided and making us like the model who sells it. Little do we know it is just a spoiled brat who makes too much money or a junkie propped up to look glamorous. We but the delusion and Waters serves this delusion right to us in the form of Dawn Davenport.
But like so many of the stars that grace the covers of magazines, star in a show or two and get a taste for the American dream the fall from grace can be deadly; as is the case for our anti hero Dawn Davenport. Taffy has followed the rout of Jesus, the other immaculate conception, and found spirituality with the Hare Krishna giving up all possessions enraging her mother. Dawn like Michael Jackson in his last days has only yes men around her. Pumping her full of liquid eyeliner to get one more headline out of her while she is still able to work because like Naiomi Cambell she is becoming increasingly hard to control. Dawn has lost control of her fame and the machine has taken over and like Britney Spears she just can not maintain.
Dawn reaches the height of her criminal fame when after bouncing on a trampoline and smearing fish all over her body in a crib she turns on the audience that made her, with a gun. She cries out * I framed Leslie Bacon. I called the Heroin hotline on Abbie Hoffman! I bought the gun that Bremmer used to kill Wallace! I had an affair with Juan Corona! I blew Richard Speck and I am so fucking beautiful I cant stand it myself!!!! Dawn Opens fire as a devoted fan decides he wants to die for art. Like any number of celebrity breakdowns of the famed hollywood set Dawn has gone to far and there is no coming back. She will not get the Robert Downey forgiveness and a second chance. Instead like all actresses that misbehave enough there is no one that will come to Dawns aid. She is washed up.
Dawn like the litany of names she unleashes is doomed for obscurity. Like Andrew Cunanan her day in the spotlight had come but it is over. Americans have a new killer to lust after. A new rich coat hanger has just signed to Victoria*s Secret for half a billion dollars. TV sweetheart Cory Monteith has overdosed in a hotel and David Lettermen is fucking a staff person. We do not have time to remember Dawn Davenport. Waters knows that the American society is on the the next big thing, the overnight sensation, the killer on the front page. The American dream has become the suburban nightmare and we like Dawn are doomed to be electrocuted for our obsessions and desires. Dawns last close up is the face of death and as Waters has predicted in Female Trouble ours will be as well, so you might as well enjoy the ride.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Cross Dressing in American Film. No Laughing Matter

A paper for my Queer Film Study Class  

In the Celluloid Closet Quentin Crisp remarks that * There is no sin like being a woman. When a man dresses as a woman, everybody laughs. When a woman dresses as a man nobody laughs. * Mr Crisp certainly if referring to the heteronormative power structure in our Western society and it*s prejudices associated to gender rigidity permeating our media. Heteronormative attitudes, influenced by Judeo/Christian values and the cash stockpiles in their control, have guided the reining cultural reference points through ownership of the corporations that dominate and create mass culture. Even a man like Mr Crisp; who has given his whole life over to the great pursuit of being a professional poof; can fall into the trap of forgetting duality and myriad of genders that line Kinsey*s world. Even in early cinema conventions about gender fluidity have been expressed in the stories of American film. Proving that Mr Crisp is too quick to believe the convention of the day and its dominance in film. His comment is not really true but instead steeped in the convention that has been sold through heteronormative societies manipulation of projected image. Perhaps saying that men in dresses are fools and women assuming power are a threat to the belief system of our culture would be a more realistic way to describe the situation.
A truer take on what it is that Mr Crisp is alluding to is that men put on a dress and begin acting like prissy clowns and women become hard and concerned. That they change clothing and become a parody or a stereotype. A man dressed as women is often played for comedy but women as men is usually a hard luck story or a power struggle anchored to first wave feminist ideals or a mans world. Women who have been asked to play men and have done it well were able to feel the pressures of being closed and without an outlet for emotion. For truly this is the mans plight through social conditioning. Men must become hard less they rebel against the drudgery and cruelty of modern society. Men in films are hardly ever shown to have emotions unless it is the loss of a true love through death or the insane consumption by love of an object, power, or a women. The roles of men are fraught with dire circumstance like war and desire, lust, greed and hardship that it is all his fault. The Patriarchal world that we live in has not always been and may not always be as it is and this scares the men of power and they fight and manipulate to stay in control. Thus the films, usually a patriarchal set up from director, script boy, lighting and even make up, men control the media. They fight to control the movies and their hand in it because it gives them power. They do not want to see the image of a woman being a representation in all ways of their power.
Yet female stars that really made it in classic Hollywood like Garbo and Hepburn were strong and powerful. They were able to stand up to the bosses and gained control. The strength of Davis and even the severe manish beauty of Crawford stand the testament of time and live on. Showing that men resent looking at women as men but cant help but reward a woman, hold her as an idol in the world of men, provided she can meet him at his level and maintain. To seize mans power and hold on as a woman gets you noticed! Only women who have subverted or gained so called manly ways with a strong attitudes survive. It*s a mans world.
The movies worship strength and power and these supernova women either played a man, had sexual ambiguity, or used cross dressing to elevate them to this rare stardom. Hepburn*s performance was laughable as a boy along side Cary Grant in Sylvia Scarlett. Indeed there was nothing funny or comic about the role other than how terrible it came across. Hepburn is a down on his luck boy feeling the pangs of lust for Grant through her disguise. Simply not a good movie. Hepburn, a favorite of mine, is the worst man ever portrayed on screen. That is because she is supposed to pass. What Hepburn is being asked to do is be a man not represent a man. When a drag queen passes she is taken for a woman and passing as a man as a woman is very hard and visa versa.
However in the films A Florida Enchantment and The Clinging Vine we have fine examples of actresses who did indeed pass in a much more believable way then poor Kate would later. Both performances were heartfelt and appropriate in their scale. They were believable and in the Clinging Vine we are taken by the way the character is played throughout. It is rare to see a sexual deviation that is so flamboyant in her dress and attitudes not meet with death or sorrow. It was refreshing to see a winner, who was a winner, on her strength and that heteronormative morals did not rule the day.
As movies have progressed there are few female performances that create a character of a man in any meaningful way. A movie and role that smashes the parameters of Quentin*s theory would be Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria. Her performance is comic genius and goes from powerless woman to powerful man to strong woman all in a faced paced comedy of errors around gender identity. The Oscar winning tear jerker of a trans mans death at the hands of a cold and vengeful society by Hilary Swank in Boys Don*t Cry, is another fine example sans the comic effect. Truly a very raw and believable performance. Finally the illuminating film staring Glenn Close*s recent turn as a man in Albert Nobels. A woman who must be a man to survive financially in a mans world.
The thing the performances of these women share is the ability to deftly change their manners and convince us that they were men in male roles and by not over doing themselves. They didn*t become a man but a character. If an actor concentrates on the idea of their gender and the switch we loose the believability and realness. We get the fool or mimic and the performance lacks truth and gains parody instead. This is the general problem with drag and cross dressing men in films as well. The fear that if they can be seen as women then they will loose their power in the world or that it will open the door to a truer understanding of gender equality and fluidity. To be set equal to a woman means that there is no true power structure. So Instead we use cross dressing as a way to belittle and oppress the woman of the world and keep them adherent to the patriarchal society.
As Hollywood has used the sissy as comic relief so has the cross dressing male been the queen of capers and confusion garnering us hours of film hilarity. Some Like It Hot a film staring
Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as cross dressing musicians is considered the greatest comedy of all times in many critical circles. It certainly helped that these two had one of the greatest drag stars in the form of Marilyn Monroe to accent their rather dowdy appearance. This film is actually a movie that gets drag right. Drag is a costume and not always a gender signifier. The wearer to pull it off in a convincing way must again subvert something in themselves and become a character and not try to be a woman. To try and be a woman would have the drag persona relying on stereotypes and not giving credence to the truth that there is no way to act as a woman, because women; just like men and gender; have infinite possibilities.
Comparing the fine film of Curtis, Lemmon and Monroe to two later offerings by Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire and Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo in Too Wong Foo Thanks For Everything Julie Numar we see what little progress we have made in accepting the female sides of ourselves. Where Curtis and Lemmon added some sincerity and integrity to their roles Robin Williams hardly ever does. The biggest complaint about Williams in Doubtfire is that he can change within seconds to the old lady made. Simply dash behind the clock and out comes a plain but kindly granny. This shows how little we understand about the cultural preparation most women go through just to get out the door in the morning much less an understanding of what drag entails! The production team should have watched Paris is Burning a few times before making their film. The misconception also being that drag teaches a man how to feel and understand his family is a far fetched notion. Drag teaches men how to represent a feminine identity around themselves not how to be, act and fell like a woman.
In the other film Too Wong Foo we have three men in roles that are so stereotypical and from such a heteronormative view point that none of them could possibly be believable. The situations that these drag performers get into is a complete misrepresentation of what drag is. Drag is for the stage not for mid day strolls down dusty paths in a small rural village where the men want to kill you. To live as a woman is to live a transgendered life and that is not what these three were to portray. They were Drag Queens acting like Trans women in a movie about American values and truth. When it comes to Queer culture being represented by Hollywood there is more often than not these types of mistakes. Mostly because we are not taught to think of gays and lesbians as not having a culture. We instead as a society are thought of as a square peg that needs to be taught how to fit into a round hole. This film is a one hundred and ten percent misrepresentation of Queer culture and a complete misrepresentation of our numerous gender identities. Here Patrick Swayze is the square peg being shoved into a Doris Day shaped hole and I doubt very much that a drag queen would do this for any reason other than to parody the heteronomative world.
Two films that were able to use gender deference in a very real way were the little known Lillies and the foreign film Ma Vie en Rose or My Life in Pink. Lillie is a tale of redemption for past transgressions of a dying man who has rotted away in jail for a crime of passion against his gay lover he did not commit. The crime was instead perpetrated by the gay priest who has come to hear his confession and give his last rights. The confession is heard in a gay prison ward and they hold the priest captive and relive the drama of the crime in play form before the captive priest. We the movie goer are allowed to see the drama as it really happened with the inmates playing the same charaters but dressed as them in the actual setting, thus mixing reality and dreams in the telling of the tale. This movie takes the men playing women in the real world and also has them play women in the dream world and they do it so well the movie works seamlessly and is a true masterpiece of Queer cinema.
Ma Vie en Rose is the story of Ludwig and his family in Belgium and the difficulty that his gender identity causes for the whole family. He is a little girl inside and would do anything to prove it to the world thus innocently outing himself and shaming his family. The story is so close to the gender confusion that queer children feel it is hard to believe how close it comes to my own experience. A beautiful and triumphant tale of how a family changes and lets go of their own prejudice to love their son who thinks he is a girl. The cross dressing here is the innocent childish play of childhood that is ended when dominant culture is enforced through social pressure. It also relies heavily on a fantasy world much like in Lillies but this one being filled with pink doll houses a living Barbie and pretty dresses.
To do drag films correctly or males to cross dress as females and for it not to be bafoonary there needs to be the idea of fantasy at play. When we loose the fantasy and the magic it creates we loose the idea behind gender and its portrayal becomes hollow. So it is not really about a man or a woman being the joke. Nor is it about how women are punished in a mans world. Instead of what Mr Crisp stated it is about the heteronormative male dominated culture refusing to look at anything but itself as acceptable thus remaining in power. In Hollywood the laws must apply in general and certainly to gender representation because the status quo and money flows must be maintained. Gender deviance is often used to titillate (Dietrich), show courage and strength (Garbo), ability (Hepburn) and the spirit to achieve (Davis and Crawford) when applied to women. For men it is a chance to subvert women*s power and make fun of queer identity. Perhaps Quentin Crisp should have said * Nobody laughs at a woman with male traits because they are afraid of her power while men who subvert the symbols of their power are nothing but fools in the Hollywood eye. *