Breakfast on Pluto (2005)

I very distinctly remember going to the theater to see Breakfast on Pluto in 2005. I remember enjoying it. I even remember why I sought it out in the first place (the ads reminded me of the glam androgyny of Velvet Goldmine, a movie that meant a lot to me at the time). When I recently ran across a used DVD copy of the film in a thrift store, however, I realized I remembered almost nothing else about it. The cast, the characters, the plot, the setting, the soundtrack – the entire film, really – had all dissipated from my memory like a vapor. I didn’t even know it was directed by Neil Jordan, whose chaotically inconsistent catalog somehow also includes The Company of Wolves, Interview with a Vampire, and this year’s Greta. It all makes sense in retrospect now that I’ve revisited the film, though. Neil Jordan’s involvement tracks as a follow-up on his interest in transgender narratives via The Crying Game (for good and for bad). The Euro-glam 70s setting and gender androgyny that drew me in as a teen is strongly present throughout, even if the movie doesn’t comment on it directly. The story told therein is so vague & exhaustively obedient to the tropes of a lifelong memoir that it’s easy to quickly lose track of the details. And yet, even with its many, many faults only made more glaring in the sober light of a late-2010s revisit, I still left Breakfast on Pluto with an idiotic smile on my face (and its major details again immediately slipping away).

Cillian Murphy stars as a trans woman in this coming of age biopic about a fictional 1970s Irish community in crisis. Murphy’s vocal performance in the role can occasionally be off-putting in its exaggerated lilt; the politics of casting trans and gender-nonconforming characters has changed drastically since the film’s mid-aughts release; and the language around gender identity has evolved since its 1970s setting even more so. All of these modern discomforts are only compounded by the fact that the character was made up entirely by a cisgender author, Patrick McCabe, in the late 90s, leaving very little room for authenticity in its exploration of transgender themes & narratives despite being constructed like a birth-to-death biopic of a real person. Still, despite all these red flags, Breakfast on Pluto is immensely enjoyable to watch for the relative eternity of its 128mn runtime. It often plays like a glammed-up spiritual sequel to the Quentin Crisp biopic The Naked Civil Servant in its story of transgender identity in a time before its proper terms & borders were solidified, but its fictional source material opens it up to even more absurd, outlandish plot developments than that relatively well-behaved work. It’s also packed with always-welcome character actors who had not yet become recognizable faces to wide audiences in 2005: Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Ruth Negga, Liam “The Onion Knight” Cunningham, and Neil Jordan mascot Stephen Rea. Also, if nothing else, it’s just always wonderful to stare at Cillian Murphy’s gorgeous face for two solid hours.

This fictional trans woman’s coming-of-age story starts with a few scenes of small-town childhood crossdressing so cinematically familiar they were already cliché when they surfaced in Billy Elliott five years prior. Patricia “Kitten” Braden’s life’s story gets incrementally more distinct as she ages into her teenage & young adult years, however, since her unorthodox gender expression becomes more of a source of conflict at home, school, and church as she ages. She eventually announces, “Oh fiddly boogles, what’s the point?” and leaves her small Irish town for the metropolis of London, the city that “swallowed up” her estranged birth-mother – known to the audience as The Phantom Lady. As Kitten chases down this human MacGuffin (surviving mostly on various forms of sex work along the way), her friends back home struggle with the escalating violence of The Troubles – which encroaches closer & closer to her own life in unexpected jolts of gory brutality & rudimentary CGI explosions. With over 30 onscreen chapter titles interjecting every couple scenes, Breakfast on Pluto is a never-ending parade of period-specific details that swirl around Kitten as she searches for a family of her own: glam rock bands, penny arcades, mournful priests, milk deliveries, car bombs, etc. When she does eventually find her family, emerging miraculously unscathed from a chaotically cruel world, it’s both the least expected configuration possible and the most endearingly sweet.

This is essentially a fairy tale, complete with talking CGI birds that flutter around the screen warning you of the fantasy indulgences to come. That genre distinction helped me get over my main problem with the film, which is that it’s gushingly romantic at every turn and yet entirely sexless when it comes to genuine eroticism – as if it were unafraid to actually depict non-straight, non-cis couplings on the screen. Fairy tales (or at least the modern post-Disney variety) are largely sexless affairs, so I’m okay with overlooking that hiccup. Whether or not you’re personally okay with a cisgender male actor playing a fictional trans woman within that glam-70s fairy tale is up to you, and will likely guide your relationship with the film at large (especially when it comes to adjusting to the hushed, delirious whispers of Murphy’s vocal performance). There’s plenty to enjoy in Breakfast on Pluto otherwise, though, and even if you happen to impervious to its other charms it has a way for sprinkling fairy dust over you by the end credits so that you forget most of the movie permanently anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

One of the most frustrating deficiencies in queer cinema, besides there just not being enough of it in general, is that much of it is far too tame. Bomb-throwers like John Waters, Jonathan Cameron-Mitchell, and early-career Todd Haynes are too few & far between (a direct result of a heteronormative industry that’s stingy with its funding, no doubt), so most queer cinema is typified by safe-feeling, Oscar-minded dramas about death & oppression. It’s always refreshing to find a film that breaks tradition in that way, while also breaking the rules of cinema in general. We need to see more queer artists given the funding needed to push the boundaries of the art form, lest the only onscreen representation of queer identity be restricted to sappy, depressing, sexless bores. I can probably count on one hand the films that have satisfied that hunger we’ve covered since starting this site over two years ago. Tangerine, Paris is Burning, and Vegas in Space all come to mind, but feel like rare exceptions to the rule. That’s why it was so refreshing to see a queer film as wild & unconcerned with cinematic convention as Funeral Parade of Roses restored & projected on the big screen. Even half a century after its initial release, it feels daring & transgressive in a way a lot of modern queer cinema unfortunately pales in comparison to.

Part French New Wave, part Benny Hill, and part gore-soaked horror, Funeral Parade of Roses is a rebellious amalgamation of wildly varied styles & tones all synthesized into an aesthetically cohesive, undeniably punk energy. Shot in a stark black & white that simultaneously recalls both Goddard & Multiple Maniacs, the film approximates a portrait of queer youth culture in late-60s Japan. Referred to in the film’s English translation as “gay boys,” its cast is mostly trans women & drag queens who survive as sex workers & drug dealers in Tokyo. Their story is told through techniques as wide ranging as documentary style “interviews” that include meta commentary on the film itself & high fantasy fables that pull influence from Oedipus Rex. Although there is no traditional plot, the character of Eddie (played by Pîtâ) becomes our de facto protagonist as we watch her rise above the ranks of her fellow sex workers to become the Madamme of the Genet (a lovely Our Lady of the Flowers reference, that). Becoming the figurehead of a queer brothel obviously invites its own set of unwanted attentions & potentials for violence, which ultimately does give Funeral Parade of Roses an unfortunately tragic air. So much of the film is a nonstop psychedelic party, however, that this classic “road to ruin” structure never really registers. All shocks of horrific violence & dramatic tension are entirely offset by an irreverently celebratory energy that carries the audience home in a damn good mood, no matter what Oedipal fate Eddie is made to suffer.

Plot is just about the last thing that matters in this kind of deliberately-fractured art film, though. Much like the Czech classic Daisies, Funeral Parade of Roses finds all of its power in the strength of its imagery and the political transgression in its flippant acts of rebellious pranksterism. Eddie & her sex worker crew hand out with pot-smoking beatniks (whom Eddie deals pot to, conveniently), whose soirees often devolve into psychedelic dance parties staged before an almighty Beatles poster. They admire performance art war protests in the streets. Their out-of-character interviews & in-the-moment narratives are often disrupted by dissociative images like a rose squeezed between ass cheeks or cigarette ash emerging from a family portrait photograph. Whether picking girl gang fights with other groups of women at the mall or simply applying false eyelashes & lipstick in mirrors, everything Eddie & the girls get into is treated as an artful, politically subversive act. In a way, their mere existence was politically subversive too, just as the public presence of transgender people is still somehow a hot button political topic today. Funeral Parade of Roses often undercuts its own visual experimentation by laughing at the culture of Art Film pretension trough nonsensical asides or by using the tune of “The More We Stick Together” to score its pranks & transgressions. Its most far out visual flourishes or most horrific moments of gore will often be interrupted by a shrugging “I don’t get it” interjection from a narrator or side character. It’s consistently just as funny as it is erotic, horrific, and visually stunning, never daring to take itself too seriously.

The only real bummer with Funeral Parade of Roses is that the exploitation film morality of its era means that Eddie must suffer some kind of downfall by the film’s final act. The movie undercuts that classic-tragic trajectory by marrying it to Oedipal narratives & interrupting it with tongue-in-cheek tangents of meta commentary, but it still gets increasingly exhausting over the decades that nearly all queer films have to end with that kind of tragic downfall, as if it were punishment for social or moral transgressions. It’s likely an unfair expectation for Eddie to come out on top as the Madame of the Genet in the context of its era. You can feel a progressive rebelliousness in its street interviews where trans women dodge aggressive, eyeroll-worthy questions with lines like, “I was born that way,” or “I’m really enjoying myself right now.” What’s even more forward-thinking are the film’s lengthy, sensuous depictions of queer sex. The film’s sexual content doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of R-rating eroticism, but its quiet passion & sensuality erase ideas of gender or sexual orientation, instead becoming simple depictions of flesh on flesh intimacy. Both this genuinely erotic eye for queer intimacy and topical references to still-relevant issues like street harassment, teenage homelessness, parental abuse, and transgender identity make Funeral Parade of Roses feel excitingly modern & cutting edge, despite its aggressively flippant attitude & last minute tragic downfall.

Funeral Parade of Roses starts with a wigged female figure softly, appreciatively kissing its way up a naked man’s body. Somewhere in its second act it captures a psychedelic dance party initiated by an LSD dropper, seemingly mounted to the camera. It ends in a bloodbath, the chocolate syrup density of black & white stage blood running thick across the screen. Everything in-between is a nonstop flood of 1960s queer cool, from political activism to Free Love sexual liberation to flippant approximation of Art Cinema aesthetic. I wish more movies being made in the 2010s, queer or otherwise, were half as adventurous or as unapologetic as this transgressive masterwork. It’s not only the best possible version of itself, but also a welcome glimpse of a convention -defiant realm most films would benefit by exploring. To say Funeral Parade of Roses was ahead of its time is a given. In fact, I’m not sure its time has even arrived to this date. I hope it will soon, because I could happily watch a thousand more pictures just like it.

-Brandon Ledet

Check It (2016)

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three star

A lot of documentaries can survive on the inherent cool of an interesting subject, but Check It pushes the boundaries of just how much that dynamic can allow. In Check It’s better moments it functions as an oral history of the self-proclaimed Check It crew, reported in the film to be “the first gay gang documented in America.” Formed in the rougher areas of Washington DC, where there’s an absurdly high rate of reported hate crimes against LGBTQ youth, Check It exists as an aggressive resistance in which queer & trans kids stand up for themselves and participate in vicious acts of violence in order to survive daily life. In the documentary’s less interesting impulses it glorifies the gang counselors who intend to “reform” members of Check It and turn them into normalized, “productive” members of society. The counselors & the documentary have their heart in the right place, but often push to strip the kids of the identity & vibrancy that made them so strong & so fascinating the first place. The result is a really interesting story told from self-conflicting perspectives: the kids who live it & the outsider adults who want to change it for the greater good.

I don’t mean to make Check It gang members’ lifestyles sound at all glamorous. Their ranks are populated with underage trans sex workers, the abandoned children of the survivors of the 80s crack epidemic that destroyed DC, the frequent targets of sudden & deadly violence. Kicked out of school, left homeless, and barely surviving, it’s incredible the way these kids found immense strength in solidarity. Their confidence is infectious. That solidarity sometimes becomes too powerful & their violence extends into abuse instead of survival in its ugliest moments, but that’s the improbable way they found respect in a world that obviously wants them dead. Outsider gang counselors attempt to inspire change in Check It’s key members, nobly & nakedly trying to save their lives. Sometimes this reform takes a natural approach, hoping to inspire them to find professional careers in the fashion industry, given their creativity in personal style. Other times it robs them of their identity, like when influencing them to take more traditionally masculine interests in activities like boxing. Either alternative might be a better option than their usual hobies of “fighting, snatching purses, getting locked up,” but it often feels disingenuous & short term in a way that wouldn’t be true if the change were coming from within.

If I were rating this film solely on the young, exciting personalities it manages to document this would be a five star review. The way these kids managed to turn a Paris is Burning lifestyle into a militarized force of resistance is an undeniably incredible feat. There’s a real power in statements like “when we go out places we go out as one,” even if “going out” is detailed here in difficult-to-watch smartphone footage of vicious knife fights & wig-snatching. When outside forces try to influence the kids to move in a safer, more socially acceptable direction, the documentary loses some of that genuine impact. The intent may be to save lives & I hope that’s an approach that works, but the film’s much more interesting angle is in how Check It members were saving their own lives long before the counselors & the cameras arrived. Check It works best when it shows the kids chowing on fast food, discussing their Instagram aesthetics, and listening to artists like Cakes da Killa or Dominique Young Unique. It loses a little credibility in its celebratory air when it asks those kids to change themselves to survive, especially since they had managed to survive on their own despite the overwhelming odds for long enough to make a name for themselves and attract this attention in the first place. If they ever find a way to inspire internal inspiration for change & progress within their own ranks they’ll be unstoppable. It’ll also make for a much less compromised documentary.

-Brandon Ledet

 

Mulan (1998)’s Gender Identity Exploration is Only Convincing for the Length of a Single Ballad

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I’m not entirely sure how it came to this, but I recently found myself watching Disney’s Mulan for the first time nearly two decades after its initial release. It was somewhat wise to avoid the movie for so long on my part. I’d hate to complain at length about something that was never made for my enjoyment in the first place, so I’ll avoid being too harsh here on the film’s flat CG slickness or its garbage comedy routines starring Eddie Murphy as a pipsqueak dragon. Instead of fully restraining myself from the conversation, however, I would like to touch on the one aspect of Mulan that makes it an interesting outlier in the realm of Disney-animated romance/fantasy: its exploration of gender identity.

You’d expect that a children’s movie from one of the world’s largest media conglomerates with a crossdressing protagonist would get a lot of praise for its bravery in exploring gender identity & expression on such a large, international stage and, indeed, a quick Google search of “Mulan trans” heeds a wealth of Tumblr posts doing just that. What was interesting to me as a first-time viewer, however, was that the movie itself was not fully committed to this ideal of trans representation. The titular Mulan is not presented to the audience as a trans man. Donning male garb & persona to serve in her aging father’s place in the Chinese Emperor’s army, Mulan joins a long history of women who crossdress (especially during war time) to gain agency & autonomy. She wears men’s clothes to escape hateful remarks like “Teach your daughter to hold her tongue in a man’s presence,” not because she necessarily identifies as a man. The film treats crossdressing in the classical comedic sense of a Shakespearean farce. It’s  a source of amusement & never reaches past a depiction of transvestism to genuinely explore/represent transgender issues.

That is, not officially. Although Mulan doesn’t actually identify as male, there is an undeniable trans subtext to the film. Her peers & ancestors call her a “crossdresser”& a “lunatic” in outrage, which surely resonates with at least one viewer or two out there who’ve suffered similar bullying when expressing their gender identity in public. There’s also a lot of attention paid to Mulan’s efforts to “pass”. She’s depicted wearing a binder over her breasts. She’s coached into using a deeper register voice, walking with gait, acting like a violent oaf, etc. Even though Mulan herself is not a trans man, a lot of her conflict seems true to certain facets of the trans experience. You could even argue that Mulan’s distress with having to live & appear as a man despite her true gender identity is a reflection of the way forcing someone to live a lie based on societal norms is emotionally abusive. However, this gender identity subtext is never as explicit in the movie as it is during an early scene where Mulan sings the song “Reflection”.

“Reflection” is such a strong, emotionally fragile ballad that cuts through nearly all of the Disney bullshit to reveal something truly heartfelt and vulnerable. For much of the film, Mulan is treated like a crossdresser and a source of shame, but “Reflection” almost changes the meaning of those exchanges entirely. The song makes it feel as if Mulan is a trans man, just one without the proper words or context to express that identity. Within the plot of the film, it’s meant to play as a mere expression of frustration with performing certain gender & societal roles that would please her family. The song appears even before the first time she dons male garb, after all. The subtext goes much, much deeper than that, though. It’s hard to even explain how striking & powerful the song plays when considered as trans subtext. It’s something you have to see & hear to believe:

Look at me
You may think you see
Who I really am
But you’ll never know me
Every day
It’s as if I play a part
Now I see
If I wear a mask
I can fool the world
But I cannot fool my heart

Who is that girl I see
Staring straight back at me?
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?

I am now
In a world where I
Have to hide my heart
And what I believe in
But somehow
I will show the world
What’s inside my heart
And be loved for who I am

Who is that girl I see
Staring straight back at me?
Why is my reflection
Someone I don’t know?
Must I pretend that I’m
Someone else for all time?
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?

There’s a heart that must be
Free to fly
That burns with a need to know
The reason why

Why must we all conceal
What we think, how we feel?
Must there be a secret me
I’m forced to hide?
I won’t pretend that I’m
Someone else for all time
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?

Holy shit.

I don’t think  Mulan‘s a particularly good or handsome or even entertaining movie. The one time I remember being struck by what it accomplishes on a technical level is during a brief synth-scored suiting up sequence where its titular protagonist wears armor for the first time. The rest of the film was mostly me rolling my eyes at the sassy dragon or the drag jokes or whatever other CGI-aided abomination was boring me to tears from minute to minute. Still, I don’t think it’s fair to hound Disney for not fully committing to the trans narrative of its unorthodox protagonist. Any kind of representation on the queer spectrum would’ve been a lot to ask for a children’s film released 20 years ago by a conservative media giant. All I’m really saying here is that the massive power of “Reflection” turns all of that on its head. The song subtly, devastatingly warps Mulan’s central story & emotional arc, calling into question the exact meaning of everything that follows. Disney may have openly, deliberately addressed the fundamental nature of societal gender roles throughout the film, but none of that feels as strong or as subversively progressive as the trans subtext of “Reflection.” It’s a really powerful, truly vulnerable moment in a mostly lifeless film that could’ve used more like it.

-Brandon Ledet

Tangerine (2015)

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fourhalfstar

Not many Christmas films dare to take you down the nightmarish, sun-soaked rabbit hole of Los Angeles sex trade, but then again not many films behave like Tangerine at all. Set on a particularly busy, but far from well-behaved Christmas Eve, Tangerine is overflowing with the visual eccentricity & moral ambiguity you’d expect from an indie director making his breakout film on a handful of iPhone 5s (he has a name & it’s Sean Baker). However, what’s so great about the film is not necessarily the behind-the-camera showiness (although that stuff’s fun too). It’s the verisimilitude of its non-actress leads being let loose to run wild across the Los Angeles cityscape, dragging the audience by the hair through a violent, but hilarious whirlwind of drug abuse, sex trade, and tender exchanges of friendship & love in a world that’s been relentlessly unkind. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the skeezy fun of the film’s cracksmoke-fueled bathroom primping & puke-drenched cab rides that when the film slows down long enough to remind you of the cruel world its protagonists inhabit (a rare recess, that) the emotional toll is all the more affecting.

Our guides to this very specific version of a L.A.’s underbelly are a pair of trans sex workers named Alexandra & Sin-Dee. Alexandra is the audience surrogate. An aspiring singer with no interest in the intense flood of drama that drives the film, Alexandra is cool, collected, and often surprisingly wise, serving almost as a one-woman Greek chorus who’s there to comment on the goings on & offer support to her friend when needed. Sin-Dee, on the other hand, is the living personification of drama. Released from a one-month prison stay on Christmas Eve, Sin-Dee immediately launches into a revenge plot to destroy the woman she’s told her lover/former-pimp Chester has been cheating on her with while she was locked up. Once she finds the cisgender sex worker in question, Sin-Dee physically drags & beats on the unsuspecting adulteress until she can stage her intentionally climactic showdown at the film’s central meeting place, Donut Time. Joining them for the shouting match in the donut shop is Razmik, an Armenian cab driver/gentle john who lives at the fringes of their lives, but opens a gateway for the audience into another side of L.A. that Alexandra & Sin-Dee have no access to.

Even with the Donut Time blowup, the plot is unlikely to be what sticks in the viewer’s memory. Tangerine is a film most likely to be remembered for the story of its inexpensive production. For a feature filmed entirely on iPhones, it has a nice visual poetry to it, drawing an impressive potency out of images like graffiti murals, Christmas lights, automated car washes and, of course, donuts. Much like with this year’s pair of Patrick Brice films, Creep & The Overnight, Tangerine is an inspiring reminder of how much a determined filmmaker can accomplish with even the smallest pool of resources (all three films were produced by the Duplass Brothers, by the way).

The true-to-life (and riotously funny) performances from actresses Mya Taylor (Alexandra) & Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-Dee) are also likely to eat up much of the conversation surrounding the film, and deservedly so. Taylor & Rodriguez are vibrant talents with a natural, but wildly mischievous authenticity to them that’s rarely seen outside of John Waters’ films. I don’t say that lightly. John Waters is my favorite living artist. If there’s one movie I’d love to talk to him about at this very moment it would be Tangerine & all the credit for that impulse goes to Taylor & Rodriguez. The fact that they’re debuting in such a wickedly transgressive & visually impressive revenge comedy is almost secondary. Almost.

-Brandon Ledet