Friday, July 28, 2017


Netflix bums me out with the onstaught of mindless dreck for uneducated youngsters — repetitious and loud. I doubt that anyone really watches them except to run the TV in the background while getting drunk and pretending they aren’t alone.  They would mock me for complaining that there’s nothing in them to think about.  My survival strategy is to go direct to browse, then international, then Scandinavian, Irish or Australian.  Last night up popped the first Brazilian film.

“Laerte-se” might have been a film I would hesitate to review on my blog only a few weeks ago, since I live in a conservative small town in Montana, where they punch out reporters.  But now, considering the news coming out of the White House, it doesn’t just seem normal to observe the underculture, but also necessary.  The subject, Laerte-se, is a man, a cartoonist and painter, who decided to present himself as a woman in an act of self-identity, a concept people make fun of because they’ve never known they had such a choice. 

What makes this man so interesting is not just that he is trans, which is a category we know (but Trump evidently did not) that includes thousands of soldiers.  Historically, disguised women served in the Civil War.  We are accustomed to the idea of surgical genital conversions — though there is currently a lawsuit over an intersex baby that authorities surgically assigned, evidently without persuading the parents.  

But this is not what Laerte-se is about: she is highly philosophical, an introspective explorer of feelings, with a care for decorum and modesty.  Luckily, she lives in Brazil, a mixed and tolerant nation, among artists and writers.  Though she has resisted interviews, this film is a record of her thought as gently interrogated by a sympathetic female journalist.

L. is Brazilian, where the language is Portuguese, so if you know a little Spanish it will sound almost familiar, but for Americans one is dependent on sub-titles and had better be able to read fast, esp to catch the strip cartoons, frame by frame.  This film takes on trans- everything but — as described in my previous post, starting from the inside of personhood and pushing outward, exploring, generating alternatives, both including and editing.  In the ongoing perpetual skirmishes between “group” and “individual”, this film is a celebration of the intensely individual.  What is rejected is society pushing and requiring whatever has gone before.

The alternative unique category choices include the male/female thing, of course, because gender role is such a means of control.  L. hasn’t done the the genital surgery, though L. says her scrotum can be inconvenient and would not be missed.  But the penis seems friendly and useful.  The surgical question is all about boobs, because “when the bra comes off at the end of the day, the boobs go with it, and that’s sad.”  Eventually, by the end of the film, she has breast implants in time for her daughter’s wedding. 

L’s original decision to assume this gender change was triggered by the death of her son.  It just seemed obvious that if a person has always had a longing and curiosity, at age sixty it was do or deny.  L’s never icky or salacious.  She was a well-respected and established cartoonist.  When L. is filmed at public events, the embraces and kisses are very much there.

It’s unclear whether hormones were involved, but even as a man L. was not handsome.  The long crinkly face is interesting with makeup, but L is clearly in Diana Vreeland Vogue Editor territory without such a bladed nose as hers.  Clothes are a constant absorption.  In an episode about a flamboyant PRIDE-type parade featuring incredible outfits, L is proud of a short gold sequin dress she describes as “slutty,” but in fact she’s rather Puritanical about most things.  An American teenager would not be shocked by the glittering dress.

One of the stereotypes/realities that comes up is that of aging, which seems to give L. permission to be exotic.  She has pedicures, waxes and painted nails.  Not me. In my own case I go the other way: I find that I want to almost wear a uniform: jeans, blue chambray workshirt, same every day. Unconventional for a straight cis-woman approaching eighty.

Besides the cartoons, deftly catching character and contradiction, L draws nude studies on brown paper with a brush and dilute ink, then goes back with China White to pick up highlights.  The reality of curving muscle groups, hand gestures, joints and joinings go up lifesized with a magical quality of inevitability.  She also poses for nude photographs while slathered with white paint or black paint.  They are quite beautiful.  Mysterious.

from "A Man Called Horse"

But suddenly in the midst of all this rather conventional studio art, we are watching the most bizarre scene of “A Man Called Horse.” (1970)  It is an imaginary version of initiation-by- torture recorded in a painting by Catlin in the very early days of encounter with whites.  It’s not very authentic.  In fact, one guy is wearing Johnny Depp’s Tonto raven hat.  But the point is about a community and paying the price to belong.  The tension for L seems to be wanting to love men, but not wanting to love them as being a man himself and wanting to be loved herself as a woman.  Not so much establishing some political right, the idea is exploring unknown inner territory.  (His gender-assigned bathroom jokes are great.  I hope I can find some to post here.)

The nearly last scene of the film is the wedding and though L. had thought it would be wonderful to wear a strapless dress, it turned out to be the bride who wore the white strapless dress — with tattoos and an electrified blinking bouquet.  L. and the bride’s mother were joyful and united.  L’s father had a bit more difficulty adjusting but that’s his business.

There is a grandson, a character full of curiosity whom L. advises us is now bipedal so a little hard to keep up with.  Clearly boy.  He loves his bright playdough patties and playing the piano with L, though the Spiderman theme didn’t appeal.  Batman hit the spot.

The last scene, as is proper, is the most beautiful, approaching trans - cendence.  L.’s brush creates a body on brown paper taped to the studio wall.  The artist has spoken earlier about the human dilemma of being made of flesh.  It is a process that never ceases changing, causing both suffering and delight, and might or might not fit into cultural ideas.  We watch the fluid line following the brush.  She keeps referring to her life model with glances over her shoulder.

Then the camera goes to the open window where the model is on his/her back, smoking a cigarette in the bright sunlight.  We get close to a hairy thigh.  L. has said that the moment she felt the change from male to female was that of removing all body hair.  The model stands up and comes forward.  Both artist and model, both of them gender-inclusive, fully “ornamented” top and bottom -- and graceful.  

They stand in the sunlight, alabaster flesh, unblushingly rosy and nearly translucent.  The beautiful model is adorned with long feather earrings.  We remember that Brazil is the country with tribes still never contacted by the world at large, still innocent of Euro-forms.  But this model is blonde and this artist is gray. 

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