Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Truths and Transformations: a conversation, a movie review, a relationship, a hooker, a marriage and more

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | August 29, 2007 6:46 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Marriage Equality
Tags: assimilation, Caren Block, gay marriage, John Ballard, lesbian filmmakers, Paula Dowd, Texas

About two years ago, I received an email from Caren Block that read as follows:

"Hi Mattilda. I read your interview in Bitch magazine and experienced a political and filmic revelation that leads me to you now. My business partner, Paula Dowd, and I are indie filmmakers in Cambridge, Mass. and we want to talk to you about your willingness to appear in our feature length documentary currently in production. It is based loosely on gay marriage in Texas and primarily focuses on two women who recently held a commitment ceremony there and then married in Canada. I would like to talk to you about the possibility of intercutting the juxtaposition of your views on cultural erasure and anti-assimilationist politics."

I'll admit that, after first talking to Caren on the phone, I was even more confused about my potential place within this movie, but she and Paula agreed to fly out to San Francisco and meet with me. They showed me their first movie, a short called Everything Good about a middle-aged lesbian who decides to hire a hooker while in Amsterdam. What was refreshing about it was that both characters in the movie were outside of conventional beauty myths, and neither sex work nor sexuality was pathologized or minimized. Then they showed me some of the footage for their new movie, endless angles of the wedding but also some incredibly honest talk about childhood abuse and trauma. It seemed that Caren and Paula were critical of (gay) marriage, but wanted to actualize that liberal mythology of showing different sides to the story and allowing the viewer to make up hir own mind. To be honest, after years of articulating an anti-assimilationist politic, only to see endless media coverage that framed the gay marriage debate as one between foaming-at-the-mouth Christian fundamentalists and rabid gay assimilationists, it was refreshing to think about how an actual conversation between queers who disagreed about marriage could take place, and even if I was worried that I'd become some sideshow in a pro-marriage spectacle, I thought it was worth the risk.

Caren and Paula flew out to film me several months later, and it was actually quite intense. They shot about four hours of footage in my apartment, and talking about surviving my parents' abuse, creating chosen family, supporting myself as a whore, developing radical queer outsider politics, and the horror of assimilation turned out to be (surprise, surprise!) emotional. It was also interesting and intense spending such concentrated time with Caren and Paula, who seemed to feel a motherly bond towards me -- they were much more mainstream in their life choices than the queers I'm usually around, with upper-middle-class careers (Caren in human resources, although I'll admit I don't exactly know what that means, and Paula in -- gasp! -- real estate - I've spent a great deal of time going on tirades against gay realtors, so I think Paula was initially a bit nervous to tell me this aspect.) But, yes, the filming process got quite intimate and even tense towards the end, when it became clear from their questions that Caren and Paula were in disagreement about gay marriage (perhaps to engage in this conversation is another reason for the movie?) -- Caren is against ("While I believe anyone should have the right to marry if they so choose, I won't be in line at City Hall any time soon"), Paula is for.

I was glad to see that Caren and Paula were using fancy lighting -- nothing worse than being in a talking heads documentary where every nightmarish flaw is visible, dammit -- I mean, video close-ups of faces without makeup on the big screen, nightmare. I also got them to agree to shoot a moment when they emerge in the frame -- forget that invisible documentarian drama! I'll also admit that after they left I started crying -- probably all of the emotions from talking with passion and vulnerability for so long, but also because I felt a connection to them -- a connection that in some ways was surprising.

Caren and Paula insisted that I would see the movie before it was finished, but I've heard that so many times from photographers and writers and it's only happened once -- I understand that people get caught up in their projects, and don't necessarily have time or energy or the drive to show someone an unfinished version. Wait, that sounds a bit too "understanding" -- sure, I would have loved to see that rough cut, but no it did not surprise me that I didn't get a chance. I didn't see the movie (or any of the footage of me) until I was on tour for Nobody Passes, staying with Caren's best friend in Somerville, Massachusetts, and Caren gave me a (very professional-looking) DVD. Caren's hospitality was quite touching -- she picked me up at the bus station, got me groceries, brought her friends to my reading -- her best friend worked in corporate something-or-other, something big where she traveled all the time but had a huge house with a gorgeous guestroom and that's where I stayed. In many ways, this friend was an instigator of the exact type of gentrification I fight against (she even talked about how the lesbians had cleaned up the neighborhood), but she'd also just gone through a gender transition (from femme to butch, although her butch demeanor was so striking that it was hard to imagine her in any other gender), and she was so open and honest -- we had a sweet bond that made me think about the possibilities for analysis, closeness, and support in surprising places.

So, yes, Truth and Transformations -- that's the title of the movie, by the way. The first time I watched it was in Somerville, late at night when I was completely exhausted and I watched it and didn't exactly know what to think. I mean, the movie practically starts with me saying, "Wanting to be part of a system that wants you dead is suicidal -- that's assimilation, that's cultural erasure" (followed by lesbian folk music). Then the scene shifts to show Kathryn Omarkhail and Denise Bennett, the lesbians getting married in Texas -- Denise a teacher and sports coach from Kansas, Kathryn a psychotherapist from Mississippi. Sure, the movie does focus primarily around Kathryn and Denise, but also includes John, a gay man who came out when he was 66, lesbian comedian Julie Goldman, and many of Kathryn and Denise's friends and family members, including a straight couple with strained and uncomfortable reactions to each other's opinions that could surely serve as a warning about marriage for anyone paying attention.

Now I've watched the movie twice more, so I have plenty to say. The movie is polished and raw, elegant and messy, conflicted and determined, difficult and confusing and risky and deep. There's a lot to absorb, and I do think Caren and Paula have managed to engage the audience in a complicated conversation, which is certainly a good start.

Sometimes the movie works very subtly, like when Kathryn talks about first meeting Denise, touching her stomach and thinking, "this is the most ripped girl I've ever touched for sure." This sexual honesty felt refreshing and sweet, as did Denise's discussion of whether to have her father play the traditional role in marriage: "we don't want it to be like someone else is giving us a way, like we're owned by our parents."

One of the most intense parts of the movie is the ongoing interview with John Ballard, who ended 44 years of drunkenness that eventually became life-threatening by embracing the gay identity he'd denied his whole life. His honesty about alcoholism, marriage and incest is wrenching. Describing his home life at four years old, he says, "My mother moved into the living room and my father moved me into his bed. And I stayed there for five years." Again, this honesty about incest is especially rare in a documentary ostensibly about marriage, that same institution that sheltered the violence of John's father, a connection that Truths and Transformations doesn't elaborate upon, but it's certainly there for us to absorb. Ballard continues by telling us that when he was 15 his father took him aside and said if he ever did anything to "embarrass the family" he would kill him (um, who was embarrassing the family?), -- a threat that Ballard lived in fear of for decades afterwards. He also reveals that for years as a kid he couldn't eat any white food, anything that reminded him of (his father's) semen. This graphic detail of surviving abuse is something so rare in the public incest
narrative, and it's especially intimate and dangerous coming from someone now 70 years old, as we see emotive black-and-white pictures on the screen from John's childhood and young adulthood.

Kathryn then reveals that she's been disowned by both of her parents, even her mother who sheltered the neighborhood kids rejected by their parents has now taken down all her pictures of Kathryn and torn up Kathryn's contact information. Kathryn breaks down while relating this story, and temporarily can go no further. Later, she talks about working with adolescents and children as a therapist, but realized that she needed to work with adults if she wanted to change anything because at the end of the day the kids still had to go home. Then there's a moment where I talk about how surviving incest enabled me to dissect everything, and how making my living as a whore for 12 years forced me to negotiate the perilous intersections of sex, money, intimacy and love in so many complicated and dangerous ways while also learning how to articulate my desires and boundaries. Somehow this section comes while I'm walking outside in a lovely outfit of several shades of purple, mauve and pink, out into the neighborhood where the neon lights of the porn shop provide a surprisingly glamorous illumination. Watching this section, I'm wondering if I'm supposed to be working the street -- I mean, if that's what it looks like I'm doing, since I don't appear to have an agenda except perhaps to add a different locale to the footage. But back to this theme of familial abuse -- my own and John Ballard's histories of surviving incest/sexual abuse (experiences 35 years apart yet carrying certain resonances), Denise's struggle with being disowned, Kathryn's homophobic father -- the honesty and variety of opinions/stories around this violence is perhaps the strongest elements of Truths And Transformations.

Around here is where we get another glimpse of the conflicted straight couple, the guy is talking about how marriage is a contract, how he has "an intense amount of power over what happens to her body," and she delivers quite the aside: "yeah, cat food." Then I'm talking about wanting to create a chosen family to replace the horrible one given me at birth, and how the tragedy of assimilation is the desire to belong to a horrible world, unchanged, instead of challenging the violence and trying to create something else. The Texas florist has quite a bit to say in this area as well, suggesting that the argument over gay marriage is masking a war that's going on (yes, someone said it!), and saying "I don't like playing into that sort of normal, heterosexual behavior." Then I say, "We're not talking about this consensual SM relationship, we're talking about this institutional that's the foundation of anti-queer, anti-women, anti-child violence." And then, "Gay marriage is great for business, it's great for consumerism, it's great for capitalism -- all it does is prop up those systems which are oppressing everyone and getting away with it." And later, "People's dreams have gotten so minimal."

Okay, I realize I'm quoting myself at length here. But I'll admit that I'm impressed that, even after editing maybe four hours of footage into... I don't know... probably five or 10 minutes total... Caren and Paula do still manage to convey my politics in a confrontational and compelling way and, well, of course I love it. My narrative is definitely simplified in ways that makes it perhaps more comprehensible (and sometimes incorrect, such as a section where I'm talking about creating my own identity when I was 12 or 13, but it seems like I'm talking about when I first moved to San Francisco when I was 19), but nonetheless I get to voice complicated opinions with my signature flair.

I realize I'm omitting much commentary on the lengthiest section of the movie -- footage of preparations for the wedding, the ceremony, the party -- this goes on forever, from the clinking of silver wineglasses to the matching white dresses to the string trio (a childhood dream of Kathryn's) to Denise's drunk and stumbling father to the person officiating the ceremony who doesn't want to say the word "marriage" ("it's illegal," he says) to the gorgeous flowers to the Texas sun to the elegant house with sophisticated art work where it all takes place to Kathryn's surrogate parents (where did they come from?) to Denise declaring "God made me this way"... Yes, this goes on and on and on. I can only imagine how many thousands of dollars this whole ceremony has cost -- I won't pretend that it leaves me without emotion, but mostly that emotion is sadness -- I end up wanting Denise and Kathryn to experience their love for one another, assuming that this is love and not some misdirected fantasy (not that we all don't have misdirected fantasies), but what they want is this wasteful, heteronormative spectacle and I'm struck by the way that structural homophobia leaves so many queers longing for exactly what leaves them with such longing in the first place.

The hairstylist has a great line, he says it's how he instructs his brides: "When you're walking down the aisle, toss a coin because heads you'll be together in three years and tails you won't -- so just have fun at the party." (Unfortunately, this line is not delivered at the ceremony, just to Caren and Paula and now to us in the audience). I will say that I enjoy these anecdotal asides, as Kathryn and Denise are saying "I do" (literally) and I'm saying, "I don't think anyone has the right to marry -- marriage has got to go," then elaborating that there are other ways of living with and loving and lusting for one another that queers have created for generations, and finally, something about how gay assimilationists and the Christian right serve each other struggles -- the Christian right is funded by fears of gay assimilationists, and gay assimilationists are funded by fears of the Christian right, but in some ways they have similar agendas. I talk about how gay marriage proponents get on TV and say to Christian fundamentalists, "I want what you want... I want marriage, I want a nice house in the suburbs -- I am not a threat to you..." Then, my final line: "And that is horrifying." The hairstylist talks about how one of the beautiful things about being queer is "how we find her own families," and Denise's father is drunkenly saying, "I don't approve of her lifestyle... I don't want to lose her." One of the guests at the marriage is saying, "this is real love," I guess because there are flower girls and photo CDs.

So here's what I'm left with -- I would never make this movie. I think gay marriage proponents have plenty of access to the media, and I wouldn't want to offer them more promo. The movie barely addresses race or class privilege (although the grand spectacle of the marriage certainly gives the viewer plenty to think about). This movie is totally conflicted in so many ways -- so much lavish attention to the marriage, and then this nutcase from San Francisco (that's me) telling us it's wrong! A lesbian comedian telling Jewish mother jokes, and a 70-year-old gay man talking about alcoholism. Oh, and the straight couple -- they should have their own movie -- just the twitches that the woman makes while her husband says all these contradictory things about contracts and government and his own potential homophobia -- watching them is pure documentary genius, let the camera roll and see what unfolds... In some ways, maybe that's what this whole movie is doing. Sure, it's a talking heads documentary, and a talking heads documentary almost always seems too long, but there is also some beautiful surprising footage, like early on when Denise is riding a fake steer with genuine rodeo brutality in the background, then later that hooker on her balcony (me again) talking about the violence of gentrification, and oh the way the outdoor light shines on those lesbian brides as the string trio delivers such sophisticated sounds! What I'm saying is that yes, this movie is flawed, and I can only see it through my own flawed and fiercely opinionated lens -- I don't have any idea, for example, what the audience in Texas thought, except that Caren told me the discussion went on for longer than the running time of the movie, and perhaps that's an indication that it's a success, I mean that more people should see it and gasp a little and wring their hands and sigh in confusion or exasperation or excitement and argue and maybe learn something. I know I did.

For more info on Truths and Transformations, go to smokinggunfilms.com

Mattilda blogs at nobodypasses.blogspot.com


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I'd really like to see it, and I hope I get the chance in Scotland. I don't believe I've encountered any critique of gay marriage here.

I tried to find the movie on Netflix. No luck. I have to admit, I'm curious to see you in a movie - I've only "talked" to you over e-mail and voice inflection and hand movement, etc add so much more.

Nine, no critique of gay marriage at all in Scotland?! If you're in Edinburgh, I'd suggest looking up Sandra Alland (www.blissfultimes.ca) -- she's a Canadian transplant who works at a local lefty bookstore... that's just my idea at the moment. I'm also guessing/hoping that you've seen one of my more scathing critiques of gay marriage, originally published in the sadly-now-defunct LiP Magazine, and archived on my homepage at http://www.mattbernsteinsycamore.com/LiP.html

Nine and Bil, probably the best way to find the movie would be if a local film festival were to program it -- to my knowledge, it's only screened so far in Boston, Mass. and Fort Worth, Texas.

And Bil, if you want to hear audio of me, I'd suggest going to my blog and listening to a delicious interview by Troy Williams for KRCL Radio in Salt Lake City:

http://nobodypasses.blogspot.com/2007/08/that-lovely-interview-from-krcl-radio.html

Of course, you can also give me a call -- I like chatting... As for the hand gestures, that might be more difficult to conjure on the phone...