Jessica Hoffmann

Queer Narratives on the Page, the Ground, & Onscreen

Filed By Jessica Hoffmann | July 19, 2011 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: interdependence, make/shift, Marie Losier, Outfest, POOR Magazine, queer relationships, The True Deceiver, Tove Jannsson

Outfest.jpgLast weekend, I saw The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye at Outfest. Directed by Marie Losier, it's a documentary about the relationship between performance artist and industrial-music innovator Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and artist Lady Jaye, who together created - and lived - a project called "Pandrogyne," in which they had plastic surgery to transform themselves into a new being - a third being that was a fusion of, and also something beyond, the two of them. Instead of creating a new being out of their relationship, the way many others do through procreation, they underwent body modification to look more like each other and started using the first-person-plural pronoun "we" - not in the way of heteronormative coupledom, but to speak to the ways we are all interconnected.

It's an intimate film in a sensitive, not sensational, way. Its movements are subtle, graceful. The way the shots are framed and edited together, the way the story unfolds feels close and gentle. I want to say natural, meaning very much the opposite of the way narratives are forcefully, exploitatively constructed in reality TV and mainstream documentaries.

Gender, art, sexuality - all are subjects here, but in some space more complex and overlapping than label-able, which feels appropriate to the themes in general and, in particular, to Genesis's multiplicitous and shifting gender identity; this relationship's spilling-over beyond hetero- and homonormativity, and the uncompartmentalized intertwining of art, love, and life in this story.

All of this is essential to how this film moved so many of us past what might have been fearful recoil. It is, after all, a film about two people attempting to merge their bodies and identities in a way that could very easily be pathologized as nightmarish codependence. But instead, when Genesis spoke in a Q&A after the screening, it felt like the room openheartedly received their simple, direct statements that we are all a part of each other.

As Genesis spoke, I was reminded of activist/artist/author Tiny aka Lisa Gray-Garcia, of POOR Magazine, with whom I've had the honor of working on a few projects, including the visionary interdependence project Homefulness, and building a relationship over the past few years. I couldn't put my finger on it, but though they are quite different I had a similar feeling listening to Genesis as I often have talking with Tiny. It's like they both cut through so much of the bullshit of the way most people talk - the pretense, the guardedness, the disconnectedness, the shallowness - and just kind of get real and deep. They say these things that seem simple (in many senses, they are simple) and yet are totally profound. The kinds of things that would be world-changing if everyone really took them to heart: We are all a part of each other. There is no Other. There is no separation. What if we lived like that?

I wouldn't have seen The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye if it weren't for Daria, with whom I co-edit/co-publish make/shift. She's one of my best friends and closest collaborators, and our relationship is layered and many years long. When we were picking out which films to see with our complimentary tickets to this year's Outfest, she noticed The Ballad because she's a big Genesis fan; I had no idea who Genesis was. And then when the first week of the festival rolled around, I told her I'd actually decided not to go to that one - it felt like the weekend was so full already, and I wanted more time with my sister and niece, etc. I could see the disappointment on her face and retracted; I'd find other time with my sister and niece, and we'd go to the movie as planned. It turned out to be the best film I saw at Outfest and the most moving filmgoing experience I've had in a long time.

One of the most moving books I've read lately is Tove Jansson's The True Deceiver. It's another narrative all about relationship, but here, refreshingly, the relationships at the center are distinctly not romantic or sexual. The intense relationship at the heart of the book is between two women, neither lovers nor exactly friends but deeply intertwined. They are of different generations, ethnicities, class positions, and ways of being in the world, and they alternate between complementing each other with support and controlling or fighting with each other across the close-but-huge distances of power and perception.

There is also an important relationship between adult siblings, and a whole slew of relationships between neighbors in a small snowy village, and relationships between people and animals, and people and place, weather, environment. The book is small and sparse but substantial, with people deeply facing themselves through the penetrating illumination of their relationships with each other.

When Daria and I talked recently about The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, we tried to pinpoint how the film manages to present this relationship, these practices, that could so easily seem scary or problematic in a way that instead offers a beautiful vision of interconnectedness and love. It's like, you could read it as severely enmeshed coupledom with everything that implies about loss of individual identity and privileging of romantic/sexual relationships over other relationships and more - and yet more than anything the feeling I got from the film was vastness: connection, relationship, not as limited or confining, but as multiplicitous, liberating, and huge.

We live in a dominant culture that is so individualist we pathologize huge swaths of relationships as "codependent" and valorize going it alone in a gazillion aspects of life: bootstraps, independence, solo adventures and solo successes. This way of thinking and being upholds violences small and enormous, private and systemic, from seeing each other as competitors to exploitation of people and the planet, interpersonal violences and institutional violences (capitalism, policing and prisons, sexism, racism, ableism, and so much more).

This way of thinking is how we are living on the brink of global climate and economic crisis and millions of people are still thinking about how to get rich or famous no matter the impact on others instead of figuring out how to live in a way that is sustainable and just - which is how we would live if we accepted the truth that we are all connected, all part of a whole, planet and people, and everything.

Here I realized why Tiny and Genesis remind me of each other. They are speaking for, and living with full presence of, the reality of interdependence. Both have in different moments caused me to question the very idea of "codependence" and the ways that idea is used to bolster individualism, which is violence.

Whereas Genesis does this through a relationship that is about multiplicity and deep connection with a romantic/sexual/artistic partner, Tiny encourages everyone around her to rethink the individualism of a culture that promotes splitting off from family and community as "success" and "freedom." Elsewhere, Tove Jansson suggests that perhaps the ultimate deception is the way we delude ourselves into thinking we alone can control or even fully understand anything, into thinking there is even an atomized "self": It is through our relationships with others and with our context that anything lives.

That these visions seem revolutionary only further emphasizes how deeply, tragically individualistic the dominant culture is that is spreading rapaciously across the planet, whose tendrils we have so internalized - thorns of fear lodged and winding in our hearts, distorting our perception, doing us harm and making us harmful. We who are we, all connected.

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