Monday, April 18, 2011

"Boys Don't Cry" - But Women Watching It Will

Since Brandon Teena was a non-op transgender man, I will refer to the actual Brandon as "him." Because Hilary Swank is a woman pretending to be a non-op transgender man, I will refer to the film character, Brandon, as "her." It's the only thing that's fair to both myself and (more importantly) the person whose awful death was the inspiration for this picture.

I know that sort of came out of nowhere, but I'll explain. In short, I talk about Swank's impact on the audience, and that there's an effect to watching (simply put) a woman play a woman that wants to be a man. Keeping that in mind, shall we?...

1999's "Boys Don't Cry" was directed by Kimberly Pierce. The wildly-successful indie picture (88% on RT.) deals with a transgender woman who hasn't had the operation to make her male yet and the turbulence in both her romantic and vocational life. Given its topic, the tragic real-life murder of Brandon Teena by two of his "friends," media attention was guaranteed. Unfortunately, it proved timely as Matthew Shepherd was killed in a gay-bashing attack around the release date.

I have to think that because of its story, this movie would've drawn a lot of notice even if it were fiction, even without a major hate crime. "BDC" would've been highly-praised, and Hilary Swank would probably have been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar no matter what. Many were turned off by graphic sexual assaults, brutal murder. Those bothered me, but I had issues with the film despite nice scenery and cinematography, a steady lead...

To some extent, I'd be happy to support movies like this regardless of my opinion. I'd find it hard to complain about something that draws positive attention to bigoted, targeted attacks; definitely if it actually influences the public at large to do something about the problem. I'll start with the story before I tell you where it lost me.

Brandon Teena is a woman who wants to be a man. She's a mostly-jobless drifter in the Midwest. Everywhere she goes, she just tries to get by. She also lives as a man - taping down her breasts and cutting her hair to look more masculine. Teena, however, doesn't just want to live life as a guy, she's looking for the right woman. This is very difficult for her.

Eventually, Brandon finds the love that's been so awfully missing from life. Lana Tisdel (Chloƫ Sevigny) is happy and supportive of Brandon, and doesn't mind that she hasn't had her transgender surgery yet. They are already planning a future. It's a meager sort of future, (how salt of the earth is "managing Lana in karaoke competitions?"), but it's still a promising, happy start.

Unfortunately, this does not sit well with two "friends" of theirs, John Lotter and Tom Nissen (Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III). John and Tom are ex-cons, violently opposed to people who are different. John and Tom rape Brandon and tell her to leave town.

Brandon doesn't, and goes about the difficult process of getting the cops onto the rape case. Brandon's found by John and Tom at a friend's place. John and Tom kill Brandon and Candace, leaving Lana to weep over her dead lover's body. Lana and her mother leave town. It's a fact-based tragedy, so these aren't spoilers.

My problem is that parts of this didn't really happen. Wiki cites Lana as leaving Brandon after learning about the deception (she sued the filmmakers). Tom and John killed Brandon, Brandon's roommate Lisa, and a man named Philip, all in front of a child. That's really what I'm warning you about: I could take "Boys" as "a story that must be told," but this isn't the actual story.

My issues don't end there. The movie was perceived as supporting a cause, but I can't help but dislike the film character. Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about people who want to change their gender or date someone of the same sex. It's just that throughout "Boys," Brandon lies constantly to everyone about who/what she is. Yes, to everyone, at all times.

How can you support a cause when you're always deceiving people? Since Hilary Swank's Brandon lies when it's necessary and when it isn't, she might be a pathological liar. Again, this does not mean that a cause like equality, tolerance, or self-acceptance, is being trumpeted.

But the pic wasn't hyped as what that would make it: a complicated character study about an unusual person who lived life poorly and hurt others in the process, yet had good intentions. That sort of thing is an intricate "can you still appreciate or understand this person" type of piece. Or perhaps it's a rare story about a half-martyr - someone who died for living life as she needed to while never being open about who she was. That challenges me on those topics.

Yet that wasn't how"Boys Don't Cry," a dramatization, was received. It's made out like a champion of the cause of the LGBT community. Perhaps I misread, but it sounded like "a triumph of being true to oneself despite facing a difficult path."

It doesn't do the first so strongly, as I never felt like "a cause" was the focus of this picture. And the "true to oneself" aspect is impossible for me to get into. Brandon's an awful date - she's flirty, but never tells any girl that she's also a female. I sat and watched as "trying to be a man" came off more like "tricking people into thinking you're a man."

At the very least, by the time she established a real connection, it should've occured to Swank's role that she was actively deceiving her dates. It should've also occured to her that it isn't good a way to behave. Also, probably a pretty bad dating strategy...

Nope. "Just keep lying" was the answer. I sat there thinking, "so do you hope that your date doesn't go so well that you both get naked?

And when Teena finds Lana and all her loving acceptance, she still lies. Brandon actually claims she's a hermaphrodite, hopeful of getting the "what do you want to be" operation. So why wasn't "BDC" recognized as a character study about someone who desperately needs love but does things that undermine her chances at happiness?

What I've just described wasn't the way it was received by the public, and I suspect that it was what the producers were going for...

The simple things, right? It's a nice moment.
I can see that "BDC" can be taken as a biopic about someone's tragic death. It's filmed like the recounting of a flawed outsider's final days. I can also see "Boys" as a story about a troubled, good-hearted person who wants to be something so different from what they were; how that struggle made their life impossible to live, and possibly doomed.

The aftermath of what often felt like an unpretty, inevitable spiral to lethal disaster? I was left, largely, impressed by Swank's performance of a role I didn't like.

Also, I thought the movie had a great visual effect, in the way it washed things out in convenience store lights and garish neon barrooms. The lighting of the scenes spoke as much about the film sets as the sight of the walls or the objects on display. It helps set the tone, and really adds to the nice, quiet smallness (seriously, managing a karaoke career) of the doomed lovers' plans.

I appreciate the movie, then, mostly as a showcase for the lead's neat work. But I can't venerate a film about a problematic youth who didn't treat people very well, who the film draws to an easily-avoided, disturbing and violence end. I don't want to believe that this is the best view of the real Brandon Teena and his life and his murder, so I don't want to give the events and people of "Boys" my absolute sympathy.

In fact, I don't even know that a factual movie about this is the right avenue for "exploring issues" in the first place. I think a movie can still show the proper respect for its subjects, but it may just boil down to the intentions of the film-makers. What you'll read in the wiki entry doesn't sound so altruistic. Anyway...

Since I wasn't pulled in by a possibly undeserved or manipulated intense emotional connection, other issues popped in to further spoil the experience. Some scenes are a little rough. I don't like Peter Sarsgaard here at all, and I don't mean the role he plays; I think he's the wrong guy for the part. Then there's the violence, which is graphic enough to give anyone a reason not to watch this picture.

Also, I'm usually resistant to flicks where I watch someone on a 90-minute death march. I understand that there are horrible, real events tied to all this... But I'm not reading a book about Brandon Teena and his murder. I'm watching a movie where Hilary Swank's character does very little to avoid danger, while also making some choices that point straight to certain harm. I would've had a hard time watching this, no matter what.

I'm usually turned off by film characters that are, at heart, moths that we are going to watch singe themselves several times before the inevitable end. Most movies use their periodic brutalization gratuitously - and, in the case of sex crimes, I sometimes wonder if it's not being used as an easy way to make people passionately repulsed and sympathetic.
I've intimated this throughout the last paragraphs, but, honestly, I have a distrust for pictures that feel like they're focusing on the emotional buttons of the audience instead of letting that connection happen. And, on the subjects I've already discussed, I can't be sure that I'd call "BDC" emotionally manipulative.

But let me tell you what I thought to myself while I watched this film: People wouldn't react so kindly to these actions coming from a guy, would they? Would they connect to a grifter/drifter young man who wanted to be a woman, living life in the Midwest, never tell his male dates that he's a pre-op transsexual. I couldn't shake that feeling and I still stand by it.

A man engaging in the opposite of Brandon's activities (just switch all the genders) might well be viewed as a horny, lying lech. Aside from the violence, and assuming this weren't a true story, at least. If that were the story, there might've been more nuanced discussion of "Boys," as there might be more attention drawn to the lead's bad decisions.

Still, even if they got a man to play the non-op woman lead, this would be a film focused on a person's romantic hopes more than anything else. This would result in watching a man lying to people for most of the running time.

I don't like this sort of unfairness, though. I instinctively flinch at it, though it's long been ingrained in movies: moronic film studios show no faith in gay actors and actresses taking straight roles. This is also similar to the many (in real life) women I've spoken to who are supportive of bi-curiosity in women, but say bi-curious/sexual men are sketchy or skeevy. How could going both ways have a moral component for males, yet not for females? Are men that much less sympathetic? And who'd even think that Ian McKellan can't act well enough to sell a heterosexual romance?

Let me write it flat-out - I can't help but think women in the audience connected to someone who was misunderstood and treated horribly. They connected (I hope not too closely) to not receiving acceptance. Then later, Brandon was subjected to more than mere ostracism; Brandon was raped. Many females were pulled in strongly by that, too (again, I hope not from experience). All the while, though, the women in the audience were relating to one of their own. That whole "constantly scamming everyone" aspect got ignored.

And I don't write "relating to one of their own" just because Brandon Teena never got surgery to become male. I write it also because this fictitious Brandon Teena was played by a real woman who doesn't want sex reassignment surgery. Considering the movie is about a transsexual, "BDC" couldn't do much more to have the audience receive BT as a woman. As near as I can tell, the female demographic ate it right up.

The ugliness of fluorescents works well here.
Remember that double-standard I just described? That a man passing for a woman would not have been looked on with as much kindness as a woman passing for a man? Forget that for a moment and consider something else... Would Brandon Teena want to receive compassion on the basis of her womanhood?

On the one hand you have a situation where viewers are pulled in by a very slanted view of real actions. That slanted view makes the audience interpret the romance-obsessed lead as someone looking for "acceptance" instead of "pleasure" or "self-esteem." Yet on the other hand, Teena wouldn't want mutual-girl-sympathy because Brandon did not feel he was a girl.

Again, I hate what happened to the real-life person - or to anyone who's been the victim of any discrimination, much less violent, murderous bigotry. But the conflict between film and real life creates an extra problem. I have to keep the proper respect for the actual events and people while trying to judge this movie as a non-documentary, partly-fictionalized motion picture.

After the viewing experience, I'm left with more than all those thoughts about the public's reception of an oddly-filmed angle on true events. I'm left with a sobbing date. This movie, with its freakish way of tuning into women, is like a pill designed to make females weep hideously, then that pill was turned into movie-form. It's highly effective, and has a high risk of quasi-unreal consolation.

In the end can't suggest "Boys Don't Cry," unless you want to watch Swank act her heart out, or you can watch it without being torn up by the steady downward slide. Or maybe you want to make a woman you know watch it, then fall apart...

I recognize that not everybody needs to use my interpretation of this movie, or will even notice or agree with the problems I had with "BDC." In closing, I can only state that I've got a book on Brandon Teena in my reading list; I want to know more about his life than what I learned from this difficult, impressive picture.


  1. Excellent review

    I haven't seen this one and to be honest I don't particularly want to.
    I don't like watching graphic violence and can't stand watching rape, and the fact that it's based on a real story doesn't really change anything for me... So I'll just skip this one, even though Swank's performance looks terrific.

  2. Thanks for chiming in, Jack! I don't mind graphic violence, but I really hate sexual assault. I don't think anyone can convince me to watch Irreversible for that reason alone. I definitely can't fault you for staying away from "BDC."

    The performance is fine, and I can understand why the movie went over so well, but it would be hard to recommend this even if it were just fiction. Knowing that real people were involved in this mostly-accurate story is just awful...

  3. I'm the same, loads of people have recommended Irreversible but I have always avoided it because of the sexual assault scenes which are apparently really graphic, I probably wouldn't be able to sit through it...

  4. I can understand Teena's reluctance to be truthful. As soon as people found out the truth she was condemned... The truth got her raped by people she knew and led to her death.. People are quick to judge and inflict hate on things they dont understand.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Dommie! I can't say that anything you wrote is wrong - you wrote 4 sentences and 3 are fact while the first is opinion. The film's big bad guys are obvious, but the police are really unprofessional and insensitive/degrading, and that's really horrifying in its own way.

    Still the film presented a protagonist who was constantly lying to sexual partners. Even forgetting about the feelings of the other women in that equation, that's a huge problem. It's one thing to lie to strangers/people you can't completely trust, it's another to lie the people that you share yourself with, physically and emotionally, that's all...


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