Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Danish Girl

Year 8, Day 261 - 9/17/16 - Movie #2,453

BEFORE: Alicia Vikander carries over from "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." and while I saw this film primarily as the main link between that film and "Spectre", I've been interested in seeing this film not only because of my personal history, but because I'm working for an animator who's starting production on a film about her marriages, and parts of her story are also reflected here.  However, she saw this film and hated it, now I'll have to discuss it with her and find out more about why.

But this also qualifies as part of my European chain, and it's yet another film about artists...

THE PLOT: Loosely inspired by the lives of Danish artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegene, Lili and Gerda's marriage and work evolve as they navigate Lili's groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer.

AFTER: I wonder if anyone was disappointed or confused by this film, when they found out it wasn't a story about a woman who worked in a pastry shop.  You know, selling danishes. 

This was a tough one to watch, and it's going to be a tough one to review.  Not because it's inherently a bad film, that's not really for me to judge, it has more to do with personal connections to a similar topic, the way this story reminds me of the way my first marriage ended, after my wife determined she was gay. (I know, the language gets tricky here, and I'm in danger of offending people on this topic, just by using the word "determined" instead of "realized", this is why I have to tread lightly today.  But I have to state what's in my head, and stand by it.) 

Transvestite/transgender people have not had an easy road, that's for sure, and have not been depicted well in films, either.  A lot of times, it's just a man dressing up in women's lingerie, and also being a serial killer or something at the same time. ("Dressed to Kill", for example.)  So there's this connection that Hollywood has made between transvestitism and sociopathy, just because those are both regarded as psychological conditions.  Have there been that many documented cases where men who are gay but also self-loathing have put their energies toward killing people, just because they don't have any positive way to express themselves?  Or is that simply a narrative convention employed by murder mysteries?  

But I digress.  We live in a more modern age, where society seems to be on the cusp of accepting transgender issues, umm, except for those people who don't, so in that sense, we're a nation divided.  The recent hubbubs over bathroom visits in North Carolina shows that society has a long way to go to reach understanding, as many people would rather use legislation to deny or shut down the whole system, rather than work toward any kind of social progress.  I mean, who takes their birth certificate with them into the bathroom?  What if it gets wet in there, or there's a desperate need for toilet paper?  I kid, but in all seriousness, if we're going to allow people to change their gender on a legal document, that should stand.  

The science of it all, I don't even pretend to understand.  I know there's a point at which a developing embryo is neither male nor female, and at some point a choice gets made, by God or fate or DNA or whatever, and then that fetus gets born, and then sometimes believes that the choice was made incorrectly, or it doesn't identify with its gender.  Whether this is a genuine genetic mistake or brought on by the trappings of society is what seems to be the topic of some debate.  The problem is, we can't really ever get inside someone else's head, so if I'm being completely honest, I don't know if a trans person is truly "trapped" in the wrong body, or is having some neurons misfiring, or is just a boy got enamored with girly stuff somewhere along the way.  

Why is it always "trapped" in the wrong body, that sounds so negative, why is it never "placed" in the wrong body, or just "happens to be" in the wrong body?  I mean, you never hear someone who wants to get a nose job say that they're "trapped" in a face with a big nose.  I think they'd plainly admit, "Hey, I'd just like to have a nicer-looking nose."  Then some people have that stomach-stapling surgery, but you never hear them say, "I'm a skinny person trapped in a fat person's body."  It's probably more like, "I'm fat, and I'd like to be thin, and this seems to be the way to make that happen."  So at what point does corrective surgery go from making one's appearance better to fixing a mistake the universe made?  Where does that line get drawn?  I try to be accepting of other ideologies, and other ways of life, but there's something inherently self-centered about the transgender process in that sense, as if someone is saying they're smarter than the universe. 

And this whole thing gets tied up with so many other issues - religion for one.  Is God in control of the universe, and if so, why did he create a universe where people are born the wrong gender, or at least have come to believe that they were?  And is the science that changes a man into a woman a modern miracle, or a subversion of the natural order, or just a luxury akin to cosmetic surgery?  See, I've got a few dozen questions that I've probably got no right to even ask.  I'd like to think that people who undergo gender reassignment surgery have all received extensive therapy to be sure of their choices, but what do I really know about it in the end?  Very little.  

And then those people who are advocates for the process, the ones who give interviews and put themselves out there in the name of enlightening ignorant people about the process, well, there are still a few things that they're not willing to talk about, so which is it?  Are you going to shine a light on the issues around this topic, or aren't you?  Is it possible to be so in touch with yourself that you want to change your gender, but still be sexually repressed in some fashion?  Sexual orientation, gender, religion, science, it's all one big confusing muddle right now, so what an exciting, innovative, radical, dangerous time to be alive.  

But this film goes back to the 1930's, which was a very different time in terms of understanding these issues.  Einar Wegener, who started cross-dressing and posing for his wife's paintings under the name Lili Elbe, was variously diagnosed as a homosexual, schizophrenic, deviant pervert, and probably more.  It seems that this was much more than cross-dressing, because he seemed to keep Lili as a separate entity, so it's almost like a split personality.  And then when he dressed as Lili, he flirted with men, and in the film one of those men is homosexual, so it's possible he was attracted to Einar in a dress, and not Lili.  

This does open up a lot of narrative possibilities, once you get past the pronoun trouble.  Hollywood hasn't really made a love triangle story before, not one where a character is attracted to one woman when he's dressed as a man, and to a man when he's dressed as a woman.  (This is before the surgery, so I'm still using the pronoun "he", even if that's not P.C.)  I guess my question then is, why couldn't Einar/Lili live in this transitional state, being married to a woman and then loving men when he was dressed as a woman?  Sure, it's a compromise, but isn't every relationship a compromise?  Lots of people seek out other partners and stay married, and sometimes the more progressive spouse is OK with it.  (I couldn't handle it, but Gerda seemed like maybe she was getting there...)

My point, I guess, is that it's a slippery slope.  One day Einar put on a pair of stockings just to model for his wife's painting, and according to this film, that's what opened the door.  Stockings led to make-up, that led to wearing dresses, and once you start down that road, it leads to not only happiness with the new discoveries, but also disappointment or disenchantment with the way things are, and then somehow it leads to being on an operating table in Dresden and having your sex organs removed.  

And this is where the movie fails as a story, since it can't properly get inside a person's head and confirm what's going on in there.  The character has to start with putting on a pair of silk stockings, and from there the journey is (more or less) inevitable.  And I disagree with that, because then anyone who enjoyed the feeling of a fur glove would end up engaging in bestiality, or at least at a "furry" convention, or anyone who had a fantasy about, say, killing their boss would HAVE to act upon it at some point.  This is a fallacy, because thousands of people have sexual fantasies every day that they just enjoy as fantasies, that they would never, ever try to reenact in the real world.  Because they, or society as a whole, has a moral code, even if it's ambiguous, that controls what can and cannot happen. Now, that code has evolved over time, and things that were forbidden decades ago are now more acceptable, but there are still limits. 

For example, the real history of Gerda Wegener supports the idea that she was a lesbian, even though she was married to Einar, and probably preferred being with "Lili".  But the movie doesn't go there, because that's too complicated - instead we're shown Gerda asking Lili to turn back into Einar.  Somebody thought that audiences would accept a man transitioning into a woman, but only at the expense of his marriage, and only if he had a plan to have male lovers after his surgery, not female ones.  Why?  How can a film be supportive of transgender issues and yet remain so homophobic?  

Transvestites I sort of get, men who for whatever reason dress in drag - and I'm not sure why it comforts me to know that some of them are gay and some of them are straight.  Maybe it's because I think clothing is a societal construct - men dress like THIS and women dress like THAT, and even that has changed dramatically over time.  (Think of men in the 1700's, when the fashion was to wear powdered wigs and a lot of make-up.)  And sexual orientation is a separate issue from how someone dresses, right?  And gender identification is a completely different issue, it's not which gender you're attracted to, but what gender you truly are.  

I think this film sort of fell into the same trap that many people do, which is assuming that all of these issues are linked together.  For many it's so easy to believe that a man who dresses like a girl also wants to have sex with men, or also wants to BE a girl.  It's not necessarily so, and until society learns to parse all this out, instead of painting everyone with the same brush, we're looking at decades of confusion still to come.  Einar, of course, was not aware of all of these options, and seemed also to be racked with guilt, while making his transitionary moves at the same time.  He (she) had the misfortune of being born before anyone had much understanding about what he was going through.  

Which goes a long way toward explaining why Einar felt alone and unsure about everything, and I wonder if he had more options, like living part-time as a woman, or existing somewhere in the space in-between genders, if he could have ever found solace.  I still have a ton of questions, some medical and some social, but I'm willing to table the discussion for now.  Sorry if I offended anyone with my rambling thoughts, but at least I've been open and honest about them. 

Also starring Eddie Redmayne (last seen in "The Theory of Everything"), Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw (last heard in "Paddington"), Amber Heard (last seen in "Zombieland"), Sebastian Koch (last seen in "A Good Day to Die Hard"), Pip Torrens (last seen in "Anna Karenina"), Emerald Fennell (ditto), Nicholas Woodeson (last seen in "Mr. Turner"), Adrian Schiller, Henry Pettigrew.

RATING: 4 out of 10 nosebleeds

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