The Stake and the Wedge

September 15, 2009

The female is immanent, the female is bone-deep, the female is instinct. With Lili’s

eager complicity, The Professor drives a massive wedge between the masculine and

the feminine within her. –Sandy Stone, Posttransexaul Manifesto

The “Professor’s” use of the wedge cuts like a knife to distinguish, separate, rule, master. This is neither the stake nor the wedge I call for. While a wedge holds within it much that might be queer—some of the cheesiness of camp, the tip of a stable heel, or the sexual toying (of a wedgie)—I want to use the term in relation to issues…wedge issues.

The Parliament works it out. From The Owls, photo by Love

The Parliament works it out. From The Owls, photo by Love

In common parlance we use wedge as does The Professor: to mark, signal, and create divides. But I’d like to think about how we dealt with the “wedge issue” of butch/trans while making The Owls as the queer sort of wedge I aspire to.

Jack Halberstam on the set of The Owls, photo by Love

Jack Halberstam on the set of The Owls, photo by Love

By inviting Jack Halberstam to the set to begin a conversation about this issue, the OWLS Parliament signaled its interest in naming (not hiding) this controversy amongst the cast and crew, and within the script itself. While individual actors went on to make choices about the gender/sexuality identification of their characters along lines that were rather traditionally butch/femme (and which closely matched their own lived enactments), the conversations surrounding this (many of them filmed) began to create ripples across the Parliament. The fiction part of the film ended up recording Cheryl’s (and the cast’s) vision of this issue, but the documentary part of the film recorded something else: the discord and debate, and then, related transformations. Once cut into the film, these documentary moments will inevitably change and grow the “story,” allowing for the dissonance of the dialectical. Wedge as conversation, not as division. The stake opens it up, and the wedge becomes the stage for dialogue and for dreaming.

Cheryl and Skyler (Carol and Skye), dreaming/scheming on The Owls, photo by Love

Cheryl and Skyler (Carol and Skye), dreaming/scheming on The Owls, photo by Love



Over the past few days I’ve been teaching my recent writing about fake docs on YouTube to my Media Studies seniors, while thinking a lot about THE OWLS (and reading Trans Theory, more on this below) and chatting with my friend and colleague, Jennifer Friedlander, on her recent writing on art-world scams and reality-TV shams, as inflected by Lacan and Zizek. It’s enough to make a girl’s head swim with delight, below some avenues of flight (please, please, please respond, these ideas are new, and dangerous, and open to change):

While we were making THE OWLS, Campbell X, our “sound-man” (she’s a talented British director in her own right) noted in one of our talking-head interviews (the crew and cast were interviewed across the production about the themes and meta-themes of the film: queer cinema and identity, lesbian culture, aging, and the like) that as an English-woman of Caribbean descent she found it important that the two black characters in the film (played by Cheryl Dunye and Skyler Cooper) respectively, were not NAMED as black in the screenplay. The B-team (shooting the “documentary” component of the film), myself, Mariah Garnett and Rhys Ernst discussed (on camera) with Campbell the productive potential for unknowing in such post-identity moves.

Skyler and Lisa, Sky and Lily, THE OWLS

Skyler and Lisa, Sky and Lily, THE OWLS

How could we guess the complex intellectual, artistic, and political ripples that would surface just the next day upon the visit to our set of theorist and activist Jack Halberstam to engage the cast in discussions of trans vs. butch identity and politics. For it came to our attention that the film’s six characters were also unnamed in relation to their gender/sexuality identification, although, given Cheryl’s interests, the assumption was that all the characters were probably women, who were lesbians, and mostly butch. Just so, it turned out that Skyler chose to play her character Skye, as an androgynous looking but female identified woman, just as she chooses to enact herself.

Some of the B-team, Rhys and Mariah, THE OWLS

Some of the B-team, Rhys and Mariah, THE OWLS

And here the so-called “generational divide” presented itself, on one “side,” the nostalgic celebration of the lesbian or female or feminist, on the other the seeking for gender and sexual unmooring. During Jack’s talking head interview, he identified as “transgenderd butch” and then suggested that trans-people still need to be named (or counter-intuitively moored) because unknowing leaves them unseen, as fresh and fragile and mostly invisible is this position, even as post-trans theory hopes for the differences between performativity and materiality, the image and the body to remain unfastened and unfixed.

Carol, Cheryl, THE OWLS (all photos by Love)

Carol, Cheryl, THE OWLS (all photos by Love)

Which brings the theoretical and political concerns that I’ve been toying with her, most recently, to a certain sort of front and center. Unknowing and unnaming, like any tactics or forms, are only relevant in relation to goals, communities, bodies, and practices. They too must at times float and at others be fixed. While the unknowing of race is liberating for Cheryl, Skyler and Campbell, the unnaming of trans silences for Jack, Mariah, Rhys and Deak Evgenikos. The ironic free-fall I’ve been thinking about lately, the place where the difference between the “real” and the “fake,” the known and the unknowable, the fixed and the uncertain are indeterminate is an unproductive place of muddle (if perhaps fleeting fun) until it is attached to something that matters: a stake in the future. A stake, which signifies the hard, mean and cutting over the soft, drab, and unmoving (of say the anchor).

As we discussed in class yesterday, while it once seemed enough to work towards a future where people learned that there was a critical distance between themselves and the “objective” or “ideological” productions of dominant culture, this knowledge, so obviously secured in what Friedlander identifies as the contemporary audience’s “knowing very well but even so” is not enough if it occurs in isolation, as an end in itself, unlinked to a body, a movement, or best of all, a project of becoming.

Lisa and Campbell, THE OWLS (photo by Love)

Lisa and Campbell, THE OWLS (photo by Love)

Whereas in my recent writing I had been wanting an anchor (to the “Real,” or what Zizek calls “the shock of the truth”), I now reconsider this to be an attachment and a commitment to a dream of a better reality.

I’m provoked. Just saw Paper Heart and this charming pseudo-naive cynical/happy fake-rumination on love by comedienne Charlyne Li pushes this blog’s fixations on fake documentary’s current yummy banality to new highs or perhaps lows.

I propose Paper Heart to be another member of what I’d like to call the slow-film movement (I’ve already written about Be Kind Rewind and Zach and Miri Make a Porno as high achieving students in this pseudo school, but we’d need to remember Dogme 95 as well), by which I really mean the bad-film movement, by which I refer to corporately financed and released feature films that at once mimic, make fun of and glorify an over-the-top parody of hand-made (DIY, YouTube) style. It seems that just as it true with food and foodies who relish expensive old-fashioned tomatoes, filmmakers are rebelling against corporate made excess, manipulation, expense, blandness and froth by faking the heirloom forms and humble preoccupations of people-made video: intentional shadows where any studio would produce over-lit scenes, staging actors in stinky Motel 6 lodgings as if anyone would stoop to such grimy lows, or actors underplaying scenes and feelings to the point of the zero-degree non-acting (of the fake-doc Office) that is all the rage on television and the YouTube that both leads and follows it.

However, the ultimate pinnacle of this new practice is represented through the inclusion of  Yi’s childish puppet shows (and hand-made score, written and performed by fellow [real movie] star, Michael Sera) which punctuate her film to illustrate the “true” love stories of the “real” corn-husker over-weight charming real-people documentary subjects she “finds” “on the road” (although critically, this film really does seem to like its real people, unlike say Borat or the recent indie narrative that covers much of the same ground as Hearts, Away We Go) as if the art practices of six year olds are the new cherished vernacular for adult indie cinema even as, or perhaps precisely because today’s six year olds actually produce masterful, highly mediated video through the ubiquitous use of home video programs (many made for children) that allow anyone to make slick media. My kids would never show the edges of  cardboard and pieces of string in their puppet shows. This corporate-financed retro-futurist throwback winks at nostalgic memories of an improbable time when there was any terrain of media untouched by the machine, just made by the wee babes. But face facts: it’s made by the machine. Hmm.

And how does Yi’s movie-making feel to adults? Sweet-ish. I guess. Sappy but self-knowing. Cynical in reverse. Because, of course, I’m currently working on my own mean-spirited contemporary fake doc, The Owls (just wrapped principle photography, yeah!) returning in its special middle-aged way to the hand-made styles, desires, and communities of its actual (not imagined) forebearer, the new queer cinema and the “real” indie feature of the 90s. We actually did shoot The Owls for $15K (and The Watermelon Woman for $30), while Paper Heart pretends to (I’d love to know its budget and finance history), and our crew actually fights about (and self-reflexively tapes) whether we should still strive for the beautiful Hollywood style many of us have become accustomed to or whether a brash, bad, ugly style that marks our actual poverty would be more interesting. The one Yi fakes. Furthermore, Yi and Cera bumble into love, playing themselves as naive, nerdy, almost asexual pre-teen-like grown-ups (something Owl’s star and director Cheryl Dunye did in her earliest work, She Don’t Fade for instance), while our cast plays it all as post-love: the site of violence, sadness, manipulation, and anger.

Which brings to be mind the edgy fake doc anthem of my youth, Sandra Berhard’s Without You I’m Nothing.

In our time we loved this fake doc because it angrily pushed against simplified and packaged ideas of race, sexuality, and gender. To fake was to cut, hard. Now it’s just to play, soft. Love/Schmove.