October 30, 2003

Cornell Cinema

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As hard as it is to be part of a marginalized subculture, it must be infinitely more frustrating to be a minority within that subculture. That’s one of the main grievances voiced by the characters in Venus Boyz, Gabrille Baur’s documentary on the drag kings of New York and London. Drag queens have always occupied a surprisingly prominent place in European culture, from the Greeks to Billy Wilder. More often than not played for their comedic value and to reassert gender norms, drag queens also served to question those norms. Drag kings (ie, women who dress up as men — do not think Brendan Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, s/he comes up later), by contrast, are there to advance the plot. When women cross dress, it is always to move more freely in the wide world. Often, their drag only serves to emphasize their femininity: see Marlene Dietrich in those tuxedos. They resemble, always, androgenous youths.

The women in Venus Boyz are not dressing up as boys, they are performing as men with the aid of beads, wigs, razors, and in some cases, testosterone. Their participation in the subculture runs the gamut from weekend outings to watch other drag performers to intensive hormone courses and everything in between. They are old and young, straight, bi, and gay. What they aren’t, for the most part, is interested in living as a man full time. The majority do not want to be men, they want to act like them, and that crucial distinction, and the filmmakers grasp of it, is what makes the film so fascinating. This isn’t about sex, it’s about gender and performance (for those of you who haven’t suffered through a Literary Theory class, sex is between your legs, gender is in your head). Although the film concerns itself more with motivations and practicalities (if one would like to both pass as a man and maintain one’s breasts, what does one do?) the overarching theme deals with fundamental questions of identity. What does it mean to act like a man? What does it mean to act like a woman?

The movie is far more interesting than an English seminar though, and a large part of its allure (aside from the truly fascinating interviews) is due to the pitch perfect cinematography. Shot on everything from high speed color video to classic black and white stock, the movie is a riot of color, motion, and pinstriped suits. The very best sequences are the ones inside an after hours New York club, where the black and white stock is so suffused with clouds of smoke that the image itself feels textured. The heat and press inside the club is almost palpable, and the jazzy atmosphere and proliferation of fedoras are enough to transport anyone back to Weimar era Berlin cabarets. The visceral attractiveness of that sequence explains better than any interview the nature and allure of the life.

Archived article by Erica Stein