Archive for the ‘documentary’ category

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

November 24, 2019

Screen Shot 2019-11-24 at 3.56.09 PMAbout an hour into the documentary Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project comes the moment we’ve been dreading. Here, though, the moment is presented much differently, due to the movie’s subject. Marion Stokes (1929-2012) was a former librarian whose second husband was wealthy, so she had a lot of time and resources to spend 35 years — 1977 to 2012 — recording every TV news channel 24/7. In this way she filled hundreds and hundreds of videotapes with local (Philadelphia) as well as national news. At 8:49 on the morning of September 11, 2001, Marion’s VCRs were running as usual, and we see a grid of four screens simultaneously showing puff pieces or morning filler. CNN, on the top left, is the first to cover the developing catastrophe, and for a long time the other three screens keep showing their unimportant things. Then ABC breaks into Good Morning America to weigh in. Then CBS. Then, finally, the Fox affiliate.

Recorder is the story of, as the film admits, a hoarder — a type not unknown on the library beat — who amassed information. Marion Stokes, an African-American woman, had seen a lot in her time. Fired from her library job for associating with communists, she took to local TV to participate in discussions with all sorts of people. She didn’t trust any one news outlet to deliver the truth, so she started tracking them all — which at first, with only three networks, was easy. This media junkie, described by everyone in this film who knew her as brilliant, was saving all of this for posterity. At the end, when the Internet Archive comes to the rescue and takes a truckload of tapes off her son’s hands, we sigh in relief — Marion’s work of 35 years is going to someone who knows what to do with it.

Of course, Marion’s work is useful beyond simply archiving the news. She also captured a great deal of pop culture, if only collaterally through commercials. I know someone, who goes by the handle the Internet Lurker, who has a YouTube channel dedicated to TV ads he has extracted from old videotapes: anytime someone recorded a movie or sports event off of TV but wasn’t motivated to hit “pause” during the commercials, an inadvertent record was made of a time and place. A good deal of knowledge may be gleaned from observing how 7-Up, say, thought it most efficient to get us to buy their soda in 1987. The hairdos and fashion are a side benefit (and, often, a hoot), but the history of advertising in the late 20th century will be written with help from collections like the Internet Lurker’s — or Marion Stokes’.

The movie is far from a hoarder-wonk’s daydream, though. Its main focus, as established by director Matt Wolf, is to paint this one eccentric, often prickly woman as a keeper of the flame of truth. Marion was already in her thirties during the Civil Rights era, and knew firsthand the importance of questioning what the largely white male establishment told you was news, or not news, and how it told you that. (For the second time in a recent documentary about news, Phil Donahue turns up — here, it’s to make the same point about that establishment.) The only way to study bias in reporting, especially since the networks themselves couldn’t be counted on to archive their own daily output, was to document it relentlessly. When cable came in, and Marion found herself tracking C-SPAN and CNN and MSNBC and CNBC, it’s hard to imagine whether she felt overwhelmed or elated by the thrill of the chase.

In the footage we see here, Marion has a streak of stereotype about her — the enormously intelligent but irascible person who isn’t having your nonsense, African-American female division. (See also: Maxine Waters.) She could easily have held her own against William F. Buckley on Crossfire if she hadn’t decided to move from the camera eye to a chair at one of her nine properties. Sitting in front of countless monitors, she in effect became a monitor, as well — a brain taking in data and processing it. But what insight did she gain? Her main concern, we understand, was to save the news from disappearing. But she couldn’t have had time to watch all those tapes herself, not when the next day would bring yet more things to record. The subtle point of the movie is that she squirreled away data she couldn’t possibly have viewed, for the benefit of unseen, unknown others. And this is not an altogether happy portrait: as a reward for all her dedication, in December 2012, Marion Stokes left consciousness while footage from the Sandy Hook massacre unspooled before her, soaking all our TVs in the blood of children. Recorder doesn’t try to flip that into something positive, and I won’t try either.

Call Us Ishmael

June 30, 2019

Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 2.29.09 PM The thesis of David Shaerf’s swift, engaging documentary Call Us Ishmael is simple: Herman Melville’s gigantic, narratively skimpy, intolerable, beloved Great American Novel Moby-Dick has the power to turn some of its readers into Ahabs, pursuing the white whale of the book. The movie isn’t titled Call Us Ahab, though, so Shaerf seems to speak for a gentler, more productive mode of obsession, and a less threatening way for the reader to be drawn in by the work. Instead of being maimed and then ultimately pulled into the deep, the readers seen in the film are, like Ishmael, taken along for a ride, a ride that sometimes usurps months or years of their creative lives — and for some, the ride hasn’t ended and possibly won’t.

Take, for example, the yearly ritual at the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which since 1995 has hosted the Moby-Dick Marathon. People get up and read aloud sequentially from the book until the entire book has been heard. It usually takes about 25 hours. Can you imagine dozens of people sitting, standing, reading, listening, lying about in sleeping bags, for better than a day, with any other book? Well, they do — this past May, UCLA’s annual Marathon Reading tackled The Handmaid’s Tale and Octavia Butler’s Parable novels. But, of course, UCLA’s inaugural marathon dealt with, yep, Moby-Dick — a year after the Whaling Museum started it. Anyway, Call Us Ishmael is about five minutes old when it shows some footage from the Moby-Dick Marathon.

From there, Shaerf moves on to various artists who’ve been inspired by the novel, and that’s what most of the rest of the movie addresses. Shaerf has the same story as many others: he tried it under duress in school, loathed it, went back to it years later, got hooked. First of all, this very thing is why I have never believed in summer-reading lists for high school, even though the selection has opened up to popular youth novels in the last decade or two. A teenager is not ready to assimilate what Melville is doing — I don’t care how smart and mature the teenager is. You need some life and loss and pain under your belt to appreciate a lot of literature, and in the case of a stark raving weird novel like Moby-Dick you need the patience and the willingness to submit to someone else’s overpowering vision for a while, with no clear narrative carrots on a stick.

But the familiar story of someone who bounces off of Moby-Dick, spends ten, twenty, thirty, forty years away, and then for some reason is lured back to it and now rises to it — we hear that again and again in Call Us Ishmael. The artists Shaerf talks to are usually interesting, sometimes a little abashed by talking about how completely the book subsumed their lives. Matt Kish gets a lot of time, possibly because he did art for the movie and its marketing; he discusses his book Moby-Dick in Pictures, wherein he made a piece of art for each page of Melville. The project took Kish a year and a half (and we see his bemused girlfriend remembering the long process); another artist in the film, Frank Stella, took a decade and a half to complete his journey with the book. We see art students who responded to the work in various ways; we see musicians (Patrick Shea, Laurie Anderson) who recorded literal or allusive songs about it.

The only medium Moby-Dick has never fully stuck to is the very medium Shaerf works in, and he covers that a bit. The most famous adaptation was, of course, John Huston’s 1956 effort, whose reception was mixed. It’s a fine strong Huston movie but it doesn’t really convey Melville, only his plot, which isn’t the book’s strong point. There have been several film versions; my ironic favorite might be the 1930 attempt (with John Barrymore), which doesn’t even pretend to be faithful to the story (Ahab reunites with his true love Joan Bennett at the end, and Ishmael doesn’t figure into it at all). Two made-for-TV whacks at the material (with Patrick Stewart and William Hurt as mad Ahab, respectively) came and went without much notice. If there were to be a point to another film adaptation today, it would need to be a $250 million monstrosity in IMAX, with Daniel Day-Lewis emerging from retirement to give us his Ahab, under the direction of Spielberg, bringing his catalog nearly full circle. (As it is, Jaws is probably about as close to a pure-cinema riff on some Moby-Dick elements as we’re going to get.)

Ultimately, Call Us Ishmael allows that the book is so many things to so many people — and maybe it speaks most clearly to those with a touch of obsession — because it seems to encompass everything. All those passages about whaling aren’t just “about whaling” — you’re getting an immersive education in the society, economy, and even ecology of the world it sets up. It gives you the bare bones of what screenwriting guru Robert McKee says is necessary for a story — an object of desire, and someone who desires it — but then surrounds it with flesh made of anecdote and cetology. The thing is insane and difficult and, for those in this film, rewarding and inspiring. But is the book really ever done with them? Call Us Ishmael tells the compelling and, when you think about it, frightening story of a literary classic that acts like the monster under the bed, grabbing readers’ ankles and pulling them into its hot close darkness. Ayuh, there goes another one.

They Shall Not Grow Old

May 19, 2019

theyshall Near the end of the immersive World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, director/assembler Peter Jackson gives us perhaps the most breathtaking sound in the whole film: silence. Before that, we have heard the staccato of rifle fire, the grunts and creaks of tank treads, the death-dealing bass of artillery shells. But here, Jackson lets us hear something close to what Kurt Vonnegut described as the voice of God. “When I was a boy,” Vonnegut wrote in Breakfast of Champions, “all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.”

We don’t have them any more, of course — veterans of the War to End All Wars are long dead now, and those of WWII and Korea aren’t far behind. What Jackson has done, aided by firsthand accounts on the soundtrack from men who fought in the trenches, is to capture and modernize a period when Satan walked the earth, when weapons of mass destruction — machine guns, mustard gas, flame throwers, shrapnel — came into wide use. World War I was a bloody, filthy, diseased, maggot-ridden experience, repulsive in almost every way, and Jackson does his best to make it vivid for current audiences, using technology to slow and smooth the stuttery, farcical Keystone Kops effect you always get from early-20th-century newsreels, so that the filmed record of these muddy, exhausted men takes its place alongside footage of later wars.

They Shall Not Grow Old is probably the finest thing Peter Jackson has had his hand in since Heavenly Creatures. In both, he kicks off with deceptive old-timey footage; here, it goes on for about 25 minutes, at which point we arrive at the front and the film opens out to widescreen and blossoms into (subdued) color. After the war has ended, Jackson constricts the image back to squarish black-and-white. In a way, the film is something of a cheeky riposte to Christopher Nolan’s you-are-there WWII epic Dunkirk; Jackson could be saying “Good job, mate, but you had the luxury of stars and re-enactment, didn’t you?” As the (disembodied) voices continue on the soundtrack, our imaginations fill in a lot, and, as with many WWI accounts, we may wonder how anyone could have survived. A plague seems to have descended among men; Satan walks and God, until 11/11/18, is conspicuous in His absence.

We see many bodies reduced to ghostless meat, pale and torn apart, consigned to the mud and becoming part of the muck that drowned other soldiers who unluckily fell into it. Hell on Earth! Some of the voices are chipper or matter-of-fact — that incomparable British get-on-with-it attitude — others haunted or choked with trauma. Jackson takes his cue from the veterans’ accounts, indulging in neither rabble-rousing nor the modern privilege of hindsight. These were men who were born around the turn of the 20th century, and were not our idea of enlightened. (Jackson plays a popular bawdy song of the period, “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” under the end credits.) Still, though, there is room for compassion and even kinship between the English and the Germans. They have been trained to slaughter each other without hesitation, but near the finish, when it looks as though more killing would be beside the point, the adversaries sit and talk and eat together.            

Until then, though, the mood is dread-ridden — when it doesn’t give way to nervous giggles. They Shall Not Grow Old is as much about how men function under fire as about the fire itself. Many weren’t even men yet; many died still boys. WWI birthed the concept of “shell shock,” which became “combat stress reaction,” which became “post-traumatic stress disorder.” The constant of war — the thousand-yard stare coveted by an unwise combat photographer in Full Metal Jacket — is everywhere present in this film. In that first half hour or so, voice after voice tells us he joined because it was the thing to do, you stood up and fought for your country, et cetera. They had no idea of the infernal meat grinder they were signing up for, which would pulverize them into machinery or into parts.

Life After Flash

February 17, 2019

lifeafterflash As a child of the ‘80s, I found one thing in particular (aside from the obvious two or three dozen) galling about the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody: There was no mention of the band’s pop-transcendent score for Flash Gordon. It was the ideal meeting of hyperbolic sound and hyperbolic image. In Life After Flash, an otherwise run-of-the-mill documentary of the sort you might find as a special feature on a Blu-ray, we see Brian May talking about his and Freddie Mercury’s contributions to the soundtrack; then, sitting at his piano, he pecks out some notes from “Flash’s Theme,” and the whole campy, cocaine-dusty, LSD-colorful movie came rushing back at me on a silver surfboard of nostalgia. Flash! Aah-aaah! He’ll save every one of us!

I am not a big enough fan (of Flash Gordon or of most anything else) to be one of the people seen at conventions in Life After Flash waiting in line to get things signed by Sam J. Jones, who played Flash in the 1980 film and who serves here as the documentary’s sometime focus (and, let’s note, one of its producers). But the movie occupies a large, awkward part of my heart, and it’s warm in there. And I stand with these fans in spirit. They respond to the film’s lavish design, its straight-faced embrace of its own wide-eyed all-American-boy ethos, its loudness in all aspects. There’s something glittery and Studio Fifty-Foursy about its glamorous, De Mille-on-poppers aesthetic, and it takes a certain taste to be attuned to that. I can imagine some (not all) Star Wars fans, the humorless ones, considering Flash Gordon in its efflorescent peacock feathers “stupid” or “gay.”

Our nominal subject, Sam J. Jones, is seen getting up early in the morning to go to some convention or another. As an actor whose career flatlined in the early ‘90s, Jones went through a dark night of the soul, alluded to here (adultery, drugs), and came out the other side humbled and thankful to Jesus. (The movie presents Jones’ re-commitment to his faith as something that helped him, but it doesn’t feel like a recruitment film.) A former Marine and current CEO of a security company that helps VIPs safely across the border from the U.S. to Mexico, Jones has pretty solid authority in his voice, even when he’s fine-tuning his displays at conventions with volunteers. Famously, that voice was dubbed in Flash Gordon by another actor, but not because, as some (like me) thought, Jones’ line delivery was bad — it was because he got into it with the film’s producer Dino De Laurentiis, who essentially kicked Jones off the movie before Jones could record his lines in ADR.

The documentary, though, never stays with Jones for very long; it keeps drifting off to talk to Melody Anderson (Dale Arden), or Richard O’Brien, or, predictably hilariously, Brian Blessed, as well as various fans or fans-turned-professionals. This is when the movie most feels like a special feature (perhaps on a 40th-anniversary Blu-ray next year). The frequent anecdotes about the film’s production make it seem that a better title would be Life During Flash, and a good deal of the talking heads seem to be filmed at conventions — many at the same convention, the Alamo City Comic Con. You can almost hear the camera people as they browse the semi-famous or geek-famous faces on the convention floor: “Hey, there’s Jason Mewes! Let’s see if we can get him to say anything about Flash Gordon!”

Ultimately, Life After Flash isn’t enough about Jones to pass muster as a portrait of him, and not enough about the production to be an engaging making-of film. I don’t begrudge the interviews with Anderson, Topol, or any of the other Flash Gordon participants (Max von Sydow would’ve been a great “get,” though) — perhaps the most freely entertaining footage is just Anderson (now a therapist specializing in trauma), Blessed, and Flash director Mike Hodges shooting the breeze and laughing. But their presence also steals Jones’ thunder in what structurally seems to want to be his movie. Then again, Jones talks a lot about humility and the importance of the it’s-not-all-about-you ethos, so maybe sharing the spotlight was his idea. He is, after all, just a man. With a man’s courage.

Fahrenheit 11/9

September 16, 2018

fahrenheit119Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 is a sloppy but affecting essay about American crisis. Like all of his movies, it’s not only about what it seems to be about — Bowling for Columbine, for instance, wasn’t only about guns, Sicko wasn’t only about the health-care system, and God knows Fahrenheit 11/9 isn’t only about Donald Trump. In fact, I’d guess there are fewer minutes of Trump footage in the movie than there are of, say, the furiously eloquent Parkland shooting survivor Emma González, or the fresh, charismatic Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or the fiery West Virginia State Senator Robert Ojeda. This is no accident — Moore is saying that these are the kinds of people we’d better listen to. They may be left but they’re nowhere near establishment Democrat.

Perhaps understandably — after his 2016 concert film Michael Moore in Trumpland whiffed in its attempt to shake America’s 100 million non-voters out of their indifference — Moore isn’t feeling very comedic these days. Fahrenheit 11/9 is the least funny movie he has ever made, and I’ve seen Canadian Bacon. The mood here is sickened and uncomprehending — “How the fuck did we get here?” Moore asks at the top of the film. He still makes his jokes, pulls his stunts (like one involving a truck full of poisoned Flint, Michigan water), but ultimately the goal seems to be to give us the creeps. (A weird montage of Trump acting skeevy towards his daughter goes on a little longer than it needs to.) At times the movie gets rather doomy and macabre, reflecting the current American mood.

Sometimes the film seems like Moore’s debate with Trump; he answers “Make America great again” with “When was America ever great?” It’s great for some people, for sure. Maybe not so great for people of color, or women, or its original people, or the otherwise marginalized. A historian in the film corrects Moore’s “200 years of democracy” — two hundred years of democracy for white males, sure. How about zero years of democracy? Rule by the people? We’re still not quite there yet. But Moore isn’t all that interested in being inflammatory this time, which is why I don’t think Fahrenheit 11/9 will make the splash that his peak-popularity films did — Bowling, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Sicko. Moore seems to know this, and to know he and documentaries are on the way out. They can’t change the world any more; a tweet or a Facebook post can.

After an opening act that points scorn at the big orange target, Moore spends what feels like a quarter or maybe even a third of the film on the water crisis in Flint. He talks to whistle-blowers, families, doctors; not coincidentally, many are people of color, and Moore characterizes the poisoning of Flint’s water as “a slow-motion ethnic cleansing.” Then he goes to West Virginia, where he visits with teachers who are going on strike. Then he sits down with some Parkland kids, including David Hogg. It seems like the first hour of Fahrenheit 11/9 is darkness, and the second half is light, represented by the growing number of young political hopefuls, agitators, and kids sick of growing up in a post-Columbine reality of shooter drills in their schools. These kids, Moore suggests, can save us and rescue America’s true destiny as a “leftist nation.”

So the movie feels like a loose anthology on the theme of American decline and, perhaps, rise, if enough people want it. I’m a Moore booster but thought Fahrenheit 9/11 was a bit too much of a glib slam-dunk on George W. Bush. It felt like agitprop after the wounded, searching quality of Bowling for Columbine. But Fahrenheit 11/9 is something else, something deeper and thornier and oddly personal. It’s as if Moore made the movie in order to convince himself and the like-minded not to eat a gun. Moore rejects bromidic words like “hope” (and boy, does Obama come in for a withering pan of his drinking-Flint-water stunt), but he likes words like action and revolution and together. He wants to see this divided, hemorrhaging country united. But he doesn’t know how to do it, and he wonders if a new generation might. By the end, Trump almost seems beside the point. The country that produced him is the bigger fish to fry.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

September 9, 2018

neighborcover.0Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a lovely film about a lovely man, Fred McFeely Rogers, known to generations of children as Mr. Rogers. This gentle and loving spirit, who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, exemplified everything Christianity should be but too often is not. Rogers used his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to reassure children that there was nothing the matter with them — that they were fine exactly the way they were. Many children heard this sort of thing for the first time watching the show; they didn’t get it from their teachers or even their parents. Even François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on the show from 1968 to 1993, and who was a grown man of 23 when he started working with Rogers, tells us that ultimately he came to see Rogers as a surrogate father.

Rogers, who died in 2003, had a soft and lilting voice and a genuine, eager smile. (The perfect person to play him in terms of how he looks and sounds is Jim Parsons, though Tom Hanks was announced in the role last January, playing a later-life Rogers around the time that Tom Junod famously profiled him for Esquire in 1998.) What the movie, unobtrusively assembled by director Morgan Neville, shows us again and again is that Rogers’ soothing yet no-nonsense demeanor was no act. The show handled tough topics — death, divorce, assassination — and refused to talk down to its young audience. Rogers strove to use language that would best and most healthily resonate with children, and he used the same plain-spoken voice with everyone regardless of age or position in life. I’ve seen a photo of him sitting with the Dalai Lama; they are both wearing expressions of perfect pure childlike happiness. At times, Rogers seemed to represent the best of every faith, every belief system.

That same childlike happiness is partly what has choked up millions who’ve seen Neighbor, including me, and I completely missed the whole Mr. Rogers thing (and Sesame Street) since our analog antenna didn’t pull in PBS during my formative years. In my teens, like every other asshole teen, I razzed the too-wholesome-seeming Rogers and laughed at the many parodies — the parodies became who he was, to me. Later in life, starting with that Tom Junod profile (he’s in the film, too), I began to appreciate who Rogers was and what he stood for — and against. His basic message spoke of the importance of self-esteem, and he must have sensed, back there in the late ‘60s when the country’s waters were starting to churn, that such a message was about to be needed. If you didn’t love yourself, he reasoned, you couldn’t love others, and that was what this life was — was supposed to be — all about. “We are here to help each other get through this thing,” Mark Vonnegut once said to his father Kurt, “whatever it is.”

That reminder of happiness, of goodwill towards all, makes us wistful and unhappy now, in this least neighborly of eras. Where have you gone, Nancy Rogers’ son? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. The viewer leans toward the screen in yearning for this avatar of decency. The spiritual leader America may have needed in the sunset of the 20th century was not in a political office or beseeching us for funds on PTL; he was off to the side on a kid’s show on public television. Rogers’ great gift was empathy so keen that he couldn’t bear to treat anyone any differently than he would wish to be treated — not even Koko the gorilla, with whom Rogers sat and communicated as best he could, and who returned his love with hers. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doesn’t let us get too down about Rogers’ physical absence during our current turbulence; he would have been at odds with our culture now, but then he was always at odds with it.

rogersdalai

Transformer

April 29, 2018

Transfomer_1_previewWhen a transgender person sets out to transition from male to female, it can be a great help if she has a small, slender body. Many transwomen, though, don’t have such a body, and sometimes they are sufficiently discouraged from transitioning because they lack the physique that society deems “feminine.” In the good-hearted documentary Transformer we meet Janae Marie Kroczaleski, named Matt at birth, a former Marine and erstwhile prize-winning powerlifting/bodybuilding competitor who has always felt female inside. Yet even after committing to facial feminization surgery, Janae doesn’t feel right completely abandoning her “guy side,” the self who lifts and hangs out in sweaty gyms with two of her best guy friends, whom she considers brothers.

Increasingly in the transgender community, particularly with the rise of younger generations, the notion of “passing” — being able to “go stealth” in one’s preferred gender presentation without attracting unwelcome, bigoted, often violent notice — is becoming less desirable as a variety of body types in general have become more accepted. Janae will always be a large and muscular woman, and has made her peace with that as much as she can; in the past she has lost excessive weight to attain more of an hourglass figure, but she ended up miserable, so now she is combining a less bulky and “cut” version of her old body with softer clothes, makeup, wigs. Honestly, though, she comes across as much less masculine simply by no longer overcompensating, as many pre-transition transwomen do, thinking they can exorcise the feminine “demon” inside by drowning her in testosterone.

Transformer takes Janae’s emotional pulse as she goes through the usual barrage of feminizing therapies, meds and surgeries. Her story, by virtue of the physique she started with, is an exaggerated version of the struggles of most transfolks. Smoothly directed by Michael Del Monte, the film is on the brief side at under 80 minutes, and sometimes details are shortchanged — we find out late in the game, for instance, that Janae has been fired from her job as a pharmacist, and she worries about how she’ll now make a living, afford more surgery, and support her three sons (from her first marriage). The movie offers no reassurance about her financial future — it seems to forget about it — though according to reports outside the documentary she seems to be making her way as an entrepreneur and activist. What’s more important to Del Monte is Janae’s journey as a warrior on the bleeding edge of gender and its many received notions.

Janae may stand as an inspiration to any transperson who for whatever reason looks in the mirror and doesn’t see the gender they know they actually are. There’s a nice scene in which Janae visits an event for trans lifters and chats with a transman — female-to-male. They talk shop about the desire for “bottom surgery,” the sort of final frontier of medical transition. This is not, to put it mildly, the kind of conversation one normally hears in films, and is all the more fascinating for that, and all the more to be valued. With other people Janae stays honest but respectfully leaves them some room to process her struggle on their own. Her mother is shakily on board, her dad not so much; her teenage sons, informed at early ages of her status, are completely okay with it (they still call her Dad, though).

Janae’s sons, like many of their generation, give us some hope for a more open-minded future. Transformer in general shows us a world around Janae that more or less accepts her (which may be a result of consciously surrounding herself with positivity). As one of her sharp sons says, the biggest obstacle in her way has always been herself. These days Janae identifies as nonbinary, or gender-fluid — either/or. She is an embodiment of the resistance to gender essentialism — the outmoded school of thought that says men and women have to be, act and look a certain way. When Janae is being roughly encouraged by a fellow transwoman lifter (“Don’t be a little bitch!”), we accept it as part of the culture that they insist on staying a part of while refusing to deny who they are. A lot of us, not just transgender, might learn a bit from these women yelling at each other profanely but supportively, being completely their own persons. A good movie and a great story.