Ratso in Love

Fifteen years later, 'By Hook or by Crook' stands as a trans classic


Early in By Hook or by Crook, the 2002 film written and directed by Harry Dodge and Silas Howard, the main character, Shy (played by Howard), contemplates in voiceover the possibility of becoming a petty criminal: “I started thinking about all the crooks in the world, like presidents, senators, and cops.” That line, as well as much of what follows in Crook — even with its landlines and phonebooks — has a topical resonance rare even in recent releases.

Shy is trans, but nobody in the film applies the word to him or his buddy Val, short for Valentine (played by Dodge), whom he first encounters escaping a hate crime. Shy, in spite of his sharp suit and shoes, is a little dull on his own; jittery, muttering Val is the catalyst both he and the film need. Although Val could have easily become another of those tiresome wise characters with a mental illness, Dodge imbues him with grace (his gestures often suggest Stan Laurel’s), humor (Val nonchalantly introduces his girlfriend, who has a mass of blond curls tumbling over her shoulders, as “Robert Plant”), and moments of clarity (Val despairs that his birth mother, whom he has not met, will never accept him because he’s a “fruitcake”) that transcend the cliché.

Shy enlists Val’s help in his crimes, which gets them in trouble, but the real story of the film is the bond these two share. When babyfaced Shy, in a short denim jacket, walks beside Val, who has disheveled dark hair and a scraggly beard, the pair become the trans early-2000s San Francisco version of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy. But Shy and Val’s story is not nearly as grim: No one dies, and we get to see each of them in a loving, romantic relationship.

Dodge and Howard were icons of the queer, DIY arts scene in San Francisco. Howard was in the queercore band Tribe 8, and he and Dodge co-founded the performance space Red Dora’s Bearded Lady. Crook captures the city they knew (including the now closed Lexington Club) the way a good candid photo captures a family member. And like those photos, the film has with time gained poignancy, becoming a record of the last of a pre-gentrified San Francisco where trans artists like Howard and Dodge — and weirdos like Val and Shy — could afford to live.

The filmmakers have gone on to very different projects: Howard has directed episodes of Transparent, and Dodge is a sculptor and video artist with a show opening in Brooklyn (he may also be known to readers of The Argonauts as Maggie Nelson’s beloved spouse). Their film isn’t perfect, its low budget and the amateur status of some minor players often acutely apparent, but a portrait this nuanced and hopeful of the friendship between trans characters played by trans actors would not again be in theaters until thirteen years later, when Tangerine was released.


By Hook or by Crook

Written and directed by Harry Dodge and Silas Howard

Screens September 22 at Anthology Archives as part of ‘The Cinema of Gender Transgression: Trans Film’