Splitting Image


Freud’s proposition that “anatomy is destiny” is most clearly proven by those who attempt to live as if that were not the case. Brandon Teena (née Teena Brandon) spent her late adolescence in several Nebraska towns trying to pass as a boy. She was extremely popular with young women, some of whom were so charmed by her gentleness, skill at kissing, and by the respect she showed them that they were more than willing to accept her various stories—that her strap-on was the real thing, or that she was undergoing a sex-change treatment. Once involved, it was hard for them to admit that Brandon was female—because of what that would mean about them.

Eventually Brandon was exposed by local law enforcement when she was arrested for theft. Exposure made her vulnerable. Bailed out of jail by one of her girlfriends, she was raped on Christmas Eve and murdered a week later. The men responsible were ex-cons, whose incarceration had only heightened their homophobia. They raped her because they were enraged and threatened by her sexuality (“Brandon’s gender was a real problem,” one of them opines) and they murdered her to keep her from fingering them as rapists. Brandon Teena was 21 when she died.

While Susan Muska and Gréta Ólafsdóttir’s documentary, The Brandon Teena Story, doesn’t do justice to its fascinating and heartbreaking subject, it’s not without interest. The filmmakers interview all the crucial characters: Brandon’s mother and sister, many of her girlfriends and their relatives, and the two convicted killers.

The interviews are somewhat revealing, but they might have been more so had they been allowed to run longer. The filmmakers are at such pains to keep the film moving that they end up with little more than sound bites. Yanked out of context, the talking heads are edited together to tell the story the filmmakers want to tell. And because the filmmakers’ understanding of gender and sexuality is implicitly so much more sophisticated than that of any of the people we see on-screen, it feels as if the film is both manipulative and condescending.

The film replicates, albeit to a lesser extent, the very us-against-them mentality that was the cause of Brandon Teena’s tragic death. The pathology of homophobia, misogyny, and sexual self-hatred is hardly limited to midwestern farm country, but the film makes it seem as if it is. Attempting to make connections between violence and poverty, homophobia and lack of education, Muska and Ólafsdóttir accessorize the film with tacky country-western music, and cliché shots of frozen empty highways, isolated houses, and folksy road signs (“Falls City, A Nice Place To Live”).

What makes this disappointing is that the filmmakers clearly had the raw material with which to make a great film. In one extraordinary sequence, they play an audiotape of Brandon being grilled by the sheriff after she has reported being raped. The sheriff treats her as if she’s the criminal, implying that she was asking for it, that if she lied about being a boy, she’d lie about anything. As we listen to Brandon’s choked-up, scared voice, we see photos of her. In one she’s in a hospital bed, her arms half covering her bruised, swollen face. In the other she’s sitting on the edge of a pool table, looking both confused and thrilled by the success of her masquerade.

Primary source material is no less effective in Me and My Brother, Robert Frank’s multilayered portrait of Julius Orlovsky, the schizophrenic brother of poet Peter Orlovsky. The film, originally released in 1968, has recently been reedited by Frank, but some of it is still heavy going, especially the sections that use Joseph Chaikin as an alter ego for Julius and the exquisite young tough Christopher Walken as a substitute for the filmmaker. Me and My Brother is at its best when most direct, as in the closing sequence of Julius talking to Frank, who’s questioning him from behind the camera. Frank shoots Julius through a plate-glass window on which rain has just begun to fall. Julius’s voice sounds very near (he must be wearing the mike) but, because of the window, his body seems at a remove. The separation between voice and image is disorienting and achingly expressive of what Julius’s experience of the world might be.