QDoc: the Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival is always a great place to look for films about the lives of artists. Here are two films from the upcoming fest that I especially enjoyed. Both films mingle the personal and the political; one deals with the controversies that can arise around the identity of the artist, and the other explores how an artist’s understanding of their sexuality shapes their work and worldview.
Frightened, feral, fragile: the truth about JT LeRoy
In 2000, when JT LeRoy’s first novel was published, he became a sensation, in part because of a personal backstory as arresting as his gritty prose. A teen prodigy, ravaged by an abusive upbringing, suicidal and living on the streets of San Francisco, finds solace in art. He writes two tremendous volumes of heartfelt autobiographical fiction. They give him a voice, skyrocketing him to worldwide acclaim and granting him all the love, attention and esteem he was tragically denied growing up. It’s an irresistible story, except for the fact that it wasn’t true.
Marjorie Sturm’s The Cult of JT LeRoy chronicles one of the most charged literary scandals in recent memory. Like pop star Sia, JT LeRoy claimed to be afflicted with crippling stage fright that led him to hide his face. So celebrities stepped in to read publicly on his behalf: a JT LeRoy reading sparkled with stars, from literary luminaries like Mary Gaitskill and Sharon Olds to film faces like Carrie Fisher and Ben Foster. Many of these celebrities, as well as literary agents, publishers and editors, formed relationships with JT through long e-mail and phone correspondences. Many of the interviewees express feelings of wishing to “nurture,” “heal” or “mother” this wounded young man.
But Jeremy Terminator LeRoy was not, in fact, a wounded young man. In 2005, amidst a film option deal and concern over LeRoy’s HIV-positive status, it was revealed that he was the fiction of a writer named Laura Albert, a woman in her 30s. The backlash was enormous and filled with fury. To many people, Albert is the embodiment of all the ugliest parts of an artist’s ego, or the naked ambition for fame which is the antithesis of true art. Once a beacon of recognition and hope for queer street youth, LeRoy’s work now felt like a plundering of their lived experiences, appropriated by a more advantaged adult for her own purposes.
Laid out with true-crime suspense, The Cult touches on many things: the intoxicating effects of celebrity, the myth of the Jean Genet/William S. Burroughs-style abject genius, the power of a shared delusion, the mechanics of manipulation, the line between creativity and dishonesty.
Sturm’s even-handed treatment of the material doesn’t rest at the easy villainization of Albert; it acknowledges the literary craze for sensational stories like LeRoy’s, and the bias against older writers, especially women, that hinders them from advancing in their careers. After all, if Albert had presented her book as pure fiction by a first-time novelist in her 30s, would it have gained any traction? Seeing past the crafty and conniving surface, Sturm wisely delves deeper into questioning Albert’s motivations for making the choices she did.
Choreography as theory: Yvonne Rainer and postmodern dance
Jack Walsh’s documentary Feelings are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer begins with a dance: Trio A. In footage from 1978, Rainer performs her own 1966 choreography, now considered a hallmark example of postmodern dance. It feels casual, improvisational, fragmented, not defined by physical virtuosity but by small, modest movements. It subverts the body’s “natural” inclinations at every turn. If the body naturally wants to step out of a particular phrase, Trio A drives it to collapse; if the body wants to move swiftly through a gesture, Trio A deliberately slows it. A dancer in Yvonne’s company describes it as “choreography as theory” and “a leveling of Western Dance history.”
Rainer moved from San Francisco to New York in the ‘50s, immersing herself in a cultural scene that included her dance mentors, Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham. She helped form Judson Dance Theater, an avant-garde company devoted to post-modern dance choreography that surprised audiences with unexpected combinations of pedestrian movements and prosaic props. In one piece, they sandwich themselves between a chair and a pillow. In another, they drag and flip unwieldy mattresses with great effort (viewed today, the piece instantly calls up Carry That Weight, the senior art thesis that drew attention to sexual assault on college campuses).
A rigorous examination of her career trajectory, Feelings are Facts also charts Rainer’s gradual understanding of her own feminism and queerness. A tempestuous seven-year relationship with artist Robert Morris led her from dance into filmmaking. Her films from the ‘70s and ‘80s are theory-heavy, highly-politicized works focusing on topics like the activities of the Baader-Meinhof Group and Mulveyian critiques of cinematic structure (if it sounds dated, don’t worry, it is – as a filmmaker she is very much of her intellectual era). In 1996, she came out with MURDER and murder, a surprisingly conventional narrative feature about a lesbian couple who deal with a diagnosis of breast cancer. Lauded for handling grave subject matter with humor and levity, it was also an autobiographical story about her own life with her partner, Martha.
Her career, and the documentary, are bookended by dance; in 2000, she gave up filmmaking to return to choreography. The affecting final scene shows Rainer, now in her ‘70s, with a crew cut and a single breast visible through her t-shirt, going through the familiar motions of Trio A: small, modest, fragmented movements.
The Cult of JT LeRoy screens Sat, May 16th, at 8:30pm at the Hollywood Theater. Feelings are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer screens Sun, May 17th, at 4:30pm also at the Hollywood. Visit www.queerdocfest.org for more info.