Writing Samples 2014-15

This is a collection of links to writing I’ve published outside of this blog over the past year or two. It includes some of the recent work I’m proudest of, and I wanted to have it all assembled in one place for easier browsing.

A static medium shot of a man in a park paging through a book might not necessarily scream ‘scene of the year.’ Nor might a pan from left to right and then back again, even if it involved a woman’s husband waving a gun in her face. If, however, that latter shot broke off from the former, taking place on a separate, concurrent visual plane until they merged back together, with each half intended for just one of the viewer’s eyes, well, now we’re getting somewhere…

Attending the Ann Arbor Film Festival is a bit like stepping into a parallel universe. Here, dialogue and narrative lie on the margins, while abstract animation and ethnographic documentary take center stage. Absent are movie stars, paparazzi, and bidding wars; here, a “big name” is someone like Peggy Ahwesh or Lewis Klahr. It’s as if this one week in March at the historic Michigan Theater, just a couple blocks away from the University of Michigan campus, had been carved out of normal space-time and given over to the love of film as an art…

An hour into Robert Altman’s Nashville, a shot opens with a cluttered wardrobe where statues of saints rest next to a candle, a hair dryer, a lava lamp, and a mirror. A zoom out reveals a bathrobe-clad woman in that mirror, singing and shimmying as she listens to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. She’s Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), and she’s already been established as a waitress at an airport café with dreams of country-music stardom. She’s on the bottom of the film’s food chain, and her nasally drone of a singing voice means she’s unlikely to rise any higher…

“Transmisogyny does not deserve an award!” an audience member shouted, interrupting Jared Leto. Again and again she shouted, until she was heard: “Transmisogyny does not deserve an award!” This was, per The Hollywood Reporter, at a ceremony in Santa Barbara, California. It was February 2014, and Leto was sweeping through the awards circuit, receiving statuettes and ample acclaim for playing the HIV-positive Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club

The day after that piece went up, Filmmaker Magazine published my first professional interview, with Tangerine director Sean Baker. And here are a couple other tidbits: in June, a tweet of mine was embedded in an online article for The Guardian; in January, another was named Indiewire’s “tweet of the day”; and reaching back to January 2014, my writing appeared (in embedded tweet form) on Sight & Sound’s website. None of these one-sentence snippets are especially insightful or representative of my writing, but I’m amused by how far and quickly they can travel.

I’ll wrap this up by mentioning that throughout 2014, I reviewed every single movie I watched on the social media site Letterboxd. Below are links to 15 of those reviews. They’re a mix of the ones that garnered the strongest reactions and the ones I’m happiest to have written.

The Big Parade · Bride of Frankenstein · Brief Encounter · Bringing Up Baby · Commando · Home Alone · Invasion of the Body Snatchers · Jodorowsky’s Dune · Mr. Peabody & Sherman · Night Moves · Nostalghia · One from the Heart · The Phantom of the Paradise · Point Break · The Silence of the Lambs

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Doubling Up

This piece was originally published on the now-defunct blog of Vérité Film Magazine.

Documentaries about influential artists are a dime a dozen. They constitute their own rigidly codified subgenre, and it’s one beset by numbing sameness, united by certain familiar narrative rhythms. That’s why Gabe Klinger’s Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (2013) feels so refreshingly different. Absent are any talking head testimonials from the artists’ collaborators or admirers. No critics pop up to pontificate about how these men are major figures of 21st century cinema. Nor does Klinger preface his subjects’ conversations with linear rundowns of their biographical details and work to date. Instead, everything comes straight from the horses’ mouths. Aside from occasional film clips or archival interviews, anything the audience learns about Benning and Linklater emerges from their chats, whether at lunch or at the Austin Film Society (which Linklater co-founded), with Klinger’s unintrusive camera tagging along.

That’s the “doubling” conceit which provides both Double Play’s title and structure. It allows these two filmmakers’ decades of experience and honed techniques to bounce off one another as the men and their films engage in dialogue. In fact, it makes Double Play resemble nothing quite so much as one of Linklater’s Before films, with the arid countryside around Austin standing in for Paris or Vienna. Benning and Linklater may not have as contentious a relationship as Céline and Jesse, but they do have similarly voracious intellects and eclectic interests, which makes their banter comparably engaging. They discuss favorite cameras and film vs. digital; they shoot hoops, play catch, and talk baseball. (That latter digression’s supplemented by passages from Linklater’s Bad News Bears remake and Benning’s American Dreams: Lost and Found). Personal minutiae, artistic nitty-gritty, big philosophical picture: it’s all fair game.

The film leans most often toward Linklater, since his filmography is more accessible and easier to excerpt. Around Double Play’s rough “climax,” Klinger even segues into a full-on video essay piecing together dream and pinball-related sequences from Slacker, Dazed and ConfusedWaking Life, and his other films, showcasing several clear thematic preoccupations. However, while Benning’s non-narrative features may lose some of their impact in tiny doses, the clips from movies like One Way Boogie Woogie and 13 Lakes are still tantalizing, especially when juxtaposed with Linklater’s more restrained experiments in space and time. Benning himself adds immeasurably to the film’s conversations as well, whether he’s interrogating Linklater or pulling from his own memories. His recollection of seeing John Cage perform a piece derived from Finnegans Wake when he was in college, for example—the experience he says made him want to be an artist—is deeply moving.

“The one relationship we all have that endures to the end,” says Linklater, “is our own relationship with our past selves, you know, and the stories we create to connect ourselves to who we were.” It’s a meandering profundity of the sort that pervades his films, one that could even serve as a loose thesis statement for Boyhood. (Clips from that film, at the time incomplete, appear near the end of Double Play as Linklater and Benning examine its year-to-year transitions with editor Sandra Adair.) That sentiment is also typical of this documentary which is, sure, a cross-section of two major directors’ oeuvres, but beyond that a sit-down with two middle-aged friends who like to share their perspectives and work through creative problems. It’s not a set of authoritative answers, nor is it a glorified DVD extra like so many movies of its ilk, but rather a long, thoughtful talk about the role of life in art and art in life.

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Crying Out Loud

When I wrote my recent article on Tangerine for The Dissolve, I spent some time researching the history of how movies about trans characters have been received. I’m not talking about reviews by cis critics, mind you. I already knew that those involved a lot of misgendering and lexical stumbling, even from the best-intentioned of writers. (Or fucking wordplay. The late Richard Corliss was a wonderful writer, but I’ve long loathed the coy “SHE IS A HE” bullshit acrostic in his much-loved Crying Game review.) Instead, I was curious to see what trans writers and activists have had to say over the years about seeing themselves portrayed onscreen. Those writers, however, have rarely been able to write on anything but tiniest of platforms. The farther back through the decades you go, the harder this (oft-buried) writing becomes to excavate. Maybe two trans women saw Chris Sarandon playing one of their own in Dog Day Afternoon on an autumn evening in 1975; maybe they had a rich post-screening discussion about it. Well, if they did, it sure wasn’t printed in Time.

Here’s what I did find, though. In early 2003, the trans activist and filmmaker Andrea James—whose status in trans circles I’ll charitably describe as “complicated”—reviewed the movie Normal on her website and vocalized a discontent that was also central to my Tangerine-spurred op-ed:

Yet another male actor playing a male-to-female transsexual left me feeling pretty apprehensive, too. Out transsexual actors are rarely allowed to play others in our community, let alone non-transsexual roles. I doubt I’ll live to see the day an out transsexual actor plays a lead role in a movie put out by a major Hollywood studio. We’ll see what we can do, though!

Going back another decade to 1993, I found a pair of writers whose work excites me far more than James’: the Toronto-based Xanthra Phillipa and Jeanne B. (the latter a nom de plume for Mirha-Soleil Ross), who together created the zine Gendertrash. The zine’s first issue, hosted online at the invaluable Queer Zine Archive Project, is the only one I’ve been able to find so far, and it’s a 40-page grenade hurled at LGBT complacency. It’s a snapshot of a particular time and place, boiling over with the anger that comes from real suffering. The whole issue is essential reading, but since the subject at hand is film criticism, here’s an excerpt from page 14.


Since its release, The Crying Game has born something of a checkered reputation; two decades later, I suspect that what’s most remembered about it are (1) the indie phenomenon it became thanks to a Miramax release and (2) Fergus throwing up when he sees Dil’s penis. When untethered from the film itself and spread via years of pop-cultural osmosis, that scene becomes terrifying shorthand for the way trans women are seen by a hateful world. But here in this clipping, with the film fresh in the air, are two trans women explicitly claiming The Crying Game as their own, saying that Neil Jordan probably has “first hand” experience with its subject matter, all while using language that looks totally alien only a generation later.

This polemic/review provides so much to unpack, but right now I’m primarily fascinated by it as an example of how cultural history works. Nothing, it says to me, is static. How you look at or talk about something right now may not be consistent with how it’s approached only a few years into the past or future. All you can do is try your damnedest to situate yourself in space and time. For me, that means tracking down the words of trans and queer artists who have come before me. Now to pick up my shovel and keep digging.


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Alice Guy-Blaché and Beyond

From Photoplay: Grace Cunard (April 1916) and Elsie Jane Wilson (February 1918)

Earlier this year, I conducted a series of Google searches where I typed in “Germaine Dulac” followed by “Leontine Sagan.” Since those are the names of two major female filmmakers—best known for The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922) and Mädchen in Uniform (1931), respectively—my plan was to uncover other women who were their contemporaries behind the camera. I found far more than I’d expected. I turned my findings into a series of tweets, and now I want to turn those tweets into something a little more solid and in-depth.

Dozens of women flourished as directors of silent films, and the vast majority of them are forgotten today. Much of their work is undistributed or lost, and the preservation of their legacies is further hindered by the “great man” bent of critics and historians. The two women whose names are most commonly cited in film history classes, Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber, are relegated to footnote status: “Oh, and women were working then, too.” Thankfully, some scholars have fought to counter this forgetfulness. The Women Film Pioneers Project (WFPP), for example, is a database initiated at Columbia University that organizes a mountain of research on the women of silent cinema. (“They were not just actresses,” explains its mission statement.) Much of the information here was found in their annals.

Below I’ve written about 15 women, spread across seven countries, who directed movies between the 1910s and ’30s. Many of them started out as actresses, and the majority were also married to filmmakers. Most of them are profiled at the WFPP as well. Admittedly, these are only the scantest of biographical outlines, but then this is intended to act primarily as a naming of names. If I write down the name of a woman who lived and died before we were born, and you read it, then you’ve thought of her. You’ve remembered. It’s a start. To borrow a phrase from Andrew Sarris’s (very male) The American Cinema, these are “subjects for further research.”

From the May 1917 Photoplay

  • Ruth Ann Baldwin (1886-19??) started out as a screenwriter and directed two features, A Wife on Trial and the western ’49-’17, both of which starred her husband Leo Pierson and were released in 1917.
  • Grace Cunard (1893-1967) worked as an actress for decades, beginning in serials at Universal. Her directorial career spanned from 1913 to 1921; her two features bear the pulpy titles The Purple Mask (1916) and The Woman of Mystery (1920).
  • Marie Epstein (1899-1995) had an expansive career, much of it in collaboration with either Jean Benoit-Lévy or her famous brother Jean. Her (often co-)directed features were released between 1927 and 1938. Later in life, she worked alongside Langlois at the Cinémathèque.
  • Mary Field (1896-1968) worked for years making documentary shorts on social or scientific subjects. After World War II, she went over to the BBC. She directed a single fiction film, the “quota quickie” Strictly Business (1931).
  • Eloyce Gist (1892-1974) worked with her husband James to make a pair of features, Hellbound Train (1930) and Verdict Not Guilty (1933), intended primarily for exhibition in Black churches. She’s the subject of a restoration effort by academic and filmmaker S. Torriano Berry.
  • Anna Hoffman-Uddgren (1868-1947) “made five films 1911-1912,” says Swedish film scholar Fredrik Gustafsson, “but four are lost. The one that remains is a filmed play, Strindberg’s The Father. Between Hoffman-Uddgren and Mai Zetterling in the 60s only five women got to direct feature films in Sweden and only one film each.”
  • Lottie Lyell (1890-1925) was the long-time collaborator and romantic partner of fellow Australian film giant Raymond Longford. She wrote and co-directed one (presumed lost) film with him, The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921).
  • Cleo Madison (1883-1964) directed and often starred in a couple dozen films between 1915 and 1916, out of which only two shorts (Eleanor’s Catch, which is included on the Kino DVD of Weber’s Hypocrites, and The Power of Fascination) survive today.
  • Paulette McDonagh (1901-1978) was an Australian filmmaker who collaborated with her sisters Isabella (an actress) and Phyllis (a producer and production designer) to start McDonagh Productions. They made four features and a handful of documentary shorts between 1926 and 1933.
  • Elvira Notari (1875-1946) was a major figure in the early Italian film industry. She co-founded Dora Films with her husband Nicola and directed dozens of films between 1911 and 1929, including the then-controversial melodrama ‘A Santanotte (1922).
  • Ida May Park (1879-1954) was married to director-producer Joe De Grasse, who filmed many of her screenplays. She directed a number of films between 1917 and 1920; the two that survive are Broadway Love, starring Lon Chaney, and Bread (both 1918). While she was on set in February of that same year, she spoke to Photoplay’s Frances Denton about her career:

  • Olga Preobrazhenskaya (1881-1971) worked as both an actress and a director, the latter often in collaboration with Ivan Pravov. Her most acclaimed film remains Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927). (Another female filmmaker from Russia was Elizaveta Svilova [1900-1975] who was the wife of Dziga Vertov and helped edit Man with a Movie Camera. She directed several documentaries between 1944 and 1953.)
  • Esfir Shub (1894-1959) pioneered the use of preexisting footage in documentary filmmaking, beginning with her Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927). She helped her colleague Eisenstein shape his own theories of editing. (This past April, she was ballyhooed in Sight & Sound’s “The World of Silent Cinema” column, so perhaps she’s starting to receive the attention she’s due.)
  • Tressie Souders (1897-1995) wrote and directed one film, subsequently lost, entitled A Woman’s Error (1922). She was, like Flames of Wrath (1923) director Maria P. Williams (1866-1932), based in Kansas City, Missouri, and both were among the first women of color in the country to work as filmmakers.
  • Elsie Jane Wilson (1885-1965) was an Australian actress and the wife of actor-turned-director Rupert Julian before she became a director herself, making several features between 1917 and 1919. Three of them survive. She was, per the WFPP’S Michelle Koerner, one of the “Universal Women,” like Ruth Stonehouse (1892-1941), another actress who directed one-reelers during the same time frame.

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Six Years of Pussy Goes Grrr!


Way back in 2009, Ashley and I decided to start this blog. It gave us a shared outlet through which we could say whatever we wanted on the Internet. Initially, we just rambled for paragraphs about any subject at all; gradually, our output became more refined and organized. Sometimes the blog would go on hiatus for months, then become active, then go on hiatus again. We hosted blogathons and guest writers. Occasionally a post would garner some attention and kind words. Every so often the blog’s whole layout would be revamped.

Through it all, though, three constants have defined Pussy Goes Grrr: the two of us, the fact that we like to write, and the gratifying generosity of anyone willing to read what we have to say. So if you’ve ever read anything we’ve posted here, then we thank you from the bottom of hearts. Happy birthday to this website. Now let’s try to publish on it more regularly!

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Four Old Articles

In 2010-11, I wrote a series of articles for the magazine Paracinema. They only ever appeared in the publication’s print edition, so now that several years have passed I’ve finally opted to publish them online. I’ve only made minor tweaks for the sake of formatting, which means that the versions below preserve my often questionable prose and ideas, but I wanted to have a digital record of these pieces available.

Tell Your Children:

Dwain Esper’s Sex Madness and the Aesthetics of Exploitation


[Originally published in Paracinema #10, Oct. 2010]

Between the end of World War I and the late 1950s, Hollywood had a dark secret. A sordid industry thrived in its shadow, unaffiliated with any major studio, less respectable even than the hacks of Poverty Row. Working on the cheap, auteurs of sleaze would churn out ostensibly educational films and crisscross the nation giving roadshow presentations, often restricting their audiences to men over 18. They were the purveyors of exploitation films.

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See Wayne and Swoon


In 1932, John Wayne was washed up. “Since [The Big Trail] Wayne has done nothing of consequence, and his future looks none too promising,” declared Picture Play Magazine columnist Madeline Glass that April, in a piece on disposable “One-day Stars.” It had been six years since the beginning of his film career. Stagecoach was still seven years away. “Hollywood prophesied that John Wayne’s future would be brighter than Peggy Hopkins Joyce’s diamonds. So then what happened?… You’ll see [him] in an occasional ‘quickie,’ ” scoffed Photoplay’s Katherine Albert in August. He was still working consistently; that summer alone he appeared in Columbia’s Two-Fisted Law, Paramount’s Lady and Gent, and Warners’ Ride Him, Cowboy. But for the duration of the Depression, his career trajectory would remain a horizontal line.


In November, Gladys Zimmerman’s letter ran in Picture Play. She was writing from Lisbon, North Dakota, a town about an hour southwest of Fargo which even now holds scarcely over 2,000 people. Its Main Street runs south from the Sheyenne River, a path first charted by homesteader Joseph Colton in 1880. If you follow it for five blocks, you’ll end up at the Scenic Theater, which first opened in 1911 and today bills itself as the “oldest continuously run theater in America.” Perhaps Gladys’s passion first flowered there, in the glow of a 10¢ matinee.

Perhaps she saw an outlet for that passion in Picture Play. Within the magazine’s pages, her missive and its fervor would hardly have been outliers, since every issue abounded with similar declamations: fans trashing Norma Shearer, lusting after George Brent, gossiping about Garbo. What makes Gladys stand out, however, is the object of her desire—a future legend then experiencing his professional nadir—as well as the earnest giddiness of her prose. She opens with demands directed at her fellow moviegoers: “Wake up!” and “What are you going to do about it?” That’s the voice of a woman who’s standing on her soapbox and will yield to no one.

Throughout her letter, Gladys asserts the power of the female gaze. She’s undressing Wayne (who was then 25) with her words: “a real man’s physique… those broad shoulders, that magnificent body… half the female portion of the audience swoons in ecstasy.” It’s a mere degree removed from erotic poetry, and it outlines a fundamental truth about cinema: since the art form’s inception, actors have been put onscreen in part because they turn the audience on. Gladys, though, isn’t content just to watch her idol in cheap westerns. She may not go as far as her friend, who plans a trip west presumably for the sole purpose of bedding John Wayne, but she does end her letter with an entreaty: “please write me about him.”

Like much of the letter, that last line may initially provoke gentle laughter. It’s symptomatic of a young woman’s crush. But (like many crushes) it’s poignant, too; suggestive of loneliness. She wants to get closer to this tall, handsome man she’s seen in shoot-outs and stampedes. He’s smiled at her from the screen, stirred her feelings, entered her dreams. Maybe he’s made her more aware of the shortcomings that tarnish Lisbon’s eligible young men—for what real-life beau could ever measure up to a movie star?

A Star Is Born (William Wellman, 1937)

About five years later, A Star Is Born was released. It’s a show biz melodrama about a farm girl named Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor, who lives out Gladys’s friend’s fantasy by actually moving to Hollywood and marrying a star. The film opens with Esther coming home from the movie theater, kid brother in tow, gushing about actor Norman Maine. Her father, fiddling with his outdated stereoscope, is indifferent, but her aunt embarks on a full-blown tirade: “Gadding around picture shows, house all cluttered up with movie magazines… and the other day, I caught her talking to a horse with a Swedish accent!” This girl is spending too much time in her dreams. “You’d better be getting yourself a good husband,” advises the aunt, “and stop mooning about Hollywood.”

Esther’s family lives in Fillmore, North Dakota, which is a real place roughly four hours northwest of Lisbon. (Recent reports make it out to be a “ghost town,” devastated by the loss of a nearby railroad line.) If Gladys ever saw A Star Is Born, she may have identified with its heroine and her yen to migrate west. The movie is very deliberately structured as a small town girl’s wish fulfillment fantasy, allowing lucky Esther to metamorphose from a moviegoer into Vicki Lester, movie star: from the looker into the one who’s looked at. She may suffer, but it’s cathartic suffering that ends with her as the brightest star in filmdom’s firmament. Vicki and Esther and Janet Gaynor herself become avatars into whose stories young women can project themselves.

Hollywood becomes a paradise (“Metropolis of Make-Believe,” as A Star Is Born puts it) about which they can fantasize. It has all the romance and adventure that their Depression-blighted hometowns in the Midwest lack. Two years later, that same longing would find its apotheosis in the plaintive voice of another young woman who’d go on to star in her own A Star Is Born: Judy Garland, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy may not be pining for a John Wayne or a Norman Maine, but her Emerald City isn’t too far from Gladys and Esther’s Hollywood. It’s somewhere other than a dusty farm. Somewhere she can do what what she wants and fashion herself as the person she wants to be. It’s like something she’s seen in a movie—it’s her dream.


Cartoon from Photoplay in November 1932. Artist uncredited.

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