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Boys Don't Cry***

Like American Beauty, Boys Don't Cry evokes memories of older American dramas, in particular those of Tennessee Williams in which an outsider was crushed by a hostile, uncomprehending environment--a scenario with deep roots in American literature. Unlike American Beauty, however, Boys Don't Cry directed by Kimberly Peirce with a screenplay by her and Andy Bienen doesn't content itself with dangling pseudo-hip folderol before the audience but goes for the jugular vein of the emotions. Not surprisingly the film had only a limited circulation at the time of its initial release and is now experiencing a slight reprieve as a result of the Oscarģ earned by Hilary Swank for her breathtaking portrayal of the main character. The film recounts the actual story of Brandon Teena, a young woman that for a while managed to pass herself off as a boy in rural Nebraska. When Brandon has an affair with Lana Tisdal (ChloŽ Sevigny), whom she at first still tricks into believing her partner is a male, she attracts the jealousy of Lana's boyfriend, John Lotter (Peter Sarsgard), who along with his friend Tom Nissan (Brendan Sexton III) subjects her to a brutal examination which exposes her ruse. The two then rape her, and after she denounces them to the police, they murder her. Even today, except in a very tolerant environment, cross dressing might have dangerous consequences, but in a community where pieties of gender are taken as seriously as those of evangelical Christianity, the odds against Brandon Teena's succeeding in her quest to be accepted as a boy are disastrously unfavorable. Although the events only happened a few years ago and although the two men affect the style of cool young dudes of the 1990's, in this part of the country time seems to have stopped back in the days when lynchings and similar acts of mob violence were a commonplace of American life. 

In spite of its factual subject matter, the film employs a hallucinatory visual style. Much of the action takes place at night, and has been photographed by Jim Denault using high contrast photography with strong backlighting, while several shots that have been done by means of time lapse photography recall the haunted rural landscapes of Gus Van Sant's lyrical My Own Private Idaho. But the choice of style turns out to be a highly appropriate one, since what happens in Boys Don't Cry resembles a dream gone wrong, a dream of freedom that gradually metamorphoses into a nightmare of humiliating subjection. In a certain way, the movie's theme of the switching of identities, with all the risks such a game inevitably implies,  has parallels with that of Agnieszka Holland's Europa, Europa, but any comparison immediately points up the radical difference between the two. In the latter film, the young Solomon Perel (Marco Hofschneider) plays the dangerous game of feigning to be an "Aryan" while in the German army, but he does so in order to escape being sent to a concentration camp or summarily executed. Brandon, by contrast, flirts with danger and not just in the extended sense of the term. She  comes on to other young women and  rushes headlong into her affair with Lana--whose potentially lethal outcome could have been easily foreseen, even if her cross dressing had not come to light--as if she were a romantic heroine willing to sacrifice all for love. In this respect, Brandon has much more in common with the equally transgendered hero(ine) of Jean Genet's Notre-Dame-Des-Fleurs, Divine/Louis Culfroy, than with any traditional victim of oppression, sexual or otherwise.

Boys Don't Cry is a feminist nightmare, in which nearly every male is some kind of sociopathic beast who carries on like an SS man on a rampage in a Russian village. When Brandon goes into a bar early in the film and tries to chat up a young woman, a redneck lout immediately comes up and hits on her as soon as  Brandon momentarily goes off. Later, after she has been raped, the police officers who interrogate her--in contrast to a sympathetic female doctor who has examined her previously--resemble a pair of gargoyles that symbolically rape her a second time with their aggressive, obscenely phrased questions. Even more powerfully, in what is perhaps the most intense scene in the entire movie, when the two men examine the captive Brandon to determine her "true" sex, it is impossible not to think of the abysmally horrifying scene in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List in which the women arriving at the concentration camp are forced to strip before the on looking guards. The violence done to her by John and Tom is not just an outrage perpetrated upon a weirdo who has the misfortune to fall into their hands. Instead, Brandon, by her intentional mixing up of conventional gender roles, serves as  a catalyst who calls their profound hatred of women into the light of day. The violence they might normally refrain from openly venting upon the opposite sex they can inflict without a pang of remorse upon the woman who in their eyes has betrayed her own sex while simultaneously deceiving them. In Boys Don't Cry, Brandon, far from being just a pitiable object of barbaric persecution, is the representative of a femininity which has triumphed over the limits of gender and thrown down the gauntlet to her antagonists, but by the same gesture transformed herself into an elective target for male rage. Unlike the long-suffering Lana, Brandon is not a woman who is going to be kept in her place. By challenging the gender code, Brandon is a far more formidable opponent than any woman who could challenge John and Tom on the grounds of mere physical power.

Boys Don't Cry is not a "message" picture but a morality play, although the morality is not that of its heroine, but that of society. Here there is no appeal to a court of higher judgment as there would be in a film by Roberto Rossellini or Robert Bresson, and perhaps the movie's greatest strength lies in showing how that morality inexorably decrees the destruction of Brandon.  C. Hugh Holman's A Handbook to Literature defines the morality play as "A kind of poetic Drama  which developed in the late Middle Ages (probably fourteenth century) and which was distinguished from the religious Drama proper, such as the Mystery Play, by the fact that it was a dramatized Allegory in which the abstract virtues and vices (like Mercy, Conscience, Perserverance, and Shame) appear in personified form, the good and the bad usually being engaged in a struggle for the soul of a human being." What might be added to Holman's useful remarks is that allegory is always an explicitly coded genre, one which requires a key in order to be deciphered. The allegorical code in Boys Don't Cry, however, is supplied not by religious dogma as it was in the fourteenth century, but by the ideological dogma of gender, and the characters are not personified ideas but persons who have been transmuted into allegorical representations of the gender roles dictated by American society. In this way, of course, by inverting the scheme of the traditional morality play such as Holman describes it, by replacing it with one in which evil triumphs over good, Boys Don't Cry holds up a far truer mirror to its subject than did the medieval morality play which was lost in what Marx contemptuously dismissed as "the foggy region of the religious world" in Capital I. Nevertheless, allegorization always demands a price, and in this case, the price is that of creating a virtually unbridgeable gap between the men and women who populate its fictional world. (It is worth making the point in passing that every movie, even one based on fact like this, even a documentary, creates its own fictional world.) Still let no one complacently lay the blame for this gap on the film's makers--they did not invent the allegorical code at work here, as the pathetic saga of Brandon Teena sadly illustrates. Nor would it be useful to complain that the characters should be less allegorical and more "human"--presumably like the all too human ones of High Fidelity. Only in a society in which individuals were no longer the prisoners of their gender would such a lament carry much moral weight. Here, it might be useful to paraphrase a great remark of Theodor Adorno's in Negative Dialectic about personality and say that people are only human where they do not act as genders. But that remains just as distant a goal today as does that of the society envisioned by Adorno in which people are more than just their personalities.

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E-mail Dave at daveclayton@worldnet.att.net