. . . Brandon Teena

. . .

Movie Comment: The Brandon Teena Story

"I wouldn't live there if you paid me to."
- David Byrne
"thinking: I didn't leave them like that! I didn't. It's not real."
- Samuel R. Delany
I went to high school in a crummy small town in rural Missouri. I was a pathetically odd kid, but maybe my flaws didn't glare so much in this setting; anyway, along with bigotry (mostly aimed at the world outside of town) and bored aggression (mostly aimed at teachers and long-standing pariahs), I found deep stores of acceptance, affection, and wit.

The fifty students in my class maintained their allotted Kinsey percentages, but homosexuality by definition didn't exist. The few kids who were active deviants were probably as active as they were only because they were already established as pariahs -- and even they were invisible to all but an inner group of their peers. As a fairly trustworthy peer who'd come from and who was obviously back on his way to "the outside world," I got to talk to a couple of kids whose confusions were particularly pressing. The town seemed (and seems) to me far too dangerous and confusing an environment for either gay or straight sex, and so I always advised caution in leaping to conclusions -- or, for that matter, leaping to anything, though wuddya gonna do? it's teenage hormones.

The kids who later on did get out of town incorporated new experiences and self-definitions in a dazzling variety of ways, some of which involved familiar labels and some of which didn't. The ones who stayed continued to live in a world that included revolving-door marriages, suicides, alcoholism, beatings, and fatal accidents, but not homosexuality. Sexual surveys of the people in town and the people who'd left would give you very different results, but inasmuch as you learned anything of value it wouldn't be about innate sexuality: it would be about the social effects of monoculture.

I believe that a moral imperative for narrative art (including discursive prose) is to present the "strange," the "peculiar," the "monstrous." Not in the professional ooh-aren't-we-naughty fashion that justifies the status quo with supposedly "dangerous" material rather than supposedly "safe" material, but in a way that, whether angry or affectionate or panicked or flat as a pancake, somehow does what it can to prepare its audience for "the outside world."

Of course, all this only matters because there's more than one "outside world" and more than one "monoculture," and as we make our transitions between them the moral imperative can start to get pretty contorted.

The other night I saw The Brandon Teena Story and saw depicted -- pretty much for the first time in a movie -- the familiar landscape, accents, mannerisms, faces.... About as intense a bad nostalgia trip as could be imagined. Just like going home too late to stop something.

Mostly I got to see my peers again. They're not wilfully self-consciously evil or hypocritical or stupid -- that cultural imperative I didn't see in full force till I left town and met America's ruling class -- but they do tend to be breathtakingly (in all senses) naive, in the way any monoculture is. It's a naivete that can easily turn hostile, vicious and violent. It can also be ironically self-aware and astonishingly amenable to argument and experience in a way that, for example, trust funded artists don't seem to be.

The transgender-warriors protesting outside the murder trial acted as if they anticipated a Scottsboro Boys travesty, while inside the courthouse justice was being managed with exquisite (if all too American) care. Righteousness external, righteousness internal; the former enraged me, the latter did not; both were too late to stop anything. What I saw in the documentary were my friends in a monstrous situation: confused, ill-equipped, damaged, but for the most part trying to survive with a sense of morality. What "the outside world" (that I'm now a part of) apparently saw were monsters.


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Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.