Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Monday, June 19, 2006

Is She a He?

Several years ago, I was working on a movie and had to take four days off to go to a wedding. So, like any good crew-person, I covered myself by finding someone to fill in. Luckily, it was the best-paying job I'd ever had -- which, sadly, meant I made $150/day. But at that time, in this city, that was actually a living wage, and pretty good for a non-union gig, so I called up a woman I knew named Anna who was trying to break into the business and she agreed to cover for me for a couple of days while I went off to Oregon.

When I got back and returned to set, I was met with a barrage of stories about my replacement. How tall she was. How she had her own monitor that she hung from the pole so that she could give herself her own frame lines. How, for one scene, she had swathed herself all in black like a ninja to keep her reflection from being seen by the camera. Everyone had been really impressed by that. I was kind of jealous. This woman seemed to have the build, the toys and the technique to do my job better than I, not to mention the desire. My strategy had always been to focus just enough energy on doing sound to do it just decently enough, since I thought (ha) that I wasn't going to be in it all that long and that being cute and somewhat charming could fill in for whatever skills I didn't want to bother to acquire. And now here was Anna, who was apparently cute and charming and hungry as well. Perhaps my strategy was breaking down. Or, more likely, I had made an error in choosing this particular replacement.

But then my boss, Ed (he of the Donald Trump job -- we go all the way back to The Daytrippers, which he recorded on a Sony DAT Walkman, that's how small-time we were), said to me, "You know she's a man, right?"
"What?"

A lot of the time when you have to take a day off from a job, you'll replace yourself with someone you've never met. Booms don't meet booms and mixers don't meet mixers, they'll just pass like sound carts in the night because, on most sets, there's only one of each. So you'll hear about someone forever, because other people are raving about them or complaining about them or gossiping about them, you may even recommend these faceless people for jobs if the raving is good (but not too good, hence my error). And then one day you'll go visit the next soundstage over and there they'll be, in the flesh. People never look exactly the way you think they will if you've only met them on the phone. I've had people come up to me and say, with a look of shock, "You're --- ??" Clearly they expected someone taller, or more muscular, or less…female? I don't know. Still, these moments are kind of like experiencing own, tiny, pathetic, sound world brand of stardom.

But I had met Anna. Since I also mix and third sometimes I've done some crossing over. It's actually taught me a lot, despite my lack of interest. I learned about the usefulness of wearing gloves from Kira, and how to uncoil tangled boom cable from Jerry -- again, not names to you, but known entities in my corner of the world. So Anna had actually boomed for me on something very low-budget (it had to be pretty low-budget if I was mixing it). That was how I knew she was a good boom op and a cool chick. But a man?

Ed took me to the source of this information: Stan, the art director. Naturally. He was straight, but he, unlike those of us who work on the technical/grunt side of things, inhabits an enlightened department.

"Definitely a man," said Stan. "Or she used to be. Think about it: tall, thin, very prominent Adam's apple. That's a give-away. And the hands. Always look at the hands."

I thought about it, but I still couldn't see it. The truth is, I have no gaydar. The Crying Game? Total shock to me. This despite the fact that I've often found myself the sole straight person in the room. But being more of a lesbian hag (as my gay friends have been so kind as to dub me), I've never really gotten to know any transsexuals or transvestites beyond working with them here and there. But maybe, at bottom, it's more the fact that gender identification has never been my best interpersonal skill. My mother is a feminist who never wore any make-up when I was growing up -- only lipstick, when pressed -- and as a kid, I was a complete tomboy. I rejected dolls, I truly hated those cute barrettes with the little streamers, and given the choice, I would have spent every day in overalls, in fact, I pretty much did. Mind you, this didn't keep me from having crushes on boys starting at age 7, it just made me unable to do anything about it beyond the occasional slug in the arm. As a teenager, I did change, but rather than into a swan it was more of into a hopeless geek. And of course, most of the friends I picked were similar to me: if not geeks or tomboys, they were goth and artsy and wore lots of lace and black make-up that I, instinctively, knew I could never muster the drama to pull off. As a result, between the ages of 6 and 18, I think I put on a dress only for barmitzvahs, graduations, and prom, and each time I was terrified, convinced that something, somewhere, was going to fall out. I had the same bob haircut and one eyeliner pencil through sophomore year of college, when I suddenly found myself enamored of a succession of fraternity boys (an embarrassing but luckily short-lived era) and realized that in order to attract them, and perhaps more men in general, I was going to have to do something. Which, at the time, ended up being perming my hair, wearing clothes that weren't three sizes too big for me, and trying to learn how to make eye contact. It was a start.

So as you can imagine, Anna was, in every obvious way, more feminine than I. She was tall and thin and blonde with high cheekbones, and she had this spontaneous, girlish laugh -- the kind that I think guys find pretty cute. Yet Stan the art director was positive.

"Trust me," he said. "I can tell."

I did because I obviously couldn't. But I didn't tell anyone else. I thought back over the interactions I'd had with Anna, about how hard she was trying to make new friends and contacts and break in. Maybe working in the film business was more than just a job for her; maybe it was an attempt not only to change her career but to find a new persona in a separate world than whatever one she had been living in before, one that, theoretically, since it involved the arts, would be open-minded. I'm sure it had seemed like a good plan. But she hadn't reckoned with the gossip wildfire that is the independent film community.

I know she found out about it the hard way, because a few years later, Ed and I were on another job and he had another story for me. He told me that he had run into Andrew, a line producer we knew who I might have mentioned previously as sporting an infamously dog-mangled ear. Andrew was on cloud nine.

"I met this girl," he said. "She's gorgeous -- tall, thin, blond. I saw her walking down the street in the East Village one day, wearing a shiny jacket. You know," he added, "the kind that the pretty girls wear."

Then he'd found out that she was a boom operator. And that her name was Anna. And they had a date for Saturday night.

"Andrew," said Ed, "You know she's a man, right?"
"What?" said Andrew.
"The hands, man," said Ed. "Look at the hands."

Andrew met Anna for the date. He asked her and found out that it was true -- which was how we all found out that it was true. And then he freaked out and left.

"You were right!" he told Ed later. "Her hands! They were huge!"

Poor Anna. Although it was probably for the best that she never went out with Andrew again, since he was an asshole. But why couldn't he just accept her as the pretty girl he'd met on the street? How different, really, was the way she'd chosen to change herself from the way I'd chosen to grow into my own femininity over the years, or the way lots of people choose to transform themselves over the course of their lives? Take her laugh, for instance. I'd had a friend in college who had what everyone told her was an evil laugh, so she changed it. But the laugh she came up with was even worse, not really a laugh at all but more of an upside-down titter blended down until it was almost simpering. It wasn't a sound that seemed to express any sort of pleasure or enjoyment, it just made you uncomfortable. And it turned out that the evil laugh hadn't been her laugh to begin with, she'd developed that one because people hadn't liked her original laugh. But Anna's laugh? It came from somewhere deep down. Anna's laugh was real.

There's sex, there's gender, and there's gender identity. Are you female because you have the apparatus, or because you feel like you are, or because everyone else feels like you are, or some combination? It's certainly not just about who you date (some might read: fuck), or who wants to date you, because men date women and men and women date women and men, all of us masculine and feminine to differing degrees without wanting to become the opposite sex -- whatever that is, if there still is one. So is gender identity the oppressor in all of this, the outside world telling us we have to change to something most people recognize until we all become jumbo versions of Barbie and Ken? Or does it enable us to become the person we always visualized ourselves to be, the one trapped inside the biological prison forced upon us back when sperm met egg?

I ask these questions knowing there probably are no answers, at least none that apply to everyone. I do know that in the past few years, I've -- who'd have thunk it? -- developed an attachment to skirts and lipstick, although I still haven't managed to make my way to eye shadow and probably never will. I know that, when I'm in the right mood, these things make me feel more of who I am. Although at other times, like right now for instance, I'm more in the mood to be a half-awake, gender-free blob in really unsexy boxer shorts with no elastic left in the waistband. But I suppose, while for many it takes years of shedding to find the skin that fits us best, we should consider ourselves lucky that we have the option. And I can only wish for all the Annas out there to have that too.