LAFF 2008: Transsexuals! More Than Meets the Eye!

I’m just gonna let that headline hang there for a moment, but we’ll come back to it…

Meanwhile, things are improving on the cash-in-hand front, simply because, after a minimum of badgering, my best friend in West L.A. has allowed me to stay with him for a few days, within walking distance of the festival. No gas, no parking. Maybe 75 cents for the blue bus some days. That’s all. Plus I should probably get him a thank-you gift of some kind. Shhh! Don’t tell him.

And maybe tomorrow I’ll finally make it to a movie earlier than 4:30 p.m. The only thing playing when I got in today was TRINIDAD. And it isn’t about the country, but rather a frontier town in Colorado that also happens to be “the sex-change capital of the world.” Cue Transformer sound-effect. Headline explained.

I have to wonder if Trey Parker and Matt Stone know about this town, because it seems like the character of Mr./Mrs. Garrison may have been thusly inspired. The town itself is very Catholic, but the doctor who originally started doing the surgeries there, a guy named Dr. Biber, took the issue up with the Vatican in the early days, and got a special dispensation. So the Catholic hospital in Trinidad won’t do abortions, but it will cut your schlong off and resculpt into a clitoris. Think I’m being graphic with the language? Trust me, you’re getting off easy – the movie shows everything, and I mean ALL the stuff you were so relieved that HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH never showed.

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Which is weird, because the rest of the movie is a plea for tolerance and understanding, and I’m all down for that. They explain that to feel like you were born the wrong gender is like having a car alarm nearby constantly going off, but the surgery finally gets it to shut up, which is an analogy I think most viewers can understand. But if anyone out there is on the fence about whether or not to accept such people, showing them the grossest surgery footage you can is not a way to win hearts and minds. It’s educational, for those who are up to the learning experience, but audience members are likely to come away recalling primarily the shock moments, which is a shame, because the more human scenes are what really count. And at least one of the ladies is moderately attractive for her age.

Transsexuals feature to a lesser degree in the cinematic adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel CHOKE. We open on a sex addiction group, wherein every member has been the subject of an urban legend or two, and one of them is Joel Grey, of all people, as a trannie-stalker (“of all people” is relative, it turns out…Grey is the father in law of director Clark Gregg, whom you may know best as the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in IRON MAN). Wry narration kicks in, courtesy of Sam Rockwell as our protagonist Vincent Mancini (“hero” would be the wrong thing to say), and no doubt your mind is already thinking FIGHT CLUB – same setting, same style, same author. And yet, crucially, no hitting, and a different director. There are no crazy jump-cuts or digital effects (just one neat bit of rear-projection, and yes, “rear” in this case is a double entendre), but there is a whole lot of fucking. Vincent, you see, is a sex addict, and even though Sam Rockwell may not seem like the studliest actor in the world, he is a fast talker, and that’s half the battle when it comes to scoring sometimes (the other half, at least here, is to find women who share the addiction).

Honestly, this is like the anti-SEX AND THE CITY. I liked that movie, but if you’re a dude who hated it and got dragged by your girlfriend anyway, this is the appropriate payback date film. The sex here is cynical, mutually exploitative, uncaring, and often hilarious. It also turned me on a fair bit.

The movie’s title comes from the fact that Vincent’s primary strategy for making money is to go to restaurants where rich people might be around, deliberately swallow something too big to consume, and choke. A rich person who’s never felt like a hero before is most likely to save him with the Heimlich, the food is on the house, and the newly minted Good Samaritan feels the need to stay in touch with the victim and give generous donations. The book went into more detail on this process, but the less graphic scenes of choking onscreen, the better, I say. Sex is more cinematic than food in the windpipe.

Yet Vincent ultimately has semi-noble motives for bilking people – he has hefty bills to pay to keep his mother (Anjelica Huston) in a good Catholic nursing home, and he can’t afford them merely on his salary at the Colonial America theme park where he works. She’s stricken with senile dementia, induced early due to a life of excessive drug use. This is not, however, a graphic depiction of the disease in the vein of AWAY FROM HER or THE SAVAGES, but played more for laughs. Huston’s character, Ida, seems fine on the surface; she just won’t eat and keeps mistaking Vincent for various attorneys.

And the mother-son relationship – a heartfelt one at that – is what the story is really about, beneath all the obscene trappings (the foreskin of Jesus is a plot point, seriously. As is an errant anal bead). In flashbacks, with young Vincent portrayed by ZATHURA’s Jonah Bobo, we see just what a flaky mom she was, loving in her own way but also a crazy radical on the run with very unconventional ideas about parenting, and a host of tall tales at her disposal – she tells Vincent that his father was a traveling salesman from Norway with Tourette’s, a preposterous fabrication he still believes to be true.

Also: Joel Grey delivers the best utterance ever of the phrase “That’s how I roll.” Must be heard in full context to be appreciated, but trust me, it’s sublime.

Gregg and Palahniuk were in attendance and took questions. Among the highlights:

-Gregg says visitors to the movie’s website who enter a secret code will get free anal beads. I don’t think this is true.

-Palahniuk, who looks like Norman Bates, wrote the novel while listening to Radiohead’s “Creep” over and over. Gregg didn’t know this when he managed to obtain a Radiohead song for the end credits.

-One Christmas when Palahniuk was in college, his dad insisted that he come visit so they could spend Christmas together. When he arrived, his dad told him that he’d be by himself most of the time, since double-time pay was being offered at his father’s workplace. All alone at home, Palahniuk watched HAROLD AND MAUDE, and enjoyed it so much he forgot about being alone. Says seeing CHOKE right now was just as good.

-The movie is intentionally somewhat surreal (though nowhere near as blatantly so as FIGHT CLUB) because it’s meant to be Victor’s memory of how things happened, which may not be the whole truth.

-The idea came to Palahniuk shortly after the success of the FIGHT CLUB movie and the murder of his father. He envisioned a well-dressed man lying in front of his own car, in the headlights, on the side of the road, knowing that eventually some kind of authority figure would come around, gently check his pulse, and briefly hold him while asking if he was okay. Palahniuk even considered doing this himself, then decided he didn’t want to get dirty. So he adapted the idea to a choking thing instead.

-The scenes in the retirement home were shot in an abandoned mental institution overnight. Palahniuk says it was disgusting, smelled of mildew and dirty diapers, and there were warnings all over the place about asbestos and antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis. But he loved it, because everyone was so much fun to be around.

-Sam Rockwell constantly listened to the book-on-tape version of CHOKE on his walkman, and would occasionally improv lines from the book that hadn’t made it into the script.

-This was all shot independently; no producers told them what they could and couldn’t do, content-wise. It shows. This is not watered-down Palahniuk. And it’s great.


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