Saturday, November 7, 2020

Em Weinstein | In France Michelle Is a Man's Name

gift to a son

by Douglas Messerli

Em Weinstein (screenplay and direction) In France Michelle Is a Man’s Name / 2020 [12 min.]

In France Michelle Is a Man’s Name has played in several gay festivals across the country, picking up many awards in the process. I was fortunate to be able to see this short film in the Los Angeles-based AFI Film Festival in 2020.

     The events in this 12-minute film are devoted to approximately 4 sequences, the last of which representing the central substance of the entire. We begin with the central character in transit, having stopped evidentially to urinate in a highway men’s room. A trucker (Tim Blough) stands at a urinal, hearing the flush of one of the stool in one of the cabins as the trans man Michael (Ari Damasco) exits, the trucker nodding toward him as if in some secret recognition of approval, almost as if to acknowledge “You’re one of us.”

     Michael soon reaches his parent’s house, being greeted fairly openly, without any of the familial discomfort that we might expect. We do sense, however, when Michael’s mother (Olga Sanchez) refers to his son as “Michel,” that Michael’s birth name may have been the French equivalent of that name Michèle, and we sense in her insistence on using the French root of the name her inability to make the complete mental transformation that Michael’s father (Jerry Carlton) seemingly has.

     Like most US families they sit down for a meal, say their prayers, and eat, with Michael’s father asking for his son to join him the next morning on a trip into town. We presume it’s simply a run to a store or grocery to pick up a few supplies or foodstuffs, a generous attempt to be near to his son who apparently is now living away from home.

      But it is that visit to the local hamlet that reveals so much that is both terrifying and ritualistic about the American male experience. The stop he intends to make is not for household goods, but for an odd sort of entertainment, in which evidently, he regularly participates, found in the grungy strip bar on the village main street.

 

     Like most US families they sit down for a meal, say their prayers, and eat, with Michael’s father asking for his son to join him the next morning on a trip into town. We presume it’s simply a run to a store or grocery to pick up a few supplies or foodstuffs, a generous attempt to be near to his son who apparently is now living away from home.

       The confusion, startlement, and pain Michael feels about what is being played out upon his own body is quite apparent, and the voyeurs that we have instantly become naturally try somehow to make sense of it just as we are sure Michael is attempting to do as well. Is this “gift” a true olive branch, a ritualistic reach out to the son he now suddenly can claim in order to bring him closer through acknowledging that Michael is now due the patriarchal awards that come with his masculine identification? Or, we equally wonder, is this a kind of inverted punishment for Michael’s attempt to claim those rights or even a test to see if Michael is truly worthy of the rewards of becoming a man?

       Certainly, he must realize that Michael’s identification as a male is not precisely the same as his father’s, that the very transformation that he has made along with all of its societal, cultural, and psychological dismissals and apprehensions brings with it a different and perhaps far more refined perspective of manhood.

      Of course, we cannot know precisely what Michael is thinking. Perhaps he is somewhat comically delighted by his father’s bizarre “present,” perceived as a way of bonding with his offspring in a way he could not previously have. He could even be delighted to have his father’s resounding acceptance through the only way the elder knows how to express it.

      In fact, how the viewer/voyeur interprets these actions tells us as much about ourselves as it defines director/writer Em Weinstein’s character.

      Weinstein’s film, in short, is profound in the sense that it makes no attempt to explain the phenomena but only attempts to represent it, an event, I believe, that might only happen in rural USA. 

Los Angeles, November 7, 2020

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (November 2020).

 

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