By Hook or by Crook

| November 5, 2002

I went to see this based on someone else’s review, and expected not to like the film one bit. Because I did like it (a lot), I feel duty-bound to give it a write-up that would have made me less dubious.
It’s a “queer” film, but it’s not a “queer” film. Yes, everyone’s sexuality is “alternative;” yes, their whole lives are “alternative;” and, in fact, yes, the film itself is also pretty “alternative.” But that’s entirely beside the point. The plot of the film is also more or less beside the point.
Hmm. I’m not really selling this yet, am I? What this film does, which is brilliant and rare, is act as a showcase for a character that is brilliant and rare. This is a vanity piece, but it’s a vanity piece that works so subtly at its task that you have no clue that you’ve been suckered into attending an event along the lines of an old-style Sweet 16 party.
Valentine (Henry/Henrietta Dodge) is coming out. Not in the “hi everybody, I’m gay” sense of the phrase (although not-not in that sense either,) but in the “we invite you to attend an event commemorating the release of our marriageable-aged daughter upon this good society” sense of the term. Valentine (Dodge) has dressed him/herself up in the finery of this picture (which s/he co-made, so you know that s/he’ll be handy around the house as well as a lovely escort to parties,) and presented him/herself to the film-viewing public as an entirely new (and incredibly complex,) type of character. (You should read “character” here in the performance-art-object sense of the word rather than in the “good-guy,” “bad-guy,” “strong, silent type,” “fragile” or “ham” senses.)
I could try to explain the nature of this character, but it’s easier to just suggest a perusal of someone else’s synopsis (try for starters,) combined with a viewing of the movie. The film itself is like a simple engagement band made specifically (and artfully) to display an extremely unusual diamond. Valentine is the diamond, but then, since Dodge is one of the two filmmakers, what you’re really looking at is a gem that made it’s own setting in order to display itself. So you’re looking at an even more unusual “diamond” than you thought.
Like whatever gospel it is that ends with Jesus missing from the cave rather than actually appearing risen to witnesses (thus requiring the gospel-reader’s assistance for the act of resurrection,) by ending with Team Valentine on the verge of presenting this character to her/his birth mother, the film throws the ball (the responsibility for approving of Valentine and accepting the message about such a character’s value) at the viewer or at contemporary culture itself. It asks (for Valentine/Dodge and an unnumbered, unnamed mass of some sort): Are you ready for this thing that I am?
Film has already struggled with gender and a variety of other “social norms.” There are other, less definable categories that need to be visible as well. This culture has made things that it refuses to acknowledge it has parented. Valentine, Dodge and By Hook or By Crook itself says: “Look, you’ve made me, you’re not willing to present me to the world, so I’m doing it myself. I’m not what I’m supposed to be, but here I am, and here’s why I’m better than what you think I should be. Will you accept me? Aren’t you proud of what you didn’t intend to make? Not only am I better than any girl, boy, doctor-lawyer-stockbroker you could have made, but I’m something of at least as good (in terms of quality-of-humanness) as whatever it is you are, and maybe even better.”
“I’m both the tender-beautiful freak that I look like, and the incredibly competent thing that could make this movie–a habitat for that “freak” to live naturally within.”
“Don’t you just want to fold me into your arms (mommy-daddy-world) and tell me how beautiful I am and that you love me? Don’t you? Please?”
By hook, or by crook, this culture’s standard of acceptable fictional character depth will be raised. And we’ll be grateful. If you are still, after seeing this film, unconvinced that you have seen a whole new pop-culture ball game beginning, go out and rent an episode of Seinfeld or The Sopranos immediately after watching it. Nothing will have ever struck you as flatter or duller in contrast.
Oh, p.s.: The music choices are also amazing in terms of quality. We should probably thank Silas Howard and Carla Bozulich (and maybe Joan Jett?) for that end of the standard-raising process.

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