Framing Agnes’ intriguing ideas and rich source material are obscured by its own meta
A video of Keanu Reeves recently recirculated the internet, as such videos often do. In the super short excerpt, excerpt from the behind-the-scenes documentary The matrix revisited (2001), which traces the formation and production by Lana and Lilly Wachowski of the first Matrix, the actor explains that he was made to read several philosophy books before even being able to grasp a scenario, including works by Jean Baudrillard. Reeves, in his zealous but slightly confused way, sums up the most referenced work of the French philosopher, Mocks and Simulation, to a hasty but not false sentence: an icon is a decadence of meaning.
In Framing Agnes, a new documentary from writer-director Chase Joynt and co-writer Morgan M. Page (host of an incredible trans story podcast One of the Vaults), the concept of the trans icon is explored by historian Jules Gill-Peterson and a cast of recognizable trans performers. The quasi-narrator of the film, Gill-Peterson traces some of her research into the UCLA archives and her knowledge of the records of trans people who were involved in the UCLA gender clinic in the 1950s-1960s. She identifies one in particular, “Agnes” (represented by multi-hyphenate artist Zackary Drucker) as a folk legend that immediately spoke to her in her graduation work.
Agnes (also the subject of the short film of the same name by Joynt and sociologist Kristen Schilt in 2019) was a trans woman who lied to doctors about the spontaneous development of her breasts in order to be approved for gender confirmation surgeries normally reserved for intersex people. But we don’t learn much more about Agnès, the so-called central figure of the documentary. Instead, Gill-Peterson investigates her own desire to make sense of Agnes as signifier of morality, outlaw or paragon of transitedness, and poses the question: why do we seek out icons? What do you do when you make someone an icon? Does it serve them?
Gill-Peterson is just a talking head scattered all over the place Framing Agnes, which is a sort of extended thought experiment on trans visibility, invisibility, and the limits of representation, among other hotly contested truths. Six other trans actors portray six people whose participation in the UCLA Gender Clinic was rediscovered by Joynt and Schilt through archival research. Much to our delight, Drucker, Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, Silas Howard, Max Wolf Valerio, and Stephen Ira embody their characters reciting excerpts from doctor-patient transcripts, but instead of setting up such recreations in a medical facility , they’re interviewed as if they were the trans curiosities of the week on ’60s talk shows. and 2000, delighted in exposing gender-nonconforming individuals to gasps. the public and family members.
These short stylized black-and-white segments framed by a cathode are interrupted throughout the documentary by a brief wispy color re-enactment B-roll; clips of trans celebrities dissected in front of the press; and rehearsal and discussions between Joynt, Page, Schilt and the actors themselves. The anchors of these conversations are their characters, but the subject often drifts further and further away from the individuals in the case study so that the actors talk about their own conceptions of transitedness, of themselves, of their experience. to play the cases assigned to them, and even existential questions of truth and lies. At one point in the current talking head segments, Richards, who plays “Barbara” in the entertainment segments, questions Joynt’s interview line about the very nature of the truth itself. “Why are you asking this question? We don’t learn the answer.
It’s a confusing mix that, if experienced as a movie play, is more like Revisiting the Matrix without having seen any of the completed films themselves. It’s a behind-the-scenes show that shows so few of its more meticulously crafted, character-driven parts that I’ve begun to refer to it internally as the second disc of the documentary’s DVD set. Or maybe it’s a proof of concept for the eventual feature-length narrative or documentary that delves into the lives of these characters to such an extent that we know the personalities their performers are referring to?
If the documentary’s continued explanations of the process are any indication, this confusion is what delights Joynt and Page. As a kind of metaphor for the impossibility of representing transitedness, their intention seems to push the form of the documentary, obscuring their subjects, and demonstrating the futility of trying to pin a modern frame on a group of ordinary trans people who only wanted to probably not be perceived publicly. These are medical records we are reproducing after all, not an actual talk show.
Some audiences will appreciate this rebuke of the structure, believing that this restraint is a case of outlaw genre. Sadly, it’s a gendered viewer who can’t help but feel a little aggrieved by the breakdown of the meaning of it all. While conceit is clever, it’s not about new storytelling techniques for documentary or fiction, and in Framing Agnes, they lack a certain follow-through. To succeed in metafiction work, the fictions must be as strong as the meta, but there is an inconsistency in direction. Performances go from presentation (Joynt) to theater (Drucker) to screen-ready and naturalistic (Howard) without explanation. For a film that cares so much about process and shifting the frame, it instead seems to take visual and conceptual inspiration from stronger hybrid documentaries, like Trinh T. Minh Ha’s. Surname Viet First name Nam (1989), truth through the theatricality of Marlon Riggs in any of his non-fiction, Isaac Julien’s poetic reinterpretations of queer history in Finding Langston (1989), or even Joynt’s own feature film on the life of Billy Tipton, No ordinary man, corn Framing Agnes loses focus somewhere in the proportion of the performance to the performer.
The existence of the transcripts themselves is extraordinary, and so few of them are actually included in the documentary that references to details like Agnes’ anti-hero status fall flat. Agnes (in a way not fully detailed by the film) tricked a series of trained doctors, psychologists, and surgeons into getting treatment, and in the process completely screwed up everything. what a cis doctor thought he knew about gender? Barbara is part of a sewing circle gossip community of 20 other trans women in the 1950s? It’s fucking fucked up. It is revealing. This is new and groundbreaking information that upends what we have been taught about transited, and I want more. Admittedly, it is the bread and butter of many scholars to steer clear of flesh-and-blood topics until they feel comfortable enough to relate or speculate wildly based on Total inferences, but it undermines just how valuable this story is. Without forgetting that this theoretical framework is not revolutionary and constitutes a rather inaccessible approach to a project formed by the testimonies of ordinary trans people.
There are definitely moments of brightness. Ross and Richards have an encouraging fondness and curiosity for their predecessors, and Howard’s portrayal of “Denny” is both personal and skillful. Schilt’s explanation of the archival process of discovery (simply searching box after box until you are ready to exhale) illuminates the formation of the project, and Gill-Peterson’s inclusion of the public institution – the Haunted Seat of authorized knowledge – as a character just waiting to be developed.
As they currently exist, the filmed components of Framing Agnes would be particularly suited to a classroom setting with an accompanying lecture, or expanded into an interactive online gallery that included extended interviews and re-enactments, or if played as is, as a symbol of frustration. As a cinematic experience, the film seems pulled in many directions, formally incomplete and jagged. There are so many exciting ideas buried in the film, and there’s no shortage of concise quotes, but the final cut piles them on top of each other so that no component ever has a chance to fully develop and shine. .
If anything, Framing Agnes will continue a tough conversation about what we ask of trans icons and what trans artists ask of their audiences. A trans film can certainly be Brechtian; it can be whatever he wants to be. A trans film can present itself as incomprehensible. A trans film can claim not to be a film at all. A trans film may decide, in what some might consider its most groundbreaking act, to challenge the very concept of meaning, giving us nothing at all. It just has to be prepared for certain audiences who neither receive nor give anything in return.
Director: hunt joynt
Writer: Chase Joynt, Morgan M Page
With : Jules Gill-Peterson, Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, Zackary Drucker, Max Wolf Valerio, Silas Howard, Stephen Ira
Release date: January 22, 2022 (Sundance)
Shayna Maci Warner (@bernieteeters) is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, curator, and GLAAD-awarded queer critic. Their words about feelings and queer films appear in Autostraddle, The movie scene and Movie credit, among others, and they write an exciting newsletter about girls and gays who make movies worth watching. You can invoke him in yodeling”Desert Hearts has been stolen!” into the sunset.