11 April 2009

Advice to a Cross-Dresser; The Ten Commandments

Today I was reading an article from The Independent by Neil Straus. He described his expereince with a survivalist camp run by a couple of guys who were, or still may be, involved with Blackwater. It's one of those things that makes you really proud to be an American. Really proud.

Anyway, the course culminated with Strauss and one of his classmates navigating a city landscape--Oklahoma City--without getting caught by the bounty hunters that filtered through the streets. If the guy and his classmate would've been caught, they would have been handcuffed, placed in the back of a Hummer and dropped off in a remote area from which they'd have to make their way back and through the city.

Well, Strauss and his classmate made it through the course without getting caught. But he had a close call--ironically enough, with a couple of frat guys who were drinking. Strauss decided that the moment was right to disguise himself. So he ducked into a Hooters restaurant to "transform"himself into a "woman."

Strauss recalls, "Gazing into the bathroom mirror, I realised, to my disappointment, that I don't even make a good transvestite, let alone a passable woman." So he tried to powder away some of the shadow on his face. Just then, one of the frat boys walked into the bathroom and very belligerently grilled him. Well, what else would he expect when he's dressed as a woman in a men's bathroom in Oklahoma? As he tried to talk his way out of the situation, the frat guy's buddy came in.

The would-be survivalist Strauss escaped only by convincing the two frat boys that he was doing an undercover drill with the Marines and that if they bothered him, he would call the rest of his batallion.

Hey, I'll try that the next time I'm in trouble!

Now, as somebody who has much more experience than Strauss has in transformation, I would tell him that he made one glaring fundamental mistake.

First of all, he shouldn't have gone into a men's room--in Hooters or anywhere else--to change. Back when I was "cross-dressing," I used to look for a unisex bathroom. Lots of coffee shops, pizzerias and such have only a single bathroom. That is all but ideal; you have to contend only with people banging on the door. As I became more of a quick change artist, that became less frequent.

Now, I'll admit that here in New York, finding such places is probably easier than it is in Oklahoma City. On the other hand, I should think he could've found such a place there. If not, he should have gone to some remote part of a park or some other place where he wouldn't have had to worry about someone following him in.

From that experience, Strauss concludes the following: "Cross-dressing is not an urban survival tactic. It's an urban suicide tactic."

It needn't be. I didn't see him, but I would bet that when I started, I was even less passable than he was. And I didn't have his training. Then again, I was presenting myself as a woman as a form of survival. I was training myself for the life I envisioned, even when I didn't believe I would have the opportunity to live it and coped by denying that I wanted anything like the life I now have, or am about to have.

I'm guessing that Strauss has never had fantasies of cross-dressing, much less of living as a woman. Still, I think he could've--in addition to finding the right place to change--been less self-conscious about the exercise, precisely because it was that--an exercise.

At least I'll give Neil Strauss this: He is actually committed to survivalism. The article was an extract from a book (Emergency) he wrote on the topic. And it was rather well-written. In all of these respects, it's not like those articles The Village Voice used to publish. (Maybe they still do; I can't remember the last time I looked at the Voice.) Those articles were invariably written by some bullshit bohemian or pseudo-anarchist with a trust fund who went into the slums or rode shotgun with some drug dealer or plutocrat, or some other "heart of darkness." In particular, I recall an article about riding the subway, back in the days when it was covered in graffiti and filth, ridden with crime and plagued by breakdowns, delays and other major inconveniences and minor catastrophes. I don't recall exactly what that article said, but the gist of it was "Wow, I rode the #2 train into East New York and lived to tell about it!"

Their mistakes were even sillier than anything Strauss described in his article. At least his biggest mistake was one on which I (or someone else) could've given him advice. And you know he won't make it again. But those kids writing for the Voice might've gone on for another fifteen or twenty years without figuring out what the score is.

On an unrelated topic: It's the night before Easter and, as happens every year, a TV station is broadcasting The Ten Commandments. It's one of those things that, the more dated it looks and feels, the more people will watch it.

When I say "dated," I'm not talking about the fact that it deals with events that supposedly happened thousands of years ago. I'm talking about the film's visual style and its acting. The former is vivid or exaggerated, depending on your point of view. It's full of colors, bold and vibrant but not with a whole lot of depth. Then again, it's a Hollywood movie, not a Vermeer or a Fragonard. Still, I can't help to feel that as dazzling as it is, it's still an illustration rather than something that conveys truths or perceptions. It makes me feel something I felt when I visited, for the first time in thirty-five years, the church in which I served as an altar boy. The bas reliefs for the Stations of the Cross, as well as other statues artwork in there, that seemed so formidable when I was a kid became oddly hokey when I revisited. (Of course, that feeling paled in comparison to what I experienced moments later, when I went into the sacristry and "confronted" the "ghost" of the priest who molested me!)

About the acting: Everyone in this film acts in a way Uta Hagen referred to as indicative. In other words, it's a diva's way of acting: Here I am, Charlton Heston, in this Egyptian getup. Now you know I'm Moses. To be fair, no matter how well she portrayed Sephora or any other role, I probably never will be able to look at Yvonne De Carlo without thinking about Lily Munster. Still, even at her best, all I can think is that she's Yvonne De Carlo with bangs and lots of eye make-up.

This style of acting--which probably constitutes the vast majority of performances by big-name starts--contrasts with the kind in which the actor or actress brings the character out from within him or herself, much as Michelangelo said he chipped away at stone until he found "David" within it. At his best, that is what Sean Penn does when he acts: His work in Milk and Dead Man Walking are two of the best examples. Geraldine Page was that sort of actress; sometimes Meryl Streep is. (Unfortunately, she became a star for doing her most indicative work back in the early '80's, when people seemed to notice only the accents she portrayed. I'm talking, of course, about A French Lieutenant's Woman, Sophie's Choice and Silkwood.)

And one more thing about the acting in The Ten Commandments: The actors all enunciate their lines in a "stagey," almost vaudevillian, kind of way. That was common in the early "talking pictures," some of which were directed by Cecil B. DeMille, who directed The Ten Commandments. And the tones of the narrator were even more stentorian than those of the actors.

Still, I'll admit, it's quite the spectacle.

Now I wonder what Neil Strauss would do if he were wandering the desert for 40 years. Hopefully, he'd stop and ask for directions. Maybe I'm harboring unrealistic expectations. As if I've never done that before!

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