Kate Bornstein: When Bad Movies Happen To Good People
By Kate Bornstein
Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives is a bad film with a few good things going for it -- and a lot of angry people going after it. When I first heard about the film, I couldn't wait to see it. Even the problematic first version of the trailer (more on that later) made it look to me like the film would be just the right blend of camp, politics, heart, sparkle, and blood, and I wrote as much online. I also wrote that some people would need to be warned about the film so they wouldn't freak out or trigger a trauma -- I warn people about some of my own work for the same reason. But I had no question in my mind that I was about the see a kick-ass, tranny-empowering film on the big screen. Sad to say, I find that I'm the ticked-off tranny.
The movie is billed as an homage to '70s exploitation films. Director Israel Luna describes himself as a 'big fan' of the genre, and that explains a lot of what does work in this film. The cinematography is pretty damn good: the over-saturated colors, the post-noir camera angles, and the awesome street-level long shots following one great pair of gams after another in stiletto heels down dark concrete alleyways at night. The soundtrack is just the right flavor of cheesy, and the music sneaks up on you and scares you even more during the blood-and-gore scenes.
And the film does not stint on the blood and gore, no siree. The boilerplate plotline demands blood and gore and revolves around trashy girls who are out for fun and end up getting more than they bargained for. Or maybe they asked for it. In either case, they're beaten and raped. A few of them die. The survivors train in martial arts techniques and then go back to exact revenge from the men who attacked them. It's what's become known as a classic female revenge fantasy -- a genre developed and carried forward almost exclusively by cisgender (not transgender) men.
Luna cast a bevy of gorgeous, talented trans women to star in his film, and they shine as only divas can shine -- and darling, that is fabulously! In the few moments of the film when the ladies are not being savagely attacked, their Brechtian detachment from character is both enchanting and seductive -- it's the very essence of camp. But Luna permits no camp in the initial attack scenes. You see -- and you get to feel -- real transwoman pain and real transwoman fear. It can be overwhelming. Luna's use of camp/no-camp makes the film little more than a two-trick pony.
Trick One: Beat the crap out of trans women for what seems like more than 80 minutes of film. Use lots of blood and bits of flesh and hair sticking to a baseball bat and make us wonder: Did you mean that as camp? Did you mean that as funny? What's more, the strikingly fit trans women could easily have overpowered their wimpy attackers. But the film doesn't examine or explain the powerful visual of five trans women scared to the bone by three little guys. And when the ladies do try to run, they don't even take off their stilettos! They run all over the movie wearing those things -- and honey, they run well -- but really, we all know you take off your heels and then you run.
So, by director's choice, we've got these trans women as helpless bimbos, because in none of these attack scenes do the trans women attempt to protect themselves from an assortment of knives, guns, bats, hammers, and broken glass. Nope. The women were directed to just sit there and be scared -- with the excuse that it's part of the genre. Speaking as a person of transgender womanly experience' ouch.
Trick Two: The incompetent defenseless trannies finally try to exact revenge -- in the last 10 minutes of the movie. But now, Luna inexplicably switches styles: The attack scenes are now all about camp. Luna makes it clear that none of the men are afraid of their attackers. Ha, ha, ha. It's all nudge-nudge-wink-wink. In the film's earlier scenes, if a girl went down under a baseball bat or a knife, she stayed down. Two of the five trans women die in the first attack. But the revenge scenarios are all French farce. Every time a trans woman hits one of her attackers, he somehow survives a death blow and comes back at her. It's like whack-a-mole. Break a tranny's head open, she dies. But the men survive every manner of weapon shoved up their butts. No, really' guns and switchblades encrusted with' is that blood and poop? Whoops, spoiler. No, I take that back. Nothing could spoil this film more than it is spoiled.
Actually, I take that back. There's worse.
Sandwiched between the rape/bludgeoning/slicing of the trans women and the joke of their revenge, there's a terrible five minute scene where the girls -- wearing varying degrees of beautiful geisha makeup and drag -- learn martial arts. And the martial arts master? He's reminiscent of -- but not nearly as talented as -- Mickey Rooney in his horrifyingly racist portrayal of Holly Golightly's Japanese upstairs neighbor in the film Breakfast at Tiffany's.
But wait! There's even more racism in rapier wit lines like, 'Why's his ass all greasy?' 'Because he's a Mexican.' This film is bad and tasteless on so many levels.
But because Luna loftily frames TOTWK as an 'homage to '70s exploitation films,' he managed to sail his film into the respectable New York Tribeca Film Festival. And that's when the political poop really hit the fan.