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"Adam"; or, What Are The Responsibilities of a Trans Film Critic?

The controversies over "Adam" outsized the film itself. But what remains an issue are the roles trans film critics play in film culture.
Caden Mark Gardner
Adam has the right to exist—but I do not think it is a good or successful film. Adam has the right to exist—but I would have preferred a few other, better trans-related works of literature chosen to be adapted by major independent film producer James Schamus.  Adam has the right to exist—but it is not a film I would implore people to see. In fact, I might even encourage people to skip it. Not out of protest or the symbolism that is ascribed to power in purchasing a movie ticket in support of LGBTQ-related films, but because I do not think this film is worth rallying around or against. As a film, it should and ought to be treated equally like the idealized notion of purchasing a movie ticket: seeing something worth seeing. Adam is not worthless or easily disposable as a whole enterprise, although I find what is most interesting about it is in what is not there or just obliquely there, and that absence heavily overshadows what is on-screen. Adam has the right to exist—but to have that as the heart of its public relations push is incredibly depressing.  The discourse and discourse economy regarding Adam quickly—if unsurprisingly—moved into the realm of free speech and censorship.  On one side, there is cancel culture, ruthless hashtags, accusatory Twitter threads, and so-called social justice warriors. On the other side, there are those involved with the film, other artists (including many trans artists), those who like the movie, those who have cancel culture fatigue or anxiety, or those who did not even like the movie but are supporting it on the basis of Adam has the right to exist.  
The film’s premise is about a cisgender male teenager getting confused for being a trans man by a cis queer woman, and hijinks and romance ensue. At its core, Adam is a provocation. The fact that Ariel Schrag, the book’s author, also wrote the screenplay does not assuage skeptics of the book. But the film’s supporters counter that having trans man Rhys Ernst direct the film should assuage skeptics and attract viewers.  Adam the film is, in fact, less provocative on-screen, which many of the film’s champions will boast of as a grace note. Another interpretation, and mine, is that it is sanitized. As a piece of writing, Adam the book had existed to be edgy, but in adaptation had its edges sandpapered down and as a result, has turned into something that looks and feels surprisingly generic. But what remains at the center of this film in premise is still there and what provoked the initial negative reactions to the book in 2014 are now returning along with a broader known understanding of trans visibility in media. Again, the supporters of the film will say Adam engages with that understanding and is simply reflecting the film's 2006 time period. To watch the film is to support a trans filmmaker, LGBTQ-related stories, and a diverse cast of newcomers that do include non-binary and trans people. To not watch would be to allow the film industry (in the most general definition of the term) choose to make less films on trans subject matter, risking throwing out the baby with the bathwater with trans-related films of which are still far too few. 
Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli while filming So Pretty
The publicity and discussion around the film between these two sides has swallowed any criticism that could be made of it whole. In the short-run, this not very good or well-acted film will have exposure that so many LGBTQ films wish to receive. It will be fascinating to measure the amount of attention Adam will get compared to Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s wonderful and truly radical feature film So Pretty that premiered earlier this year in Berlin, a trans film by a trans writer-director about queer utopian radicals in New York City.  It is doubtful So Pretty will be getting reviews in the same spaces as Adam and it is an open question if it will be in the same theaters, which is a shame because that film is truly a work of art and snapshot of our comment moment that should stand the test of time. Adam the film was always going to be a touchy object and it has smartly played into not just openly discussing the controversies but inviting the sympathies of people who sought to defend this film against the intangible threat of the internet. In this algorithmic and aggregates-obsessed view of democratized criticism in popular culture, Adam’s ratings on something like the website Goodreads were in the tank, as were averages on Letterboxd and IMDb for the film.  And social media did, in fact, play a role and was a tool for at least one film’s cancellation in 2019. Anybody who wrote a word about free speech in the spirited pieces on Adam should also, if they have not already, re-route their attention towards what has become of Craig Zobel’s human hunting horror satire film, The Hunt. #CancelAdam and #BoycottAdam are small potatoes compared to a major studio like Universal Studios folding when President Trump used Twitter—when he is not using his power in the executive branch to try to rollback rights of trans people in all walks of life—to question releasing The Hunt in this mass shooting climate, but also when conservative outrage began to spark from the film’s trailers on social media. The film’s release date was canceled by Universal less than a day after Trump’s tweet.  Adam did not and was never going to suffer that same fate for its content and anybody insisting that was a real threat were being naive.  Of course there was attempted sabotage, but sabotage led by people who have been built up like paper tigers. Such comparisons to previous controversial LGBTQ films that provoked protests and controversy, such as the organized boycotts and pickets by full-time activists of the National Gay Task Force of William Friedkin’s Cruising, are reaching and offensive to the memory of such past protests. Adam is enjoying being a model of all publicity being good publicity. 
No trans film critic who gave a positive review of Adam and in doing so mounted a spirited defense of it either separately or within their reviews should be questioned or portrayed as biased for why they were positive. But such positive reviews could have been much better served in writing about the film’s aesthetics, performances, and narrative plotting. Of course the controversy should be acknowledged, but that controversy (as it is by no definition an actual boycott) was clearly ineffective at its aims and if this film is going to have value in years down the line, there needs to be a reason for why it is a film that should be remembered rather than recalling how the film faced negativity on social media. This is when the potential long-term precedent comes into focus.  The future around covering films like Adam and such controversies related to the trans community and trans films released poses a much trickier outlook for those who are trans film critics.  This cannot and should not happen again in the next cycle of a trans-related media. But it probably will, due to the structures of published film criticism that put into question what is out there for those who are a trans film critic in this current media and film culture.
Robin Wood
When Robin Wood wrote the essay “Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic” for Film Comment in 1978, he was pushing back on the notions that his coming out as gay was considered trivial in critical spaces (including a critique from Sight & Sound) and that asserting his gay identity in his film criticism would break some code of the “objectivity” ideal because that disclosure of sexuality in his work was considered writing too personally. Wood’s response was that what he did in his personal life was a key facet for his work and how he saw art. “... I believe there will always be a close connection between critical theory, critical practice, and personal life; and it seems important that the critic should be aware of the personal bias that must inevitably affect his choice of theoretical position, and prepared to foreground it in his work.” Wood continued, “I don’t believe that any theory exists in a vacuum or as truth. Every theory is the product of the needs of particular people within a particular culture at a particular stage of its development, and can only properly be understood within its context.  Our gravitation, as human individuals within, and determined by, our culture, towards one or the other of the available critical positions, will depend on our personal needs, on the way we wish to lead our lives, on the sort of society we would like to build, on the particularities of our involvement in the social progress.” Wood’s important and foundational essay still resonates to any film critic of a minority group.  Being a trans film critic does inform all of your criticism, not just the social issues LGBTQ doc or biopic on a trans person.  Some of the strongest recent works of trans film criticism have often been found in the allegory, visually and textually, be it Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin or Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis: Evangelion rather than A Fantastic Woman or The Danish Girl. That is closer to many of the earliest queer film critical writing of subtext and allegory be it from Parker Tyler or eventually Wood himself, as he later expounds in that same essay in talking about sex, sexuality, and gender within Hawks and Renoir. Wood in his essay also noted what gay liberation, a major force for activism at the time, meant to him on ideological grounds. This led to finding Godard’s Tout Va Bien more agreeable for him politically than Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends, despite the former’s absence of queerness and the latter still regarded as one of the strongest entries in queer film canon. That mindset certainly does not apply to all gay film critics, but Wood never sought to make generalizations but a singular statement of being a gay film critic and where he stood with that self-distinction. How one trans film critic sees the world versus another obviously will yield different ways of seeing film and what trans visibility in film means to them. One trans film critic may have interests in the whole history of trans film visibility, be it in exploitation, non-fiction, or underground cinema. Another trans film critic may find no redeeming value among the overall damaging history of the trans image on film, preferring to champion the current offerings of trans films by trans filmmakers for trans viewers. Both should, along with any critic in-between those examples, be allowed to exist and prosper. It is not an either/or proposition, so as long as the writing is there.
In today’s political climate, it seems especially important to think of how one critic sees the world and what they want to see in the world being reflected through their film criticism. This should not be confused with social advocacy, which is a different role than the critic. To go back to Wood, he was every much as suspicious of certain gay film critics at the time of his essay who exclusively focused on gay films in what was, for him, a near propagandist and gatekeeping way to view art.  The critic should not be gatekeeping nor carrying the water of brands and studios for their rainbow capitalism (or rather, pink, white, and blue capitalism) by regurgitating press notes and advocating that inclusion automatically equals good representation or good art.  Of course seeing yourself can be incredibly beneficial for the trans film viewer, but reading somebody who shares your experience and how they see a film and the world of that film also holds weight. Often that exists in the negative critique, finding the film image of trans people disagreeable or even offensive and so the trans film critic is far more reliable than the other critics in finding no truth, sincerity, or good intentions in those images.  The trans subject can often feel like an abstract object in terms of not just how a trans character or experience is filmed, but also in how the non-trans critic writes about that trans character or filmed trans experience. Often, it can read as though these critics are forgetting this same group of people they saw on the silver screen exists outside of the movie and may, in fact, be reading their reviews. A trans film critic will bring a little more trust for the trans film viewer. But something like Adam reveals some complications to that. While it enjoys solid but not great aggregate scores, and with some of its loudest praises being from trans film critics, there is no consensus of the film within the community. Some think it is great, some think it applies the “trans lens” or “trans gaze” into a filmmaking framework, some think it rehabilitates the book it was adapted from, and others think this was a text not worth saving and find very little value in it. There can be a fruitful dialogue in what this film brings as adaptation or what it deals with on the topic of transness and trans masculinity that could be so much more than the monolithic summation of, what the trans community thinks or what trans film critics have to say. But due to the fact it is an indie film and the discourse of it was so controversy-focused, Adam discourse left the station after its first official opening weekend. That is the state of affairs for most non-tentpole films.
Under the Skin
To be a trans film critic is to face the fact that when you are published, your voice will often be characterized as invaluable in terms of perspective when given the platform to write. But so often the trans critic struggles to find where their voices are even valued.  There are trans people who are full-time, jack of all trades culture writers, most of whom belong to LGBTQ publications, and after that, it drops off.  Of course, some of the best writers out there are in film criticism as a side hustle or they have a side hustle in addition to their writing. But as a result of the current structures of sites and publications, there are only few voices of a minority group and that itself is not always going to yield a more diverse set of opinions and perspectives from that minority group. This might read obvious but it continues to persist. The trans film critics who review a trans film for a major site or publication will often, always be a very small sample size. Some other reviews from trans film critics will pop up on Medium, a blog post, a Patreon page, or on Letterboxd. One looks at Kelley Dong’s excellent review on Alita: Battle Angel and sees that some of the best writing found on the film cited in that piece came from trans critics who did not have the platforms beyond their own sites. Those reviews will not usually be weighted in the aggregate nor have the exposure level as those being published on a major site which is unfortunate as, although not always, there can be good writing found on those sites by trans film critics.
When New York Magazine and Vulture published a series of essays around the 20th anniversary of The Matrix, only one essay was commissioned from a trans perspective. That essay by Andrea Long Chu, although in actuality it was a book except, was about the long history of how trans community viewed The Matrix as a trans allegory as though this was common public knowledge, when it is still a concept that has been gaining momentum in film circles outside of the trans film critical sphere. While going over the significant visual signifiers of these allegories, Long Chu ultimately concluded that a trans allegory is far too limited and uninteresting.  There are many trans film critics and trans scholars who disagree, particularly in the case of The Matrix series. If anything, more dialogues of the trans-allegorical in The Matrix than any film centering a more direct trans film image have resulted in more fruitful film criticism, with Alita: Battle Angel as one notable example. This is not to criticize a critic like Long Chu, who is a good writer and critic, getting what was essentially the lone “a trans perspective on The Matrix” spot. That was out of her control and no trans critic or trans film critic should be burdened to speak for one group or community. What is the issue here is that there is still this import of bylines for a lot of contemporary culture criticism, despite how often it is a crap shoot and incredibly arbitrary in who gets to have their voices be chosen. That is the reality. Will that change? And how? In any case, the onus of that should not be on the trans film critic in what are editorial concerns, but that does not mean they cannot be critical of those instances of tokenism or outright exclusion.
The trans community is small and with that can be tight-knit. The shared experiences and relationship to moving images and art, particularly in art forms that have misrepresented the community for so many decades, is the type of mutual understanding that can form a bond among that community.  Trans filmmakers who have been making films on the trans experience have also been put in some unenviable positions of having their projects made, produced, and get the platforms and with the burden of being able to create art and images can withstand the scrutiny of their own community. Their struggles to be seen outside of LGBTQ-related film festivals is a continued struggle and that remains a point of contention when something as risible as Lukas Dhont’s trans ballerina film Girl gets to be at major festivals and gain Netflix distribution. That film and its initial positive reception is a major indictment of the type of trans art that gets major festival play and how festivals often are absent of trans film critics who, by and large, hated Dhont’s film and individually offered fascinating perspectives in their scathing critiques.  So then it is easy to find moments of solidarity between trans filmmakers and trans film critics in the struggle to make their work in their disciplines visible and be able to occupy spaces of film culture that is often is missing them. In fact, friendships may be struck between the trans film critic and the trans filmmaker who connect through these all too common struggles.  Perhaps why the hashtag protests of Adam struck a chord within the community is because many trans artists—but not all—and certain—but not all—trans film critics so often use hashtags to connect community-wide. These hashtags can be PSA calls to action and tools of solidarity in terms of getting out trans positivity by retweeting, favoriting, and sharing hashtags like #TransIsBeautiful, #TransformationTuesday, and #GirlsLikeUs. These are not all activist in nature and can function in a way to promote visibility when platforms are not otherwise there for the art or artist. So seeing those tools go in another direction to undermine trans-related art is perhaps dispiriting to those who use it and that they perhaps overestimate the power of a hashtag, especially when it is used in some activist sense, as a result.
In this way, the lines between critics and artists within the trans community are a huge gray area. Ideally, stronger lines and boundaries between those two groups need to be more enforced. However, it is not as though that practice has yielded many benefits for either side. The lack of structures for the trans filmmaker (or broadly, the trans artist) and the trans film critic often gives way to more elastic roles in art, which is not necessarily a bad thing. There is the fact that many trans film critics do aspire to be trans filmmakers and that some of the strongest critical works on transness can come from trans art such as Jordy Rosenberg’s reclamation of alternative queer history by way of a speculative fiction novel, Confessions of the Fox.  However, those are the exceptions and not the norm.  Trans film and trans film criticism can interact and be in a dialogue with one another, but it needs to acknowledge that criticism is not there to exist as echo chambers, accepting all films as lodestars of the trans experience, that all representation is good representation, or to exist as soundboards of only praise to that art.  
In the end, the trans film critic should have their writing be evocative of their tastes and perspectives that reach far beyond a few films of their community that come out each year. That a trans film critic should always be mindful that their perspective is of a singular perspective rather than a complete testament of an entire community and that their background can include certain blindspots, be it due to privilege or something else tied to their perspective. A white trans man may not always understand the nuances of the trans experience for the trans woman of color and vice versa.  Not to mention that this extremely North American-centric perspective is also just one perspective of the varying trans experiences around the globe. However, these perspectives can all exist by being honest through their criticism while being in dialogue in what they see in what film culture has to offer them and be critical of what that film culture is lacking. And perhaps it is healthy to acknowledge that film culture may not always be receptive to these criticisms or open to these discerning eyes and voices, and, may in fact, be pretty flippant over any of these suggestions and criticisms. But nevertheless, there are many good trans film critics around and deserve to be read for what they see in a film’s image, as what they see individually is more valuable and beneficial to film culture than perhaps film culture at this point even realizes.


Long ReadsRhys Ernst
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