Monday, June 18, 2012

The Duality of Dodge

Another month, another blogathon, another kick in the pantspress for me to create and not just consume. And I'm quite happy to be part of the throng participating in this year's Queer Film Blogathon, an event not so large as to rival your regional White Party, but sizable enough to require two great blogs to host it - the classicly-minded Caroline at Garbo Laughs is now joined by the eclectic Ashley and Andreas at Pussy Goes Grr to collect all these diverse ruminations on identity, celluloid, and the ways of seeing them all.

This post is also respectfully dedicated to my close friend and analytical powerhouse Kadimah Elson, whose heavy intelligence has inspired me, whose viewing recommendation put me in the orbit of my essay subject, and whose willingness to take the occasional 2 a.m. phone call has kept me from closing up shop and moving to Alaska lock, stock, and barrel.

When I've spent enough time in the company of a new acquaintance that some small personal questions are not socially invasive on the whole, but could still seem gauche if their behavior is vague enough that certain answers are not obvious, I've had to find creative ways to make said inquiries. And what's most interesting, and gratifying, is when that person is so on your wavelength that they can see your dance steps and recognize the song, and in turn take you for a spin.

Within my first year of living in Los Angeles, somehow, I found that connection twice. Each time, it was with a female co-worker of multiple ambiguities. And after an appropriate couple days of surface conversation, along with no prying ears of others who might offer unwanted input, I would ask an unusual question: "So, Deion: baseball or football?" Now, neither of these women were sports fans, so I would not expect them to know of Deion Sanders' work in both disciplines. Moreover, the 1995 Pizza Hut commercial where this phrase first emerged had long ceased airing on television or to have any common conversational relevance, and it stands to reason they had never heard the logical-progression joke made popular by my comedian friend Jake Iannarino (whom, strangely enough in terms of timing, just recently had me as a guest on his podcast). But each time, the woman in question needed no metaphor explanation: without hesitation, they replied, "Both." And each time, we became friends pretty fast, although the friendship dissipated just as quickly: I haven't heard from either of them in almost a decade since. (Ms. McGill, Ms. Henry - if you're out there, and in the mood, please give me a shout.)

The kind of fluidity that is not capable nor content to stay confined to one paradigm, be it in competitive play or in gender identity, has been what queer culture has sought to nurture and allow to flourish. And the search for someone with that kind of instant understanding, that way of reading your shorthand without a primer...well, that's something we're all looking for, even if that proper term of namaste has been rendered unbearable by legions of p.c. patchouli princesses and trust-fund asshats who got astral wisdom through a shroom-enhanced home viewing of AVATAR. These two eternal search streams would be united in what is, so far, the sole feature film director credit of a most flexible and compelling artist: Harry Dodge.

My unlikely first visit with the 2001 film BY HOOK OR BY CROOK came about during a rare visit with the aforementioned Ms. Elson to the three-cats-shy-of-a-"HOARDERS"-episode firetrap otherwise known as my home. We were exchanging "I need you to see this" viewings, and while I cannot remember what I was stumping for, I firmly remember her solemnly expressing how much impact she felt after seeing this film, and inspired by that passion, watching it with her on the spot. I freely admit I was not prepared for the unfiltered milleu that writer/director team Dodge and Silas Howard dropped me into, and that I never fully found my bearings once there. My initial assessment made its way to the IMDb, and looking back upon it, even with all my ostensibly generous praise to the filmmakers, I feel I was a little harsh on it. I rated it a 6 out of 10, I think I would bump it up to a 7 now. The bottom line is that I came out cool on the product but very hot on the creators, and over the years, kept thinking about them and wondering when and what they would offer as follow-up. And even in my initial ambivalence to the film itself, I respected it enough that when I was in a going-out-of-business sale at a video store last year, I found a used DVD copy of BY HOOK and bought it, even though I didn't really plan on watching it again, but simply because I wanted it in my collection, as a statement to my belief in their talent, and perhaps to loan out to another friend ready to step out of their familiar zone of comfort films. When the solicitations came for this year's Queer Film Blogathon, I signed up before knowing what I would write about, and after mulling other possibilities, realized this was a good time to revisit this film.

The story elements of BY HOOK may seem familiar: small town drifter Shy (Howard), with empty pockets, hustles their way to the big city, meets Valentine (Dodge), another fellow down on their luck, and discover for as much as they're trying to assert how well they can navigate the world, they really need each other as friends to survive it. The prime detail that makes this all fresh is that both creators, and the protagonists they play, are transgender, so natural in their identity it's not a plot point at all, and practically not even an issue as they go about life, though at times the topic comes up among themselves and outside observers do notice - in one nice low-key moment, some kids notice Shy on a stoop and ask "Are you a boy or a girl?" and he calmly replies "Both." (I'm pretty sure Howard wasn't a Deion Sanders fan either) As such, nothing that takes place in the movie can be marginalized as some sort of specific or exclusive gay/lesbian experience - we're seeing a male-bonding arc like we would see in any number of conventional buddy films - yet we are in a place and among people we don't often get to meet in life or at the movies. Instead of trying to explain themselves and make us relate to them, we join Shy and Val already in progress, and naturally relate to them anyhow. As blogger Jesse Ataide wrote in his review, "[It is] just about the only film I can think of that allows the main characters not only occupy an ambiguous space in regards to both gender and sexuality, but also has a narrative that shows no interest in forcing or demanding distinctions be made...not only is it an alternative view of [San Francisco] but practically an alternative universe in and of itself..."

The other detail that makes this movie stick to the ribs like the rich dinner ostensibly promised by intentionally punnishly-named producer Steak House (and their Steakhaus Productions company) is Harry Dodge's performance as Valentine.  Lest I disrespect the other parties, I must stress that BY HOOK OR BY CROOK is a team effort, not just involving the longtime friends and collaborators Dodge & Howard, but also substantial contribution from co-star (and Dodge's then-partner) Stanya Kahn as Billie, Val's supportive girlfriend. Together in their performances and improvised dialogue, they make the foundation that keeps the viewer interested in their story when it otherwise starts to drag. But while Howard is conventionally handsome as Shy, in his good suit and father's oversized shoes, and Kahn is adorable with her frazzled sense of fashion, as soon as we meet Val, he owns the movie. Vulnerable, prone to poetic ramblings and colorful slang, yearning for a parent never known, and playing much more of a tweener role with his gender than Shy, with Billie he has a girlfriend who loves him, but Shy is that kindred soul who gets him. And as Shy learns to put aside his thoughts of petty crime to help out Val, we get over the initial oddity of Val's demeanor and become fond and protective of his damaged soul.

Quoted as neither identifying as “either male or female particularly,” in the manner of pansexual provocateur Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (albeit without the surgical enhancements), for me Harry Dodge embodies that unclassifiability whom all those who have fought this culture war on the side of the square pegs and $3 bills had in mind. His scraggly twin strands of beard so small and fragile they remind one of a child playing dress-up with no regard to gender appropriateness, he seems always ready for play and exploration and unbothered by tired protocols. This isn't one of those, say, "if Mickey Rourke in THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE and Ally Sheedy in THE BREAKFAST CLUB had a baby" situations; those two got into Calvin's transmogrifier and got smushed into one person. His spirit embodies the first strand of my fifth paragraph, and BY HOOK OR BY CROOK nicely embodies the second strand of that preamble. I don't quite know if it's grammatically correct to use the term man-crush in this situation, but I think he's just dreamy.

The filmmakers and many critics have cited John Schlesinger's MIDNIGHT COWBOY as an influence on this film, and it's a sensible comparison: Val's observation "That is a colossal shirt" is directly stolen from that earlier film. But for me, the unacknowledged and closest spiritual cousin is Jerry Schatzberg's 1973 drama SCARECROW starring Gene Hackman and Al Pacino as wanderers brought together by fate, meandering around the highways. In fact they are so close as if HOOK were a free remake of the former. Hackman's Max is the tough, hardscrabble loner who is out to make and hold onto money to feed an illusion of security and success, just as Shy contemplates petty thefts to assuage his resentment over being poor. And Pacino's flamboyant Lion uses humor and pretty metaphors to insulate himself against large heartbreak as Val does. Both films involve one character creating a loud diversion in a store so that the other can pilfer goods. And the endings also present almost matching situations where a moral crossroads is reached. There is no evidence Howard or Dodge saw SCARECROW when they were picking bits of inspiration. But these two movies would make an excellent double feature someday.

Silas Howard has apparently moved forward to the greater commercial success that I had predicted. Already popular before HOOK from performing in the subversive punk band Tribe 8, Howard now has his own production outfit Standard Quality, has multiple music videos and commercials on his resume, co-directed (with Ernesto Foranda) the new comedy SUNSET STORIES which stars Jim Parsons of "HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER" and Zosia Mamet of "GIRLS", and is developing a biopic of closeted trans jazz singer Billy Tipton. Heck, when entertainment work gets slow, he'll even paint your house.

Dodge, meanwhile, being the more curious half of the team, has had the more curious post-film path. It's difficult to get a simple, one-stop curriculum vitae on the multihyphenate Dodge - in conducting research for this article, I went through about 13 Google search pages to get a truly rounded portrait. I suspect that this is hardly about maintaining some kind of Pynchonian pose and more about not being famous enough to have a dedicated Wikipedia listing; the artist has been forthcoming in all located interviews and never seems to blanch at personal inquiries.  But I gotta say, when your body of art consists of playfully blurring lines, making a fella work to get the story helps keep them asking questions, so just in case this scattered data is a calculated manoeuvre...well played, Dodge.

I am aware that HOOK would not be seen by enough people of influence to help him break out into more film roles (though beforehand he already worked with John Waters on CECIL B. DEMENTED and later provided narration for Jenni Olson's docudrama THE JOY OF LIFE), but I am legitimately shocked nonetheless that he didn't get cast in more films, with his unique look and voice.  Granted, that may have been by his own choice - until their professional split in 2010, Dodge and Stanya Kahn made a prolific body of avant-garde videos and exhibits, influenced by their love of stand-up and sketch comedy, and challenging the slick and staid nature of the art world (They received particular praise for "Can't Swallow It, Can't Spit it Out", which played many museum installations) - so maybe he just wasn't interested in staying within the confines of traditional filmmaking. Heck, as I type that sentence, it makes perfect sense with all the other aspects I look up to Dodge for. He has also been teaching at CalArts in Valencia for many years, and at last check, continues to do so, so at least he can influence new artists in that fashion. If you're one of his students reading this essay, stop playing Fruit Ninja in his class and pay attention!

In any case, I really do hope that sometime, in some capacity, we will see Dodge make another foray into the movies and put his own special touch on the human condition, where once again, we can see emotions we recognize in a face and space that we might not. By hook or by crook indeed!


  1. Oh wow, I was enjoying reading your thoughts and was surprised them to stumble across my own! Thanks for the mention!

    I wouldn't say your first review is necessarily far off the mark--it more or less mirrors my own initial reaction to the film. The weird, endearing rhythms of the film have really stuck with me though, and I look forward to revisiting at some point. It's a shame it hasn't gotten more attention--it seems to have been taken up by the scholarly community, but hasn't quite found as big of a general audience as it deserves.

    And thanks for the research into Dodge and Howard's post-Hook careers. It's nice to know that they've continued to explore their creativity in various ways, and I agree--it'd be wonderful to see them (either together or individually) back behind the camera again!

    Great post, I really enjoyed it.


  2. Great review, Marc. I hadn't heard of this film until now but I shall have to seek it out. Thanks for contributing.