Thursday, June 25, 2009

New Designs for Living

The first time I went on an industrial tour was probably in fourth grade, when our class was taken to the Dannon Yogurt plant in Brooklyn. Since then I've watched jet planes being assembled at the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington, visited Liberty Orchards to watch them make Aplets & Cotlets candies, toured the inside of Hoover Dam and gone on backstage tours of the Metropolitan Opera House.

Whether holding my nose as a child while visiting the Armour-Star meat packing plant, visiting the Bureau of Engraving & Printing in the nation's capital to see how money was made, learning how breweries make beer, or visiting a local factory that made teddy bears, I've gotten a pretty good understanding of how things move along an assembly line.

When I discovered a cable TV show called How It's Made, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I learned how everything from pianos to wheelchairs -- from candy canes to Stetson hats -- were made. You can watch a series of video clips from the show here.

Although industrial tours and video presentations do a grand job of entertaining curious minds, they only demonstrate how certain things are put together. This week I got a superb explanation of why certain choices are made in the process of industrial design (thanks to Gary Hustwit's wonderful new documentary Objectified, that was shown at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts).

What Objectified does is explain to the viewer how form and function come together in the process of industrial design and how slight variations in a design can make a product more useful to many more people. In a simple example, one designer explains how a standard-issue potato peeler had become a problem for an elderly woman with arthritic hands. The solution was to embed the handle of the potato peeler in a rubberized bicycle handlebar grip so that it could widen the tool's base and allow the woman to grip it firmly while working in her kitchen.

Perhaps the most important insight from this documentary came from the designer who stressed that he is not interested in looking for how a product can best solve the needs of the millions of users who are in the middle or "norm," but rather how it will match the needs of people who are at the extreme ends of the spectrum of needs.

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That message hit home while watching another film a few nights later. Earlier this year, I had reviewed Debra Chasnoff's documentary Straightlaced: How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up (in which she examines how gender roles are imposed on children from the very moment they are born with little understanding of whether or not a parent's expectations actually mesh with the child's reality).

In Ready? OK! (a new feature film written and directed by James Vasquez), a young boy with big dreams runs into a brick wall of traditional gender expectations. Joshua Dowd (Lurie Poston) lives in Normal Heights and goes to a private Catholic school. Although he desperately wants to become a cheerleader, the humorless Sister Vivian (Tali Karsan) will have none of it. Only girls can be cheerleaders. Having carefully researched the relevant rules and regulations, when Joshua protests, Sister Vivian reminds him that he's been reading about the rules for public schools, not private schools.

Joshua's mother Andrea (Carrie Preston) is the harried executive assistant to a local television news reporter (Kali Rocha), who has much more attitude than brains or talent. Andrea's mother Emily (Sandra Ellis-Troy) got so tired of her children coming back home to live with her that she finally moved out and found an apartment of her own in the neighborhood, leaving the house to her daughter and grandson.

Andrea's twin brother, Alex (John G. Preston), has been a professional failure for most of his life. Both twins have suffered severe emotional wounds after their father abandoned the family. Among Andrea's neighbors is a gay couple -- one of whom is a tailor named Charlie (Michael Emerson). Because Charlie works out of his home, he is often deputized to keep an eye on Joshua after school lets out. He is also one of the few people who supports the young boy's dream of becoming a cheerleader and treats him like a person instead of an obligation.

Although Joshua is also on the wrestling team, his friends are all girls. His heart lies less with combat and more with team spirit. When Andrea's neuroses get out of hand during a birthday celebration for her son, Alex (who has recently returned home after cleaning out their deceased and long-estranged father's home), finally loses his temper and reminds his sister that the reason she got knocked up in college was because she fell in love with a professor whose first name was the same as their long-absent father's.

It doesn't take long for Andrea to lose her job and for Joshua to be seen wearing a dress (he interpreted his school assignment to dress as someone he admired as a good chance to show his appreciation for Maria von Trapp). Soon, other boys on the wrestling team are making fun of him. One person lets loose with a homophobic taunt and Joshua ends up with a big bruise on his face.

Who will stand up for Joshua? Certainly not the unfeeling Sister Vivian. Nor is it easy for Andrea to hear that some things in life are not all about her. By delivering one of the clearest, most concise messages about letting a child make important choices for himself, Charlie becomes the quiet and unwitting hero of Vasquez's film. While Ready? OK! has many tender moments, it is the scene in which Charlie sets Andrea straight about her responsibilities to her son's future that makes it worth watching. Here's the trailer:

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Last year, Lucia Puenzo's deeply moving feature, XXY, told the story of a 15-year-old hermaphrodite from Buenos Aires who had been living with her parents in a quiet fishing village in Uruguay as she struggled to come to grips with her gender confusion. Because her parents had refused to have their child operated on when Alex was born, at 15 she still had both sets of sexual organs intact.

In Kirsty MacDonald's mind-blowing documentary from New Zealand (Assume Nothing) that was shown during Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival), we meet some amazing men and women who have used their own definitions of gender as a major focus for their art. They include:
  • Mani Bruce Mitchell: born more than 50 years ago as a hermaphrodite, who discusses the shame she was always made to feel during her childhood about her body.
  • Shigeyuki Kihara, a Japanese-Samoan performance artist and photographer who identifies as a Fa’afafine (a third gender specific to Samoan culture). Whether performing onstage in Sydney, Australia, or having her work on display at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kihara sees herself as normal and the rest of the world as needing to catch up. She believes that cisgenderism is the alternative gender identity to transgenderism (and not the other way around).
  • Jack Byrne, a New Zealand transman poet and human rights activist who takes great pride in his skill as both a drag king and drag queen.
  • Rebecca Swan, a red-headed professional photographer whose book of portraits entitled Assume Nothing forces viewers to question their views about gender identity. "Becks" has also become Jack's domestic partner.
  • Ema Lyon, a performance artist who likes to play with androgynous images, describes herself using the gender neutral Maori pronoun “ia” and the indigenous queer term “takataapui.” Happy to be photographed in very masculine clothes and settings, Ema also poses for Swan's camera while pregnant.

What makes this documentary different from so many others is that many of its subjects are artist-activists whose careers have been made by building on their own definitions of gender (rather than being pigeonholed by traditional gender expectations). The fact that many of them are extremely creative talents means that the quality of work seen in MacDonald's film -- including some superb animation sequences -- is often breathtaking.

The heavy influence of Maori, Samoan and Japanese cultures (where third gender or intersex people are fully accepted as a part of the natural spectrum of sexuality) puts Assume Nothing into a class all by itself. This is a documentary with a clear artistic vision that benefits from the vision of some clearly talented artists.

MacDonald's film is dramatically challenging, wildly indulgent, and unflinching in its highly intelligent examination of people whose lives have been shaped in new and unusual ways by their experiences with gender issues. The art seen in this film can easily hold its own against that of a legendary photographer like Robert Mapplethorpe, who also dealt with images of sexual ambiguity. Here's the trailer:

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