19 April 2006

Breakfast on Pluto

Really, I should have hated it. Breakfast on Pluto treats serious subjects with utter superficiality, it's sometimes silly and sometimes mawkish, it's a jumble of styles, it's ... well, it's everything Michael Atkinson says it is in his review in the Village Voice ("unbraked blarney ... coy picaresque ... displays a longshoreman's fluency with camp culture...").

And I loved it. I haven't had such a purely enjoyable experience of watching a movie in a very long time. It might have been that I was just in the right mood for what Breakfast on Pluto had to offer. But I think there's something more to it.

The movie begins with birds (pretty obviously computer generated). Their conversation is subtitled. "Okay," I said to myself, "this is not a dramatic, sensitive exploration of transgendered life." This is not Boys Don't Cry (never mind director Neil Jordan's earlier Crying Game, a film I haven't seen in a decade, so I can't really compare it). It's not even Stage Beauty, a pretty vapid film with an excellent performance by Billy Crudup as a 16th century actor specializing in women's roles. (Actually, of the various movies about transgendered people I've seen, Breakfast on Pluto is closest to Beautiful Boxer, a movie I liked but thought needed more spirit and panache to be truly effective.)

The over-the-top style of Breakfast on Pluto, kitschy and often flat-out stupid, won me over because it allowed the story a fairy-tale feel, while at the same time Jordan grounded enough moments in some of the grittier elements of reality to create an unsettling and, I found, quite moving dynamic. Cillian Murphy plays Patrick "Kitten" Braden, who since childhood has known he is as much a she as a he. He suffers some of the standard harrassments of any sort of outsider as he grows up, but from childhood he has a puckish, mischievous, and optimistic attitude that is sometimes downright Panglossian, at other times remarkably subversive. Kitten's character doesn't progress -- she doesn't learn from her mistakes or gain insight and wisdom or anything else. This is more a story of her effect on the world than of the world's effect on her.

The story is, indeed, picaresque, and that structure is inherently episodic and even, yes, coy. But handled audaciously, it's also a lot of fun, and can accomplish more than a traditional structure would have. Halfway through the movie, I realized that I was translating the events into a separate story in my head: I was imagining a painful, naturalistic story underneath the one being presented by the film, and so the film became a kind of dreamworld that the "real" Kitten in my mind used as an escape. Now and then there would be cracks, and the two stories -- the one I was watching and the one I was imagining beneath it -- would reveal themselves to each other, most notably in a scene where Kitten is being roughed up in an interrogation room by London cops. Here, as she is being beaten, she fights desperately to hold onto the personality she has constructed. The scene that follows, where she is finally released and pleads to be locked up again for the "security" the cell provides her, is heartbreaking.

The movie is a story of a grand defense mechanism, of the self Kitten has constructed as armor against a world that is, she says, too serious -- a world that considers her a freak, an abomination, a degenerate. A world that kills her friends and steals her mother and prevents her from ever achieving love. Some critics have contended that Kitten is desexed, that, as in so many heterosexist films and books, the queer is acceptable so long as she or he isn't sexualized, but I don't see that as being quite the case here. Kitten's persona distances her from the world of sex, but so does the world itself, because she isn't able to find a path toward a real relationship. She has plenty of friends, plenty of people who adore and, yes, love her, but no lover she can hold onto, because she cannot fit comfortably into a neat category, and she lives in a world that requires, legislates, and enforces its categories so vehemently as to make anything outside those categories invisible and even unimaginable.

The ending of Breakfast on Pluto is uplifting and fun and joyful, but it is willfully so -- if we stop and think about what life Kitten will lead after the credits cease to roll, it does not seem like a particularly fulfilling one, because though she has found some acceptance and joy, she doesn't seem to have many avenues for emotional fulfillment -- despite her experiences in London, she seems to have resigned herself to living as if she is the only person like herself in the world.

Or maybe I'm just imposing a depressing reading on the happy ending, because I find unambiguously happy endings so unconvincing. But I can envision another happy ending -- perhaps Kitten and Charlie will decide not only to raise Charlie's baby together, but to become lovers and live out the rest of their days together. (Actually, since Kitten never had sex reassignment surgery, she and Charlie could be married, because going purely on the basis of genitalia, they are man and woman.)

Meanwhile, I'm just going to start using one of my favorite lines from the movie on random people: "If I wasn't a transvestite terrorist, would you marry me?"

Update 4/20/06: A commenter points to Roz Kaveney's interesting LJ posts about the film and the book, with some mention of TransAmerica as well. Here's the first, and here, after having read the book, is the second. Pretty different interpretation and experience from mine (as would be expected), but fascinating and much more insightful than anything I could offer.

3 comments:

  1. Roz Kaveny (who should know about these things) has written several times about how she enjoyed “Breakfast on Pluto” and also about her own experiences from the same time

    http://rozk.livejournal.com/100439.html#cutid2

    http://rozk.livejournal.com/103606.html#cutid1


    I thought it was all quite enjoyable with a real emotion foundation – a sort of fluffy meringue with a concrete base. Stephen Rea really caught the end-of-the-pier contrived showmanship, and Brendan Gleeson was great fun as a hooligan Womble. It was also nice to see a film where Liam Neeson doesn’t die in the second reel, although it was a bit touch-and-go at one point.

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  2. Interesting post...I haven't seen this movie, though I want to. Sometimes I like, I'll admit, when things waver in tone or voice or are over-the-top and messy in their construction. A little more Moby Dick, and a little less slick and tied-together the way so many stories/novels/movies are these days. You know?

    I hate when people say things like "these days." But I did it anyway. Feh.

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  3. Very much enjoyed your post, especially your focus on the split narrative -- Kitten's fantasy life (evidentally made real despite what we suspect would much more likely have happened to her) vs. glimpses of bleakness (you note the interrogation scenes, yes, though these end with the officers swayed to her sympathies; I think of Kitten begging them to stay in jail).

    I confess I did agree with critics who point out that Kitten is desexualized. Certainly, we know there's sex going on, but the degree to which I asked myself what was or wasn't happening with lovers brought me to the reality of the film's decision to show too little intimacy (and when intimacy was shown, there was ridicule too, such as the band members looking out of the window and making disgusted faces whenever Kitten was around their frontman).

    Thank you for giving me more food for thought about the film.

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