You can't even imagine how angry Judge Bill Gibron was to learn that neither Frankie Avalon nor Bananarama appears in this movie...or how intrigued he was to learn that it's about a bunch of women who dress up like men.
Women become men—some for a night, others for their whole lives.
For Dréd Gerestant, it's an experiment in identity and a chance to express some deep-seated inner feelings. For Bridge Markland, it's an opportunity for this international star to perform and perfect her "ultimate asshole" routine. Mo Fischer is more interested in the acting than the lifestyle aspects of her imitation, and Storme Webber is defying the cultural and social stigma regarding gender and sexual assignments. But for people like Del LaGrace Volcano and Diane Torr, the costume has become the conceit. While one denies her previous physical incarnation, the other uses her original categorization to help channel her politicized commentary. Everyone here was born a woman. Everyone here also dresses up as a man, taking the idea of role reversal to dizzying heights of purposeful puzzlement.
Dréd is the star of a nightclub act where she assumes the persona of a super-suave ladies' man. Bridge bends the boundaries of orientation to create personified androgyny. Mo is a satirist, exposing the worst of man's miscreant mannerisms. Storme is exploring the fine line between masculinity and femininity to create a new manner of sexual statement. But for Diane, the pioneer of this so-called "drag king" movement, there is no such thing as "playing" at maleness. She wants to consume and condense the entire paternalistic society into a series of conditioned responses and glorified guy gestures. For Del, acceptance and happiness for who she/he thinks she/he is—a female man—is all she/he wants. Together, these engaging individuals become the Venus Boyz, individuals trapped between the goddess and the god, the mister and the miss.
A celebration of sexuality and gender, as well as an insider's guide to a wholly foreign underground scene, Venus Boyz walks us through the fascinating world of the drag king. Most modern-minded people understand the connotation of the drag queen. From RuPaul and Divine to various Hollywood variations on the man-as-woman theme—To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert—pop culture's acceptance of male-into-female impersonation is more or less a reluctantly earned given. But few in the mainstream would recognize the work of Mo Fischer (under the nom de plume Moe B. Dick) or the sensational sculpture of Svar Simpson. Just as Paris is Burning highlighted the drag pageants and costume contests for homosexual men, Venus Boyz discusses the growing movement among women, both gay and straight, to mimic and mine the male persona. For most, it is an artistic statement, a way of addressing the paternalistic nature of Western society in a stand-up/satirical manner. For others, it's as empowering a choice as coming out of the closet or fully embracing an alternative lifestyle.
Over the course of 103 mesmerizing minutes, we begin to scrape the surface of this secretive subset of the population, learning why it is important for them to take on the machismo mannerisms and ball-itching buffoonery of your average guy. The psychology of such a complete persona switch is certainly addressed, but at the heart of this film is an exploration of self; of what makes up a person and a personality and the issues that determine our ID as men, women, or "other." Strangely, this is not an issue of sex. Orientation and proclivity are rarely addressed in Venus Boyz. Instead, this film is about who we think we are, and why we indeed think of ourselves in that way.
For the most part, Venus Boyz walks a fine line between unbelievably entertaining and professionally perfunctory. If there is one uninteresting aspect to this film, it is the time spent in the club and/or performance venue. Sad to say it, but many of these ladies have a lot to learn about "being" men. Certainly they can capture the clichés and the obvious elements to cheap effect, but unless it's Dréd Gerestant or Diane Torr, these "kings" are far less effective in the guy disguise than men are in the woman's world. Most of the material here is a retread of popular daytime chat shows (men are pigs, they're brutish and loud, et cetera) with no real keen insight. Again, only Torr shows that she's actually studied the idea of being a man, of what such a significant sexual factor that is.
It's also interesting to note how little airplay femininity and the girlie-girl mystique gets in Venus Boyz. While not outright rejecting their birth boundaries, one gets the impression that these lad/ladies left their vaginal variations behind a long time ago. Also absent is the drive and desperation of the drag queen, of a bulky, bulbous boy trying to mold his manhood into a recognizable female form. In its place is a kind of political resolve, an overall scene philosophy that has gay and straight, pretending and practicing, treating each other with equal sensitivity and sharpness. While we don't get much insight into how the straight world views these taboo-busting broads—and, sadly, vice versa—the James Brown-intoned "Man's World" gets an overlong workout in the dissertation and debates between these articulate, amazing people. Venus Boyz is not out to exploit or exhibit, but to explain the reasoning behind blurring the lines of gender delineation. And it succeeds superbly.
Several of the subjects here are worthy of their own solo documentaries. Dréd Gerestant, who resembles a super-suave African American pimp "playa" better than most of the men she impersonates, has a heartbreaking tale of early rejection and resolve that helps you understand her alter ego (and her homosexual drag queen friend and fierce lesbian lover). Del LaGrace Volcano, a testosterone-injecting photographer, comes close to claiming incorrect sexual assignment at birth, but overall, expresses a serene happiness with the daily discovering—thanks to hormones—of her "maleness." Though a little of her grating, radicalized personality goes a very long way, Storme Webber seems the most at odds with the world around her, deconstructing her entire physicality (no makeup, body hair, outrageous dreadlocks) to hopefully break down the barriers between the genders. And then there is Diane Torr, recognized founding "father" of the drag king movement. Living as a combination man/woman performance artist and social comedian, even going so far as to teach a class for beginning gender benders, Torr is a titan of taking chances and making myth. It's easy to see why so many follow her: she speaks with a sense of surety that comes from years of field research and personal reflection.
This is what's best about Venus Boyz. It leaves behind most of the glitter and drama of alternative lifestyles to actually discuss the decision to switch sex, if only temporarily. Rarely has a film offered such brash insight in direct contravention of what a mainstream audience can fathom. But Venus Boyz is out to tell a story—and what a wonderful, wise tale it is.
Shot on video and presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, the direct-to-digital delivery is almost flawless. While there is some minor technical noise toward the top left corner of the letterbox, the overall image is amazing. Director Gabriel Baur, along with skilled cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux, blend color and monochrome imagery to bring out the humanity in each of the individuals, as well as the pounding pulse of Manhattan and London. While some of the camera tricks can get a little carried away (do we really need so many slow motion frame-by-frame shots of blurring streetlights?), the overall effect of Venus Boyz's visuals is to place you directly into the scene in question. Sonically, the Dolby Digital Stereo does a fine job of keeping the conversations understandable while adding in both musical and ambient atmosphere.
Sadly, the bonus content is a little underwhelming. While the biographies help flesh out many of the story segments we hear in the film, the interview with director Baur is far too short. Just as she gets into the ideas behind the documentary as well as the financing, she's finished. A look at how the movie played around the world (and the performers' reaction to the audience response) makes for an amazing, if again, way too truncated featurette. More of this kind of material, as well as a commentary or two, would have rounded out this package nicely. Instead we are left with a few unanswered questions that we never fully comprehend.
While short on the actual history of the drag king movement (it contains none of Paris is Burning's scene-by-scene specifics) and sometimes racy when it should be more revelatory, Venus Boyz is still an outstanding documentary. It sheds light on what has long been a reality of alternative lifestyles but barely mentioned in the current climate of the pop culture landscape. Male or female, gay or straight, this is one fascinating exploration of self, both sexual and social. It should not be missed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Interview with Director Gabriel Baur
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