Friday, December 3, 2010

El Transexual (1977): or, Life is a Cabaret, but Death is a Branson Show

Over the course of his long and exceptionally prolific career, Paul Naschy told a lot of strange stories. Some were strange because they concerned undying sorcerers or immortal werewolves; others because they delved into the weird, twisting hallways of the insane mind. But in 1977, he made what some might call his strangest movie--strange mostly because it was completely unlike the type of movie Paul Naschy was known for making.

In his autobiography, Memoirs of a Wolfman, Paul relates his inspiration for this flick: "One night I was having a beer at the bar of a rather special establishment when a stunning blonde came up to me...I invited her to have a drink with me and we carried on with our friendly chat. Lisa was surprisingly well-read and spoke with a deep, husky voice...She surprised me by asking whether I'd read anything by Restiff de la Bretone. I happened to be familiar with the works of this 18th Century French libertine and author of pornographic writings...At that moment Somebody called Lisa over and a few moments later I had to go to the gents. I was stading at the urinal when Lisa came in, lifted her skirt, and started to urinate. She was a she-male."

Despite his blunt terminology, Paul was fascinated. He researched the story of Lorena Capelli, "a transsexual who died under mysterious circumstances." (More info on Capelli--in Spanish, but with pics--here.) He made friends with the patrons of the famous Gay Club in Madrid, and gained a lot of knowledge about transsexual culture in 70s Spain, where sex change operations were illegal and dangerous. Out of that study came the story for El Transexual (1977), directed by José Jara from a script by Naschy and Antonio Fors.

The Fine Art of Seduction

In the flick, Naschy plays a journalist and photographer investigating a social scandal, the specifics of which are never particularly clear. What is clear is that his key witness is Lorna (Ágata Lys, who played Charo in the recently reviewed Frenchman's Garden), a transsexual caberet performer at the Gay Club--who must be modeled on Capelli, though how closely I can't say. When Lorna disappears just before giving Naschy the info he needs for his scoop, he goes calling on all her friends and acquaintences trying to find her, and in the process learns a great deal about her life and history.

The movie has an unusual structure for a Naschy-written flick, which (though often slightly incoherent) usually plow ahead in a more-or-less linear fashion from from opening to end credits. In this one, we follow Paul as he finds one of Lorna's associates, cajoles or forces his way into his or her confidence, and demands to know where she is. Then we are suddenly flashed back to that person's experience with Lorna, watching the performer's past trials and tribulations as if they happen concurrently with Paul's search. This happens again and again, which gives the movie an almost spiraling structure--a repeated circuitous narrative turns in on itself while floating inexorably to the ground.

This search-flashback-search structure is punctuated by talking-head interviews with Eva Bravo (Eva Robin, perhaps? The imdb cast list is unhelpful), an actual transsexual who offers extremely frank and sometimes explicit information about what it means to be transgendered, her own personal history and her family's reactions, and precisely what is involved in a castration/vaginoplasty operation. In a disarmingly open exchange, Eva tells the interviewer how her vagina was constructed surgically, and about the ins and outs--as it were--of her sex life. In a turn of phrase that has entered my daily lexicon, Eva explains how, when she gets particularly randy with no partner around, she can and does "unburden herself" manually. Sounds a lot better than "Buffeting the Bishop," what?

...furry like a squirrel?
This being a Naschy film, and further having such a sensational and (at the time) taboo subject, one might be forgiven for expecting lots of unsettling exploitation action centering around Lorna and her lovers. But in this case, you'll be disappointed. Surprisingly, Naschy seems entirely uninterested in exploiting his subject for cheap thrills. He and director Jara are making a drama here, not a sleaze flick, and they clearly expect the audience to be on Lorna's side--and this in 1970s Catholic Spain, mind you!

As details of Lorna's life emerge, we learn several surprising things--surprising again because they do not follow the expected exploitation narrative. For instance, from cinematic experience you might expect to learn that Lorna's family disowned her and threw her out when they found out about her transsexuality--but here, her family is portrayed as entirely supportive, her father kind and understanding as she prepares to undergo her dangerous vaginoplasty. You might expect Naschy to uncover rampant drug use and prostitution in the Gay Club, and to deduce Lorna got caught up in it all and hence was "disappeared"; but no, everyone at the club, from the kindly hat check lady to Lorna's non-transsexual coworker Loti, is presented as down-to-earth, well-adjusted, and even happy. Everywhere you think something ugly or outrageous is likely to pop up, the movie frustrates it with a picture of calm and normalcy. Lorna is successful, happy with her life, and happy with her decision to have a sex change, despite its illegality.

"Why yes, I am pleased to see you. Why do you ask?"

This is not to say that exploitation elements are not present here--Naschy hasn't completely changed his spots. There's plenty of nekkidity on display--in fact, when we are introduced to Naschy's character, he's in his photography studio late and night, photographing a gorgeous and nude young lady for no discernable purpose! Ágata Lys never gives us a Spanish version of The Crying Game (mainly for censorship reasons, one presumes, and also because she is a woman playing a transsexual rather than an actual transsexual), but she does often show her voluptuous breasts and well-formed ass. Several performers at the Gay Club--many of whose acts we get to see in their entirety--are either nude or so nearly nude as to make the difference negligible.

These nightclub acts might bring the movie to a halt for some, but I found them fascinating as cultural documents--we see drag acts, showgirl numbers, lip-synching and actual singing, and a comical, entertaining number in which the performer, whose clothes and makeup are divided vertically into "male" and "female" sides, plays out a lover's spat in which the two halves slap, argue, tussle with, and finally undress one another! It's a wonderful look into the caberet scene in Madrid at the time, filmed at the same Gay Club (that's it's name as well as designation) where Naschy got the idea for the script, with many of the same performers. (He even recreates the "standing at the urinal" story in an early scene, though Paul's character here is not so surprised as Naschy likely was in real life.)

No one heckled Maria Consuelo twice.
While the movie never really goes over the line into out-and-out exploitation, it does skirt the edge of over-the-topness a couple of times. For instance, Paul attends a gay wedding, in which a couple of his friends from the club--one the owner and another a female impersonator--say their vows and then sign legal documents to share their worldly possessions. This scene might be seen as over-the-top by conservative-minded viewers, but the lawyer in attendance, and Paul's character, only smile their approval and wish the couple the best. This is not the reason the scene is bordering exploitation, however--the "bride's" psychosomatic pregnancy and outlandish (cliched) behavior, as well as the circus-like atmosphere of the wedding, are what push the envelope. The "pre-surgery" scenes and some of Bravo's talk are also rather exploitationy, but only in voice-over form.

The last person Paul talks to is Eduardo (Vicente Parra), Lorna's boyfriend who rejected her when he learned that she was born a man--coincidentally, right before she disappeared. Did Lorna commit heartbroken suicide? Hardly--her disappearance is for tragic reasons, but ones that can be laid at the feet of an ignorant society rather than a troubled person's bad choices (as is the usual narrative). Again, it's significant that by the end of the flick, Eduardo is remorseful and ashamed of his behavior, and desperate to find Lorna and get her back; she is, he learns too late, his one true love.

"Hey--nice package!"

Apparently his public was not quite ready for Naschy's accepting, tolerant, humanistic outlook on this subject--he calls the movie "ill-fated" in his book, and Mirek Lipinski of the Mark of Naschy website notes that the film was banned for several years in Spain. As it is, El Transexual stands as a truly unique entry in Paul Naschy's filmography, and one unlike just about any of his other flicks. Never released on video in the states and long out of print in Europe, it's available now only through grey market and torrent sources (so far as I know), and then rarely. Still, for the Naschy fan it's one that rewards the effort to seek it out, as it shows a side of Naschy's personality (and a side of Spanish "fringe" culture in the 70s) that we don't often get to see. 2.75 thumbs.

It's a nice day to start again


The Duke of DVD said...

A fantastic capstone to our Blogathon, Vicar!

Wait a hot second... the gay club's name was "Gay Club"?! That's beyond hilarious! It beats the name of the one I plan to open, "The Flaming Nethers".

The back story on how Naschy came to make this film is fascinating. It's good to know Paul was open-minded. Kinda like you, Vicar, when visiting the secret club down the road from your villa in Southern Austria: "Ich Liebe Schtink-tubens".

dr.morbius said...

I'm going to reserve judgment on this one until I get to see it, as you might expect. The structure you describe--drama intercut with interview material--reminds me a LOT of Doris Wishman's Let Me Die a Woman, though I imagine that that one scores a bit higher on the ol' sleaze-o-meter (a warning to the curious: it has graphic surgical footage).

I am a leetle annoyed that this is "El" Transexual (sic), given that "el" is masculine. But, hey, this movie is thirty three years old, so what can you do?

The Vicar of VHS said...

@The Duke--I thought we said what happened in Austria STAYED in Austria! :)

@Dr. Morbius--I haven't seen the Wishman flick, but while there is surgery prep here, there's nothing *that* graphic. In this film, a lot of times the voice-over plays instead of a conventional soundtrack over the "search" sequences, making me wonder if maybe some sound was lost and this was a way to fill in, or if it was more intentional. It's not the most elegantly directed film visually, it has to be said, but I found it interesting structurally nonetheless. I'll be interested to hear what you think of it when you get a copy. :)

dr.morbius said...

Well, my dear Vicar, it can't possibly piss me off more than, say, Fassbinder's In the Year of 13 Moons (a rough contemporary) or even more recent fare. We shall see.

Keep up the good work. I'll post my last Naschy post tonight, assuming the forbearance of reptiles.

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