A video of Keanu Reeves has been re-circulating on the internet recently, as such videos often do. In the super short snippet, extracted from the behind-the-scenes documentary The Matrix Revisited (2001), which traces Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s formation and production of the first Matrix, the actor explains that he was given several books of philosophy to read before he could even pick up a script, among them works by Jean Baudrillard. Reeves, in his typical zealous but slightly confused fashion, boils down the French philosopher’s most referenced work, Simulacra and Simulation, to a rushed but not untrue sentence: an icon is a decay of meaning.
In Framing Agnes, a new documentary from writer-director Chase Joynt and co-writer Morgan M. Page (host of incredible trans history podcast One from the Vaults), the concept of the trans icon is explored by historian Jules Gill-Peterson and a cast of recognizable trans performers. A quasi-narrator for the film, Gill-Peterson traces some of her research in the UCLA Archives, and her knowledge of the case files of trans individuals who were involved in the UCLA Gender Clinic in the 1950-’60s. She identifies one in particular, “Agnes,” (portrayed by multi-hyphenate artist Zackary Drucker) as a folk legend who immediately spoke to her in her graduate work.
Agnes (also the subject of Joynt and sociologist Kristen Schilt’s 2019 short film of the same name) was a trans woman who lied to doctors about the spontaneous development of her breasts in order to get approved for gender confirmation surgeries normally reserved for intersex people. But we don’t learn all that much more about Agnes, the purported central figure of the documentary. Instead, Gill-Peterson investigates her own desire to place meaning on Agnes as a signifier of morality, an outlaw or paragon of transness, and poses the question: Why do we search for icons at all? What do we do when we make someone into an icon? Does it do them any favors?
Gill-Peterson is only one talking head scattered throughout Framing Agnes, which is a sort of extended thought experiment on trans visibility, invisibility and the limits of representation, among other hotly contested truths. Six other trans actors portray six individuals whose participation in the UCLA Gender Clinic was re-discovered by Joynt and Schilt through archive trawling. For our viewing pleasure, Drucker, Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, Silas Howard, Max Wolf Valerio and Stephen Ira embody their characters by reciting portions of doctor-patient transcripts, but instead of setting such recreations in a medical establishment, they’re interviewed as if they were trans curiosities of the week on talk shows of the ’60s. Playing the grating cis doctor-cum-Mike Wallace-styled talk show host is director Joynt, who took inspiration not only from the ’60s format, but from ’90s and 2000s trash TV, which delighted in exposing gender non-conforming individuals to gasps of audience and family members alike.
These short, stylized black-and-white, cathode-framed segments are interrupted throughout the documentary with brief, gauzy full-color reenactment B-roll; clips of trans celebrities dissected in front of press; and rehearsal and discussions between Joynt, Page, Schilt and the actors as themselves. The anchors of these conversations are their characters, but the topic often spirals further and further away from individuals in the case study in order for the actors to talk about their own conceptions of transness, themselves, their experience of playing their assigned cases, and even existential questions of truth and lie. At one point in the present-day talking head segments, Richards, who plays “Barbara” in the recreation segments, challenges Joynt’s line of interviewing about the very nature of truth itself. “Why are you asking that question?” We don’t learn the answer.
It’s a confusing mix that, if one were experiencing it as a piece of cinema, feels more like Revisiting the Matrix without having watched any of the completed films themselves. It’s a behind-the-scenes that shows so little of its most meticulously designed and character-driven portions that I started internally referring to it as the second disc of the documentary’s DVD set. Or maybe it’s a proof of concept for the eventual narrative or documentary feature that does dig into these character’s lives to a point that we’re familiar with the personalities their performers are referencing?
If the continuous explanations of process within the documentary are anything to go by, this confusion is what Joynt and Page delight in. As a sort of metaphor for the impossibility of representing transness, their intent seems to be pushing the form of the documentary, obscuring their subjects, and demonstrating the futility of trying to pin a modern framework onto a group of ordinary trans people who probably did not want to be publicly perceived. These are medical files we are reenacting after all, not an actual talk show.
There will be some audiences who enjoy this rebuke of structure, feeling that this withholding is a case of a genre outlaw. Unfortunately, this is one gender-fucked viewer who can’t help but feel a little shortchanged by the decay of meaning of it all. While the conceit is clever, these are not new storytelling techniques for documentary or fiction, and in Framing Agnes, they lack a certain follow-through. In order to pull off a work of metafiction, the fictions have to be just as strong as the meta, but there’s an inconsistency of direction. The performances shift from presentational (Joynt) to theatrical (Drucker) to screen-ready and naturalistic (Howard) without explanation. For a film that is so concerned with process and shifting the frame, it rather seems to be drawing visual and conceptual inspiration from stronger hybrid documentaries, such as Trinh T. Minh Ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989), Marlon Riggs’ truth through theatricality in any of his nonfiction, Isaac Julien’s poetic reinterpretations of queer history in Looking for Langston (1989), or even Joynt’s own stronger feature on the life of Billy Tipton, No Ordinary Man, but Framing Agnes loses focus somewhere in the proportion of performance to performer.
The existence of the transcriptions themselves are extraordinary, and so little of them are actually included in the documentary that references to details like Agnes’ anti-hero status fall flat. Agnes (in a way not fully detailed by the film) tricked a series of trained physicians and psychologists and surgeons into getting treatment, and in the process entirely fucked up everything a cis doctor thought he knew about gender? Barbara is in a gossipy Sewing Circle community of 20 other trans women in the 1950s? That’s rad as fuck. That’s revelatory. That’s new and revolutionary information that upends what we’ve been taught about transness, and I want more. Admittedly, it is the bread and butter of many an academic to ascend further from flesh-and-blood subjects until they feel comfortable enough to relate or speculate wildly based on total inference, but it undermines how precious this history is. Not to mention, that theoretical framework is not groundbreaking, and is a fairly inaccessible approach to a project formed by the testimonials of ordinary trans people.
There are certainly moments of brightness. Ross and Richards have a fondness and curiosity about their predecessors that’s heartening, and Howard’s embodiment of “Denny” is both personal and skillful. Schilt’s explanation of the archival process of discovery (just hunting through box after box until you’re ready to expire) is illuminating to the formation of the project, and Gill-Peterson’s inclusion of the public institution—the haunted seat of authorized knowledge—as a character is just begging to be elaborated upon.
As it currently exists, the filmed components of Framing Agnes would be especially suited to a classroom with an accompanying lecture, or expanded into an online interactive gallery that included extended interviews and reenactments, or if played as it lays, as a symbol of frustration. As a cinematic experience, the film feels pulled in several directions, formally incomplete and jagged. There are so many exciting ideas buried in the film, and no shortage of pithy pull-quotes, but the final cut piles them on top of one another so that no one component ever has the chance to fully develop and shine.
If anything, Framing Agnes will continue a difficult conversation around what we ask of trans icons—and what trans artists ask of their audiences. A trans film can certainly be Brechtian; it can be whatever it wants to be. A trans film can set out to be incomprehensible. A trans film can set out not to be a film at all. A trans film can decide, in what some might consider its most revolutionary act, to contest the very concept of meaning, giving us nothing at all. It just has to be prepared for some audiences who get and give nothing in return.
Director: Chase Joynt
Writer: Chase Joynt, Morgan M Page
Starring: Jules Gill-Peterson, Angelica Ross, Jen Richards, Zackary Drucker, Max Wolf Valerio, Silas Howard, Stephen Ira
Release Date: January 22, 2022 (Sundance)
Shayna Maci Warner (@bernieteeters) is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, preservationist and GLAAD-awarded critical queer. Their words on queer feelings and films appear in Autostraddle, The Film Stage and Film Cred, among others, and they write a horny newsletter about the girls and gays that make movies worth watching. You can summon her by yodeling “Desert Hearts was robbed!” into the sunset.