Friday, January 18, 2013

Mondo Shock Tactics and a Call for Tolerance in LET ME DIE A WOMAN

Let Me Die a Woman (1977)
Director: Doris Wishman
Seen via: Synapse DVD
Rating: 6 / 10

Mondo films come in many varieties, but never are they at their best (or worst) when they're focused on subject matter that tends toward the prurient. Cloaking nudity and sex within the format of a documentary is a slick way to make the viewer feel a little more edified while they're indulging in some sleaze. Still, the old mondo tricks of staging scenes, exaggerating facts, or even flat-out making things up if it'll spice up the footage undermines any knowledge you might take away from the film. And when it comes down to it, be honest: are you really watching a movie like this to learn something?

Doris Wishman's Let Me Die a Woman is a unique little mondo picture in that it's focused on sex, but clearly not with the intent to titillate. Honing in on gender dysphoria and offering a glimpse into the lives of several transgendered individuals, it merges an objective, clinical view of the topic with more questionable shock tactics. The result is likely to make most people squeamish for one reason or another, but even today it remains an interesting historical artifact.

Before you've watched a single minute of the film, you're able to gain a sense of its attitude from the title. Notice the morbid fatalism - let me DIE a woman. Not live, which is what most of the individuals in the film are doing quite well, despite having been victims of what the film calls a "cruel trick of nature." Alternate titles included Stranger in My Body and Adam or Eve, but apparently those weren't provocative enough.

Despite its sensationalist title, what can be deceiving about Let Me Die A Woman is that it often appears very straightforward. At the beginning of the film we're introduced to Dr. Leo Wollman, who in an unprecedented feat for a mondo flick, is actually a medical expert. Wollman worked extensively with pre- and post-op transsexuals in the seventies and throughout the following decades. He was even responsible for co-authoring the Standards of Care in the nineties, which offers guidelines for doctors interacting with trans individuals. Wollman provides the backbone of the film, discussing his work and offering glimpses into group therapy sessions, physical examinations, and even an operating room for a glimpse of gender reassignment surgery (which appears to be jacked from an old medical/educational film). Be warned: this film does not hold back. Everything here is shown in all its detail, occasionally at the expense of the patients' dignity. Even assuming willing participants doesn't really absolve it from all the poking and prodding that goes on. The tone is more that of a freakshow than a doctor's office.

So was Wollman simply unaware of the context in which he'd be portrayed in this film? Were standards different enough at the time that he reasoned any exposure of the issue was better than none? With scant information about his career I can't adequately judge his motives, but it's often hard to reconcile his apparent sincerity and good nature with the exploitative material in the film. What's more, many "facts" in this film are just flat out wrong, but again, this may just be representative of the current state of medical science in the seventies.

It's hard for me to sort out how many of the attitudes in the film can be ascribed to the dated perspectives of the time and how much was deliberate sensationalism. If the sensational is what you're looking for, there's plenty here between Wollman's more down-to-earth segments - including a recreation of a do-it-yourself gender reassignment surgery performed with a hammer and chisel. There are also multiple sex scenes that could have been lifted out of any sexploitation film from the same era, with the distinction being that here they're underscored by ominous orchestral music and the inevitable reveal that "she" is a "he."(Cue dramatic swell from the brass section.)

And yet, amidst all of this, there are beacons of rationality and what seem to be good-natured intent. Most prominent are the interviews with Deborah Harten, who was born a man but had been living as a perfectly happy woman for years when she appeared in the movie. Deborah's stories are interspersed throughout the shocking portions of the film, and serve to mediate some of the more extreme content. These segments seem surprisingly progressive in their views, and are provide a necessary breath of fresh air after some of the more questionable sequences.

It's not hard to assess Doris Wishman's intent with this film. Just look at the rest of her output: nudesploitation, "roughies,"  and a failed attempt to branch out into horror (A Night to Dismember). She was a schlock pusher, and schlock is what this film is. As a mondo film, it stands out as one of the more interesting ones if you can stomach the dated attitudes and blatant misrepresentation of its subjects. Still, it seems to mark a shift toward paying increased lip service to values such as tolerance, goodwill, and sympathy, something which would become commonplace and seemingly mandated in later years. (Being Different from 1981 showcased disabled individuals and was surprisingly upbeat, particularly when it busted out some original songs.) In the midst of this, the interviews with Deborah end up nearly swaying the film's tone. Placing her in the middle of all the fearmongering, pity, thinly veiled prurience, and crass exploitation only serves to illustrate the ills of the society in which she lives alongside with the courage she's displayed in facing them.

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