Transparent: Season 2 (2015)
As I mentioned in my previous post, I was somewhat taken aback to find that the second season of Transparent was – for me, at least – every bit as perfect as the first. Given that the first season was almost my favourite piece of television this decade, that’s really saying something, and has more than cemented the series as something that’s very special to me. For that reason, it’s particularly difficult to articulate just what it is that I find so compelling about it, although, as I also mentioned previously, it has undoubtedly been augmented by my recent trip to Los Angeles. In part, that’s because I understand Transparent as situated within a renewed interest in Los Angeles as a cinematic and televisual site as we move through the second decade of the new millennium – an interest that has coincided more or less with the rise of what Steven Shaviro and others have described as post-cinematic technologies, the digital media ecologies that work to rupture the traditional cinematic image and experience, both in terms of the supremacy of analog stock and the previously privileged position of the cinematic theatre. Given that Los Angeles itself has such a privileged role within this cinematic mindset – it is, in large part, a city that came of age with cinema, as well as the American city that has been most thoroughly conceptualised through cinema – it makes sense that a new generation of films and television have returned to the city to ask: how does Los Angeles, a metropolis reared on cinematic images, look after cinema? Within what we still think of as “cinema,” a surprising number of auteurs (Paul Schrader, Sofia Coppola, David Cronenberg, Terrence Malick) as well as a variety of up and coming experimental films (such as Tangerine) have “returned” to Los Angeles or embarked there for the first time (Maps to the Stars was Cronenberg’s first film shot outside Canada) to answer that question, while the flexible, provisional and adaptive character of television in the new millennium has tended to take Los Angeles as its natural platform as well, in series like Hello Ladies, Togetherness and, above all, Transparent.
At the moment, I am working on an academic paper drawing some common threads between these cinematic and televisual explorations, and it’s not my intention to recapitulate that here. Suffice to say that, as far as Transparent is concerned, it seems clear to me that its sprawling attitudes to gender, family and the Los Angeles cityscape are, at one and the same time, a response to the increasingly fluid boundaries between cinema, television and more recent digital media that are always hovering around and percolating the boundaries of the narrative as well. In many ways, that media fluidity and promiscuity is foregrounded from the moment the credits run – the most beautiful and emphatic opening sequence in a long time – in which what might be described as the queered and transgendered past – images from a 1967 drag queen competition, footage from old gay, lesbian and queer rallies – are collapsed into a flickering sense of how the past mediates the present. Indeed, to be transgendered and queered is to be mediated in these opening segments, while being mediated is connected in turn to the immigrant experience, with the opening credits also depicting various images of what appears to be the third great epoch of European immigration to the United States in the early to mid twentieth century. In some of the most beautiful moments in the credits, the immigrant and queered experience are entirely fused, part of a wider tendency, in the series, to connect queer and Jewish experience as both inherently diasporic, and so intimately structured around immigration as a kind of continual passage, and rite of passage.
Of course, this connection between the diasporas of Jews and queers is nothing new, and has made for something of a suggestive analogy between artists of all persuasions, most notably Marcel Proust, who provided one of the most extensive, influential and mythological articulations of it in In Search Of Lost Time. On the one hand, Proust recalls, the Jews have been wandering ever since they were expelled from their homeland, a situation that has only been enhanced by the Arab-Israeli conflicts of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, as well as the ongoing legacy of the Holocaust. At the same time, apocryphal traditions surrounding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah also tend to present homosexuals as exiled as much as destroyed, wandering through the world in search of a city and a home that they are never able to find. I would like to suggest that, in Transparent, the connection between these two types of wandering achieve one of their greatest syntheses since Proust, which only really sounds like an extravagant thing to say if you believe that the insularity of early twentieth-century modernism is any less profound or ground-breaking than the radical communality and connectivity that series creator Jill Soloway has, by all accounts, created on the set of this series. Aiming to create a radically transgendered space around the show as well as within it – the term transfriendly seems too inadequate, too redolent of “tolerance” rather than radical communion – Soloway has apparently striven to abolish gendered bathrooms on set, minimise gendered pronouns, involve the transgendered community in a real and integral way and, perhaps most importantly, encourage a collaborative and communal ethos that mirrors the continual sense of collective becoming advocated by the series itself.
If the monadic intentionality of Proust was radical at the time – the artist sequestered in his room for years on end – then there is something equally radical about the manner and extent to which Transparent offers a collective intentionality, something that is even more embedded in the mise-en-scenes and mise-en-abymes of this season itself, as I will discuss in a moment. At the same time, there is a distinctly Proustian melancholy to the series as well, combined with an orientation to sexuality that I think of as mnemosexual, an inextricability of sexuality and memory. In some sense, sexuality is haunted by the past in Transparent to a similar extent as in Proust, but I also want to say that this doesn’t in any way entail a pathological reading of homosexuality, transvestism or transgenderism as a way of coming to terms with an open and unresolved past – or, if it does, then all sexuality is collapsed into that process in an extraordinarily generous and inclusive manner. One of the clear innovations, if you will, of the second season is the introduction of a historical narrative, in which we trace out the Pffeffermans’ early twentieth-century relatives, as they debate whether or not to emigrate to America from Germany during the rise of Nazism. Here, as well, there is a transgendered component, and yet the series is so fleeting, impressionistic and dreamlike in its handling of these historical segments – they probably total no more than a single episode distributed across the entire season – that it never feels as if we are experiencing an “explanation” or “contextualisation” of Maura’s (Jeffrey Tambor) transgenderism either. Instead, the situation is a bit closer to a condition that Ali (Gaby Hoffman) comes across when coming to terms with her own sexuality, in which extreme situations experienced by a parent before their children, or grandchildren, are even born, can nevertheless manifest themselves across the generations.
In that sense, Transparent seems to belong to a new wave of sexual liberation and queer liberation in which the burden to “explain” one’s orientation is no longer perceived as even viable. While I don’t have a great knowledge of the history of sexuality, my sense is that the first great gay liberation movement that stretched, roughly, from the Stonewall Riots to the AIDS crisis (I may be simplifying here) was in part about refusing to explain sexual orientation, or at least explaining it in a way that was more reparative and amenable to queer self-determination than had occurred in the past. With Transparent, and the recent rise of transgendered visibility generally, I sense that we have entered a new phase that concedes that it is simply not possible to explain sexual orientation or desire in any sustained or systematic way. While it’s easy to attribute everything to digital media, I do think there is a sense in which the proliferation of digital platforms – and the possibility for increasingly virtual selves – has somehow made the complexity and unknowability of sexuality available in a new way. Hardly a week goes by without an artist or celebrity outing themselves on social media, and yet these outings are more and more provisional, flexible and personal, rarely committed to a classical gay and lesbian identification and orientation but instead often announcing fluidity and an openness to the new. As one of my friends put it, the conversation seems to have changed from object-choice – what you like to do, who you like to do it to – to something more fundamentally about identity, but not in the sense of committing to an identity so much as using sexuality to articulate the fluidity and provisionality of identity in a new way. Once upon a time, Freud’s pronouncement that everyone is bisexual seemed true to me, but in a provocative and pointed way, whereas in our current world it’s something that everyone seems to take more and more for granted, a situation that has become particularly evident in the growing visibility surrounding transgenderism. On a recent trip to the United States, I met a guy who is in a relationship with a transgendered woman, but who seemed to identify as heterosexual (and certainly came off as heterosexual). Once upon a time, this would have provoked tittering and speculation – and I’m sure still would in some quarters – but amongst his circle of friends it was treated quite matter-of-factly and – dare I say it – with a certain degree of banality. For a transgendered demographic that has so often been relegated to the most tragically isolationist cusp of the LGBT movement, there must be something utopian about that banality.
It feels right, then, that Soloway has articulated what, to me, is perhaps the definitive mantra of this new wave of queer liberation, and its focus on emergent selfhood, rather than discrete object choice. Talking about Bruce Jenner’s courage in transitioning to Caityn – and it would be interesting to put Transparent and I Am Cate side by side, not least in terms of their depiction of L.A. – Soloway’s advice was: “let it be what it is.” In its luminous transparency, that is also the message of Transparent, especially the second season, while the motif of transitioning – the central metaphor and image of this recent wave of liberation – is more integral to its televisual syntax and sensibility than virtually any other contemporary series. That transitioning has a particularly strong autobiographical import this time around for Soloway as well. Just as her father only “came out” as transgendered late in life – he was the inspiration for Maura – so Soloway has only “come out” as queer in the last couple of years, after a near lifetime of “heterosexual” relationships and, at some point marriage. From now on, I’m inclined to use the term “transitioning” in place of “coming out”, but the overarching point is that both Soloway and her father transitioned into a new phase in their sexual life relatively late in life – middle age for Soloway and old age for her father. In another context, that might be evinced as an indication of repression – perhaps even the repression attendant upon being an integral part of the Jewish community – but in Transparent, at least, that’s not the way its presented. Certainly, transgenderism is something that Maura has struggled with all his life, as well as something he has felt inhibited from exploring, in one way or another, but the openness and transitional quality of Soloway’s Los Angeles universe also makes sexual discovery something that can happen at any age and at any time, with virtually every character transitioning in some way, whether into a new sexual incarnation of themselves or out of an old one. While that doesn’t negate Maura’s struggle, it does tend to negate or at least cancel out the negativity attendant upon a narrative of repression, most beautifully in the final episode, in which Maura finally announces his transgenderism to his infirm and – supposedly – conservative mother, only for us to realise that this white-haired woman is the little girl we got to know so fleetingly in the historical segments, and who was herself a firm advocate of her brother’s cross-dressing in Weimar-era Berlin. At this moment, the radical collapse of present, past and future that can be so disorienting in a digital milieu is turned into a radical collectivity. To repurpose a quote from Margaret Thatcher, in the world of Transparent, there are really no men, no women, no fixed genders and no fixed orientations: just families.
In many ways, I think it’s that redemption of family as a unit of sociability that I find so appealing and intriguing about the series – and it’s probably at this point that I should start to provide a little more detail about the second season, and what makes it so effective and distinctive. The opening shot sets the scene, returning us to the Pfeffermans as they attempt to pose for a photograph at what turns out to be Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Tammy’s (Melora Hardin) wedding. Maura is in women’s clothes, as she is for the entire season, surrounded by the rest of the family, although the reason that the shot lasts so long and has such a comic effect is that the ambit of the family keeps on expanding and reconfiguring, finally spilling to the very edges of the screen. By the end of the episode, Sarah and Tammy have decided to separate – or, rather, Sarah has decided that she’s not ready for marriage – but the effect of that decision isn’t necessarily to negate that opening tableau, nor to suggest that it can only be affirmed outside marriage. Instead, as occurs throughout so much of the series, Soloway complicates and entwines, refusing to either align or distance herself from LGBT marriage in any definitive way as if to imbue it with a complexity whose full implications and ramifications cannot be known in advance. As someone who doesn’t find LGBT marriage revolutionary, but doesn’t also definitively find it not revolutionary either, there was something of a tonic to me in the way in which this opening tableau and episode set the scene for the rest of the season, which continually returns to that bursting collectivity but always under the sign of a family that is expanding, reconfiguring and reinventing itself with every move.
It feels right, then, that Sarah and Tammy’s relationship never really goes away. In the first season, Sarah was also torn between Tammy and her husband Len (Rob Huebel), to the point where I became afraid that she was going to return to him. Obviously, those kinds of oscillations are going to be expected whenever anyone comes out late in life, or when some degree of bisexuality is explicitly acknowledged as it is here, but there was also something a bit cheesy about the possibility that Sarah’s relationship with Tammy was a mere dalliance, not unlike Julianne Moore’s relationship with Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are Alright. I’m happy to say that the second season puts that reservation to rest, devoting a great deal of its time to the aftermath of Sarah’s relationship with Tammy, and how it intersects with her family and her relationship with her husband, without ever suggesting that it was merely a phase, or an anomaly, or a dalliance in any trivial way. One of the great things about that is that it provides Melora Hardin with a central role and presence this season, even or especially as she is no longer actually front and centre in an emphatically physical manner. Ever since seeing her play Michael Scott’s on-again-off-again love interest in The Office, I’ve found her to be a genuinely underrated actress, possessed of a clipped and economical diction combined with a florid and expansive face that allows her to exude a kind of icefire, remote and intimate at the same time. In The Office, the remoteness was exaggerated, but Transparent brings out the intimacy in a beautiful, tender and quite disarming way, to the point where her presence seems to epitomise the tensions between dispersal and communion – the longing for closeness and togetherness – around which the series revolves. Before this, I’d only seen that tender side brought to the surface in Monk, where she played Tony Shalhoub’s widow and guiding spirit Trudy, the lost object and guardian angel of the show. Relegated to flashbacks and painted in a fairly one-dimensional way, it was only possible to glimpse the bloom she exudes here, as she becomes a pivotal point around which the family configures itself.
And in many ways the preoccupations of the other two Pffeferman siblings are even more oriented around family this time as well. Most explicitly, Josh (Jay Duplass) and Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) move in together and decide to settle down and raise a family. In the first season, Brendan was something of a paradoxical character – more flighty and volatile than his two sisters combined, but also the only one who seemed likely to morph into something like regular nuclear family life. In this season, he becomes closer to and more distant from this fantasy, which is neither affirmed or foreclosed but instead just turned into one option amongst many. One of the complicating factors is the arrival of Josh’s son, Colton (Alex McNicoll), who is only about fifteen years younger than he is, and the product of his relationship with his babysitter when he was a teenager. Without in any way defending statutory rape, the season artfully steers clear of the usual moral panic and aesthetic handwringing to focus on the way in which this confounds the generational stability – and the concomitant sense of “growing up” – that Josh and Raquel’s relationship is designed to ensure – for him at least – collapsing them back into the wider texture of the Pffeferman diaspora than ever before, not least because their experiment with nuclear family life takes place Maura’s Pacific Palisades home, the languid, languorous epicentre of the entire series. It’s not surprising, then, that this time around Raquel’s calling as a rabbi feels both more and less Jewish as well, less doctrinaire than in the first season (not that it was really even that doctrinaire there) and functioning more as a kind of diasporic pressure point around which the characters search for wisdom and meaning. Along with Tammy, she is one of the series’ most memorable muses, and yet another reminder of why Hahn is fast becoming the most exquisitely mercurial actress on television today, as she registers the most unbearable of competing demands and interests with the most subliminal and incidental of expressions and postures.
If there is a single subplot that drives the season, however, it is Ali’s increasing discovery of her sexuality, partly by way of a renewed relationship with her friend-turned girlfriend Syd (Carrie Brownstein) and partly by way of a burgeoning relationship with Leslie (Cherry Jones), an elder lesbian poet and activist working out of UCLA, whom Ali first encounters as a mentor when preparing her application to return to study. It’s at this point that the role that the series has played in Soloway’s own life feels most evident and imbues the characters and the situations with the most radiance and brilliance. As mentioned, in 2011, Soloway’s father came out as transgender, while this was also the year in which Soloway became engaged to her second husband. Over the course of the series, however, Soloway has increasingly identified as lesbian, or at least as queer, culminating with a relationship that actually emerged in and through this second season. When researching and crafting Leslie’s character, Soloway was advised to spend some time with poet Eileen Myles, who also appears around the fringes of the action in this series as well. This was to be the beginning of a relationship that appears to have been somewhat unprecedented within Soloway’s life, although the way she designated her previous relationships – she spent her early 40s with what she has described as her “husfriend” – also suggests that there was never an unconditional heterosexual identification in place either.
Of course, that means that Ali’s relationship with both Syd and Leslie – and the fact that she comes out so “late” (she is “already” in her thirties) – must have a special resonance with Soloway’s own life. However, to suggest that the series merely “represents” Soloway’s coming-out, in a kind of autobiographic recapitulation, is to do the series an injustice. Indeed, that kind of response – which has characterised some accolades of the show – assumes that Soloway’s coming-out is somehow anterior to the series, a fait accompli that the series enshrines or reiterates in some emphatic way. As the relationship with Myles suggests, however, that can’t possibly be the case. Instead, given Soloway’s marriage in 2011, her father’s coming-out in 2011, and her relationship with Myles in 2015, I’d like to suggest that the series doesn’t merely represent Soloway’s coming-out but instantiates and embodies it in ways that necessarilyy exceed her conscious intention as series creator and showrunner. In “TV’’s New Girls Club,” published in the New York Time on January 16, 2015, , Lili Loofborouw has written wonderfully about a situation that she describes as “promiscuous protagonism,” suggesting that shows along the line of Transparent, Orange is the New Black, Getting On (both versions) and Doll and Em don’t merely represent a new televisual aesthetic, attuned to the increasing flexibilities of what might be termed the post-Netflix (or post-televisual) era, but a radically new approach to work product and professional affiliation as well. Against the sublime televisual auteurism of The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad, these series offer a radically collaborative ethos, and nowhere more so on Transparent, which is renowned not only for its transgendered workplace, but for the intimate connection Soloway encourages her cast and crew to discover between their different artistic and professional selves, particularly evident in this season in the role that Our Lady J plays behind and before the screen.
For me, this is the epitome of what I would think of as a queer ethos. While I always bristle at articles – academic or otherwise – that seek to tell me “how” to be queer, I do think that there is a distinctively queer form of collegiality and community that values friendship, in its most profound form, as highly as (if not more highly than) the more conventional forms of nuclear heteroreproducibility. One of the foundational articulations of this mode of queer friendship resides in an interview with Michel Foucault published in the French magazine Gai Pied in 1981. Here, Foucault’s basic dictum – “to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless, which is friendship” – could easily describe the ambitions of Transparent, both in the production and exhibition of the show. We’re often told that we live in an age of produsage, an age in which the distinction between consumption and production are more and more fluid and dispersed, and while there are certainly platforms and innovations – such as KickStarter, and the various films it has produced – where that collapse is especially clear, I can’t think of a television series – or other text – in which that collapse is as beautifully aestheticised, as keenly felt, as on Transparent.
For all those reasons, then, there’s no possibility that Soloway’s coming-out could be transmitted through the series in a singular or exclusive way, even if it had occurred prior to the series instead of simply being, in some sense, the series. At the moment, the fate of “coming out” as a gesture – and the closet as its conditioning metaphor – seems to be somewhat up in the air, with some celebrities and public figures seeming to have transcended the closet altogether, others appearing to still reside in the pre-closet era, and many operating in a numinous zone in between. I don’t feel I have enough of a grasp on queer theory to comment on this in any extensive or systemic way, except to say that my sense, as a queer man, is that “coming out” has traditionally been seen as a oppressively individualist gesture, When you come out, you draw attention to your individuality in a new and potentially negative way, while “outing” someone is also to individualise them in a way that may be disempowering. At the same time, “coming out” is something that has often seemed to promise to consummate individuality, if only through the tribulation of announcing that individuality in this new way. For my part, however, I found that that consummation never happened – when I announced I was queer, I felt somehow more scrutinised as an individual, but – surprisingly – no more consummated as an individual, at least not by virtue of the announcement alone. That wasn’t in any way due to the people to whom I came out – I was surrounded by a supportive community of family and friends – but more to the way in which the act of coming out seems to have been both overdetermined and underdetermined in ways that allow it to sit more or less comfortably alongside a predominantly heteronormative society.
In the case of Transparent, and Soloway’s own “coming out,” this individualist bind at the heart of the process of coming out seems to be dissolved in some way. By coming out through and within the show, Soloway not only distributes her identity amongst the show’s other collaborators and voices, but also removes something of the agonistic agency and oppressive intentionality that often accompanies the canonical coming-out process. In recent years, the convergence of queer and digital cultures has led to queerness often being figured as a visionary experience, not unlike the role that homosexuality, as well as transgenderism and hermaphroditism, plays in certain American Indian cultures, where the capacity to inhabit two genders at once is often associated with enhanced perceptual powers. In the proliferation of digital queerness, the sudden profusion of new sexual orientations and agendered identifications, there is something of this visionary impulse, especially in the queer electronica scenes that has arisen around artists like Arca, Lotic and, especially Elysia Crampton, a self-described “transevangelist” whose album American Drift is a veritable work of queer-theory in its far-reaching sonic continuities between the transgendered self and the genealogy of American visionary experience. In the way in which it eludes narratives of conventional intentionality – replacing “coming out” with “transitioning” – Soloway’s queerness also strikes me as visionary in this way, a reminder, for a post-perceptual era, that queer people have always, in some sense, been post-perceptual. As someone who had their first dawning feelings about men while immersed in Enya – the soundtrack to my teenage years – I have always identified with this particular mode of queer apprehension.
In that sense, I would like to argue that the series’ dual focuses on Jewish and transgendered identity – their shared diasporas – converge on a kind of mysticism that is both intensely Jewish and intensely queer, although in quite different ways. Nowhere is this clearer, this time around, than in the lesbian musical festival that takes up the final two episodes and constitutes one of the climactic moments of the second half of the season At this festival are Maura, Ali and Sarah, along with Leslie, and among other things their various wanderings through the crowd beautifully capture the various paths they have taken to arrive at this queer destination: Sarah on the rebound from her relationship with Tammy; Ali as a part of her exploration of her dual relationships with Leslie and Syd, as well as her burgeoning interest in polyamory; and Maura by way of her contemplation, over the course of the season, of the zone between her transvestite and transgender selves, as she starts to think about whether or not to have surgical intervention. That last decision, in particular, takes on a particular resonance at the lesbian retreat, given the policy – unbeknownst to Maura before she arrives – of only accepting “women born as women,” relegating to the fringes of the gathering and recalling the transvestite retreat – “Camp Camellia” – of the first season, and which functions as a kind of prototype for this episode in the second.
So what makes this space feel so utopian, as well as a consummation of the season as a whole? First and foremost, it gathers and condenses the ceaseless, diasporic wandering and the sense of liquid connections and communions that has characterised Soloway’s depiction of Los Angeles so far. Although it is set in the bush – and “bush” seems an appropriately Australian term for the dry, schlerophyll-laden forests that surround and pervade L.A. – the relations between people at the camp feel intimately and inextricably linked to the urban tissue that the series traverses, as if we were witnessing a kind of abstraction and recapitulation of the city, a reinscription of its foundational mythos on a blank slate, a reconquest of its potential. Watching it, I was made aware of how rarely queerness is depicted onscreen from such a feminine perspective, and the extent to which queerness itself is so often a gendered term, more or less implicitly assigned to male homosexuality. For a gathering of women that boos on the one occasion when men have to come on to the campsite – to change the portable toilets – as well as a community that proves to be suspiciously sceptical of transgendered claims to femininity, there is never a sense that Soloway is parodying or reducing female queer identity – or female identity full stop – to the kinds of petulant isolationism so often projected onto the queer feminist project. At the same time, the series doesn’t unqualifiedly accept the ethos of the campsite either, but instead approaches it in a kind of spirit of discovery, prompted, in part, by the sheer variety of female queer identities that it promulgates, as well as the way it steadily narrows the gap between female and queer itself. By the end of this episode, and the season as a whole, it feels as if to be female is to be queer, and to be queer is to glimpse a more feminised self. Nowhere is this clearer than in the most breathtaking cameo of the series, in the form of Vicki, played by Anjelica Huston, another attendant at the campsite who ends up taking Maura under her wing and then spending a night with him at a motel on the way back to L.A.
In many ways, this encounter between Maura and Vicki is the heart and soul of the campsite sequence. While it is not fully clear whether or not Vicki is queer, her body is certainly designated as queer within the strictures of heteronormative attractiveness. For one thing, she is old, and makes no effort to hide it. For another thing, Huston’s features are and always have been notoriously gender-bending. Most importantly, perhaps, Vicki has lost both her breasts to a mastectomy, creating an almost unbearable tenderness and poignancy when she asks Maura if she would prefer to keep her bra on or off while they make out and cuddle. In its mercurial, ethereal sense of communion, the scene between them – which has a kind of free-floating quality even within this most languid and languorous of series – takes all the weightless wandering of the music festival to its logical conclusion and, in doing so, provides a kind of transgender manifesto for the series as a whole. Watching it, I was struck by how often the transgendered body is presented as oppressively, unbearably and unimaginably “heavy” – whether because of the anticipated “addition” of new parts, or the redundancy of “old” parts, transgendered bodies are conventionally depicted as being weighed down by their own corporeality, just as transgendered subjectivities are conventionally depicted as being trapped, confined and claustrophobically constricted by the chamber drama that is their own bodies. Of course, this is probably a fair reflection of the agonies experienced by a great number of transgendered people, but it has also contributed to a kind of projected tragic isolationism whereby transgendered identities – the last term, after all, in the LGBT acronym – are fated to take the darkest part of the struggle for sexual liberation upon their shoulders, in a kind of queer martyrdom that leaves little room for the kinds of provisional joy evident throughout Transparent.
What makes Transparent so distinctive then – and the sex scene between Maura and Vicki so touching – is that transgenderism is instead offered as a lightening of the body, a reprieve from its unbearable weight. That’s not to say that being transgender is presented as a completely incorporeal experience – that, in its way, would be as restrictive a gesture – but that the common conception of the transgendered body as a prison is somehow ruptured, to the point where it feels as if the is the normative heterosexual body, and its cultivation by way of the nuclear family, that everyone is trying to escape, while reconfiguring some radically new and diasporic mode of family in the process. Hence the restlessness of a series that is continually trying to shed its own skin, and a cast and crew that are continually trying to get closer to themselves by getting closer to each other, creating an ebb and flow, a tension between propinquity and distance, and an oscillation between contemplation and communion, that is so subliminal, inchoate and affective that it often makes the series – and especially the editing – feel musical more than anything else. A short piece of perfectly crafted music can say more than virtually any other medium, and so it feels right that Transparent is also one of the series that has stuck most reverently to a short-form mode: ten episodes of thirty minutes length. That commitment is all the more remarkable in that its status as the flagship of the Amazon streaming platform – where seasons are released all at once, like on Netflix – means that there would surely be scope for Soloway to engage in the kinds of variable length or longform episode structure that have started to pervade even conventionally screened television. In a world in which 75 and even 90 minute episode are becoming the norm – that is, a world in which televisual episodes are converging with cinema, or replacing cinema, in terms of their scope and ambit – there is something bracing about the resolutely televisual structure of Transparent, providing the series with the tightly wound sublimity of a symphony or musical suite, as if to prove, at the level of form, that what we think of as constrictions may not necessarily turn out to be so.
Enhancing the episodic musicality, of course, is the actual proliferation of musicians and musical fragments at the lesbian retreat. As Steven Shaviro has pointed out in Post Cinematic Affect, one of the great differences between digital and analog technology is that the digital camera also contains audio recording equipment, with the result that sound and vision can now be captured on a single portable device. Within post-cinematic media, and post-cinematic depictions of L.A. in particular, that has tended to converge sound and image as well, from the music clips that recur throughout Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, to the musical dream sequences of Paul Schrader’s The Canyons, to the near-continual score that pulses through Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. Both a consummation and exhaustion of this vision and version of post-cinematic L.A., Knight of Cups, in particular, feels like the furthest one might go in terms of both depicting L.A. and in fusing sound and music without turning into an extended music video or concert video. It feels right, then, that Malick’s next film turns away from Los Angeles, but only to bask in the ambience of the Austin Music Festival – its working title is Weightless.
In the context of the lesbian musical festival – and the series itself – this transgendered weightlessness is intimately tied to the particular artists Soloway chooses to populate her mise-en-scene. Front and centre are the Indigo Girls, who perform at the festival, and whose music has percolated through the series in one form or another – an apposite choice, given the band’s vocal opposition to the perceived transphobia of the Michigan Wymyn’s Festival, one of the key inspirations here. However, only the Indigo Girls’ appearance can really be considered a cameo, since none of the other musicians who flit in and out of the mise-en-scene perform at any great length, and are largely concealed or transfigured by the various garbs and guises promulgated throughout the festival itself. In that sense, the most “noticeable” – or perhaps “notable” – of these appearances are from Peaches and Sia, both of whom appear more or less as themselves, rid of their media profiles. While Peaches may be overmediated and Sia may be undermediated, the effect in both cases is the same – to preclude the possibility of an unmediated access to their faces, bodies and voices in their day-to-day celebrity lives. On the one hand, this episode of Transparent provides them – and Sia in particular – with the closest that they have come to this kind of nakedness, but it a nakedness that is immediately subsumed back into the collective ambience and provisional identity of the festival itself, to the point where Soloway actually seems to be facilitating these two artists’ ambitions to remain hidden in plain sight.
And perhaps it is that sense of hiding in plain sight that makes me feel as if Transparent also culminates a new approach to nudism, and a new kind of nudist manifesto, that has arisen over the last couple of years. In many ways, we live in an increasingly nudist society, but it is not the pastoral, full-frontal, matter-of-fact nudity of, say, the 60s counterculture. Instead, it is a more provisional kind of nudity based on the kinds of quick glimpses of the unadorned human body facilitated by technologies like SnapChat and increasingly visible in music video in particular. It’s no secret that pornography – and especially internet pornography – registers changes in digital culture – and acts as a vanguard in digital culture – more minutely than about any other medium or platform, something that was delightfully elaborated in the most recent season of Silicon Valley, where an internet pornography conference played a critical role in establishing the intellectual property and future directions of the central startup. From what I’ve read online, as well as conversations I’ve had with a friend who works on online security for adult websites, the era of internet pornography is coming slowly but surely to a close, thanks to the predominance of sexting and the increased frisson of sharing and witnessing naked images of oneself, one’s romantic interests and even one’s wider association of friends and acquaintances, as opposed to the airbrushed anonymity of conventional pornography. On the one hand, that has induced internet pornography to increasingly rebrand itself as a shortform kind of genre, but it has probably had more of an impact upon the ways in which people curate, collect and share internet pornography, with the rise of gifs in particular – as well as sites like gyphy and tumblr that collate gifs – leading to a repurposing of feature-length or streamable internet pornographic content so that it effectively resembles a SnapChat message. In Christian Keathley’s terms, the massive standardisation and regimentation of product that has accompanied the most recent digital pornographic age has led to a proportionate focus on the “cinephilic moments” that, for most people, comprise the essence of pornography – the inchoate, fleeting, transitory moments, often erotic even or especially when they don’t correspond to sexual climax, that capture the collision of camera, body and gaze in resonant or remarkable ways.
If pornography conventionally entails total nudity, then, the movement back towards the qualified or fleeting nudity of a SnapChat message or a cryptically excerpted gif suggests that the kind of nudity that increasingly surrounds us is not a nudity that necessarily “reveals” the body in a straightforwardly descriptive way. If anything, it is a nudity that works to restore the obscurity within which nudity was once erotic, the obscurity that has been totally denuded by the sheer availability of virtually any kind of image online. In that sense, I am tempted to say that the rise of a media environment driven by SnapChat and gifs has in fact replaced the nakedness that pervades virtually every aspect of popular culture with a more profound form of nudity – or, what amounts to the same thing, has retreated from the sex that pervades virtually every aspect of popular culture in favour of a new kind of eroticism, insofar as eroticism depends on obscurity, obfuscation and a certain frustration in terms of our access to the body and object of desire. Of course, that frustration is built into the technologies themselves, with SnapChat only allowing the user to retain a photograph for a couple of seconds – one of the most brilliantly simple app innovations of all time – and gifs always seeming to promise a cinematic continuity and continuation that, for me at least, never ceases to make their brevity and self-containment something of a surprise, and something of a frustration. At the same time, these technologies have seemed to draw our attention to the body in a new way as well, transforming it into something that is erotically unknowable and obscured in and of itself, which makes SnapChat a kind of ideal medium for expressing the transgendered body, or the transgender of all bodies. Again, I think that the recent wave of queer electronica plays a major role in this process, especially the way in which it tends to collapse music and social media, with artists like Arca and Lotic composing shortform tracks that are effectively designed to be heard in the same burst of attention it takes to register a SnapChat image, a Vine or some other fleeting social medium. This is particularly the case with Arca, whose Instagram presence is an integral part of his practice, as are his music videos, which he works on as directly and personally as his music. While Instagram and music video exist at something of an oblique angle to the kinds of SnapChat and gif cultures I am discussing, in Arca’s hands they become vehicles for a body that is so amorphous and undecided in its gendered affiliations that its nudity can only be captured – can only come into existence – in the kinds of provisional, fleeting and momentary ways that these new technologies both enable and encourage.
For me, the great achievement of this season of Transparent, then, lies in the manner in which it manages to extend this new nakedness beyond the ambit of a five-second video. To some extent, it’s there in the editing of the show, with scenes, moments and conversations often ending just before you think they should, or in ways that frustrate your sense of access to and identification with the characters’ bodies. At the lesbian musical retreat in particular, however, that sense of nudity is enhanced by all the factors described above, explaining, once again, why an artist like Sia can appear and yet feel as if we’ve in no way transgressed her unwillingness to be seen and embodied in her entirety. And so while the series seems to tap into the inherent musicality of the erotic human body, the presence of actual musicians doesn’t directly correlate to the music that is performed or the music that we hear. Even the Indigo Girls are only temporarily suspended in live performance, before they are once again dispersed back into the various versions of their songs that are sung, hummed and misremembered throughout the series. In many ways, the effect is not dissimilar to Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, where the presence of actual musicians and near-continual music throughout the mise-en-scene suggested a radically collective and collaborative ethos inextricable from the film itself. Closer still, the series also recalls the the casual, incidental and even bathetic way in which a series like Portlandia introduces musicians into its sketches, often in deliberately non-musical roles. As a member of Sleater-Kinney, Carrie Brownstein feels particularly associated with that innovation, and her presence in this last part of Transparent is all the more resonant for the fact that she doesn’t go to the music festival. As a bridge between the latter-day hippiedom – or present day hipsterdom – of Portland and Soloway’s vision of Los Angeles, she’s already a part of the festival, which would only need the slightest tweak to become a Portlandia sketch anyway, since these are are always generous, inclusive and optimistic in the same way as Transparent, even when they are offered as parody. And yet the fact that Transparent never descends into parody – or banality – is the final testament to Soloway’s vision, which manages to be utopian and comic at the same time – or to fulfil comedy’s utopian potential – while keeping that utopian and comic possibility open over the course of another incredible season.
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