The Art of Gendercide: An Interview with Christeene

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Text by Oliver Kupper

Photographs by Matt Lambert

Drag terrorist or gendercidal maniac, Christeene is a fucking sensation. The first time I saw her play was out of the Printed Matter Book Fair at the MoCA in Los Angeles. Convulsing, screaming, genital grabbing, torrents and torrents of sweat – the experience was both horrifying and tantric. Knowing where her hands had gone and been during the performance, I was slightly reluctant to offer my hand for a mutual greeting after she stepped off stage. But that reluctance quickly dissolved, much like my expectations and preconceived notions about the fearlessness one can have as an entertainer, and the electric connection a performer can have with the audience. In our interview, Christeene talks about her connection to the audience – I use the word ‘tantric’ because of its sexual connotation, but also because it’s a Sanskrit word that can loosely be transcribed as the stretching and weaving of shared energies. Her connection to the audience also extends to micturating directly on them, but apparently that only happened once. In her new music video for the track Butt Muscle, produced by designer Rick Owens, and directed by Matt Lambert, Christeene can be seen offering a steady, arched jet unswervingly into Owens’ welcoming mouth with steam drifting, angelically upward. I got a chance to speak to Christeene from Austin, Texas – her home turf  – about Rick Owens and the making of the Butt Muscle music video, which premiered during Paris Fashion Week, and the chrysalis-like transformation of Christeene. 

OLIVER KUPPER: How are you?

CHRISTEENE: I’m good.

Thank you for taking the time to chat.

Thank you for calling on time.

I try to be punctual.

Oh good, sometimes they don’t call for days. [giggles]

Oh yeah, or ever.

Or ever, sometimes they never call - which is nice sometimes.

Sometimes it is nice, I am actually really happy when people don’t get back to me.

Yeah, I agree, especially in this day and age, I have no brain capacity for it all.

Yeah.

How are you doing?

I am good.

We met at that book fair!

Yes, we met at the book fair after your performance.

It’s a haze for me!

Yeah, you were completely drenched in sweat and we shook hands afterwards. I think Mel introduced us - how do you know Mel?

I met Mel at the book fair! I was running around the stage and Mel was running around the stage, we kind of made eye contact and I think we had met before, but again, the hazy brain, you know. We just kind of knew that we should talk to each other and we did and we discovered that we had other people in the orbit of our lives, so it was a very nice meeting in Los Angeles with Mel.

It’s funny how a lot of our orbits connect.

Yeah, there’s a lot and it’s fun when the planets get closer and closer and then you get that super-nova bang, it’s really good.

Yeah, it’s kind of magical.

Yeah I’m believing in that these days.

So, what are you up to these days? Are you performing? Where are you? What part of the world are you in?

Well right now I am in Austin and I am hanging out, listening to some John Grant and eating some pineapples, and I have a new collection of work, it’s coming out soon. So now I am speaking with lots of other planets and we are getting lots of things aligned to start setting out this fine new collection that I’ve been carrying in a little backpack on my back.

Do you feel like you are getting a lot of attention after that music video came out?

There’s a lot more conversation going on and it’s kind of been a wonderful way of being able to plug in with a lot more people out there who have possibly the same feelings or who have great fears about the whole thing. It has definitely brought about a lot more to the table in terms of sharing this work with more and more people which is what I very much, very much love to do.

Yeah, absolutely, it seems like it’s reaching a lot of people.

Yeah, it’s all due to the respect of the platforms that I was able to kind of ride up on, which was Rick and Matt and those wonderful people. They have wonderful homes and it’s nice to visit those places. When they let the monster in we all get to sit at the table and make a lot of food to share.

I feel like Rick Owen’s house in Paris is incredible. I have never been there, but it looks incredible. 

It’s like a piece of work. It’s never the same and Michele is always running around changing it. It’s like a very dark Auntie Mame house.  It’s always changing, but it’s not extravagant. It’s as bare bones as a piece of stone. It’s always got life inside of it and it’s very calming and soothing and it’s a wonderful place to rest within. 

So how did that video come about? Did Rick Owens reach out to you? Did you know Rick already?

Yeah, I met Rick a long time ago in 2011, I think. He brought me and my boys to Paris to perform at his Spotlight Club party. It was a fine affair and we kind of fell into each other’s lives and maintained a nice conversation over the years and kept seeing each other when I had the fortune of jumping over the ocean and going there for tour. So, you know, we got to a stage in our relationship where I said: “Hey Rick, why don’t we make a baby?” I was very  curious to see what our baby would look like and he was, of course, all about it. Then he mentioned that Matt Lambert was also talking to him about doing some work together because Matt had been to their home and Matt saw a picture of me on the wall - some terrible picture, I can’t remember - and then the planets crashed and we all decided that it would be lots of fun to use all our efforts to make one hell of a baby. It coincided with me being ready to release my first song from the collection and so we decided that it was a good time to fuck. 

I feel like the world needs that right now.

I do too and I did and I do and I continue to. That wasn’t my plan, I want to continue to build and share and work with people I love and try to put a dent in this shit we are dealing with. Not intentionally, but I know it most probably will, especially with the way it looks out there right now. I am glad that many people have let us know that the work has inspired them and let them find a hole to lay inside. 

I want to talk about Paul. Do you like talking about that or is that something.... 

I don’t usually talk much about that. I don’t know man, not really, I don’t really associate with that one over there.

Well my question is: Do you avoid questions about Paul?

I do. I came to life, I remember, about nine years ago and there’s some sort of life force that brought me here and I just remember dark places and dirt. I feel some sort of life force coming from some sun and if we are going to stick on this out of space conversation, I think there is a bit of a sun that I am revolving around. I do hear mention of Paul and I do believe that whatever that Paul essence is, it’s definitely keeping me alive. 

I have been watching interviews and stuff like that and over the years you have been becoming who you are now. It seems there’s a very chrysalis-like ring to the name Christeene. Does that make sense?

You know, nine years is not a long time but a lot can happen in nine years and I have found myself in ways of meeting other people and listening to the bird in my throat that sings to me and expressing those songs. I have watched my hair grow long, I have watched my eyes turn a brighter blue and I have watched the things I wrap myself up in take new shapes and forms. It feels empowering and it feels like something I can believe in. I just want to continue to follow those changes and let the bird keep singing inside of me.    

You have a lot of amazing attributes that make you Christeene. When you are getting ready for the day or a show, is there one definitive thing that defines Christeene?

My hair. 

Your hair?

It’s my hair. It’s got life. I take on lots of objects, I like to see life get thrown into these objects, these symbols that we have and wear and draw on ourselves and surround ourselves with. I have seen many things that I personally like to put on me or that have somehow, slowly become their own organism or their own life force. One thing that never seems to change on me, except for the length, is my hair. It has lots of life and it gives me strength.

You and Rick Owens have amazing hair. 

(Laughs) He’s got some hair on him! That’s what I liked when I met him because me, him and even Michele was like, “this is a nice little circle of power here.”

And it makes a pretty good cameo in the Butt Muscle music video.

It makes a great dick up my butt. 

Yeah, exactly.

Cameo if you will, to be polite.

I was reading the Dazed interview and they say something amazing: that you are this generation’s Divine, but they censored parts of the video, how do you feel about that?

I was unhappy with it. They didn’t remove parts, they just put a little bit of square of blurry over ass or [Ashley] Ryder putting his hand up the butt. I don’t subscribe to that kind of shit. Rick and I both were talking that we do not like to compromise and it was a situation where the compromise was very small. Then we were very happy just to know that once that first compromised piece of work was sent out you could immediately reroute yourself to the original form and see it for yourself. I don’t feel super happy about that because I don’t think anything like that needs to be compromised. But we had to sit back and understand, or they had to explain to me this wild animal, what was going on. At the end of the day we agreed that it was okay.

It’s like Japanese porn - in Japanese porn they blur out all the exciting parts. 

Exactly, and what’s so much fun about that? Nothing.

You really want to make sure that people see everything.

There’s beauty in all of that and there’s so much beauty. That’s why I asked Ashley Ryder to be in the video because I find what he does and his personality and his heart are so pure and sweet. I think that the actions that he does upon his butt are very reminiscent of the feeling that I have right now, that’s all.

Was it you who called yourself a drag terrorist or was that a journalist who called you that?

That was a long time ago. I make most of my videos with P.J. Raval in Austin. He’s a filmmaker and many times he was bombarded by people trying to compartmentalize what the fuck I was and what the fuck we were doing. We were always inspired by Vaginal Davis, who was always the drag terrorist and that was the title that Vaginal walked around with – with a lot of pride. It was the only thing we could find that made any sense, and just told people to fuck off.

It’s perfect, it sort of encapsulates a lot. 

I have a friend in San Francisco named Chloe and this past week she said that I was committing gendercide on all fronts. Gendercide I thought was a good word to just smack drag terrorist out of the way. 

That is pretty great, we’ll have to credit Chloe with that term. Do you think that queer communities need to take a more active role in demystifying the stigma to gain an equal playing field or do you sort of enjoy the fringeness in queer culture?

Do you mean like demystify the mystery of us all? 

Yeah, I mean...

I don’t like demystifying things. I don’t like when queers go on the television machine and break it all down. I think that we need mystery and we need our secrets and we need our gallery spaces - be it a bar or a cemetery or a parking lot at night in a dark car. I think those places are sacred to us and I am not so keen or excited to demystify our mysterious lives. I think that they need to stay in their own magical place. I think they obtain and hold onto a lot more power that way. 

A couple of years ago I was talking to Bruce La Bruce about this - who is very extreme. His view is that he wanted to exist on the edge because the edge has opened all these avenues for creativity. 

They always will and if you’re on the edge you’re going to be the first to see something out in the darkness that no one else can see.

That’s a really good way to put it. 

You have to be brave enough to stand on that beautiful point. You have to be brave enough to stand close to that darkness. 

I think artists in general should be standing on that edge, no matter who they are. 

I think many of the ones we like, do. 

Yeah, exactly. Some get crucified for it but...

Absolutely, some of them fall into the darkness and we never see them again. 

But at least they did go that far. 

Yeah, and hopefully they tied a rope around their leg and we can hold on. 

Or some kind of anchor, to find their work later or something. 

Exactly. 

Going back a little bit, growing up, where did you find your creative outlet?

I found it a lot in aggression and I found it a lot in sexual situations that I was curious about, or that were unattainable, or that were just swimming through my atmosphere. I found it in a great curiosity of who I was. I kind of landed in the middle of this madness and images thrown at me. This pop culture madness, and these strange people all around me. I just felt the need to devour everything at once and let it go to my bowels, shit it out and serve it back and see what these things around me would feel about looking and smelling and tasting their own shit. It was a very mechanical, monstrous kind of beginning for me. I just devoured everything. 

There are a lot of punk vibrations to your music. How would you describe your music?

I think the music represents a bit of what I just said in that the music is many layers of shit that reverberate different sounds from different styles of music. It is the digestion that I did with things that were in front of me. The sounds that came out were just the product of all of these different things that were bombarding me. I don’t like to find myself in a particular boat for all time’s sake, listening to the same sounds. I don’t think we have one sound within us and I don’t think it’s possible. So I try to find the song inside of me and I try to find a producer around me who can tap into all the different sounds but create a family of it - a body of work for it. But I don’t know how to classify my sound. I do hear punk and when I sound punk, I felt punk and it made sense to me. So I slept with and I let it take over me and that’s the sound that came out of me. 

And performance is a really big part of who you are. Is it more cathartic to perform than it is to make music in the studio?

I much prefer to perform. I want to plug into people, I want to be up on that stage and I want people to continue to bombard me with everything they brought in that room. I want to take it in and I want to explode with it or die with it or turn into a fucking rainbow with it. I don’t know, I just want to be a vessel for it and the stage is the most real, pure, raw, fuck you can have with people and it gives me the most pleasure and it strengthens me.

Do you have a ritual before you go on stage?

Well, I always take a piss in a cup because I always gotta piss unless I want to hold it and pee on stage which I like to do sometimes. I peed on Jonny Woo in London and that was fun. I always give my boys a strong hug and we look each other in the face and a kiss on the lips and we pat each other on the ass. I always take a sip of Jack Daniel’s and I like to do some push ups sometimes too.  

To amp you up. 

Yeah, to turn on my guns. 

My last question: So Christeene is here to stay?

I don’t know! I am here to stay but I like the idea that I can die right now. I am here right now and I am thrilled right now and I am ready to fuck stages right now. I have no intention of disappearing right now.

 

• 

Casual Burnouts, Lovable Weirdos: An Interview With Actor, Artist and Jack of All Trades Mel Shimkovitz

About a month ago, Autre was asked to cover the second Summer Sacrifice for How Many Virgins? at the Ace Hotel. Little did we know that we would be introduced to one of LA’s most enigmatic, energetic, and multifaceted performing artists by way of a hilarious mock acting reel spanning 10 years of highly varied and absurdly captivating film projects. From parodic audition tapes for films like Pretty Woman, to the superimposing of her character on iconic 90s infomercials, to abstract layerings of sound and industrial imagery, Mel Shimkovitz’s work is at once arresting, captivating the viewer with a chameleon-like quality that leaves you anticipating the next impressive transition. It is perhaps that chameleon-like quality that makes Mel so fascinating. The moment the reel finished playing, I immediately scanned the audience for this curious specimen in hopes of a handshake and the prospect of an interview. Little did I know the magnitude of the Pandora’s box I was about to open.

Researching Mel’s work before the interview, I found a wide range of recent, mostly acting work (she’s popped up in skits on Funny or Die and has made cameos in varied televisions series), but struggled to dig very deep into the past. She would later explain that this is due to a slew of pseudonyms she used throughout the early naughts in order to protect the Shimkovitz family name; a nice Jewish family from Chicago. In the following conversation, which took place at the Autre headquarters downtown, Macho Mel – as she is known in some circles – covers a dizzying gamut of work and life experience. There was her meeting with William S. Burroughs as an adolescent in Lawrence, Kansas. There was her founding of the Voodoo Eros record label, which released music by the likes of Devendra Banhart, CocoRosie, and Antony and the Johnsons – the media called the music they were putting out “Freak Folk.” Voodoo Eros also took the form of a retail store that she ran with CocoRosie’s Bianca Cassidy – it was more an elaborate conceptual art piece than a real retail experience. But next year may change everything for Mel, because she will find herself in a reoccurring role on Jill Soloway’s groundbreaking series Transparent, which just cleaned house with five Emmy awards. We can’t wait to watch.

Indeed, Mel’s approach to her work is wacky and unbridled, yet focused, professional, and somehow she seems to be completely devoid of pretension. She is familiar, but also alien in her virtuosic comedic talents that have an almost vaudeville vibe – maybe it’s just her willingness to fall over to make an audience laugh. It’s the best kind of comedy, because it’s real and authentic. Who doesn’t fall? Most comedy these days seems put on or manufactured. In the following interview, we have a long chat with Mel about Trans vampires, her Zelig-like position in the music, art and Hollywood worlds, and the media’s sudden shift in focus toward the lives and rights of the LGBTQ community.

Summer Bowie: So, I loved the video screening of the Melvira work you produced with Amy Von Harrington at the Ace Hotel. Can you talk a little bit about how that came together?

Mel Shimkovitz: Ben Lee Ritchie Handler and Ava Berlin have a project called How Many Virgins? They asked me if I had any videos I wanted to be shown, because I had been making videos with Amy for a long time. My former life was all music and art. But I’ve always been an actor. I grew up in the theatre. So, I had all these years of work and I thought it would be a nice opportunity to dig into the archives. We had some extra time, so we made a new reel that was really influenced by the Hollywood vibe. When I came out to LA, being an artist quickly transformed into being an actress. Not just in art stuff, but in the semi-mainstream as well. Amy has been making reels for me for a while, and we got the idea to make a fun reel for once. She’s obsessed with Elvira, so we created the character “Melvira”—Elvira’s cousin, who came out to LA wanting to make it. She’s an awkward trans vampire—Melvira: Mistress of the Stage and Screen. So the video screening was Melvira’s acting reel.

SB: That seems pretty surreal. How did you meet Amy Von Harrington?

MS: I was running a record label at the time. I was doing a huge mailing of promos in Brooklyn. She was standing behind me at the post office, deciding if she hated me or not, as I spent an hour holding up the line. Later that night, she showed up at a party that I was throwing with Bianca Cassidy for our project Voodoo Eros. We had a fried chicken party that night and I recognized Amy from the post office. That was it. We just started hanging out and working together. And it’s been like that ever since. We’re casual burnouts. Lovable weirdos.

SB: Can you tell me about the Voodoo Eros project?

MS: Yeah, we had a store on the Lower East Side called the Voodoo Eros Museum of Nice Items. This was 2007. We were a record label, so we would record in there at night. But during the day, we sold XXXXXL sweatshirts and sweatpants that we had hand-painted. Our thing was “the biggest clothes on the Lower East Side.” It was such a small store that we could only put up one thing on each wall. They were all horribly priced. Some were $2 and some were $2,000. We also sold items from the 99¢ store across the street, but we would mark them up about 1,000%, but with really nice price tags. The only people who came into the store were Japanese tourists and dudes who would come in to gay bash us. Bianca and I decided that we were going to play shopkeeps for a year. To be a shopkeep, though, you have to have a long attention span and a will to make money. We didn’t have either of those things.

SB: Where are you from, and when did you first know you wanted to become an actor?

MS: I grew up in Chicago, but I left when I was 17 and went to Kansas. I was really obsessed with the Beats. I was obsessed with William Burroughs. This was before I knew what misogyny was. I was happy to meet him; he wasn’t happy to meet me. But he was very happy to meet the very good-looking guy I was hanging out with. Lawrence, Kansas is really a cultural mecca in the Midwest. There’s a legacy of major progressive hippies out there. It’s a major abolitionist town. That’s not to say that the Westboro Baptist Church isn’t down the street, and didn’t protest every play when the Harlem Choir Boys came to town.

Growing up in Chicago, you do a lot of improv and sketch comedy. I grew up doing community theatre and plays in school. When I went to Kansas and didn’t know what to do with myself, they took me in. There were so many communists teaching at the University of Kansas in the theatre department. That was a really political education—political theatre. I went from there to New York.

I was there for a number of years before I met Bianca Cassidy. We started this feminist collective called “Wild Café Theatre,” and no one was coming. But then Bianca and her sister started this band, and I started doing performance art for their shows in front of thousands of people. We were making videos and fictional worlds. We were queering the world. That time in my life, everything was a creative choice.

SB: Tell us about your period with the CocoRosie. 

MS: Our first album that we put out was just for fun. It was a box filled with tapes that friends had made. We put it out as an album called “The Enlightened Family.” We had songs by CocoRosie, Antony and the Johnsons, Jana Hunter, Vashti Bunyan, Metallic Falcons—just before anybody knew who these people were. All of a sudden, people were buying it! It was a cool project; we were doing whatever we wanted for a couple of years. It was a pure aesthetic project.

SB: Wow, that's amazing. Now, let's fast-forward to your life in LA for a second. As a performance artist, it seems like you’ve become this integral part of LA’s creative community, but it also seems like you’re gaining footing in the more mainstream Hollywood industry. Where do you feel most at home?

MS: In the past, I always would have said in the art world, because of my interest in all things beyond theatre and narrative — I’m super interested in poetry, abstraction, and psychedelic visualscapes, etc. But amazing things have happened in the past year. I’ve met such a great community of writers, directors, and performers. I have this super amazing TV and film community that I never had in the theatre and music worlds of New York. I found a really good tribe. Now, I would say I feel really good in both places, which is so cool. So, I don’t know, I’m really just trying to be very charming, super polite, show up on time, do whatever’s asked of me, have no ego at all moments, and be ready to humiliate myself. I think that’s it.

There’s this idea that nice guys finish last, but I’m getting the feeling that nice guys are getting ahead. In the art world and the Hollywood world, the thing that they have in common is negative competitiveness. The art world is held back by its own self-reference, which makes it super exclusive. The Hollywood world is held back by its own nepotism. Which doesn’t work for anybody who isn’t a straight white cis male — there’s no community for them. People are realizing the patriarchy of that doesn’t work for them. We’re seeing change now. When the first Whitney opened, there was not one woman artist. In the new Whitney, there is amazing work by female artists on every floor. It’s a mindful and purposeful choice, but that’s how equality happens. The cameras are finally being put in the hands of women, queer people, people of color, trans people, people of different ages even. I’m working on a short film written, directed, and starring a 16-year-old girl, and it is more professional, and there’s more heart in this than anything I’ve done in a long time. And this story of a 16-year-old girl – which is not something often made through the gaze of a 16-year-old girl – is so fascinating. This isn’t just because more people have access to these instruments. People are getting bored of seeing the same thing. How many white, ex-skater photographer dudes are making work about process and the sunlight? How many of those can we see before we demand to see more emotional stuff? Some of us want to see more important things.

Film is an emotional medium. So, why have we given all the cameras to the men when we’ve been told our entire lives that women are emotional? Why aren’t we telling our stories? The dudes don’t want to give up the cameras. It’s a frat house mentality, especially in New York.


"I’m really just trying to be very charming, super polite, show up on time, do whatever’s asked of me, have no ego at all moments, and be ready to humiliate myself."


SB: Have you noticed any differences coming to LA from New York?

MS: Coming here, people are starting to collect and to pay attention. All kinds of people can be a part of it. It’s so optimistic out here. Being an artist in New York feels like you’re part of an industry, part of the company. But being out here, especially for the first few years, it felt like being an outsider. And isn’t that who should be creating new culture in a community? The people for whom the current culture isn’t working? 

SB: Definitely! And clearly these days, there’s a lot more acceptance and embracing of queer roles. What would you say has been the catalyst for the boundary pushing we’re seeing in regard to gender and sexuality in the media today?

MS: I want to say that it’s been people who identify as queer rising up and forcing their voices to be heard. But nothing happens without the majority paying attention to it. So that makes me think the majority of people just want to see different stories and experiences. The thing that’s so interesting about the civil rights movement of the LGBTQ community, versus the racial civil rights movement of the 60s, is that queer people are born into your family, which forces us to face it. In recent years, numerous legislators have had to contend with their children coming out. How can they go and say their child doesn’t deserve marriage equality? And so it was passed. Also, when an American hero comes out as trans—that really pushes things forward.

I wonder where we would be in gay rights if AIDS hadn’t happened. Not only did we lose so many great artists and leaders in the community, but all of the resources had to go to screaming for help and taking care of each other.

In the trans community — which is related, but separate from LGBTQ in a lot of ways — trans people have fallen in and out of being accepted throughout humanity. Being trans is something that indigenous communities throughout time have upheld as a shamanistic trait. It’s only been a few hundred years in white society in which a trans person has been an unacceptable thing. We love Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, but 20 trans women of color have been murdered this year. I’m all for marriage equality, I’m happy that went through, but I’m kind of like—fuck getting married, can we save these lives?

My family—who didn’t want to talk about me being gay—is suddenly so interested in talking about trans people. I was on the show Transparent, and these old Jewish people are in it, which really helped my parents with understanding the show. I did a short documentary (which is part of a series of short documentaries) called “This Is Me,” produced by Wifey.TV. They were nominated for an Emmy. I star in one, and my family saw this. Suddenly, I’m getting phone calls from my sister, who has never talked about my queerness. Now, she’s asking me what I want my niece and nephew to call me—Aunt or Uncle. We’re having this conversation now.

Everybody, all of a sudden, decides that they have to be cool with it, because it’s not cool to not be cool with it, and then everybody just gets on board. These days several of my friends have kids, and six-year-olds totally understand trans people. They don’t get separated by boy’s lines and girl’s lines anymore. I’m going into more spaces that have gender-neutral bathrooms. Even for me, hearing a guy peeing in the stall next to me feels like a radical act. It’s not a radical act, but it feels so radical. We’re all just people peeing now.

There are all these new stories to tell. There’s a huge society of people that haven’t been telling their stories. We want to know what their stories are about. I mean, look at how many stories about gay couples and trans people are coming out in Hollywood this year. So many! Everybody is really into it. I mean, I’m already hearing people say things like, “Isn’t it enough already with all the gender stuff.” But this is the first year after 100 years of filmmaking history that these stories are starting to emerge - a lot of people have had enough with the same straight love story.

SB: Are there roles that you feel more comfortable with, or do you jump into all of them with an adventurous attitude?

MS: If the camera’s rolling, I’m there. I’m ready to perform. I’ll jump into anything. I’m lucky now that I’ve been given really fun stuff to play. I didn’t grow up like that. I’m a writer because I had to write my own stuff. I couldn’t get casting. I’ve always been like this. My mom got my ears pierced when I was one so people would stop calling me a “cute little boy.” I’ve been told by so many people that this was going to limit what I was able to do. But recently, I’ve realized it means I can do anything. I’m performing male and female all the time. What I love doing now — which horrifies a lot of other butch lesbians — is to wear a dress. I have a bunch of stuff coming out where I’m the ugly best friend, or I’m the prostitute, or whatever. That’s drag to me, but I can get into my femme side. I feel like an artist when I do that. It’s so powerful.

I always used to stick to comedy. Now, there are parts written where I’m playing a character closer to my own experience. That’s really challenging, and totally new.

SB: So, what kinds of projects are you working on at the moment, or in the near future?

MS: I’m finishing up shooting the second season of Transparent. I have a really cool, fun, scary role in that. I’m finishing writing a feature that I’m supposed to shoot next year. It’s called The Sangres. It’s a dark, comedic, anti-Western with queer themes that Devendra is writing the soundtrack for. It’s influenced by Bob Dylan and Sam Peckinpah. And the fucking desert. I’m doing anything people ask me to do. I starred in a webseries. I’ve been drawing a lot. Just creating my own content.

I’m doing embarrassing things all over town. If anyone has anything embarrassing for me to do, I’m there. If you want me to cry, I can do that too. I’m always on time…congenial…I’m always sober on set.

SB: There’s definite progress being made in terms of acceptance and rights for those within the queer community, but is there an ideal destination and what does it look like to you? 

MS: The part of me that came out in Kansas—the person who had to hide for so long—wants to say that the destination would be to not have physical violence done upon you because you are Other. The more optimistic thing to say would be that there would be no Other. Or rather, that we would all be Other. I see us opening up our gaze on gender, and seeing it as a broad spectrum. But I think that’s only one little domino to knock down. Okay so we stop seeing people of other genders as Other, when are we going to stop seeing people from different countries and religions as Other?

I would love to see a year in which people who have consistently been at the back of the line take a move to the front. I would love to see them take over in film and in art. Just for one year. Take the director and turn him into the PA—see what happens. That would be a good short-term goal. Just a year, just sit down, shut up and watch!


You can catch Mel Shimkovitz in the new season of Transparent on December 4, 2015 on Amazon. Click here to see more of Mel's work. text and interview by Summer Bowie. photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE


Tangerine Director Sean Baker Talks Monster Flicks, Shooting Feature Films on Smartphones, and His New Sex Worker Comedy

Tangerine is a film to celebrate, not only because it brings a bright beautiful shade of blooming reality to transgender issues, but also because it is a return to the inventiveness of filmmaking. Shot entirely with iPhone 5S smartphones, the film is a triumph of cinema’s capacity to capture the human condition using whatever means necessary. With past projects that include Greg the Bunny and Starlet, director Sean Baker could have gone with much more expensive cameras, but decided to stick with smartphones and all the inherent challenges – challenges that were worked out with special, newly invented rigs and filmmaking apps. The decision lends an atmosphere of spontaneity to Tangerine that wouldn’t have been captured otherwise. The film, which takes place on Christmas Eve, follows Sin-Dee (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (played by Mya Taylor) as they search for the former’s pimp through a landscape of lascivious pleasure seekers involved in all manners of sins of the flesh – all among the neon hued and gum stained sidewalks of Tinseltown’s soiled boulevards. When watching the film, you are injected with a new enthusiasm about moviemaking – an enthusiasm that hasn’t been felt since Harmony Korine was using camcorders to shoot Gummo, or when Thomas Vinterberg was using handycams and mini-DVs to shoot the 1998 Danish film, Festen, or even when Richard Linklater was using 16mm to shoot Slacker on a shoestring budget. It seems that using unpredictable tools results in beautiful cinematic experiences. In the following interview, Autre speaks with the director of Tangerine, Sean Baker, about his falling in love with monster movies, transgender rights and why he decided to shoot his third feature film on smartphones. 

OLIVER KUPPER: When did you know that you wanted to make films? Was there a specific film that you saw that really inspired you?

SEAN BAKER: Yeah, it goes way back, actually. My mother brought me to the local library when I was in first grade. They were playing a 16mm of old Universal films—monster films. It was the burning hill scene in James Whale’s Frankenstein—that climax—that got me hooked. Up until then, I had always said, “I want to be a fireman! I want to be a construction worker!” I left the library that day and said, “I want to be a filmmaker!” From that point on, I knew I wanted to direct films.

OK: That’s amazing. I want to talk about your first effort in filmmaking. Your first effort in getting your work out there was Greg the Bunny, correct?  

SB: Well, yes, that was the first one that hit. My first film was a film called “Four Letter Words.” It was a look at guys in the suburbs. I’m hoping some day I’ll have the money to remaster it. It was shot on a 35; I made it in my early twenties. It was very much like a social-realist Kevin Smith film. Because in your twenties you see time in a different way, I let time fly by. I think I shot the film in ’96, but it wasn’t until 2000 that Matt Dentler (now he’s with iTunes, but at the time he was running South by Southwest) was the first champion of my stuff. When I was in post-production of Four Letter Words and trying to find this movie in post, two friends and I (Dan Milano and Spencer Chinoy) picked up a puppet one night. I realized what a genius Dan Milano is, when he started improvising with this puppet. The next thing you know, we have a public access show that gets recognized by IFC. Then, the next thing you know, we’re going to have some things on IFC, which lead to getting on Fox. We signed over with Seth Green, which is where we got most of our fan base. We went back to IFC, and then we had a spinoff on MTV. So I could say that this was a wonderful, happy accident that supported me through many years of making independents.

OK: You were an independent filmmaker, went to public access, made Greg the Bunny, and then went back to independent filmmaking?

SB: At my heart, my love is cinema.

OK: Your work deals with a lot of darker themes and cultures on the fringe. Where did these interests or appreciations come from?

SB: I think it’s a natural desire to explore the world, to try to understand and identify with people from different cultures, who have very different experiences and upbringings. For me, usually, it stems from a desire to explore a different location, first. Then, it’s finding the community within that location, and really taking the time to collaborate with them. For example, with Tangerine, it was about that unofficial red light district of Santa Monica. I knew of it because I lived close by. I had already been exploring sex work with my last film, so there was a natural progression. That area happens to be frequented by transgender sex workers. First and foremost, it was a look into that chaotic neighborhood. Then, it developed into exploring the lives of the transgender sex workers who are really in a place where they are forced to work the streets. They’re not given the same opportunities. Most of them are trans women of color who aren’t given opportunities because of bias, prejudice, and racism. Because of the cards they’ve been dealt, they’re living these lives. There was a natural desire to explore that. I had already had empathy and sympathy for them, but I wanted to get to know them on a human level. That was really what led to that.


"...We were shooting out on the street with very little money, so we wanted to keep our prints small. We didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves. We just didn’t have the money for security. We didn’t have the money to own location....Even with Donut Time, we paid them to be there, but we could never shut down their business. We had to work around real customers that were coming in and out. So what the iPhone did was grant us a low-profile."


OK: In terms of transgender and gay rights, do you want this film to be an important document of this time to humanize these people that have been on the fringe for so long?

SB: Yes, it’s most definitely in focus right now. Especially over the last few months with Caitlyn Jenner, the public television show which focuses on the trans individual, Transparent… When we set out to make this film over two years ago, it was something that was rarely talked about. I think it’s a sign that we’re all thinking the same way in terms of our society recognizing these individuals. I’m focusing on one very small—very small—sub-community. This film is not meant to represent all trans people. It focuses on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland where there happens to be sex work going on.

OK: And the movie was shot on iPhones. I don’t think that’s ever been done before in the sense of a feature film. Where did that idea come from?

SB: It came from a very organic place. I would be the first one to call myself out if it were done as a gimmick. I’m a cinephile, as I told you. If I was given the money, I wouldn’t have shot this on a 5s. But maybe I wouldn’t have made as good of a movie. I think in the end, the fact that we shot on a smartphone, there were so many benefits that came with it. At least for this story. I’m not saying for every movie. I actually hope my next film is shot on film. But for this particular movie, it helped in so many ways. Number one, we were shooting out on the street with very little money, so we wanted to keep our prints small. We didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves. We just didn’t have the money for security. We didn’t have the money to own location. We had, of course, insurance and permits. Even with Donut Time, we paid them to be there, but we could never shut down their business. We had to work around real customers that were coming in and out. So what the iPhone did was grant us a low-profile.

OK: And you were working with very green actors, right? 

SB: The second thing, and probably the most important thing… I was working with two first-time actors—Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez. Those two were already aspiring actors and professionals. What I’ve learned from shooting other first-timers is that there’s always a hump they have to get through. They have to drop their inhibitions. Even with Prince Adu from Prince of Broadway—it took him a little while to get used to the camera. In this case, everybody has a smartphone. For example, these girls were taking selfies of themselves between takes with their own phones. There was no difference between what we were doing and what everybody else was doing. Their confidence level and their lack of intimidation was really there from minute one. They were on the same level as James Ransone and Karren Karagulien. It was wonderful, in that case, where suddenly I was able to jump in, and even first-timers became great actors.

OK: For someone who is a little more conservative or doesn’t understand this world, how would you invite them to appreciate this film?

SB: I would just say to give this film a chance. I have a feeling that, like me, you’ll fall in love with these characters. I fell in love with these characters. I think that no matter who you are and what your politics are, you will identify with these characters. They’re going through struggle, but we all are. Of course, they’re also dealing with hardships that we’ll never know. At the same time, Tangerine is about friendship. Tangerine is also about fidelity. We all have friends; we all understand friendship. And I’m pretty sure a large percentage of us have also had to deal with fidelity. Whether we’ve done it to our partners or our partners have done it to us, we all understand the consequence of fidelity. We all understand what jealousy is. If you go into the film understanding that this is not a “life of” movie, but is actually a human story filled with humor and characters that I think everyone will love—even if they are flawed. I’m not just talking about the two main characters, but also the characters on the fringe. Even the characters who might be a little crass in what they say are still lovable characters. That’s how I would invite the more conservative crowd in.

OK: If this movie were to play in a cult cinema double-feature, what would you play next with it?

SB: That’s a good question. I never had a double-feature in mind with Tangerine. Maybe the Estonian film Tangerine. [Laughs.] No, I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that. Maybe I can text you later with my answer.


Magnolia Pictures presents Tangerine, directed by Sean Baker, opening July 17, 2015 at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, Landmark’s California Theatre in Berkeley. You can also see the film in Los Angeles and New York. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper