Venus of Mars is a documentary about a man with tits, or a woman with balls, depending on how you look at her. But the film has been made with such uncommon empathy toward the human beings involved that "man" and "woman" come to feel like arbitrary categories, as silly as the genders assigned to pencils and telephones by the French language.
The best Minnesota rock 'n' roll documentary of the century so far stars the band All the Pretty Horses, a "dark glam" ensemble fronted by a transgendered singer and guitarist who calls herself Venus. Born Steven Grandell, she prefers the female pronoun these days, and has grown breasts and round hips thanks to a daily intake of hormones. Still, she has yet to make the ultimate transsexual leap of surgery. "Medically," she says, "I'm in between."
Director Emily Goldberg could have made the movie only about Venus and All the Pretty Horses. Known for hosting decadent fetish balls, the band plays an incongruous rock that combines glam's yearning for transformation, goth's urge to oblivion, and metal's happy swagger. Onstage, they're like a purgative Rocky Horror: Venus appears in heavy makeup and bondage gear, her breasts displayed under pasties, thrust upward by a corset. The band's go-go dancers can't compete--she's a commanding guitarist, in high heels or not, and sings with Bowie's Katherine Hepburn quaver. "Celebrate confusion," goes the chorus of one song. "It's a revolution."
The movie begins with the live spectacle--Goldberg shoves Venus's tits in your face. But what comes next will shock a few All the Pretty Horses fans: a shot in which this apparent creature of the night is working in the bright outdoors, mowing a lawn. Goldberg, who also produced and edited Venus of Mars, filmed the band over the course of a year and a half with digital cameraman Matt Ehling, beginning in early 2000 (five years after Venus launched the group with a different lineup). That was enough time to deduce that Venus is painfully normal. "You look at this incredible glam fetish band," says longtime supporter Scott Pakudaitis in the film, "and you think, 'Oh my God, [Venus] must be out partying every night and he must be living in a dungeon or something.' But he's married... His wife's an English professor... You know if you take the transgender piece out of it, it's Ozzie and Harriet."
Normalness helps isolate and focus the transgender issue in Venus of Mars, which makes its Minnesota premiere Friday at Oak Street Cinema. Drugs or infidelity never enter the picture: Venus is bisexual but monogamous--and so soft-spoken that you can imagine how the Duluth native saves her excesses for the stage. But Goldberg never reduces the marriage in question to a sappy example of how trannies are just like you and me. Turns out this rock documentary is really a 20-year love story that lays out the classic script of boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy almost loses girl when he decides he wants to be a girl.
His girl is no stereotype, either. A poet and professor known for hosting KFAI-FM's Write on Radio (90.3/106.7), Lynette Reini-Grandell wears less makeup than the love of her life whom she still calls her husband. She's both articulate and disarmingly candid. "I always liked tall, skinny guys with eyeliner," she says in the film, sitting next to Venus.
"You just got a little bit more than that," Venus replies.
The moment of confrontation that arrived 12 years ago, when the husband told the wife he wanted to be a woman, would have become the primary source of drama had Venus and Lynette decided to forgo Goldberg and tell their story to Jerry Springer.
But nothing is simple in Venus of Mars. The band includes non-trans women and transgender drummer Jendeen Forberg, born Brett Forberg, who in the film is still only half out of the closet. We watch this proud, towering, and bewigged woman duck into a bathroom at the Times Bar to become Brett again, leading his big band jazz ensemble the Wolverines. Forberg also takes a surprisingly nonjudgmental attitude toward people in the jazz community who can't handle her female identity. "People have every right to freak out," she says.
The reaction of audience members to All the Pretty Horses is never quite what you'd expect. One by one, onlookers in the film give voice to the angels and devils of their better and worse nature. In Rochester, Minnesota, Goldberg asks one of Reini-Grandell's writing students, who has come to see the band's show, if it bothers him that his prof's husband has breasts. "Fuck, no," the young man says. "Right up there right now onstage is a bunch of souls." After a concert in Newcastle, England, a British man gives that sentiment a disarming, working-class accent: "Even though they were blokes," he says, "they were quite fucking sexy. And I'm heterosexual."
Earlier in the movie, inside the now-closed Columbia Heights heavy metal bar Sharky's, the band makes two female fans. But a tipsy guy upstairs speaks with surprising candor.
"I can't stand queers," he says.