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.
"But--they're not hurting you in any way," Goldberg says off camera.
"No, but I'll kill them if they come in here all the time."
Standing in herSt. Paul office today, burning copies of her film onto DVDs for the press, Goldberg remembers the Sharky's moment as one of several during the filming when she felt she might be in physical danger.
"There's a lot of hate out there," she says. "Matt and I got fruit thrown at us in New York. Grapefruit hurts."
Goldberg previously made the PBS documentary Jane Goodall: Reason for Hope, and among her All the Pretty Horses memorabilia on the wall is a note from the renowned primatologist Goodall, who signed it, "Never give up."
"She and Venus would seem to be like completely opposite ends of the spectrum," Goldberg says. "But they both have this powerful yet quiet dignity about them, and I was struck by it with both of them."
Venus's wife had seen the Goodall film before Goldberg approached her--that was one reason why the couple agreed to trust the director. But Goldberg's admiration for both artists never canceled out her journalistic curiosity.
At one point in the film, she puts the question to Lynette Reini-Grandell, point blank: "Can you talk about what it's like when breasts enter a relationship where they weren't present before?"
"You can't make a film and not address it," Goldberg says now. "Because, unfortunately, that's what's on everyone's mind."
The answer the spouse ends up offering on camera is both sensible and honest: She doesn't want to get into a discussion of her sex life. But Goldberg does persuade her to read excerpts from a poem she has written for a friend who was curious about the same thing. For this scene, Reini-Grandell reclines on a bed, and...let's just say the effect is to reveal that, yes, sex is part of their lives. Which part, she won't say.
"There's just more to have fun with," Venus says elsewhere in the film, laughing like a kid when the couple is back together on camera.
Then the director asks Reini-Grandell if breasts are a turn-on.
"No, it's not a plus for me," she says, turning to Venus. "Sorry, honey."
One of the thingsthat worried parents about rock 'n' roll in the first place was the way it made sexuality suddenly very public.
"That's what rock 'n' roll means--having sex," says Venus.
She is sitting for a City Pages interview two weeks before the premiere of Venus of Mars, gathered with three other members of All the Pretty Horses (including Forberg) in the band's cavernous basement studio.
The conversation has turned to the stage show, which brings transexuality into the open like few, if any, other live music phenomena. All the Pretty Horses were even the subject of a New Zealand 20/20 segment, though the musicians were predictably hassled by customs on the way into the country.
"Don't put your metal underwear in your suitcase," says Shannon Blowtorch, the band's tattooed and mohawked dancer, by way of practical advice.
The underwear works well for a stunt in which Venus applies an electric-powered grinder onstage to Blowtorch's crotch, shooting sparks over her body (Blowtorch wears safety goggles for this bit). The performance has hazards, of course: Both Venus and Blowtorch have two scars. Venus took a chunk out of her hand in New Zealand, bleeding all over the set list.
The band has experienced some changes since shooting on Venus of Mars was completed: Backup singer Jonnycakes, bassist Pandora, and dancer Star have all left the lineup. There is a new bassist, Tempest, a transgendered male-female in artful eyeliner and heeled boots (who is quiet during most of the interview). Tempest previously played in speed-metal bands as a guy.
And Forberg is now Jendeen 24 hours a day: The drummer's bandmates in the Wolverines have even stopped calling him Brett.
"That was an issue, to have my jazz band that I've had for so long not address me in a male sense," says Jendeen, her hair now grown long to replace the wig in the film. "I don't take [referring to me as male] as an insult. It's just awkward for me, and for people that know me, to hear them do that."
Like Venus of Mars itself, All the Pretty Horses take an unusually humane, activist attitude toward their public sexuality--if they don't come out proud and persuasive, who will? As they well know, the issue can be a matter of life and death: Not long before this interview, one of the "trans" youths whom Forberg works with at StreetWorks, the homeless youth outreach program, was shot on the street (she survived).
Forberg says she has been kicked in the head and knifed in the side. She's more than capable of defending herself. But there is the occasional opportunity to turn a potentially ugly situation on its heels. She remembers one gig at the 4th Street Station in St. Paul (now Station 4) where some of the hip-hop crowd from an earlier show was still hanging around, saying "irritating things" to the band before the set began. Once All the Pretty Horses started playing, though, the same young men were dancing. "One of them shouted, 'You're all some rowdy-ass bitches,'" says Forberg.
"That's the power of rock 'n' roll," Venus adds. "Your sense of fear and concern... The music can wipe all that stuff out of you."