Wednesday, September 12, 2012

How Film Historians Erase Films - A Case Study: Let Me Die a Woman - Synapse vs Derann

In the liner notes accompanying Synapse Films' 2006 release of the 'Transgendered Edition' of Let Me Die a Woman (1978), Michael J. Bowen makes the claim that this version of the film "contain[s] footage never previously released on a video format". Unfortunately, however, Bowen does not then go on to explain exactly what this hitherto-unreleased footage actually depicts. In order to then attempt to ascertain precisely what footage is in the Synapse release but allegedly not in any other video release of the film, we thus decided to do a side-by-side comparison of said Synapse release and the earlier (1982) UK VHS release of the film by Derann Video.

What started out as a routine comparative expedition, however, soon inadvertently turned into a grim exposé of how film historians actively expunge films from cinematic record, literally striving to remove even the possibility of a film's existence, an astonishing ploy by which the film historian far surpasses the villainy of even the most diabolical film censor; for while the latter is generally content to merely snip out, here and there, portions of any given film, the former, operating under the veneer of seemingly benign cinematic scholarship, attempts nothing less than the excision of an existent film itself from the bowels of history by grandiloquently venturing to bend space-time to preclude the film from ever having been made in the first place.

But to return for the time being to the comparison at hand...


While the film has had several other video releases by the time of Bowen's liner notes1, said notes bearing the copyright date of October 2005, we nonetheless decided to use the Derann release as a test case due to the twin facts that 1) this was the copy of the film that was the most readily available to us, and 2) the VHS cover claims that this is the "Original Uncut Version" of the film--a claim which is seemingly irreconcilable with Bowen's proclamation that it is in fact the Synapse version of the film that contains previously unreleased footage2. Moreover, this is also a claim which Bowen is explicitly aware of, later stating in the aforementioned liner notes that "An 'original uncut' version of the film, however, was released in the U.K. on videotape". And yet, given this is a claim Bowen never attempts to reconcile himself, we thus thought we could do him the favor of diving head-first into the resultant contradiction ourselves.

What then were our findings upon viewing the Synapse Films DVD and Derann Video VHS of the film? That the two contain identical scenes throughout their respective duration; that is to say, there is no footage in the Derann Video VHS that is also not in the Synapse Films DVD, and vice versa. Thus, Bowen's claim that the Synapse version of the film "contain[s] footage never previously released on a video format" is demonstrably false.

The two releases of the film do, however, contain noticeable differences with regard to the aspect ratio and image quality of the motion picture. The Derann VHS presents the film in an open matte fullscreen 4:3 aspect ratio, while the Synapse DVD presents the film in a matted 16:9 widescreen ratio. In other words, the Derann print contains significantly more picture on the top and bottom of the screen (and slightly less on the left and right) than the Synapse release. Thus, the Derann release contains more shots with nudity--and therefore remains truer to its exploitation core--than the inopportunely cropped Synapse disc (below, screenshots from the Synapse release appear on the left, while those from the Derann VHS appear on the right).

The grindhouse aesthetic of the exploitation film is further egregiously eroded in the Synapse release through its repugnant use of Digital Noise Reduction, which--while ostensibly deployed to rid a spotty print of grainy impurities--has the disastrously notorious side effect of making the actors in the film appear to be waxen figurines. Note how much detail on the skin is lost in the Synapse print below.

Admittedly, however, the Derann release is at times overly dark.

Nonetheless, said lowered brightness does in fact contribute to the print's effectiveness at other points in the film; for instance, what is passable for blood in the Derann VHS is all too clearly visible as red paint in the Synapse DVD.

Finally, the spliced-in footage of a couple frolicking around on a bed is curiously presented in black and white on the Synapse DVD, while being given a golden hue on the Derann VHS.

* * *

Having identified early elements of the film to be from 1971, Bowen, gorging on the fruits of his cinematic excavation, then bizarrely goes on to unequivocally proclaim that "Let Me Die a Woman was without doubt the first reality-based motion picture dealing with the topic of gender dysphoria - a phenomenon better known to lay-people as transsexualism". A most curious pronouncement indeed, given The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States lists the film The Christine Jorgensen Story as having the opening date of June 17 1970, and describes it as being a "biographical melodrama" whose source is listed as being the book Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography. Considering that, in turn, Christine Jorgensen was in fact a real transsexual (and quite a prominent one, at that), the aforementioned film is thus indeed a "reality-based motion picture dealing with the topic of gender dysphoria", albeit one released approximately a year prior to the earliest known incarnations of Let Me Die a Woman.

We can, of course, go yet further back in the history of transsexual cinema and in doing so would arrive at I Was a Man, which the aforementioned American Film Institute Catalog lists as having the opening date of November 2 1967. The Catalog describes the film as being about one Ansa Kansas, who "is unable to play the male role in relationships with women, and he feels the desire to dress in women's clothing. Finally, in desperation, he undergoes a sex change operation and thereafter finds happiness as a woman". The Internet Movie Database lists the 'long title' of the film as I Was a Man: The True Story of Ansa Kansas an Hermaphrodite, and classifies it as a documentary. 'Ansa Kansas' may of course be a pseudonym, much like 'Leslie' is one for Let Me Die a Woman's poster girl3, but it nonetheless once again certainly appears to be a "reality-based motion picture dealing with the topic of gender dysphoria", which was released several years prior to even the first known versions of Let Me Die a Woman. This is all quite peculiar indeed, given Bowen's claim that there is no doubt that Let Me Die a Woman was the first such film.

The title of the Barry Mahon-helmed film is also of interest due to the fact that a promotional spot for Let Me Die a Woman ends with Leslie pronouncing "Last year, I was a man", with the title of the film--Let Me Die a Woman--then appearing on the screen to finish the sentence; likewise, a trailer for the film starts off with the same sound bite which was further included as a tagline on some posters and other promotional material for the movie. This can of course all be mere happenstance, or it may indeed be Doris Wishman making a quite explicit reference to the earlier film. Regardless, however, there is no doubt that I Was a Man is a real film, and yet the existence of which is paradoxically preempted by Bowen's pronouncement.

If we were to go back still further, we would of course also come upon Ed Wood's seminal Glen or Glenda, which the text Ed Wood, Mad Genius: A Critical Study of the Films lists as having a date of 1953. While the first segment of the film deals with cross-dressing (transvestitism), the second portion of the film, "Alan or Anne", deals decidedly with transsexualism, with the titular Alan undergoing an operation to become Anne. Finally, lest Glen or Glenda is subsequently dismissed as not being altogether "reality-based", it must of course be pointed out that several of the alleged transsexuals depicted in the various softcore vignettes dispersed throughout Let Me Die a Woman are themselves--by Bowen's own admission--blatant fictionalizations employing non-transgendered actors and actresses. These actors are then shown to be reenacting medical cases introduced by Dr. Wollman, much like the case of Alan/Anne is similarly introduced by Dr. Alton in Glen or Glenda.

But of course the discussion of these particular minutiae ultimately becomes a moot point given that a liberal reading of Bowen's murky "reality-based" qualifier could allow for any film which depicts gender dysphoria to qualify as being "reality-based", as transsexualism is itself a real occurrence.  Which is all to say that, once again "without a doubt", and oddly contrary to Bowen's bold pronouncement, Let Me Die a Woman is not in fact the first "reality-based" film to explore transsexualism.

A final point of interest in Bowen's series of disingenuous statements is a claim he utters on the Synapse DVD commentary track, stating that "this scene was absolutely missing from all of the existing play prints up to this point", in reference to the penis-removal-via-chisel scene4. Unfortunately, we have not seen any US theatrical prints of the film, let alone any existing play prints the world over (as presumably Bowen has, so as to then be able to make such an "absolute" proclamation), and thus cannot attest to either the veracity or falsity of these additional claims. However, given that Bowen seems to be prone to making grand, unsubstantiated and at times provably false pronouncements, serving only to inflate the uniqueness of the film at hand in general and of the Synapse release in particular, while artificially serving to eliminate the broader spectrum of existing media (that is, existing alternate copies of said film in particular and of similar films in general)--which is ultimately naught but a particularly treacherous form of censorship--we would thus advise diligent research into the matter (preferably coupled with proof from Bowen himself of having conducted said research and having amassed the requisite evidence to make such claims) prior to believing any of Bowen's past, present, and future assertions.

It is lamentable indeed when 'film historians' succumb to unsubstantiated hyperbole not as a mere literary flourish, but as an active tool of suppression--a scalpel by which they savagely seek to excise certain films from history while at the same time, of course, conveniently serving as corporate shills for whichever distribution label they're here promoting (Synapse Films, in this case, lest that's not yet abundantly clear).  It is this deplorable state of events which we, in our own little way, have here thus sought to counter by exposing Bowen's damning lies and bringing to the fore the existence of alternate prints of the film and alternate films themselves--films which, according to Bowen, "without a doubt" do not exist.

  1. E.g., TEY-VCR released the film on VHS in Argentina in 1987; Something Weird Video released the film on VHS in the USA in 1993 (SWV has subsequently also released the film on DVD in 2007, as well as also selling it as a downloadable file); Crown Video released the film on VHS in Sweden in an unknown year (albeit no later than August 18 2004, as a forum posting from August 18 2009 states that a user had acquired a copy of the tape 'five years ago').
  2. Though the latter claim could, perhaps, be taken to mean that the Synapse version contains footage shot and subsequently edited into the film after the Derann VHS release, though if this indeed turns out to be the case [a posteriori addendum: this turned out not to be the case], Bowen curiously makes no mention of any footage being shot and edited after 1978, despite writing at length about footage shot at distinct periods during the 1970s.
  3. Speaking of Leslie, the front cover of the aforementioned TEY-VCR bills one 'Alicia González' as starring in the film; this is highly curious, given the fact Leslie refers to herself as Alicia a couple times in both the film and accompanying commentary track, and Something Weird Video also describe her in their promotional blurb as Alicia, not Leslie.
  4. A claim which is echoed--albeit more temperately--on the back cover of the DVD: "including the infamous 'chisel' sequence deleted from US theatrical prints".

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