“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but when it comes to experimental archival documentaries, just because something worked once doesn’t mean it will work again. In the burgeoning canon of queer and trans documentaries, filmmakers face a unique challenge: How do you tell a story that has either been deliberately erased, or filtered through a lens that views you as abnormal at best, abhorrent at worst? It’s a dilemma that has been handled elegantly in recent documentaries like “Disclosure,” “The Lady and the Dale,” and “No Ordinary Man.” Unfortunately, “Framing Agnes” gets too wrapped up in the questions surrounding storytelling to do any actual storytelling.
Unsurprisingly, “Framing Agnes” has most in common with “No Ordinary Man,” which found meaning in conversations with trans actors as they attempt to re-animate the life of trans jazz musician Billy Tipton. Directed by Chase Joynt with Aisling Yin-Chee, Joynt steps out solo for his latest project, the similarly constructed “Framing Agnes.” In his second feature, Joynt holds firm to this experimental style of breaking the fourth wall in order to highlight the challenges of re-framing trans history. Unfortunately, the lofty technique takes over in “Framing Agnes,” and ends up totally overpowering what could have been a wealth of material and elegant performances — had we been allowed to see them.
The film takes its name from Agnes, the pseudonym for a patient at UCLA’s gender clinic in the 1960s, who lied to researcher Harold Garfinkel in order to access gender affirming medical care. Agnes became a figurehead in trans research, and was thought to be an outlier until a trove of other subjects of Garfinkel’s study was discovered in 2017. Using these transcripts as scripts, “Framing Agnes” recreates Garfinkel’s clinic, putting trans performers in all of the roles. Shot in black and white, the film blurs the line between the medical clinic and the talk show, two early sites of trans visibility in history.
Joynt plays Garkinkel as a befuddled ringleader, cloaking his probing questions in a naively paternalistic newscaster voice. He is joined by Zackary Drucker (Co-director of “The Lady and The Dale”) as Agnes, Angelica Ross (“Pose”) as Georgia, and Jen Richards (“Her Story”) as Barbara. Refreshingly, the film features an equal number of trans men, with filmmaker Silas Howard (“A Kid Like Jake”), and writers Max Wolf Valerio and Stephen Ira rounding out the cast. Their performances are sensitive, humanizing, and often times deeply felt. It’s a pity that every time an actor is on the verge of a compelling moment, the film abruptly cuts away. It’s impossible to connect with these characters in such short snippets, and while seeing the actors out of character so frequently.
The academic heft of the film sits on the well-coiffed shoulders of Jules Gill-Peterson, a professor of transgender history at Johns Hopkins University. Gill-Peterson valiantly places Garfinkel’s study, the UCLA gender clinic, and Christine Jorgensen in context for the viewer, emphasizing Garfinkel’s significance in academia. A dynamic lecturer, but a lecturer nonetheless, Gill-Peterson has more screen time than any of the actors, making the film feel like more a history class than a story.
In meta-scenes of his interviews with the actors, Joynt summarizes the film thusly: “Because the project flips the scene of the clinical office with the stage of the talk show to think about how meaning gets produced about trans people in different environments…” (And that’s only the first part of that sentence.) His constant need to explain what the film is trying to do not only betrays doubts about his audience’s intelligence, but of his material and his own film.
It’s a pity, because the black and white scenes look stunning, and the performers are doing excellent work. (Howard should definitely be doing more acting in between directing gigs.) If the archive was such a monumental discovery, surely there was enough material in there for the film’s 75-minute run time. The inspired choice of the talk show setting, the contemporary actors in their handsome period costumes, and the unbelievable words of real trans people reaching out across time would have made a compelling film on its own. Yes, the history of trans stories deserves re-framing, but what about its future?
“Framing Agnes” premiered in the NEXT section of the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.