The Music Box cancels Actors, but the discourse continues

The Music Box Theatre found itself at the center of controversy in the local LGBTQ+ film space when it planned a February 2 screening of Actors by Betsey Brown. It stars her brother Peter Vack, who in the movie struggles with what he sees as hostility toward white cis males in the film industry and—fueled by sibling rivalry—slowly transitions into a woman in an attempt to stay relevant in the art and entertainment world.

Betsey Brown has participated in Music Box screenings before, most recently in the 2021 Music Box of Horrors, a 24-horror horror movie festival that screened The Scary of Sixty-First, directed by Dasha Nekrasova and starring Brown.

A January 10 screenshot (now a protected tweet) made its rounds on Twitter, showing an email from a local filmmaker to Music Box’s programmers calling the film “transphobic” and critiquing the theater’s decision to screen it. Because of this, several people called the box office to voice their concerns, and the hundred-year-old institution quietly removed the screening from its website by January 25. 

The Music Box is currently not commenting publicly on this issue. But this isn’t the first time the movie has drawn attention for its potential to be offensive. It allegedly hasn’t been accepted into any major festivals for that reason. 

Jack McCoy is the producer and filmmaker in Chicago whose email correspondence with the Music Box garnered local attention on Twitter, and he believes it also led to the film’s cancellation. McCoy, who is cis, became familiar with Vack and Brown when a review by New York film critic Michael Crumplar “made a big splash on Twitter” in the spring of 2022, and McCoy said he was concerned by the critic’s reaction to the film at the time. 

Here’s an excerpt from Crumplar’s older Substack piece:

My initial reaction was, well, one of genuine disgust and revulsion. I hate to say it, but the film really did appear to just be a very ignorant and mean-spirited satire of transness . . . Each important step of gender transition is presented viscerally on screen as pure campy horror . . . The film’s promotional materials and Betsey herself are insistent that Peter’s character is not trans, but a cis man, and that reading it as a trans statement misunderstands the film’s scope . . . I was very unsatisfied with this rationalization. 

“It’s honestly, I think, worse than the way he described it,” McCoy told the Reader about his own viewing of the film. “There’s just this constant cutting back and forth between Peter getting ahead because of his new identity and explicitly false identity and Betsey, her career not making it forward, in part because of him, quote, unquote, coming out . . . this is a movie about how trans women aren’t women—they’re cis men taking away from real women’s issues, which is what I think the film’s really saying.”

His email also accused Brown and Vack of being fascists, citing a particular incident in August 2022 when Vack invited Crumplar to a filming only to encourage the audience around the critic to yell transphobic slurs, Holocaust jokes, and more at him.

Here’s the excerpt from Crumplar’s work that recounts this experience last summer:

Then the cameras started rolling, and [Vack] addressed me directly. “Crumps,” he said, “tell us, what is fascism?” . . . 

Once I finished talking, Curtis Yarvin spoke from a few rows ahead of me. He made some predictable point about how fascist art is actually quite good, citing Arno Breker and Gabriele D’Annunzio and people like that . . . These people were encouraged to say whatever random edgelord vulgarities popped into their heads, which meant a lot of slurs, proclamations about how circumcision is worse than abortion, Holocaust jokes, and so on [in an attempt to provoke me.] . . . Someone asked if I was a “tr*nny chaser,” and then others joined in, a taunting chorus asking if I was a tr*nny chaser from all directions. 

McCoy felt that with the levels of anti-trans legislation coming out of states like Florida and Texas, as well as the multiple mass shootings targeting LGBTQ+ people, the film was in bad taste and only added more far-right echo chamber rhetoric to the film fiction world. After he emailed the Music Box, they responded, and McCoy said they seemed confused and tried to defend their programming decision. 

“I don’t know. It seems like they just didn’t think it through very much, is kind of my impression,” McCoy said. By the time McCoy hopped back online, he saw people talking about how the screening wasn’t online anymore or posting screenshots of their ticket refunds. 

Betsey Brown has not responded publicly to requests for comment but has spoken indirectly on her movie’s sensitive subject matter in the past on a February 2022 episode of The ION Pod. The podcast describes itself as New York City’s still-anonymous Instagram troll of the downtown film world, and Crumplar jokingly describes the Ion Pack, Brown, and their contemporaries as longing for an idealized gritty pre-woke underground art scene, a portion of downtown NYC now referred to as Dimes Square

Brown and the anonymous hosts discuss a range of topics on the podcast, including how “identity obsession” keeps people from enjoying art and how Brown worries people won’t be able to see the film because of the topics it deals with. 

“I don’t feel like I need to give voice to these criticisms because they do feel like they’re not even criticizing the movie,” she said back in 2022. “They’re like, just bringing their own baggage up in the film; what a lot of that sort of criticism is is personal hang-ups.”

On Letterboxd, the film has three-and-a-half stars out of five, but the most-liked film review comments are for one-half stars and critique it for the same reasons it was canceled.

“​​The premise here, of a cis actor pretending to transition for clout . . . has genuine satirical potential in the right hands,” writes commenter Esther Rosenfield, who rated the movie one-half star. “Those hands do not belong to betsey brown and peter vack, whose clumsy filmmaking and lazy provocations amount to something that struggles to even rise to the level of offensive . . . The idea that peter’s career prospects would skyrocket, that he could walk into auditions full of cis women and land their roles, is so absurd that it can only read as manifesting some private art-world jealousy.” +141 likes 

Below other popular negative reviews is a positive review with one like by commenter Ryan Jackson. He gave it four-and-a-half stars and wrote that Actors will get the proper praise once it’s available for more people to see. “Good art provokes. Good art reflects the moment in time we live. Actors is good art.”

Trans film critic Louise Charlotte Weard, a longtime fan of Betsey Brown’s performances thus far, shared her thoughts on the matter on Substack in October. 

Weard got her start a few decades ago trying to shoot “transgressive” films, namely, underground cinema she describes as full of rape, violence, and other insensitive or transphobic depictions, but it still didn’t feel transgressive to her.

“As much as Mike Crumplar harps on the ‘minstrel’ criticism of Peter’s character in his review, I’ve gotta say step the fuck back.” Weard writes that she watched Actors with a group of trans friends who were “just as excited to see this film,” and they each left the movie feeling “invigorated,” agreeing it was one of the most exciting films they’ve seen in a long time. 

“Now I’m not saying this film isn’t offensive to trans women,” Weard wrote, “but I’ll be honest in saying that neither myself or my friends walked away from this offended. I’m far more offended by the discourse around its supposed offensiveness towards ‘the trans community,’ which seems to have stunted its release.” 

Weard does add that she is offended that Betsey Brown won’t acknowledge the movie’s foundational trans themes. 

“Transness is executed in Actors in a far more sophisticated way than anyone gives Betsey credit for, and she’s so clearly terrified of what she’s created that she won’t even admit that this is what her movie is about.”

Fast forward to modern-day Chicago, and a number of trans filmmakers in the city are glad the Music Box canceled the screening.

Katie Coleman is a trans playwright and composer with a play called Krugozor! playing through February 4 at Factory Theater. She also hosts a podcast called Totally Trans: Searching For The Trans Canon, where she and her cohosts discuss trans representation in film, TV, and literature. 

As soon as she heard about Actors being screened, she knew she didn’t want to watch it or review it for her podcast. Why? “Because it seems very clear that it doesn’t seem to be in good faith.” She knew about Brown and Vack because of their association with Dimes Square, as well as the incident where Vack courted controversy for his own film by inviting the audience to yell slurs.

Coleman told the Reader that, objectively, it’s suspicious that this movie about transitioning is made by two cis people, but even with that, she doesn’t think it’s impossible for a cis person to make a movie about trans issues as long as they meet the good faith requirement. Actors doesn’t meet that requirement, though. She compares the matter to the 1982 movie Tootsie, where Dustin Hoffman is an actor who can’t get a job, so he goes in drag and creates the personality of Dorothy Michaels, a womanwho gets hired on a soap opera. At the time, Coleman said, this movie was considered progressive.

“Like, the idea of the movie is that he learns about feminism by pretending to be a woman, which, sure, good for them. But you know, it’s tough to watch now. But I think that they had good intentions when they made that movie.” In contrast, she knows Actors is made by folks who, politically, she wouldn’t expect to engage with trans issues earnestly. Ultimately, she’s glad Music Box canceled it.

“I think it’s easy for cis people to see something that’s blatantly transphobic and for it to miss them. I don’t think it was malicious.”

Charli Rogers is a Chicago autistic trans filmmaker and a big Music Box fan. Her film The Squish Trilogy screened at the Nightingale Cinema in the summer of 2021. She learned about the Actors screening from McCoy’s Twitter thread, which prompted her to call the Music Box to inform them she and her trans friends were uncomfortable with it. 

Like McCoy and Coleman, Rogers also associates the movie and its producers with Dimes Square, the set of downtown New Yorkers from earlier who Rogers describes as “gentrified 4chan.”

“Like all those nerds grew up going on 4chan, saying edgy shit. And then they grew up, they got nice tech jobs in New York and finance jobs . . . they have class now,” Rogers said. “And they want to go and continue their edgy fascist posting, but they want to do it with prestige.” 

Rogers says that there is problematic work that exists that she loves, and nothing is completely unproblematic, but producers have to be willing to apologize and fully reflect on the impact of their creative risks. “I feel like that’s the position you have to make with these sorts of things.”

Although the Music Box officially canceled the screening, the discourse has continued nonetheless. 

Will and John, two hosts of the Oscarbate podcast who also host a screening series at the Music Box called Highs & Lows, opened their podcast by addressing the controversy. For context, Will was one of the people to program the original Actors screening at the music box.

“You have nothing you want to say to some of our most downtrodden communities?” John says to his cohost. “I won’t talk about it too much today,” Will responds. “But for now, what I will say is a big ole, a big enthusiastic fuck you to my least favorite kind of human, which is the self-righteous virtue signaler. So big fuck you to someone named Jack in Chicago.” He also called out another account, trans filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun, for openly tweeting against the film. 

“What are you on? What kind of medications? Are you off? Are you on? Are you mixing?” John taunted. 

“Fuck you to those people starting Twitter mobs and feeling good about trying to cancel people and things,” Will continued. “Fuck you for, you know, trying to paint Betsey Brown and her movie in a light that has nothing to do with whether you think it’s a good movie or not. But painting her and the movie in a light that is factually untrue. And then also fuck everyone who has been making it a point to terrorize the Music Box staff.” 

Rogers is a longtime Oscarbate listener and was disheartened by the podcast’s opening conversation being offensive and mean-spirited. 

Rogers doesn’t know if other people were harassing box office members to the extent the podcast claimed, but she hopes not. “It feels so petty, like you’re still in middle school, to go on this obscure, douchebag left podcast, to go and get mad at people who are just pointing out a [problem] at the place you’re working at.”

The Ion Pack will also host the Actors screening rescheduled on February 10 at an undisclosed location.

Read More

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *