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Seeing the Humor in Sexual Identity
By Michael Guillen
February 3, 2007 - 9:38 AM PST

", certainly sexual identity, is so complicated."

In 1995 writer-director Maria Maggenti turned conventional narrative on its ear by melding it with a lesbian teen romance, creating The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love. Over a decade later, Maggenti tweaks the romantic comedy once again in her InDiGent production of Puccini for Beginners, this time limning gender fluidity with laughs and posing fresh questions for an evolving queer community. Whether on the large screen or on the scale of microcinema, Maggenti's full-bodied humor feels enlightened and inventive, and nowhere is this more evident than in the interview she has conducted with herself for Landmark Theatres' FLM magazine. Whether reading her full-fledged attack on herself over her authorial choices or bantering with her during a recent telephone interview, I can't help chuckling along with Maria Maggenti.

So, Maria, down the line do you think Puccini for Beginners will be included in a Screwball Comedy Film Festival?

Wouldn't that be nice? I would be honored to be included.

Screwball comedies are obviously a genre with which you are clearly familiar and comfortable playing with. Why screwball comedies?

Well, I guess it's a certain amount of nostalgia. I grew up watching those movies. I was lucky enough to have my mother take my sister and me on Friday nights to see the American Film Institute in Washington, D.C. Long before kids stayed at home and watched videos, we went and saw black-and-white movies. I grew up with a great love of that form and later studied it quite extensively on my own, reading about how they made the movies and who the filmmakers were. I'm curious with how this film will do because it's a form that's hard to pull off, and I don't know if even I did it as well as I should have. It's a tough form in a time when we have so many problems, y'know? The fact that I decided to do a screwball comedy when we're faced with this horrible war in Iraq and the rise of the Christian Right and all that stuff, I hope is not a mistake on my part.

I hardly think so. We all need a good laugh during times like these, and besides, weren't the screwball comedies a direct response to the Depression? Perhaps it's an essential dyad: hard times and good laughs? Puccini For Beginners came to San Francisco last year as the opening night feature for Frameline 30. Unfortunately, I missed it at that time, but I'm curious to know how it did with the crowd.

Oh my God! I was there with friends and family and I wondered if maybe people had gotten high or something before the screening. They laughed so hard that they couldn't hear half the lines! It was extraordinarily gratifying and wonderful; every filmmaker's dream.

I can understand why the Frameline audience was amused. Puccini for Beginners has a wry texture of freeze frames, voiceovers, flashbacks, bystander commentary and all those gender reversals; it's a clever script.

Thank you. Thank you very much. That really makes me feel good.

I noticed, however, that - as sexy as this film is - you didn't portray sexuality as much as you explored gender.

That's true, actually. Some of that is because, gosh, sex, certainly sexual identity, is so complicated. I wasn't as interested in that. I was more interested in what makes a heterosexual relationship and what makes a lesbian relationship and are there differences? There's a famous line by writer Richard Goldstein [to the effect that] gay people and straight people are incredibly different except when they're in bed. [Chuckles.]

Part of me felt it was more interesting to try and take on the idea of gender than sexual identity. The film raised more questions, I hope, than I answered, because I don't have any answers; but I am definitely curious and interested. Especially in how men and women are portrayed in film, not necessarily always in life, but in film there seems to be, I don't know, a poverty of imagination around what women are and what men are.

I found your gender inversions sophisticated. Elizabeth Reaser, as Allegra, is in a role that a man would usually be playing in these screwball comedies, and yet it worked. She pulled it off. She really was attractive and "fuckable."

Yes, she's darling, isn't she? She had to do something very difficult. She had to be a character for whom the intellect is the primary way of being in the world but, as an actor, she had to be about emotions and feeling and physicality. That's a tough role for an actress. Actresses usually aren't given the opportunity to be smart, y'know? We were incredibly lucky to find Elizabeth and we only found her approximately a week and a half before we started shooting.

That's what I understand. And this after seven years?!

Indeed. Seven long years of struggling to get this film off the ground.

Puccini for Beginners is a smart "salad to steak to salad" comedy with a bossa nova frothiness to it that I enjoyed very much. It made me curious about your writing process. You have these wonderful one-liners like, "You never sublimate hideous issues, you just act them out," and "Love doesn't have boundaries but sexual identity does"; these are great lines. In your writing process, do these lines come to you randomly and you jot them down? Or do they come to you in a torrent of inspiration? What's your writing process like?

Gosh, that's a really good question. I find writing just incredibly painful. Very, very difficult. I work quickly but only on my first draft. Then I revise and I revise and I revise. I would say, when it comes to anything that comes across as particularly smart or funny, it's probably something I barely worked on. I will say, too, that I have been in analysis for many years, and I'm a great believer in psychoanalysis, and I guess the combination of psychoanalysis and getting older [means] you gain a sense of humor. There's something in that material that can't help but make you want to joke. [Laughs.] That's how I look at it anyway.

I've long felt that a sense of humor indicates your spiritual growth. The more you can laugh at yourself, the more you're understanding, like you say, that there aren't answers to some of these lifelong questions. Life isn't a problem to be solved; it's a predicament to be experienced.

That's very true. That's very accurate, actually. I'm going to have to think about that question of writing process because, as I say, I was with this script for a long time and then right before we started shooting, I got a group of my female writer friends together and took an extraordinarily tough level of scrutiny from them and criticism and, again, went into a hardcore revision process. Then of course, the material changes again when you have your actors. I can give full credit to Tina Benko, who played Nell, who had some wonderful lines that she herself came up with. One of my personal favorites is when she says, "So Philip, a big fan of Kant..." That was Tina. I didn't write that.

Yes, her wit was brittle, clever. So you were amenable, then, to working with your actors on that level with your script?

Absolutely. If someone has a better idea than myself, I'm thrilled. I will take it.

You have been involved in much GLBT and human rights activism in your younger years. Now that you've shifted into filmmaking, have you received any criticism for catering to "has-bians"?

Not yet. We'll see when the film comes out what kind of reception I'll get. The good news is that the community itself has changed quite remarkably in the last 10 years and issues around sexual identity are in many ways more fluid. The discussions in the lesbian and gay community are remarkably sophisticated, I have to say. They also have changed. The whole notion of a queer community, for instance, is a phenomenon that has developed in the last 10 years. It will be interesting to see. I'm always interested in what the sisters have to think. [Laughs.]

A few months back I was speaking with Jamie Babbit when The Quiet came out, and at that time, we talked a little bit about how she's recontextualizing certain feminine stereotypes, like the cheerleader and what-not. Yet your character moved in a different tack. It wasn't so much that you were recontextualizing a feminine stereotype as much as you were shifting a woman into and occupying an agency that women usually aren't associated with.

I would say that is a very accurate way of portraying what I was attempting to do, yes.

Is there any feminine stereotype that you would like to recontextualize?

That's a good question. Let me put it to you this way: There's an advertisement right now for a movie that's about to come out called Norbit. I don't know if you've seen the advertisement; but, you won't be able to miss it. It shows a big fat Black woman on top of a skinny Black man with glasses - I believe it's Eddie Murphy - and the headline is: "Have you ever made a really big mistake?" Here I am, not in my 20s, and I had the strongest desire to face that poster with the following remark, which is: "Have I ever sat on a skinny Black man with glasses? Yes, I have." [Laughs.] So, in that respect, I'm always looking at things and trying to turn them a little bit upside-down.

That's funny. I have seen that advertisement and I think both characters - the fat Black woman and the skinny Black man - are Eddie Murphy in that situation.

They're both Eddie Murphy, but again, the presumption that the "you" is male, that there's really only one audience, and that the mistake would be that you'd be squished by a big fat Black woman instead of a Black woman saying, "Have you ever sat on a man who didn't appreciate your big fat ass?" That's much funnier to me.

I see what you're saying. So it's not so much about recontextualizing a stereotype as it is reversing the gaze and upsetting the presumption. Now, I know that it took such a long time - seven years - to make Puccini for Beginners, and no doubt after all that effort, you hate comparisons to other filmmakers; but, I'm sure that you've frequently heard that the film reminds audiences of Woody Allen, partly because of its Manhattan setting. Before I read any of those comparisons, however, Puccini for Beginners reminded me of Woody Allen, not so much because of the movie itself, but because of something you said in your press notes. You said, "I'm not above someone slipping on a banana peel if it will get a laugh." That instantly reminded me of that scene from Sleeper where Woody Allen is running on a giant banana peel.

Of course! [Laughs.] Well, listen, to be able to use my name in the same company as Woody Allen is an extraordinary compliment, and I certainly am a great fan and know all his movies very well, but I did not in any way consciously say, "I want to do a Woody Allen movie." I'm really trying to figure out who Maria Maggenti is and what my vision of the world is. I can honestly tell you that Woody has never once shot in the subway. In that respect, we part ways.

The subway sequence - where the train operator comments on Allegra's life over the intercom - is a comic, paranoid fantasy. That whole premise of the bystander commentary - which some have likened unto Woody Allen - worked for me, even though Cinematical's Jette Kernion felt you were inconsistent because you had other passengers on the train listening to and responding to the intercom advice. But I didn't agree with that criticism; it failed for being too literal. I assumed that all those scenes were not literal; they were Allegra's fantasies and the paranoid aspect of her fantasies would precisely be that other people around her were listening to this voice butting into her affairs.

They were. They were supposed to be her unconscious that shifts over the course of the story as her own consciousness starts to change. But yes, everyone butts in basically because they're her unconscious speaking to her. Its success or failure is to be left to everybody else, but I will say - also as a person who has lived in New York most of her adult life - it's not uncommon to have people butt into your conversations and give you plenty of opinion whether you think they're coming from your head or not. [Laughs.]

I understand you went to the NYU Undergraduate Film School just because it was in your neighborhood?

I went to undergraduate at Smith College where I studied Philosophy and Classics. Then I moved to New York and got involved in politics as an activist. Then applied to NYU Undergraduate Film School, yes, having no idea that it was a competitive place and what it would entail; but, I lived in the East Village and I could walk there so I thought, "Well..." I had to figure out what to do with my life because I wasn't doing that well. [Laughs.] I was never good at any of the jobs that I had, so I thought maybe - since I've always been good at school - I should go back to school. In your Flavorpill video interview at Sundance last year, you mentioned that, upon completing Puccini for Beginners, you were hoping to get a job where you could shuffle around in house slippers and curlers and make a movie. Has that happened?

No, it has not, unfortunately. A couple of other things have come up. I just sold a TV series to Showtime so, if all of that comes through, I'll have a 90-hour week for a couple of years. And then I just finished a short film project for the Sundance Global Short Films Project and that was an assignment in which they selected six of us, I believe, to make four-minute movies that will be available on the Sundance Network website and on cell phones.

That was an extraordinary challenge. I was making something that was two inches by two inches and it had to be accessible to a wide range of audiences, acceptable for children. It forced me back into a primal notion of storytelling. Those are the two little things that I've had going and, of course, I'll be traveling around with Puccini, which I'm about to do next week, to France and then Istanbul, where the film will be playing in a film festival. I'm very interested in how it goes there.

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", certainly sexual identity, is so complicated."

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Michael Guillen
A film critic and journalist whose interests include Mayan culture and Jungian psychology, Michael Guillén blogs at The Evening Class. He is a contributing writer to Entertainment Today, the Canadian film site Twitch and the Austrian magazine Ray.

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