The Girl Can't Help It

Friday, June 30, 2023, 7:00 pm
Philosophical Research Society

3910 Los Feliz Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90027


Dirty Looks has dug deep into documents of trans history to assemble a program of archival trans portrait films that spool from experimental cinema of the 1970s, activist video, and personal portraiture. Spanning an early decade of production, illuminating (lost?) queer histories and liminal spaces across America, The Girl Can’t Help It screens poignant testimonials and early rhetorics of trans-femme ideation. The centerpieces of the program are Joseph Horning’s short film Valerie, which has screened rarely in public since its inclusion in the 24th Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1975 and Penelope Spheeris' (The Decline of Western Civilization 1 - 3) early short documenting a quite unlikely relationship.

Joseph Horning

Valerie, 16 min., 1974

This stunning, verité portrait of a Black transgender sex-worker living as a housewife in rural Ohio is a remarkable time capsule and a testament to a life of perseverance. The namesake protagonist speaks candidly about her dual life and addresses the prison industrial complex through which she is perpetually churned, as a queer person of color in the Midwest of the 1970s, a sex worker and a transgender woman, during a period when “cross-dressing” was still illegal and punishable with prison time.

Penelope Spheeris

I Don’t Know, 20 min., 1970

A truly major work, I Don’t Know observes the relationship between a lesbian and a transgender man who prefers to identify somewhere in between male and female, in an expression of personal ambiguity suggested by the film’s title. This nonfiction film—an unusual, partly staged work of semi-verité—is the first of director Spheeris’ films to fully embrace what would become her characteristic documentary style: probing, intimate, uncompromising and deeply meaningful.

Daniel D. Teoli Jr.

Gone! Up in Smoke, 7 min., 1975

A student film starring transgender burlesque artist, Barbara LeMay, performing a partial reenactment of her signature act, the “hoochie show.” The film was made as a final project for a beginning filmmaking class at Los Angeles City College, though the professor banned its premiere screening for fear that the department would lose funding over the title’s “lewd” contents. “It was a different world in the 1970s. Almost no one had tattoos or piercings. Being transgender was under the table. Tuition at L.A.C.C. cost $6.50 a semester and Cal State L.A. was $63 a trimester. For one tuition fee a student could take as many classes as they liked.“ Daniel D. Teoli Jr.

Nikolai Ursin

Behind Every Good Man, 8 min., c. 1967

Produced several years before the historic Stonewall uprising, Behind Every Good Man provides an illuminating glimpse into the life of an African-American trans woman. In strong contrast to the stereotypically negative and hostile depictions of transgender persons as seen through the lens of Hollywood at the time, the subject of Ursin's independent film is rendered as stable, hopeful and well-adjusted. The resulting intimate portrait serves as a rare cultural artifact of transgender life and African-American life in the US at the mid-century.

Shridhar Bapat, Daniel Landau, Susan Milano, Garret Ormiston and Elyshia Pass

Transsexuals, 25 min., 1971

In 1971, a group of students in New York City learning how to use the nascent technology of portable video interviewed Deborah Hartin for this documentary short. Having spent 20-plus years trying to conform to life in the body of a man, she followed her destiny all the way to Casablanca to receive the gender affirmation surgery that she had long yearned for and had attempted to self-administer in the past. Along with Esther Reilly (who was recently post-operative) and others in the transgender community, Hartin shares her story, revealing how the procedure had transformed her body, her life and her activism. Technical limitations of that early video format were incompatible with commercial broadcasting requirements, so the program was never distributed and rarely shown publicly. The development of the digital era changed that, and in 2016 the original program was converted so it could be preserved. As such, it serves as an inflection point from which it is possible to spotlight how attitudes, medicine and human understanding of gender have - and have not – changed.