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Crumps Meets Betsey Brown and the Ion Pack
A piece about writing a piece about the Ion Pack inviting me to see Betsey Brown's film "Actors" at the Roxy Cinema
Last month, Buzzfeed published Joe Bernstein’s article on last year’s NPCC film festival, the one notoriously funded in part by Peter Thiel, right around the time I started writing these “downtown scene” critique Substack posts. These things evidently got the attention of the Ion Pack, two semi-anonymous guys with deep connections in New York’s indie film world who run a popular podcast called the Ion Podcast. They completely and relentlessly panned my piece about Matt Gasda’s Dimes Square play on their podcast. I don’t mention them in the piece but in my description of the ideological world of “downtown,” when I was making fun of this general longing for some idealized gritty pre-woke underground art scene past, I might’ve been involuntarily describing something that resembles them.
I haven’t listened to many episodes of their podcast, but I enjoyed this one both because it talked about me and because I found myself disagreeing with them about virtually everything they were saying in a way that felt enlightening. I got a kick out of it and tweeted out a link to the podcast. After that they must’ve realized I had some humor and self-awareness about it, or they came to appreciate my irreverent criticism and its symbiotic relationship with the art it critiques, who knows. But they reached out to me and were very friendly, telling me to come see the “real” downtown scene stuff with an earnestness I couldn’t turn down.
What this meant was an invitation to see Betsey Brown’s film Actors at the plush Roxy Cinema in Tribeca. It’s always tricky getting into the murky origins of internet meme movements, but from what I could tell, Betsey’s brother, actor Peter Vack, is a sort of meme-generating visionary whose work as Instagram’s “@themasterofcum” seems to have helped inspire the Ion Pack guys in making “@ioncellectuals.” @ioncellectuals was an offshoot of the original “@incellectuals” Instagram meme account, which had many other “-cellectuals” offshoots, and @ioncellectuals went on to become the biggest one before getting banned. So, the Ion Pack, Peter Vack, and Betsey Brown all go way back, at least in internet terms. Although the Ion Pack has mostly moved beyond the -cellectuals style, the success of @ioncellectuals helped spawn the Ion Podcast, which has proven popular and helped cement their place as tastemakers of the underground film world. With this clout they have been organizing film screenings, such as this one, which is the first downtown scene thing I’ve attended with an invite rather than as an infiltrator.
In Actors, filmmaker siblings Betsey Brown and Peter Vack play fictionalized versions of themselves who attempt radical body transformations to stave off creative malaise and stay relevant in show business. Peter decides to transition to be a woman, becoming “Petra,” although he is clear that his transition is a career-minded ruse. Alarmed by his plot, Betsey hastily agrees to have a baby with her boyfriend, who resembles Peter, to generate viral content of her own. Peter’s transition succeeds in winning him clout and acting roles, whereas Betsey loses interest in her child once her mommy rebrand fails to generate similar interest, prompting her baby daddy to leave her and take the kid with him. Eventually the broader public starts to catch up with Peter/Petra’s act, and to prove his authenticity starts taking hormones, which Betsey must inject on camera for their online audience. A violent attack ultimately leads to the completion of the radical body transformation and a cathartic resolution to the sibling rivalry.
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. With its gauche visual effects and editing, Peter/Petra’s bombastic fake-trans diva comes across like a Sam-Hydean minstrel show caricature. Each important step of gender transition is presented viscerally on screen as pure campy horror. The juxtaposition of Petra’s successful gender rebrand with Betsey’s barren motherhood seems like it would come from those British TERFs that hang out with JK Rowling. And the film’s flippant treatment of violence against trans people in the final act seems to anticipate the outraged response of a general audience by throwing it back on them—“you’re the intolerant ones who can’t appreciate art!” To say the least, all this would make my mission of writing a review very difficult, because the only way I could convey my genuine reaction would be walking into a discursive trap—I would just be another woke leftist who is too hung up on identity politics to appreciate subversive art.
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. The film is a personal film about sibling artistic rivalry. Even though it may appear to be about transness, the film really is a satire of the white cis male’s quest for relevance, and the lurid costume of the trans woman is an arbitrary choice. Betsey claims that the film’s premise was inspired by the attention Peter got at the South by Southwest film festival from his movie Assholes, and that she didn’t set out to make a transphobic movie.
I was very unsatisfied with this rationalization. Given the cultural climate of which the film is undoubtedly aware, the line appears to me so hollow and unconvincingthat I couldn’t possibly believe Betsey or the Ion Pack people would believe it themselves. Yes, I know that it’s banal to spend so much thought fixating on whatever an artist “intended” for their work to say. I would rather not do it if I didn’t have to. I don’t even see any reason to doubt that the film was in fact inspired by a pang of envy at South by Southwest, or that Betsey harbors no conscious hatred toward trans people. But this question of intent was also a big part of why the Ion Pack guys were screening it at the Roxy anyway—that the film’s true subversive intent had been misunderstood and rejected by most of the indie film festival circuit, and that the film would find a more appreciative audience in the hip, anti-woke downtown world. What this means is that litigating intent is unavoidable if I am expected to look past what the film seemed to be obviously saying.
The thin rationalization also threw a wrench into a “signature Crumps strategy” of engaging with internet reactionary texts (especially the more “problematic” ones) by identifying and praising certain aspects that are actually somewhat interesting or thought-provoking before slipping in the real metacontrarian bomb that blows the whole thing apart. The idea is to go around the cognitive defenses set up set up by these artists and their audiences to defend against the “wokescolds” who refuse to engage these kinds of art and to show a willingness to set aside political priorities to appreciate something that might be disagreeable. But when the text itself is so obscene and the official rationalization so unconvincing, it’s hard to find anything to grab on to and approach the thing on its own terms.
To its credit, Actors had a lot of strong visuals, especially the Instagram sequences that juxtaposed Peter/Petra’s and Betsey’s internet brands, which succeeded in giving the enticing impression of deep kaleidoscopic meme worlds (which you can explore by following @themasterofcum). But what these visuals amounted to saying still reinforced the “uncharitable” interpretation of the film. In fact, the Instagram memes reminded me of the unhinged genderbending theoryposting style of my longtime Twitter/Instagram mutual “Catboy Deleuze” (now “@deleuzean_thembo” on Insta), who seems to embody in a self-aware way as a trans/nonbinary person what the film ostensibly satirizes as “cis white male fragility.” Catboy Deleuze posts tons of “problematic” stuff that succeeds in offending plenty of people, trans and cis alike, but the question of whether they are “authentic trans,” and what that even means, is totally irrelevant to everyone. I could even imagine them launching an irreverent new bit claiming that their own transition is just an elaborate troll (it would probably be based on some obscure reading of Heraclitus or something), only to be met with vaguely amused indifference. In other words, even the film’s apparent technical strengths seem to betray a weird fixation on trans authenticity and play into a false image of the sorts of people it depicts.
I ended up spending a lot of time thinking and writing about this problem, so focused in my search for plausible excuses that it began overwriting my own memory of the film. On some level I also felt bad for Betsey and the Ion Pack guys. They were being nice to me and giving me journalistic access, and I wanted to figure out some way to express the truth of her artwork without necessarily burning potentially valuable bridges and losing opportunities to probe deeper into this strange downtown world of mystic cranks, proto-fascists, and abortive avant-gardes.
When I interviewed Betsey, I pressed her on “the transphobia question” and she repeated me the official answer. I told her I found that answer unsatisfying and instead offered the fruit of my intellectual labor: an “alternate” reading of the movie that didn’t feel so awkward and would anticipate the disgust and revulsion of a more general, so-called “woke” audience. In this interpretation, the film is basically aware of its own transphobic narrative, and Peter’s trans minstrel show character is this hallucinatory neurotic fantasy object that undermines Betsey’s feminine jouissance. I didn’t actually say this next part but what it sort of leads to is that the film would thus be a self-aware critique of the Red Scare–adjacent reactionary gender ideology, in that it shows how the young artist women of this milieu channel some deep anxiety with their bodies and “cis-white mediocrity” onto the freakish Oedipal illusion of a trans scapegoat that embodies the melancholic loss of their class privileges. It would take a cue from Caveh Zahedi, who evades the question of the ethics of his art by exposing his own ugliness in an act of “radical honesty.” I was quite pleased with this at the time, and if the film did say this it might actually be pretty savage, especially since Anna Khachiyan herself was in the audience that night. Betsey seemed to think about it for a bit and then ultimately decided that it would mean admitting that she is transphobic, which she is not. I also soon realized that my own, “more sophisticated” rationalization of the film was actually the more evil one precisely because it was intended to deny the obvious, and that I was contorting myself into some fascist propagandist to avoid the accusation of being a wokescold just for one Substack film review.
Upon coming to terms with my own rhetorical failure I realized I’d have no choice but to admit that I was simply triggered by Actors. I was unable to suspend my ethical disgust long enough to find the true metacontrarian key in its phantasmagoric layers to make it all make sense. At least I don’t have to keep straining my eyes to see it as an innocent commentary on bourgeois careerist striving, which I spent many hours and thousands of words trying to do. Either way, it all comes to the same result: the audience that was at the Roxy Cinema that night and however many future nights will eat this shit up no matter what clever rationalizations anyone offers. And no matter what I say, it’ll still be wildly offensive to trans people.