Tag Archives: Weimar

In Conversation with Finn Jackson Ballard

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I´m a teacher. Few things make me happier than to see students doing well after graduation. And it positively gladdened my heart to see the life that Finn Jackson Ballard has made for himself in Berlin: a PhD in Film Studies, a historian of Berlin queer cultures of the last century with a focus on the Weimar period, a tour guide non-pareil, now himself a teacher and Lecturer. I first met Finn when he was Eimear: brilliant, soft-spoken, brave; mindful of the ways she spoke and conscious of the various effects speech might have on others.  I remember meeting Eimear for coffee when she first told me she was transitioning and feeling somewhat like my mother when I first came out to her: I foresaw trouble, danger, possibly a gory death in some ditch. Unlike my mother, I did not say this, and tried to find a way to be supportive but careful. Had she thought everything through? She had.

There´s a wonderful moment in Almodóvar´s All About My Mother where Agrado, a trans person played by Antonia San Juan, gets on stage and tells the audience how much her various body parts had cost. Most of what makes her ‘her’ is artificial. But she ends by saying that one is most authentic, most true to oneself, the closer one gets to the person they imagined themselves to be. It´s telling that a gentle man, a man who is gentle, is Finn´s choice.

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The podcast below took place in Finn´s apartment in Berlin, late-night, with his dogs sprawled around us, occasionally biting on some squeaky toy. I´ve wanted to keep the atmosphere, the flow, the ways conversation reveals as it meanders so I´ve not cut anything.

Like many people my age, I feel a bit at sea on trans issues. I want to be helpful but know I also need to change entrenched ways of thinking: to be better informed. We all need to be really, and few people are as knowledgeable and articulate on the issue as Finn.

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In the podcast (below, at the bottom) we talk about adolescence and being disassociated from one´s body; hormones, chest surgery, the processes involved in getting closer to the idea of who one wants to be; screenings, psychological evaluations; how it´s a bit like going through puberty again, looking in the mirror constantly to spot gradual changes; how life became easier once people saw him as a man rather than as a trans person; how privileged he feels at having an experience and insight into how it is to live as a woman; how more comfortable he feels with the effeminate rather than feminine. We talk of Northern Ireland and Berlin; we reflect on gender, how theory enable ways of being; how history helps to develop those ideas; the importance of ‘ancestors’; and much more.

Listening back, I´m even more appreciative of his kindness, his knowledge, his openness, his sense of adventure, the lilting accent, the way his answers to my questions are both free-flowing and thought through, precise. We can all learn a lot from Finn. I certainly did.

José Arroyo

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 175 – The Blue Angel

The film that introduced Marlene Dietrich to America, Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel tells the tragic story of a man who gives up everything for love. Emil Jannings is delightfully pompous and uptight as Professor Rath, a schoolteacher charmingly disarmed by Dietrich’s seductive cabaret star Lola Lola. The two marry, but unable to change and consumed by jealousy, Rath loses his status, dignity and the woman he loves.

Dietrich is captivating as Lola, wearing a seemingly permanent smirk of knowingness – much of the film’s action takes place backstage, an environment she controls effortlessly, in which the fewer items of clothing she wears the more uncomfortable Rath grows. José notes a moment in which she ungraciously adjusts her underwear, and who cares who’s watching – Mike remarks upon her legs, which at times are posed and filmed to take on a character all of their own. José considers the greatness of Dietrich’s collaborations with von Sternberg, of which this was the first, and in particular the way he composes layered, complex imagery here.

We discuss the film’s characterisation and morality – it’s a tragedy, and to some extent its cabaret world is responsible for Rath’s decline, but because of his inability to understand and adapt to his new life, rather than an inherent immorality to the setting. Lola, too, isn’t simply some succubus; she may find Rath socially useful to marry, given his status as a professor, but moreover her affection for him is apparent. And we consider the film’s two-part structure, how it mirrors itself through its two memorable tracking shots in the classroom, the clown character into whom Rath is transformed, and Rath’s rooster-like crowing on his wedding day taking on a different significance at the film’s climax.

The Blue Angel is ninety years old and remains as tragic and sexy as ever. Don’t miss it if it’s showing near you.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.