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Kimberly Peirce
and the Art of War

Kimberly Peirce
and the Art of War


With Stop-Loss, the queer director comes of age.

She's intense, with big dark eyes that come right at you. As a writer-director, Kimberly Peirce has put that intensity to work. Her 1999 debut, Boys Don't Cry, about the rape and murder of a young trans man named Brandon Teena, was so wrenching that many in the mainstream audience didn't dare to see it. But the film impacted the culture, launching Peirce as a singular talent and winning a Best Actress Oscar for its star, the then-unknown Hilary Swank.

For a while it looked as though that mighty debut would also be Peirce's farewell. Rumors linked her with various film projects, but nothing shaped up. Would she become one of the saddest Hollywood statistics--a gifted woman director who never gets a second chance?

No way. Peirce is back, with a top team behind her sophomore project. Stop-Loss, her drama of returning Iraq war vets, which opened March 28, was produced by Scott Rudin and shot by legendary cameraman Chris Menges. Visually, the film is as handsome as its stars: Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and leading man Ryan Phillippe -- who, coincidentally or not, plays a character also named Brandon.

Peirce's script follows three freshly discharged young vets dealing with the prospect of returning to Iraq thanks to the military's stop-loss policy, the "back-door draft" that sends troops back for repeated tours of duty. In its ambitious bid to grapple with that policy's consequences as well as the demands of postmodern manhood, Stop-Loss lacks the cohesion of Peirce's first film. But it stands as a thought-provoking expansion of the same themes that made Boys Don't Cry so haunting.

I caught Peirce by phone amid a 22-city promotional tour.

Man talk: Peirce huddling with Ryan Phillippe

Stop-Lossstarted as a personal story for you. What happened? I was in New York for 9/11. Unfortunately, I saw the towers fall. And then America entered the war. And that was a devastating turn. I knew that we were amidst this seismic cultural change.... Not long after that, my little brother told us he was signing up to fight in Afghanistan. He ended up going to Iraq. It was a profound change for my family that he was going to be there, in combat. Obviously, it was an everyday concern. Is he alive, is he safe, is he injured? Is he changing? I ended up IM'ing with him pretty much from the day he landed in Kuwait.

What did you talk about? He would tell me what his missions were, like that they were either kidnapping or clearing houses. I was very sad to hear that this was going on. As we would probe emotionally into stuff, there would be a limit. He would say, "I'm a professional soldier. I'm paid to fight, not to think. This is my job. If you go too deeply into the emotional issues, I could get killed tonight because I may be distracted from my job." The second thing that was really interesting was soldier-made videos. My brother was home on leave one day, and I was at my mother's house and I heard "Let the bodies hit the floor / Let the bodies hit the floor." I walked out and saw him just mesmerized by the television. And on it were these images, handheld. The camera was on a sandbag or a gun turret, or it was wired into the Humvee or in a guy's helmet during a firefight. You'd see boots run by, guns go off--you would hear, "We got a man down!" So you were literally in the combat zone, in the battle with the guys. Then they would go back to the barracks and cut [that video] to patriotic music like Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue," or what I like to call thrill-kill, music that's really about adrenalizing you. Then you would get AC/DC or Linkin Park or Drowning Pool's "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor." I knew from that point forward that the movie needed to be born from these videos.

Did you ever think of including gay or lesbian soldiers in Stop-Loss? I completely did, and I definitely found out about some amazing stories. It simply would not have fit in this particular movie.

What fascinates you so much about masculinity as an artist? It's something that you have to work so hard to sustain. Brandon Teena literally had to construct his masculinity. But [on Stop-Loss] I was amazed to be looking at heterosexual guys, and they also were struggling to construct it and sustain it. Part of the challenge for men in this society is, What does it mean to be masculine? Does it mean you have to be on the football team? Does it mean you have to be the captain? Does it mean when your country is hit that you have to sign up and, as a way of representing your patriotism, be willing to die? ... There's also been something very interesting with the empowerment of women. It's made it challenging or confusing for men to know how to sustain their masculinity. You have to be strong, but you also have to be sensitive to her. It's like a tall order.

Is it impossible? I think, like any true identity, it's always in flux. I don't think you land on a certain island and suddenly you are masculine. I think you have to be open to performing masculinity and then going back to the well and re-performing it. I think masculinity has to be performed to be sustained.

I would argue that traditionally, masculinity is the opposite of being fluid. You don't go to anybody's well. You're the guy who stands alone. Well, yeah, but that guy now is an asshole. The modern culture has said to men, "That's not enough...." I certainly think in queer culture, masculinity is a huge issue of concern. You have a lot of women who are performing masculinity in really interesting ways. You have this whole thing where women who used to be butches now are becoming transsexuals or tranny fags. So a love of masculinity ultimately becomes a love of self becomes wanting to be two men together.

"Tranny fag," meaning an FTM transgender who is attracted to men? Yeah, and I don't want to use that in at all a degrading way. I have friends who are academics, and that's what they say, so whatever the appropriate term is.

The old binary notion of gender is really breaking loose. The queer culture is having to deal with the idea that butch lesbians are becoming transsexuals, and people who used to be women are becoming male-ish or men, and then they are with men. It's complicated. But it's great that we're recognizing gender never was binary. At least now it's less possible to pigeonhole it into just two categories, male or female.

Part of it is just that people are feeling freer to speak their truth. Right. I don't think people even understood that it was a possibility. They had to just be, in their minds, freaks or outsiders. So it's not only great that as a culture we're talking about it; I think it's great that there's images of it out there. I've had so many people after Boys Don't Cry just come up and say -- and I say this with such humility -- "Oh, my God, you showed me this thing that changed my life, that made me realize it was OK."

I feel like that's the job of every generation, if we can just help move the awareness a bit forward. After me, somebody will pick up the ball, and they'll go somewhere with it.

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