SXSW Review: Mr. Angel, a doc about more than just a man with a vagina

If Loves Her Gun is the disappointing end of the film festival movie spectrum, Mr. Angel is its opposite pole. Even among great movies, there are the kind that you need to see (because they’re Important, those emotionally draining experiences you might have to prepare for) and the kind you want to see, like Mr. Angel, a film that you can go into cold and leave warm, the film equivalent of being wrapped in a warm blanket and fed hot cocoa. My heart grew three sizes that day!

Before I get all mushy about it, I should explain that Mr. Angel, from documentarian Dan Hunt, is about Buck Angel, the self-described “man with a pussy,” a muscular dude with a shaved head and a red fu manchu, often photographed wearing hyper-masculine biker clothes and chomping on a big cigar. He also happens to still have the vagina that he was born with, which he isn’t shy about being photographed with either. What makes Mr. Angel such a joy to watch is that it isn’t a movie about transgender issues, or discrimination, or acceptance, or bullying. It isn’t really a movie about “issues” at all. It’s a movie about Buck Angel, and Buck Angel is an interesting dude, not just because he has a pussy. The idea of a muscular man with female genitalia having traditional, penis-in-vagina sex with a voluptuous woman with male equipment, as an early scene of Mr. Angel depicts (not graphically), is such a mixed-up, post-modern pastiche that it’s less porn than it is art. What takes Mr. Angel a step further is that we then get to hang out with the star of that art, and guess what? He turns out to be charming, articulate, engaging, and seems generally like a pleasure to be around. I had to rack my brain just now to keep from saying “…who’s just a regular dude,” which in Buck’s case is both 100 percent true and demonstrably false, paradoxically.

I first heard about Buck Angel back in 2006, when he made a cameo appearance in a sensationalized Rolling Stone cover story about Lana Wachowski’s divorce and gender re… arrangement. Buck’s ex, a dominatrix named Ilsa Strix, had gone on to marry Lana Wachowski, one of Strix’s former clients, an event possibly referenced in a later Buck Angel porn title, V for Vagina, a takeoff on the Wachowski-produced V for Vendetta. Buck was portrayed in Rolling Stone the way he often is, as an oddity. Sexual oddity being, incidentally, also the theme of an episode of a Tyra show from a few years back on which Buck was a guest (after being slightly duped into thinking it was going to be a show about him). Tyra asks Buck some head-slappingly stupid questions, and Buck gamely answers all of them, charming Tyra the way he seems to charm everyone else. The lesson here being that if you can explain something to Tyra Banks, you can explain it to anyone. And it speaks to the truism at the heart of Mr. Angel: that it’s a lot easier for people to be comfortable with you if you’re comfortable with yourself. (That’s why I never stifle farts around strangers, just so they know we can be bros).

Of course, when you’re a man with a vagina, becoming comfortable with yourself is a journey. Through interviews with Buck’s family and old photos, we follow him from his tomboyish childhood through his young adult incarnation as a cocaine-addicted, confusingly hot female fashion model, to his current life living in Mexico with his partner Elayne (a body piercer somewhat famous in her own right), trying to transition from porn to public speaking. You may already know Buck Angel as I did, as this fringe porn sex oddity. But Dan Hunt masterfully explores many more angles on a guy who seems like he’s lived three or four different lifetimes already. The pleasant surprise of it all is that those angles are just as compelling as the fact that he’s a man with a pussy.

The emotional core of the film is Buck’s relationship with his father, an old-school straight shooter and obviously an influence on Buck’s later hyper-masculine persona. Buck doesn’t mince words when he describes his father’s style of discipline, which Buck believes sometimes crossed the line into physical abuse, and neither is his father shy about owning up to having made mistakes. He quite honestly just didn’t know what he was supposed to do. They still can’t quite agree on whether Buck is an “oddity” or not, but their intense desire to just understand each other is palpable. I won’t mince words either: you will bawl your f*cking eyes out. There’s just something about well-meaning, regret-filled people trying to do their best by one another that kicks me right in the emotional nutsack.

So much of the transgender information out there right now seems to involve trying to memorize and classify the myriad different types of gender identity and sexuality – genderqueer, transgender, cisgender, heteronormative, blah blah blah. I never know if I’m using the correct terminology. You know all those letters in LGBTQ- whatever? Sometimes it can feel like the path to acceptance is paved with dense acronyms (some of which only came into use the week before). And the process of parsing all that actually involves a lot of exactly what transgender people are ostensibly trying to avoid – more labels. What comes through in Mr. Angel is that acceptance isn’t about trying to create the most vague-but-inclusive terminology, or successfully traversing the minefield of potentially-offensive and inaccurate pronouns. It’s about simple empathy, in all directions. And Buck Angel just so happens to be incredibly easy to empathize with.

By centering on Buck Angel, the story being told is that of a guy who’s trying to avoid being pigeonholed just enough to allow him to continue being himself. Mr. Angel resists finding easy villains. It’s not that people pigeonhole because they’re evil, we do it because the world is a messy place, and making our way through it is a lot easier when we can file shit in different drawers. Trying to understand that process while not being hemmed in by it is universal, it isn’t something that’s unique to the transgendered. Buck just happens to be an obvious example. Hopefully, we’re all more than just the sum of our labels, demos, Facebook likes, and Amazon product suggestions, just as Buck is more than just a man with a pussy. Even though that’s pretty awesome in its own right.


(I’d really love to see this find distribution somewhere where lots of people can see it. It seems like a great fit for HBO).