American Reflexxx

American Reflexxx ★★★★★

"What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman." - Robin Thicke.

Alli Coates and Signe Pierce's extraordinary short feels like something people will go back to when they want to understand what modern Western culture was about in the second decade of the 21st century, a performance-art statement on gender, prejudice and mob mentality garlanded with bits of sampled mass culture, edited like dubstep, decked out in Electric Daisy Carnival colours and presented as if it were a viral video. YouTube's autoplay tried to get me to watch a 'social experiment' video afterwards where a girl propositioned 100 men for sex. American Reflexxx is cinematically and conceptually much better than this kind of Uproxx-filler, but it benefits from being seen in the same context.

It begins and ends with a slowed-down, slurring sample of Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines', reminding me of the similar use of 'Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again)' at the end of Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Going On. (Everything in me bristles at comparing Thicke to Sly Stone, but the slowing-down has a similar effect, a grim warning that the party's over) From there on, we follow Pierce on a night out, strutting up and down in South Carolina until things descend into violence.

It feels like one of those disquieting one-crazy-night shorts Spike Jonze sometimes makes - the video to Daft Punk's 'Da Funk' is perhaps the urtext - and there is a similar central note of unreality in the reflective mask that covers Pierce's face. Wearing high heels and a minidress, she goes through a series of robotically sexualised motions for Coates's camera, never speaking. What makes American Reflexxx astonishing is twofold. Firstly, the editing, which is plastic and digital and glitchy in exactly the way I often find bothersome, but which completely works here.

Secondly, it's real.

Barring the one obviously staged element of Pierce's performance, this is apparently a faithful record of an hour Pierce and Coates spent on the town. Early on, a passer-by suggests Pierce is a man, and this results in a bigger, angrier crowd gathering around her. I don't know what Signe Pierce's gender identity is (she is referred to as "she" in the movie's promotional material, so I'm following that) and it's not important. What matters is that people perceive her as transgender, and this is meant to justify everything that is said and done to her.

Like her mirrored face, Pierce's character is something the passers-by can project their worst selves onto. A lot of discussion about online bullying and abuse has centred around the power of anonymity, assuming that trolls wouldn't be trolls if they were named and facing the person they're harassing. Maybe some of them wouldn't, but focusing on the attackers' anonymity overlooks another dynamic that predates the internet; this kind of abuse happens when people think the target has no identity, no inner life, is somehow lacking in human characteristics. All of the people in American Reflexxx have their faces shown, many of them see Coates's camera, and it doesn't seem to prevent anything bad happening.

The other thing is how scared these people are of Pierce, which sounds counterintuitive considering how they treat her. But there are two moments where she turns around to face her pursuers, and the resulting scenes are like a Godzilla movie; grown adults running away from a slender figure in high heels, screaming their heads off. I'd heard, before, bigots object to terms like homophobia and transphobia because "I'm not scared of 'em!", and I'd generally dismissed it as sophistry. I'd never realised until now that it's actually untrue. They are petrified of queer people, beyond all reason.

Available to watch here.

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