Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Songline of Albert Nobbs

“Each Ancestor, while singing his way across the country, was believed to have left a trail of ‘life-cells’ or ‘spirit-children’ along the line of his footprints…. What you had to visualize was an already pregnant woman strolling about on her daily foraging round. Suddenly, she steps on a couplet, the ‘spirit-child’ jumps up—through her toe-nail, up her vagina, or into an open callus on her foot—and works its way into her womb, and impregnates the foetus with song.”—Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines, p. 60.

Whatever else happens at the Oscars this year, I’m praying that Glenn Close and Janet McTeer win Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, for Albert Nobbs. Close in the title role carries a contained, inward energy that’s unlike anything else in her phenomenal career, playing a middle-aged woman who’s passed as a man in Victorian Dublin since her mid-teens in order to escape misogynistic violence and poverty. What the nomination doesn’t recognize is that it’s Close’s vision and persistence over many years that brought the picture, based on a short story by George Moore (d. 1933), to the screen at all.

What neither her nomination nor Janet McTeer’s clarifies is that the film blows apart the categories the Oscars use to pigeonhole performances in the first place. “Best Actress” almost inevitably implies a leading man; but that’s Close. Janet McTeer plays Hubert Page, who in befriending Albert opens up the possibility of a life s/he’s never dared dream of. One of the miracles of Close’s performance is the way the joy of that realization pours out of her even as she maintains the self-containment upon which her livelihood, and her very identity, depend. The miracle of McTeer’s performance is the amalgam of steel, cheek, and deep compassion with which Hubert meets Albert. McTeer is neither Actress nor merely Supporting: her performance as another woman passing as a man amidst the rigid sexual conventions of nineteenth-century Ireland deserves Best Actor.

The inadequacy of the Oscar categories points to the fact that, more fundamentally, the film also messes up any easy language we might use to describe these characters’ gender positions. To understand either of them simply as transsexual doesn’t adequately get at who they are. Albert is indeed the role he’s played for decades; and yet he remains very much a woman hiding her gender for practical more than for internal reasons, even as he flourishes in embracing the dream of taking a wife and setting up shop as a tobacconist with the savings he’s scrounged as a hotel waiter.

Hubert passes as a man after leaving a straight marriage to an abusive drunk and subsequently finding a wife of his own. It might be easier to label him transsexual; yet when he comes out to Albert, it’s by exposing his breasts, and he shares his “real” feminine name as an act of fuller disclosure. Hubert’s relationship is maybe closer to a classic lesbian butch/femme paradigm; except that here too, his choice of gender has in large part to do with social pressures as a force external to his core sense of himself.

“Our wedding,” Albert says to the young maid he courts, “will be a great wonder.” They never marry; she gets pregnant by another member of the hotel staff, who’s encouraged her to game Albert shamelessly. Her lover is a beautiful young wastrel and another abusive drunk in the making. In the end, both he and Albert disappear from her life. But months later when Hubert meets her again and lifts the baby out of her arms, she’s named the child Albert. As wrenchingly sad as the ending of the film is, it’s also filled with a fragile and luminous hope for the future, encapuslated in the fact that Albert is indeed, by a miracle of queer love, the ancestor of this child, the progenitor of the possibilities of his life.

Our ancestry as queers, the lineage we need to make sense of who we are in the world, is very rarely a matter of biology. We lay active claim to our ancestors by choosing to recognize a lineage less palpable than sperm meeting egg, but no less powerful in gifting us with the conditions that have allowed us to become ourselves. Among the many wonders of Albert Nobbs is its encouragement to look into our own stories for the songlines we’ve inherited, apart from the order of “nature,” from men and women whose traces are scattered over the landscape of the queer past.

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