The two gentlemen in the row behind me had absolutely no idea what the film was about. They nattered pleasantly about art, residences both here in New York and abroad, and about the meaning of “swag” as used by one of their younger students, but the dapper fifty-something queens eventually began wondering what screening, exactly, they had decided to drop in on. I turned to them as they voiced their confusion and explained, “Well, it’s about an industrial music star and his dominatrix wife, who underwent plastic surgeries to look more and more like each other.”
They clutched their French Institute monthly guides and pursed their lips. “Oh, MY. Really?”
They looked both scandalized and pleased. I never got to check in with them after the screening, but I hope they enjoyed The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye as much as I did. As portraits of transcendent love, Marie Losier’s documentary has few equals. How could it? Have you ever heard a story like it?
Shot largely on grainy, hand-cranked cameras, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye is in no sense a conventional documentary. It operates more like an organic memory, comprised of equal parts the mundane, the bizarre, the ethereal and the digressive. Much of it is montage, though sometimes narration helps us along. It only really takes a narrative shape occasionally. And yet perhaps this was the perfect way to capture a romance so idiosyncratic that nothing short of entering the heads of the people involved could do it justice.
Genesis P-orridge (born Neil Andrew Megson) is perhaps best known as the bomb-thrower behind Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, a musician and performance artist of virtuosic and sometimes daunting eccentricity. Ballad presents Gen (as we soon come to know him/her/them) as something of a goofball wizard, sometimes doing silly little dances, sometimes creating genuinely extraordinary noises, sometimes pottering around doing the housework. Occasionally we get glimpses of Gen’s past life, screaming at adoring audiences and urinating into bottles on camera. A portrait emerges of the artist as misfit, a boy never quite comfortable in one place or body. Indeed, the dominant motif of the film is Gen running in circles, and that’s where she seems happiest, glad to be exhausted and giddy.
Though the film gives us a terrific amount of backstory and archival footage for Gen (we glimpse an archive room that stretches on and on in which Gen’s life and career are obsessively catalogued), Jaye’s life is no less interesting. A professional domme in her mid-teens, she became a performance art fixture downtown, and we see glitched video of her appearances, which take on fetish and gender concerns. We come to realize that the yearning to escape the constraints of convention, expectation and biology are not exclusively Gen’s. And it is this aching frustration with the inadequacies of the corporeal which forms the backbone of their strange, touching bond.
Gen and Jaye’s story begins with a meet-cute of sorts: the middle-aged Gen is sleeping on the floor of a friend’s dungeon, covered head to toe in a sheet and lying stiff and flat as a board, when in walks a young woman, Jaye, in perfect 60s clothing. Gen watches as she changes into strict fetish gear and marvels that someone could so ideally embody “my two favorite things.” Shortly thereafter, romance sparks up and marriage is soon to follow.
The conversation determining the course of their relationship is recalled rather sweetly. “Instead of having children, what if we made ourselves the new person?” And so they do. Through a number of procedures (breast implants, facial restructuring and more) the two lovers consume each other, vanishing into their shared identity as Genesis Breyer P-orridge.
Losier doesn’t even try to simplify the complex issues at play here. Pandrogeny is talked of at length, the movement to transcend DNA to create a perfect hermaphroditic state. This is probably the film’s most revolutionary strand. Where some would paint this as the story of a man undergoing a sex change, Losier accurately and with great artistry makes us understand that what we’re watching is two souls merging into one. This is what people talk about figuratively when they speak of romance, but how many of us would be willing to go to the lengths that Gen and Jaye did? How many of us would willingly sacrifice our individuality in the service of love? If we assume that two souls occupy the same space when entwined in love, is it not possible for two bodies to do the same? How important is it that we hold on to the bodies we take for granted? Some people seek to obliterate the cage of the physical through BDSM, some through drag, some through transsexuality. Gen cites the work of Burroughs and Gysin as an inspiration. Life is a collage: cut it up and rearrange it and it’s possible that everything will make a strange sort of sense.
(On a personal note <for this is nothing if not a film that inspires deeply personal reactions>: My own journeys into submission, masochism, objectification and humiliation have always been made with the intent of vanishing. Disappearing into a function. All that prevents me from happiness is an embarrassment that stems from my middle-class upbringing. It’s an embarrassment at total abandon. It limits me in art and sex, two things I care about more than almost anything else. Watching Ballad, I was humbled by the sight of two people so willing and eager to abandon everything the straight culture demands of them.)
Astonishingly, the rage and discomfort of young Gen dissipates as we watch him transform into them. The jagged, discomfiting sounds of Throbbing Gristle become something more lilting and psychedelic, and the anguished, violent youth becomes a creature of good humor and domesticity. A scene in which Gen describes dressing up as a film starlet to do the housework is both hilarious and sweet. Jaye, meanwhile, is absorbed into Gen’s band, often a silent observer but, according to Gen, a vital artistic component. She is adopted with great warmth by Gen’s artistic and biological family (Gen’s children are wry and compassionate about their father’s transformation).
At a certain point, one might wonder why Jaye isn’t getting more say in all of this. For a film about two people merging, one seems to have the monopoly on telling the tale. The story, unfortunately, has a tragic turn. After two out-of-nowhere seizures, Jaye simply died one day. And that’s it. This is presented with wrenching plainness, and the moment that the penny dropped, my eyes flooded with tears. How could it end like this?
Of course, it is not the end. As long as Gen lives, they live. Perhaps this is why she’s so sanguine about recalling the day it happened. When two people have so effectively conquered the physical, have they not conquered death as well?
This is an extraordinary documentary. It has no distribution, but it has received festival play. See it any way you can. See it with someone you love. And the next time you gaze into that person’s eyes, ask yourself if you have what it takes to love the way Genesis and Jaye do.