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Tuesday, July 23, 2002

"It's Pat" Revisited

By Kevin John

"It's Pat — The Movie," an irrational enlargement of Julia Sweeney's "Saturday Night Live" gender-cipher skit, was one of the most well-hated films of the '90s. Directed by music-video veteran (B-52's "Love Shack") Adam Bernstein, the film racked up five nominations at the 16th Annual Golden Raspberry (RAZZIE) Awards (an awards ceremony spoof for the worst film of the year) including Worst Picture of 1995 (that dishonor went to "Showgirls," another unjustly pooh-poohed masterpiece). Now that "Showgirls" has accrued some estimable supporters in directors Jacques Rivette and Jim Jarmusch, as well as previously-repulsed-if-still-somewhat-hesitant critics Adrian Martin and Jonathan Rosenbaum (although, sniff, li'l ole me knew its greatness on opening night), it's time to turn the tide on this fantastic little wreck of a film.

One stubborn current in the invectives leveled against "It's Pat — The Movie" is frustration over the fact that the film never reveals if Pat is a man or a woman. Perhaps audiences place a higher premium on feature-length narrative films to provide closure, whereas television sketch comedy can effectively buck such expectations. Nevertheless, the viewer whose pleasure absolutely depends upon knowing Pat's sex has a surrogate in the character of Pat's neighbor, Kyle Jacobs (Charles Rocket).

Kyle becomes so consumed with investigating Pat's sex that, with his camera, camcorder, telescope and general intrusiveness, he's a perfect case study of the sadistic voyeur outlined by Laura Mulvey in her monumental essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." In fact, some of his lines sound so much like direct quotes from Mulvey's essay that eventually we realize his investigative gaze isn't so much about knowing Pat as it is about knowing itself. As he says to Pat in the "Lady From Shanghai" mirror maze towards the end of the film, "We're like two complementary pieces in the crazy jigsaw puzzle of love; I just need to know how we fit together. By uncovering the secret of you, I uncover the secret of myself."

In one sense, then, "It's Pat — The Movie" is Kyle's story, his oedipal drama. There's even a rhetorical rhyming device that links Kyle's gaze to the omnipresence of the camera (we can discuss it over mocha chocolattas someday if you'd like, but the specifics get a little tedious over a 500-word piece). And indeed, Kyle has the last word in the film, speaking over the closing credits about his gender transformation. But because he never sees his investigation to completion, it never gets, in Mulvey's words, "counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of" Pat. That this fate does not befall a character of indeterminate sex is attractive enough in a Hollywood narrative film, even one that so seriously flopped.

Where "It's Pat — The Movie" truly leaves Kyle in the dust, though, and, by extension, the viewer who identifies with him, is that it dares to imagine a life for Pat outside of Kyle's gaze; his investigation gets consistently interrupted with Pat's story. And where Pat sparks a journey of self-discovery for Kyle, the rotten, soul-draining specter of work sets Pat off on her/his own. But more on that next time.

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