Angelo Madsen Minax’s North By Current
An autoethnographic documentary that explores the complexity of memory and spirituality in relation to trans identity.
Angelo Madsen Minax’s new film, North By Current (2021), unfolds like T. S. Eliot’s poem “East Coker,” which opens with the words “In my beginning is my end” and concludes with “in the end is my beginning.” Minax’s film, which made its North American debut this past summer at the Tribeca Film Festival and will be nationally broadcast by POV (PBS) on November 1st, follows the path Eliot lays out, moving circularly through endings and beginnings. The autoethnographic documentary starts with Minax’s return to his Michigan hometown to tell the story of the death of his infant niece, Kalla Jade. As the film progresses it is clear that Minax is documenting grief not only about Kalla’s passing, but also about his own childhood and his family’s response to his transness. Exploring the complexity of memory and spirituality in relation to trans identity, the film is rife with motifs of family, nature, and religion. Through his depiction of the multiplicity of motherhood, the transience of nature, and the liminality of religion, Minax shows us how very queer these concepts are.
The film traces the events following Kalla’s death, including the criminal case against her stepfather, who was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for her murder and later released. This documentation from 2016–2020 is interlaced with clips from the more distant past—Minax’s focus shifting between the court case and his unique relationship to home. Family videos shot on reels of Super 8 offer a window into their history—and an alternative to linear storytelling. Much as these childhood memories flash into focus and then fade away, seasons pass: winter slowly but surely turns into spring, a cold dark shadow lifting into warm light.
Minax narrates the film in the style of a speculative essay, his voice partnered with the voice of a child (presumably Kalla’s and/or his child-self). They communicate with each other in call and response—one poses a question that is answered by the other, sometimes with another question. The distant sounds of TV weathercasters provide additional narration as they offer their forecasts for the week—if only we could predict our own futures with such confidence.
Nature is a recurrent backdrop of the film, providing a place for a mood to become a landscape. In one particularly painful scene, Minax’s parents announce that they have lost not just one little girl but two, comparing their son’s transition to a death. Images of Minax as a child appear and become distorted. As his parents watch these home videos on their TV screen, it cuts to static and Minax runs out into the night during a snowstorm. We hear the crunching of compact snow under his feet and sounds of his heavy breathing. He says from behind the camera: “Earlier today, my parents told me I was dead, and they had to grieve me … But I was shocked because … I've just worked so hard to be alive.” In this moment, transness seems as primordial as a winter storm, a night sky, or even the static black and white “snow” on a TV screen: energy existing without form, attempting to turn itself into an image.
While nature is one mode of exploring origins, Minax’s investigation of motherhood is laden with similar meaning. He explores his personal relationship with his mother, his sister’s relationship with motherhood, and his own understanding of maternity and femininity within his masculinity. At one point he remarks that “one being separating into two is absolutely myth-worthy.” He grapples with this idea extensively, as he tries to retrace the steps back to when he emotionally distanced from his mother. The dynamic between the film’s narrators feels maternal, as Minax attempts to explain to the child why bad things happen to good people—his tone soothing and comforting. Whether the child is supposed to be himself or Kalla, the dynamic between them shows that there can be many definitions of “motherhood” and “mothering” beyond the physical.
While Minax does not include any archival videos of Kalla’s childhood because they are too painful to watch, he ends the film with a home video of her birth. He describes cutting the umbilical cord and, evoking thoughts of his return home, notes it was much thicker and more rubbery than he expected. In his book Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, queer theorist Jack Halberstam asks, “How can we understand this epistemology in which the broken self runs towards the site of injury and, in confronting loss, finds a new constellation of desire and identification?” Minax answers this question by charging headfirst into this break—into the slippery place where grief and transness meet, and where death and rebirth can be held in the same breath.
In Minax’s hands, grief becomes sculptural: layered, mutable, and multidimensional. The film’s plasticity seems to come from a place of deep self-awareness—a place that may be central to all creation myths. Given his family’s Mormon devoutness, it’s not surprising that Minax integrates references to religious icons throughout the film. He shows a weathered, plastic-looking outdoor nativity scene somewhere in his hometown, as well as a small painting of Christ on his family’s mantel at Christmas time. He captures a slow-moving image of his sister with a child propped on her hip, their bodies cast in shadow as rays of sunlight illuminate the backs of their heads, halo-like. Contrasting details of religious iconography with scenes from everyday life, Minax effectively shows the multiplicity of belief and its role in building a narrative.
Another way Minax grapples with the idea of worldbuilding is by showing the “artist’s hand.” He adjusts his camera’s aperture, playing with filtered light, and directs his sister and brother-in-law off camera to pose, followed by an audible shutter sound. He places his family awkwardly at a diner or sets up his camera on screen in their living room, attempting to reenact difficult memories from the recent and not-so-recent past. This cinematic device feels at times self-conscious, but isn’t all responsible art? Such art announces itself as an abstraction of something whole and, in the case of most religious art, declares itself an intermediary for the real. Minax’s lens tends to focus on these liminal moments in which the eye must translate an image into a feeling.
Just as T. S. Eliot’s poem ends with a beginning, the film ends with Kalla’s birth. In an earlier moment of the film the child’s narrative voice utters that “some endings are lost in a sea of beginnings.” The truth of this statement reverberates throughout the film like a mantra. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, between memory and truth, North By Current settles into the possibility of a queer self-actualized existence.