The Skin He’s In :: Broderick Fox on ’Body Media’ and Big Tattoos
Documentary filmmaker Broderick Fox once ran the Boston Marathon as a "bandit" -- that is, an unofficial entrant who simply jumps in and runs with the crowd. "I came in at the tail of the pack," he told EDGE during a recent interview, only a couple of days after terrorists targeted the Boston Marathon.
"I wasn’t officially enlisted, but in ’95 I got it into my head that I would run it, so friends of mine and I joined on at the back of the pack," he explained.
Fox was an undergrad at Harvard, so he’s familiar with Boston and its environs. Moreover, he has a sister who lives in the area with her family, so he keeps in touch with the city. Fox visited Boston, and his sister’s home, while filming his new documentary, "The Skin I’m In," in which he turns his lens upon his own life, including his struggles with OCD, an eating disorder, cutting, and especially alcoholism. One of the film’s most amusing scenes is set in his sister’s back yard, as he’s fumbling with how to break the news to his mother that he’s planning to get a massive, complex tattoo on his back.
The film is an entry in what Fox calls "Body Media." The story of the tattoo turns out to be meaningful on several levels in and of itself, but the way it ties into the story of his life proves fascinating, moving, and intricate.
"I’ve made a couple shorts that are autobiographical," Fox noted. "In 2000 I made a piece with one of the first consumer digital video cameras, called ’Things Girls Do,’ which addressed questions of body dysmorphia and eating disorders.
"That piece is a trick film in a way; it starts in a domestic space with a woman’s voice, and you think you’re hearing a familiar trope of a young woman dealing with an eating disorder, and then through the course of the film the voice modulates into my own voice. I think people take it to be a formal expression of this girl’s life slowing down and falling apart, but at the end, I’m on screen. It’s a coming out as a guy who’s been dealing with eating disorders.
"That started my journey into what I might call Body Genres, or maybe Body Media," Fox continued, "where I use my own body and personal stories as a way to get at larger, more complex cultural questions, particularly around gender and sexuality. I was inspired by a lot of queer and feminist video makers of the ’80s and ’90s, who put their own identities and bodies on the line.
"With this piece, I’m asking what space those personal stories have for larger social questioning in a time where everybody, now, is confessing and exposing themselves online [and in other media] on a daily basis."
To this viewer, the film implied the existence for what might be thought of as the several stages of gay self-acceptance. Fox documents his early life experiences with OCD, anorexia, cutting, role-playing, alcoholism, and a crisis in which he ended up dead drunk on the tracks of a Berlin subway station with a head injury. All of that despite being, as he terms it himself, "an extremely high-functioning member of society."
His highs and lows notwithstanding, Fox keeps things in perspective. "I’ll say that there really is nothing extraordinary or special about my story," he reckoned, "but I think there is an exciting possibility for all of us to tell our stories in fresh ways using the tools we now have at our disposal.
"This film was shot on a dizzying array of consumer (or what you might call ’prosumer’) video formats that evolved as the film progressed and as the technology progressed," he added. "I’m coming from an incredible place of privilege on a lot of levels, having access to those cameras and an editing system, and even growing up with a sense that my voice mattered and I should feel empowered to speak for myself. As I teach and work with young people, I see that’s not always a given."
Even so, "I think that particularly in Western cultures, everybody needs to go on their own journey, and there is a general theme of people going inwards and scrutinizing and attacking the self as they try to figure out their own place within the culture that will hopefully resonate with a wide range of audience members, regardless of their own identity."
In the film, Fox describes a childhood spent traveling the world, his camera in his hand; even then he was documenting his voyages. But curiously, it was only upon his return to the United States that he felt himself to be a foreigner.
"I think a lot of that discomfort at that young age came from my burgeoning sexuality," Fox reflected. "I think the culture is changing now in a lot of exciting ways, but I think for people coming out before the Internet, that was a different time and it was more difficult actually to find community as a young person, or to find more complex representations of what it is to be gay.
"I remember running home at three o’clock in the afternoon and turning on Oprah Winfrey or Phil Donahue when they had gay guests on, and absorbing that and trying to process it -- but also listening for whether my parents were coming home so I could turn off the television quickly. Just searching for those crumbs of information... And the AIDS crisis reached a peak around then, too. A lot of the people I now see as heroes, like the ACT-UP activists, people whose efforts I teach about now in class, some of that more agit-prop, performative protest stuff, kind of struck me as scary... at least, the way it was presented on the ten o’clock news. I was a young person trying to figure out where I fit within all of that.
"It’s easy to sort of bash the United States, but being a U.S. citizen, being able to ask these sorts of questions in a film, working in a place where I can screen this movie to my peers and to my students and still have a job... I am privileged on so many levels," Fox noted. "But having spent a lot of time in Europe, Australia, and Asia, I think the myth of the American Dream is a tricky one in that we get the sense that we’re free and living in the Land of Opportunity, and yet in many respects we’re left on our own. There really isn’t much of a social safety net, and so I think people get very fearful, and that does make them, ironically for the ’freest place on Earth,’ susceptible to dogma because they’re looking for a sense of direction and some sort of sense of security and stability. People default sometimes to institutions such as religion. In the end, I think this is a really fear-based culture."
So what’s a smart, curious guy to do in a culture that celebrates the individual and yet often defines itself according to institutions that tend to insist upon homogeneity?
"I say this at the end of the movie, but everything I’ve come to know as a truth in my life has been verified through experience, having to go through it for better or worse," Fox reflected. "I’ve had to measure things for myself, rather than take anything as a given.
"I wouldn’t want to go through some of that stuff again, but I think that ultimately it was a gift. I wish our culture fostered more opportunities for people to go on those personal journeys of questioning," the filmmaker added. "If you look at all of the behaviors I went through, they are all symptomatic of looking externally, or looking to the outside to fix something that required me to look inside.
"Unless you do the personal work and figure things out for yourself, the same problems are going to come up and keep manifesting in different ways for the rest of your life. I’m certainly not immune to them now, but I am able to identify the patterns earlier and work through my part in them more quickly."
Fox’s film traces a journey that passes through many phases and periods of transformation. The incident in Berlin, however, seems to mean something more; in a way, it’s a rebirth.
"I certainly seized upon it as a rebirth," Fox agreed. "I suppose I could have interpreted that experience in a lot of different ways and made a lot of different choices from it. I needed something to change in my life, and after living through the shame of realizing this wasn’t something that just affected me personally but also affected complete strangers, who were put into incredibly compromising, dangerous situations to help me, and did so... it was very humbling. I felt that I owed it to them, and certainly to myself, to try another tack.
"I know other people in my life who have issues with alcohol or other ’isms,’ who haven’t had that pronounced of a bottoming out," Fox continued.
"Having something that traumatic, or that climactic, happen is somewhat of a gift because it really does put into motion an expedited growth, whereas left to general dis-ease and states of malcontent for long stretches of time, people can just go on in these same patterns. A fate worse than death would have been for me to have stayed a disconnected, dissatisfied drunk for the rest of my life."
The GLBT community has faced some tough struggles for acceptance and equality. But the harder struggle may be that one that any minority, or any outsider, has to engage with internally. Fox underscores this in his film by using trick photography to appear both as himself and as certain other people in his visual descriptions of episodes from his past.
"In a way they are re-enactments," Fox allowed, "but those moments go beyond your autobiography. Partly, [the use of trick photography] is out of necessity: How do you represent events that you don’t have the footage for? But then those kinds of strategies can also work on metaphorical and playful levels.
"Being able to literally step into someone else’s shoes -- to experience the day after the accident, at the hospital, as my partner at the time; to put that shoe on my own foot, and really experience those things -- allows for a connection or engagement with those people’s experiences as well. It’s bridging the gap between myself and others."
It’s not just the experience of others Fox depicts in appearing as different characters from his life story. He also depicts the various personae that constitute the cumulative phenomenon of his own identity. These personae include Rick, a go-go dancer who likes to give erotic haircuts; Dina, a self-possessed woman who, unlike Fox as his usual self, has no problem letting her feelings be known; Dr. Fox, an accomplished academic; and Brody Fox the artist.