Roger Ebert Home

Bright Wall/Dark Room June 2023: Yentl and the Three-Quarter Profile by S. Brook Corfman

We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the latest issue of the online magazine, Bright Wall/Dark Room. Their theme for this month is "Trans Cinema," guest edited by Spencer Williams, and featuring an entire issue written by trans writers, with new essays on "Yentl," "Black Swan," John Waters' "Desperate for Living," "Orlando," "Celine and Julie Go Boating," "Desperately Seeking Susan," "By Hook or by Crook," "My Cousin Vinny," "Junior," and "Titane," as well as a podcast focused on both "No Ordinary Man" and the short film, "American Reflexxx". This piece is by S. Brook Corfman with art by Tom Ralston.

You can read our previous excerpts from the magazine by clicking here. To subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room, or look at their most recent essays, click here.


What Yentl is about—more than it is about Judaism, gender roles, sensitive short kings, the fabric of love, or the Mulan paradox (that is, whether a straight man’s gay desires are redeemed as hetero by the revelation of his love object as a woman)—is Babs’ face. Not her famous profile (the subject of A Star is Born) or nose (the subject of The Main Event and arguably Funny Girl), not her mind (The Prince of Tides) or intellectual hot girl energy (The Mirror Has Two Faces), but her shining, dewy, impossible-to-hide face. If Yentl is a trans film, it is not really so in its gesture of Yentl’s cutting her hair, putting on men’s clothes, or going as Anshel to study Talmud in a men’s yeshiva, though these are obviously trans things. Rather its question around gender is about the ambiguity of a face, how a face participates in gender, and how a face changes over time as you continue to look at it—and, as you continue to look at it, how you fall in love.

*

In interviews about the making of Yentl, which Barbra Streisand produced, directed, co-wrote, and starred in (including singing every song), she repeatedly describes the film as focusing on the right side of her face—because it’s her more masculine side, and the side with which her audience is less familiar. This latter idea is undoubtedly true: stroll through Streisand’s album covers and you will witness a parade of faces pointed off to the right in three-quarter profile, showcasing only her left side. Like so much of Streisand’s attention to detail, her rigid adherence to this is a bit ridiculous, which is also to say it’s iconic. In the only major exception, The Second Barbra Streisand Album (1963), her right side shows a coyness rather than a purported masculinity. Her shoulder is raised, her hair is down, and there’s a distinctly mischievous energy compared to the left-side photos, which treat her beauty with utter seriousness. (Perhaps not coincidentally, The Second Album is also the best showcase among her early work of her skill as both torch singer and musical comedienne.) This attention to the left side also shows up in the movie posters, most notably in the drama of her desperate embrace with Kris Kristofferson for A Star is Born (1976), which convinced my mother to perm her hair for ten years. Even the ads for Stresiand’s most recent film, The Guilt Trip (2012), show her turned in full profile to pinch Seth Rogen’s cheek.

Of all the promotional posters featuring Babs’ face, though, Yentl’s is the most distinctsuch that you can probably remember it even if you haven’t seen the film. It shows only Streisand, looking up in her glamor three-quarter profile pose, her face like the moon against a dark night. The poster showcases not her “masculine” right, despite the film’s interest in Streisand’s acting as a man, but rather her left. Streisand may have thought the camera in the film paid more attention to that right—and perhaps it does when Anshel moves through the world of the yeshiva, creating a conceit of the feminine interior/masculine exterior—but the camera always floats back to her left, and in all the major songs the focus remains on this left side. (Several times throughout the film what looks to be Streisand’s right side is actually still her left, flipped in the mirror). The camera’s intermittent focus on the “other” side of Streisand’s face produces an effect not so much of “masculinity” as of wholeness. When a large book laid open in front of her acts as a reflector, or the camera spins around Streisand to show both sides of her profile in the musical numbers, the resting three-quarter views that follow feel especially full. We have seen the entirety, even as we instantly lose part of it. The effect is buoyed by the film’s emphasis on natural light, embracing both partial illumination and low (but clear) visibility, as well as by the proliferation of the yeshiva school’s uniforms. With their dark coats and white shirts buttoned all the way up the neck, they send the boys’ faces—and especially Yentl’s—floating towards us.

In fact, Yentl has only one moment in which it is properly attentive to a body, and it’s neither of those moments in which the film attends to Streisand’s breasts (both are superseded by the acting going on in her face). Instead, the moment which locates the face as attached to a body occurs when Yentl/Anshel’s study partner Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin), whom Yentl/Anshel is also falling in love with, undresses to run into the river. Suddenly we have a view of the whole figure of a human. The scene demonstrates the physicality of Yentl/Anshel’s attraction to Avigdor, as well as the beginning of the illustration of Avigdor’s attraction to Anshel (“You’re always touching me,” Yentl/Anshel tells Avigdor later). But it also shows how desire manifests in the contours of the body as the body unfurls from the face, and how we sometimes look into that face when we are embarrassed by the body.

*

Perhaps this is the time to share that my glamor pose is also a three-quarter profile featuring my left side. And perhaps I’d have figured out this pose sooner if I’d paid more attention to Streisand earlier in my life. The story of my later conversion is a story of the early pandemic, of finding Streisand’s beehive updo on the cover of her Greatest Hits in my mother’s record collection, despite her purported indifference to Babs (perm notwithstanding). I was losing my sense of time as we waited for my mother’s cancer surgery to be rescheduled, terrified of going anywhere for fear of postponing it further, or worse. The internet loaded and reloaded endlessly; my music, unchecked, kept streaming. Eventually I would stop sleeping entirely as the difference between night and day dissolved. The vinyl record—in which time was marked as a visual series of grooves—became an anchor, and  led me to Streisand’s films, which had such clean visions of narrative. It’s a storied feature of musicals that the songs interrupt overly neat plots, resisting closure, but by the same theory they show how even such interruptions also come to an end. Time reasserts itself. I clung to Babs’ bounded things: movies that ended on a long-held, climactic note, songs that always started smaller so they could build. They were reminders that some things had a trajectory all their own, unaffected by how I felt about them.

On Greatest Hits, unanchored by a larger plot, the rigorous repetition of Streisand’s start-small-and-grow structures might also become irritating. This is the major tension of her work in both music and film, that her desire for subtlety becomes a maximalism of detail every time: even the songs that don’t go big are haunted by her voice’s possibility of doing so (most egregiously on the album’s use of her quieter 1964 studio recording of “People”). In Yentl this tension manifests in her sincere belief that her face is ambiguously gendered, that her right side is dramatically, distinctly different from her left. But a face is not one of those things that, like a vinyl record, can be held onto as an anchor. The more we look at a face, the more it becomes familiar to us, and the more familiar it becomes to us, the harder it is to know what it actually looks like separate from our feeling about it.

*

At the beginning of my transition, I worked very hard not to pay too much attention to my face. I tried an app’s “gender-swap” feature once and immediately deleted it, equal parts excited and horrified by its unreal vision; I played around with makeup more as an exercise in gendered practice than because I had a strong sense of what I wanted it to accomplish. (In terms of aesthetic outcome, this was a bad idea.) I told my therapist and my friends that I didn’t want to know if they thought my face was changing. I was afraid that my life would be consumed by the mirror and its capture of what maybe, or maybe not, was slightly different, day after day.

Eventually, however, in my not-paying-attention, even I noticed some differences. And when things started to shift, I realized all I had was this sense that something had shifted. What did my face look like before? I could remember only generally. Not vaguely—I could point to where in my cheeks more fat seemed to gather—but generally. The effect. To hold all of the pieces of my face together at once was impossible. Even the face I had, right then—as soon as I looked away from the mirror, something slipped. I had to look right back. Was this like Streisand’s relentless attention to detail, about whether each small change made the whole so radically different it was impossible to track? Or was it just because of dysphoria, of having no practice thinking about a nose and chin except as they fit into a putatively objective schema of attractiveness? A little of both, perhaps, because the face is, literally, such a complicated shape, with so many angles that shift when it moves. Even now every photo I take, or angle I try to look at with my phone and a mirror, seems to produce a view other than I’d thought. Sometimes I don’t like the shape, and sometimes I do. But the casualty of realizing that you have a “good side” is the binaristic reduction not just of the other side to the “bad side” but of the face to something flat. The project of Yentl is less about featuring the “bad side of the face” as the masculine one than it is about restoring to the face its sense of fullness.

When I watched Yentl, I had also recently sat in a chair while a surgeon pointed to the parts of my face and listed each procedure I could undergo as part of the set of surgeries called “facial feminization surgery.” Though the surgeon was careful to name these things as only “conventionally” feminine or masculine traits, and not as good or bad ones, a deep-seated despair slowly settled in me in the hours after the appointment. Was gender really so binarized that it could be found in the tenth of an inch of gum visible when I smiled, and in the dips to the sides of my eyes? Of course the answer, in the era of digital phone cameras, social media, and obsessive transphobia, is yes. But it’s so because we made it so. Jules Gill-Peterson writes about this shift beautifully in an essay called “The Way We Weren’t” which, title notwithstanding, isn’t about Streisand but rather about how the trans women of the midcentury who might not seem to have “passed” were indeed “passing” successfully, due to changing norms of femininity. This isn’t to say trans women of years past didn’t have surgeries we’d now call FFS, or that FFS isn’t necessary now—anything that allows a trans woman to experience a safer world is necessary, and any procedure that affects livelihood in our imbalanced world should be free and available—only to say that the regimes of femininity which in part determine gender are made out of us, and with us. What we determine to be gendered becomes part of gender.

This means that one of the challenges of transition is that the world you imagine yourself into will not be the world you have now. This is also one of transition’s joys: to discover something simply because you wanted your life to be otherwise. FFS, I’d finally decided, was like that. Like Yentl, you had to want something in your life to change, and then change it, and deal with those things that you could only come to know later, later. (Of course, as I was leaving my appointment, I got the note that if I did want FFS I should let them know as soon as possible—they were scheduling for a year and a half out, at the earliest.)

*

My favorite scene in Yentl is set to the song “Will Someone Ever Look at Me That Way,” even though the song itself is frankly pretty bad. (Much of the score to Yentl feels like an endless reprise of the first two songs, “Where is it Written?” and “Papa Can You Hear Me?” which are actually pretty good.) The scene, which appears about two-thirds of the way through the film, shows how the sight of something we love becomes shaped deeply in our perception by our feeling for it. By this point in the story Yentl/Anshel is now married to Hadass (Amy Irving), who used to be engaged to Avigdor, who still loves Hadass, who is in turn falling in love with Anshel, who also cares deeply for Hadass, although perhaps not romantically. The three of them have dinner, ostensibly so Avigdor and Hadass can be reunited after Hadass’s father broke off their original engagement. As they move to the sitting room for tea, Streisand sings in voiceover about Yentl’s love for Avigdor:

Look at how he looks at her / will someone ever look at me that way?

Full of all the feelings and the soft unspoken words that lovers say?

I thought that I knew every single look and sweet expression on his face

Yet this is one that I don’t recognize

Although I’ve sat and studied him for hours

But now I see how love completely occupies / a pair of eyes

Throughout, the three of them stare at each other, lit like they’re in Rembrandt paintings. The camera circles slowly in long shots around their faces, reinforcing the sense of the three heads turning back and forth among the trio. When Avigdor leaves abruptly after meeting Anshel’s eyes, troubled by the similarity of his feelings for both Anshel and Hadass, Anshel interprets this as purely about Hadass. At the same time, Hadass catches Anshel’s shaking hand and nervous eyes and thinks that these quivers are marks of Anshel’s passion for her. Both Anshel and Hadass are very confident in their interpretations of their beloveds’ faces and actions, and both are very wrong. While Streisand sings “will someone ever look at me that way” as Yentl’s inner voice, Avigdor is looking at Yentl/Anshel exactly that way. The closeness of their relationship, and the intensity of Yentl/Anshel’s feeling about it, alter what expression she sees him make.

One of the tenets of Yentl, because it is one of the tenets of the study of the Talmud, is that there is always more to learn. The scene shows us how this is true of the faces of people you love, which might be as sacred a text as any holy book. Nothing truly profound can be exhausted by your attention. As the camera moves, the light of the lamp shifts slightly over the three lovers’ faces. The difference between a person with a beard and a person without a beard is simply the difference between the moon at full and the moon as it waxes or wanes. Each has an expression of tenderness mixed with longing. Each seems briefly content to keep looking at the faces before them, even anxious Anshel. You can’t fix a face in your mind, the scene says, you have to look at it again, because a face is built with time. 

*

In Streisand’s film, this hesitant multiplicity of love is ultimately contained by Yentl/Anshel removing herself from the relationship. Despite their time studying together, when Yentl tells Avigdor she is a woman, Avigdor can only imagine her as taking up the role of wife she is so uninterested in. So Yentl departs for America (a crude stand-in for the possibilities of Elsewhere), and leaves Avigdor and Hadass to reorient their romantic feelings towards each other. But in the Isaac Bashevis Singer story Yentl is based on—“Yentl the Yeshiva Boy A Story,” published in Commentary in 1962 in an English translation by Marion Magid and Elizabeth Pollett—Anshel’s leaving produces a schism in both of their lives that is not repaired through marriage:

Only one thing was lacking: joy. The bridegroom stood beneath the marriage canopy, a figure of desolation. The bride had recovered from her sickness, but had remained pale and thin. Her tears fell into the golden chicken broth. From all eyes the same question looked out: why had Anshel done it?

This more complex approach is in keeping with the story’s general attitude, which also has a much more concerted attention to what we would now loosely call gender. At the beginning of the story, in which Yentl desires not only to study but to study specifically as a man, already secretly dressing in her father’s clothes and smoking his pipe, her father tells her: “Yentl—you have the soul of a man.”

“So why was I born a woman?”

“Even Heaven makes mistakes.”

This feels so distinctly a trans narrative that I actually gasped when I read it. When I was young, I too thought heaven had made a mistake in the form given to me. I asked this question, about whether that form was a mistake, of my mother, of G-d, and of the stars above our backyard, every time we came home at night and I had a moment alone on the path from the garage into the house. That the film has none of this indeterminacy, or alternatively none of this confidence—that it makes a point of depicting Yentl’s disguise as Anshel as a hardship she must endure to access what she wants, the study of Talmud—makes it difficult to find in this part of the film its trans narrative, though the pieces are there. At the same time as Streisand and her collaborators speak in interviews about how convincing Streisand is “as a boy,” the movie variously insists that she does not look like a boy—and that in fact the community is a bit dull for missing it. It’s in this tension, between Streisand’s supposedly masculine aspect and her purportedly feminine being, that her face refuses any simple understanding of gender. Everybody is so close to understanding, both inside the movie and out,  that a face might be androgynous, or that if it is not androgynous it might be distinctly attractive whether presented as either masculine or feminine, or that what ultimately makes a conventionally beautiful face into a person you love is not its conventions but its variations. It’s in the face that the question around gender cannot be simplified on film, whatever happens in the narrative.

Within the small number of people Yentl attends to—a group of people who all love each other, in ways that are not only conventionally romantic—their love estranges them briefly from the gendered division the film constructs. It’s no accident that the love between Avigdor and Hadass is the one the viewer has to take most on faith. Over the course of the film we watch the asymmetrical ways in which Anshel and Avigdor, and then Anshel and Hadass, grow their relationships by spending time with each other, which in this movie mostly means looking at each other as they ostensibly study. (I can relate.) In an earlier scene, Yentl/Anshel and Avigdor argue about scripture, and then wrestle as a way of arguing; the camera looks up into Avigdor’s face looking down into Anshel’s face, which has all of Streisand’s intimate expression combined with her extravagant gesture. Detail, but make it maximalist. Her nose, purportedly big and distinctive, has a delicateness to it—perhaps because she’s always jutting it out, alone. The sun glows behind Avigdor’s head and you can’t see Anshel, but you can see, in looking at Avigdor, what Anshel looks like to him. Like the sun.

What does Streisand’s face look like, in Yentl? Is it a man’s, or a boy’s, or a woman’s? Many people in the film are very sure of one or the other, though the film itself never settles, moving the camera from Streisand’s left to right side, from Yentl to Hadass to Avigdor to the crowd of young men in the yeshiva, including the women Streisand cast as men to sprinkle more beardless faces throughout the background. In a way, the film bends around Yentl; it is Streisand’s famous ego, or it is what happens when you move towards your desire. What gender transition and Yentl have in common is the feeling of tilting your face, lit by a candle, up towards the moon as you invite change into your life. This is a change you cannot fully control, but that you welcome anyway, because whatever other hardships it may bring it frees you from a pain that is intolerable, or it lets you enter a world you find irresistible. You can see this kind of suffering or withholding, and then this expanding, on a face. But you don’t find it in that face’s features. Instead, you read it—which is to say, you study it, and so, if you want, you can help to bring it forth.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

We Grown Now
Blood for Dust
Dusk for a Hitman
Stress Positions
Hard Miles

Comments

comments powered by Disqus