Deviations: The Needle

Interrogating the term “queer” gives us the chance to de-tour the answer.Queerness always surprises us with linguistic hesitations, even when we try to choose our gender. It is the same hesitation we face when taking the risk of straying from the “straight” path. Above all, queerness implies assuming a dis-oriented sexuality, and accepting that our body is as nomadic as our mind. Queerness allows our body to be other than it is.

Queerness is not merely about being or not being gay or lesbian. Queerness points to a project of endless re-invention, a process that lets us become self-made beings. Queerness allows subjects to make decisions about their own bodies and personalize the ways in which they use them.

Queerness, as defined above, is the main theme explored by Carmen Oquendo-Villar and José Correa Vigier, co-directors of the documentary The Needle. The film, edited by Carla Cavina and produced by Felipe Tewes, besieges the very processes of personal re-invention, and the means by which anyone can hold on to their queerness. The catalyst of change and queerness is José Quiñones, a contemporary, self-styled shaman who, like santeros in the botanicas, administers ointments, potions and other substances to diverse people who urgently seek to repair their battered, aged and ugly bodies. Women and men from all walks of life come together at Quiñones’ home, striving for physical perfection to join —with the needle’s help— the ranks of “normality.”

Transgender sex workers, thugs from the barrio, quiet husbands, sixty years old ladies, disabled workers, teenagers, beauty queens in love, policemen, high school teachers, Joe and Peter, María and Jane have faith in Quiñones’ magical potions and their ability to help them become other than who they are.

The Needle is, at first glance, a flat film, full of gossip and the everydayness of a particular Puerto Rican neighborhood. It strikes us as a film that simply quenches the spectators’ morbid curiosity by giving them disjointed urban images mixed with street melodrama. However, if we examine The Needle closely, we discover quite a different project. The Needle provides an agitated adventure through the pathways of desire. Spectators are confronted with all kinds of desires: some naive, some common and trivial, and yet some are more desperate, vital, and even deadly. Desiring subjects place their hopes and enthusiasm in Quiñones’ transformative powers. Quiñones, a good-natured gay man, takes care of his “patients” physically and emotionally.

As a person, Quiñones is committed to the welfare of the Other. He is a good counselor, and a dedicated emotional midwife who helps people give birth to their new selves. Quiñones is the shaman that rules over the affects of a popular neighborhood in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Quiñones' world is as immense as the reach of his enormous fame. Most everybody calls him "The Savior."

Shot in Santurce, The Needle defies genders, customs, social class, nationality, birthplace. The film dwells in the increasingly blurred threshold between truth and falsehood, decency and indecency, morality and wellbeing. It does not have a beginning or an end. It lacks a traditional plot; the film begins in the middle of the action and so it ends, as if spectators were allowed to peek into a particular reality for a little while. The change in the film’s structure is not as striking as the characters’ perception of change in their own selves. Each character is a symptom of an appetite, and, from a dramatic stand-point, they bear witness to a particular shade of an ever growing black hole that inhabits and devours the human soul.

I will say it once again: the film is basically a comedy ... to the extent that we spectators are allowed to laugh at our own insane ambitions. Even if they are preposterous, we actually want to see those desires fulfilled. For that reason, the film also has a melancholic bent. Change may or may not arrive. Failing to achieve beauty or a perfect body with the shaman’s potions constitutes precisely the path towards melancholia. By failing to meet our desired beauty goals, we not simply lose in the perfection game. We actually lose our selves.

Carmen Oquendo-Villar and José Correa-Vigier have touched the very issue that affects Caribbean bodies, bodies that are mulatto, chubby, fat-assed, disabled or short-necked. The directors have explored desire as conceived by Luis Palés Matos: the desire for the Other’s perfect body can only be faced with a macaca imitation of the desired perfection. We are who we are. Neither Gotu Kola nor biopolymers will turn our flaccid, fat and aged bodies into the Other we so desperately want to become. It seems that we must learn to be the Other that we already are and learn to see ourselves calmly from beyond. In order to achieve that vision —of the same as the other— we’ll need to abandon the-road-so-often-taken and begin a thorough journey though the eye of the needle.

Lilliana Ramos Collado, Ph.D., is curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Puerto Rico and literary critic from El nuevo día.