Professor’s ‘The Skin I’m In’ probes alcoholism, identity

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Author: Sarah Corsa

Students are generally unaware of their professors’ personal lives. The life experiences that inform their teaching and perspectives stay hidden so that students only see the effects on their syllabi. Occasionally, professors share opinions share campus issues or current events, but students still rarely see the events that shaped these ideas – unless they make an autobiographical documentary, of course.

Media Arts and Culture professor Broderick Fox created “The Skin I’m In,” which screened on Sunday, Oct. 6 at the Egyptian in Hollywood through the Los Angeles Film Forum. The immensely personal and candid film unpacks the events leading up to and following Fox’s fall onto the Berlin subway tracks with a blood alcohol level of .47. At that time, he had been teaching at Occidental for one year.

Simultaneously, the film tracks the progress of the full back tattoo Fox got as a way of memorializing his experiences navigating his own sexuality, gender, alcoholism, pain and spirituality. Canadian First Nations artist Rande Cook designed the tattoo at Fox’s request. Canadians use the term First Nations to identify the indigenous people of Canada, rather than the term Native Americans. Cook incorporated traditional symbols and characters from First Nations folklore that Fox connected with in his own reading of the tribal literature and felt represented his journey.

He distinguishes five deeply entwined personas through which he narrates various times in his life: Brody the son and brother, Dr. Fox the professor, Broderick Fox the artist, Rick the club kid and Dina Brown the drag queen. Some identities are hardly accepted in society, let alone as an open identity of a professor.

Perhaps a product of years of deep identity examination, Fox is aware and self–conscious about the way certain audiences might perceive his film. Although it has screened at festivals around the world since its April 2012 release, he was apprehensive about how the First Nations community in Victoria, B.C. would receive his story.

“There was a real sort of nervousness on my part about people perhaps expecting to come and see a movie really about indigenous art traditions in Rande, who end up getting a movie where he is an instrumental part but a frame for the story of a privileged white male guy with troubles,” Fox said.

Through Fox’s trips to Victoria, he forged a close relationship with Cook, forever enshrined through the art on Fox’s back. He was unsure about how the tribal community would interpret and respond to his tattoo. After the screening, an elderly man stood up and voiced his opinion.

“He sort of said that Rande and I, in a way, represent a new path or a new connection in a world where, as we increasingly becoming globalized and intermixed, that we’re sort of drawing on the best from both cultures and finding a new path,” Fox said. “He said that he hopes that as I traverse the world with that on my back that I have a sense that their traditions and their community have my back.”

In Feb. 2012, Fox screened the film at Occidental before touring at various festivals. The film exposes facets of his identity traditionally excluded from the classroom. His identity as a professor seems far removed from the stories depicted in the film of him dressing in drag, hustling on CraigsList and suffering from alcoholism. Fox contextualized the film, collaborating with a variety of departments on campus such as the Center for Gender Equity, the Multicultural Hall and the Queer Straight Alliance to shape the discussion in a way that would be productive for the student body.

The film proves to be deeply relevant to Occidental’s community and the lives of college students. The Occidental campus makes a cameo toward the end while the Tiger Cooler serves as the backdrop for Fox’s reflective stories. His struggles to discuss his tattoo with his parents are reminiscent of an adolescent’s. His journey is tied to the college not only though the scholarly work he pursues but simply because of proximity.

“My growth as an adult and as an artist and as a teacher have really coincided chronologically very much with my sort of personal exploration and growth as a sober male trying to find a different connection between mind, body and spirit,” Fox said.

Fox documented his exploration of self through film and what is today called the “selfie,” although at the time social media was not as ubiquitous. Although he did not share most of his images, some are included in the film. “Skin” represents a curation of his documentation throughout the years, carefully selected and considered. Fox spent six years creating the film and another year and a half editing it until it became the product screened now.

“Over that course of time editing I really had a chance to sit with the material, to look at it, to edit it, to shape it, to refine it and really decide when things had gotten to a point where, beyond just naval–gazing or personal therapy that there might be something there that’s of value to a wider audience,” Fox said. “To some degree, I think that degree of retrospective distance or pause or delay has been lost in a lot of digital culture right now.”

He worried that the advent of social media may have made his film anachronistic, especially among the LGBTQ community that still faces coming out about their sexuality, but in a different era.

“On some levels, coming out and finding a sense of identity and finding community and having my experience mirrored in some way would have been so much easier in the digital age, and yet at the same time, there’s a flip side to the digital moment as well, that lacks any sort of reflective distance or delay,” Fox said.

Fox is nonetheless taking advantage of social media as a complement to his film. In tandem with the L.A. premiere, the film was released on DVD and iTunes. Additionally, Fox created a web initiative encouraging discussion about identity and the various themes spotlighted in the movie, including drinking, anorexia and the media. The website has a page for each of Fox’s identities with clips from the film and a discussion section that includes questions to stimulate a conversation.

“To really explore what it means to try to distribute a movie and try to create community in the digital age is a whole fascinating question and journey unto itself,” Fox said. “Just because a movie appears on iTunes doesn’t mean anyone will ever watch it or see it. It opens up some interesting questions or strategies about how you can take a piece of media and actually allow it to have a life, reach an audience and in some way affect change or at lease a conversation.”

Currently, Fox is working on a documentary called “Zen and the Art of Dying.” Although this piece is not autobiographical, he expressed that after more personal growth and change, another reflective work would be possible.

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