The Soul of My Subject – a review of ‘Carla’

Carla. Photo courtesy of Reel Q.

Artist, photographer, and now director, Mara Rago depicts the life of a Pittsburgh trans woman, Carla Beck, in her documentary, “Carla,” a short film premiering at the Reel Q Film Festival on Friday, October 13 at the Warhol Museum.

Beck transitions late in life, but the trans woman always knew she identified as a woman. Early in the film, She says, “I tried to be a little boy, but it didn’t take.” It’s a candid shot into the subject’s mind. Her tale is told with a matter-of-fact wit that endears her to an audience. She adds, “When my mother found out I wore women’s clothes, she told me I would go to hell and burn in a lake of fire. Then, she went over God’s head and told my dad.”

The humor is dry, deadpan, and very effective.

Before she received her gender reassignment, Carla Beck (living by her dead name, Carl Beck) was attracted to women and simultaneously jealous of them. Before the transition, Beck was a wannabe rock star. Inspired by literature, especially Omar Khayyám, Beck (as Carl) became the lead singer of the rock band, Rubaiyat.

She said, “When I played the guitar, I f*cked my way across America.”.

Carla had four marriages living as a man. In the final relationship before the transition, “a blonde from Boston,” whom Carla did not marry, encourages her to undergo gender reassignment surgery and live fully as a woman.

Ironically, Beck admits, “I’m in contact with a lot of my exes. They prefer Carla to Carl.”

Beck gave up the band after she transitioned.  

Rago interviews Beck’s partner, Pam, who is also a trans woman. The only other person in the documentary aside from the director. The film could benefit from additional perspectives, perhaps an interview with Beck’s daughter, Starr Schmidt, or another family member or friend.

Pam, however, makes a big impact. Her love for Carla Beck shines through on the screen. Pam said, “I came with her when she got her surgery, and she came with me when I got mine.” Words catch in her throat near the end of the documentary, during a particularly powerful moment (no spoilers).

As mentioned, the director inserts herself into the film. Such a move, if mishandled, can be clumsy or awkward, but Rago handles it with aplomb. She weaves the story together with compassion and sincerity. It adds another layer to the doc. When Rago first encounters the titular character, she admires Carla Beck from afar, romanticizing the scooter-riding, no-nonsense person who lives and loves to the fullest. The director and her subject meet in a tanning salon – of all places. Beck agrees to pose for the photographer.  

The quick, forty-two-minute doc is engaging, simple, and non-pretentious. It’s a fascinating look into the life of a unique character. Rago said, “When I’m taking pictures, I have this quote I like to say, ‘The soul of my subject, the soul in-between, and the soul of myself.’” Carla Beck’s soul is on display here and so is Mara Rago’s. The director’s uncanny skill successfully transfers from photography to film.

“Carla” is deftly edited by Jim Towns. Rago and Towns are dynamic in the way they pull the story together and, literally and figuratively, make it sing.

“Carla” premieres on Friday, October 13 at 6:30 PM at the Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15212-5890.

Michael Buzzelli is a stand-up comedian and sit-down author. As a comedian, he has performed all around the country, most notably, the Ice House, the Comedy Store and the Improv in Los Angeles. As a writer, Michael Buzzelli has been published in a variety of websites, magazines and newspapers. He is a theater and arts critic for 'Burgh Vivant,’ Pittsburgh's online cultural talk magazine. He is also a Moth Grand Slam storyteller and actor. His books, "Below Average Genius," a collection of essays culled from his weekly humor column in the Observer-Reporter, and his romantic comedy,  “All I Want for Christmas," are on sale at Amazon.com. He is working on a LGBTQ romantic comedy called, “Why I Hate My Friends.” You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter. (He / Him / His)