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From The Celluloid Closet to Brokeback Mountain: The Changing Nature of Queer Film Criticism

By Michael Bronski

From The Celluloid Closet

The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers Edited by Matthew Hays. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2007 383 pp., illus. Paper: $22.95.

The Cinema of Todd Haynes: All That Heaven Allows Edited by James Morrison. London: Wallflower Press, 2007 181 pp., illus. Paper: $25.00.

Reading Brokeback Mountain: Essays on the Story and the Film Edited by Jim Stacy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2007 237 pp., Paper $35.00

It has been just over two years since the release of Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and the intense media coverage that ensued: endless Brokeback jokes on the late-night talk shows, a New Yorker cover parody featuring George Bush and Dick Cheney, numerous mock "trailers" on YouTube, and a full-fledged angry protest in the LGBT press that industry homophobia had prevented the film from winning a Best Picture Oscar (even through Lee won Best Director and the film garnered three wins out of eight nominations). While the immediate excitement over Brokeback Mountain has died down —and the film itself has entered that vague category of "classic" that is usually reserved for movies that people remember fondly although not necessarily want to view again—it is clear, two years later, that this Brokeback moment was a major cultural event.

That "event," however we might interpret it, underscores the fact that the very idea of LGBT film or "queer cinema" (its more academically appropriate monicker) has changed radically in the recent past. The three books reviewed here—one of them dedicated only to exegesis of Brokeback Mountain—are emblematic of these changes and can only be understood in the broader context of the enormous cultural shifts that have occurred in the three decades.

I am now in the middle of teaching a course on queer film at Dartmouth College—Queers, Queens, and Questionable Women: How Hollywood Shaped Post-War GLBT Politics and Vice Versa—and was amazed when I began putting together the syllabus at not only how brief, and fast moving, the history of specifically queer criticism has been, but also how protean it has been. Looking at contemporary queer film criticism it is important to remember that—with the exception of some early books and essays by the brilliant, and now largely forgotten by younger queer writers and academics, Parker Tyler—as a discipline it doesn't really begin until the early 1970s, several years after the Stonewall Riots and the birth of the Gay Liberation movement. While there had always been gay men and lesbians writing about film (employing coded references in the mainstream press, and more openly in the homophile publications of the 1950s and 1960s) the post-Stonewall grass-roots gay and feminist press spawned a wealth of new critics and criticism that wedded esthetic concerns with political analysis. Writers such as Richard Dyer, whose groundbreaking anthology Gays and Film was released in 1977 and B. Ruby Rich, whose essays appeared in The Chicago Reader and The Village Voice during the 1970s and 1980s, spearheaded a revolution in film analysis that continues to have a profound effect on academic film studies.

Jake Gyllenhaaland the late Heath Ledger as the star-crossed cowboys in Brokeback Mountain

Jake Gyllenhaaland the late Heath Ledger as the star-crossed cowboys in Brokeback Mountain

Yet, it's curious that as influential as thinkers such as Dyer and Rich have been in the popular imagination (and often on the academic syllabus), it is Vito Russo's 1981 film survey cum polemic, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, which has had the most impact. Reissued in a revised edition in 1987, three years before Russo's death, the impact of the book was enhanced by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's 1995 documentary film based upon it. Like Dyer and Rich, Russo began writing in the LGBT press in the 1970s and while it was clear that he loved movies, The Celluloid Closet was more concerned with politics than the nuances of interpretation or analysis. While Russo's analysis was, in many ways, groundbreaking for its time—and still yields some potent insights in his lively, chatty prose—much of it now feels outdated, superseded by ideas generated by both feminist and queer theory.

Russo argued that lesbians and gay men had been continually marginalized and demonized in Hollywood films and that these "negative images" were both a result—and continued to promote—deep-seated social homophobia. (He also documented how gay characters, stigmatized as "bad" and immoral, " were often killed by the end of a film's narrative. To reinforce this point, in an appendix to the book he supplies a "necrology" of queer characters who die.) But the problem with Russo's dichotomized negative/positive image analysis was that it simply didn't leave much middle ground for ambiguity, or in some cases, even interpretation. It is telling that some of the films that Russo singles out for not promoting positive images, such as The Children's Hour (1962), The Killing of Sister George (1967), and The Boys in the Band (1970), have become staples of LGBT film festivals and college courses. But while Russo consistently advocates a social critique of LGBT themed films along the lines of positive/negative images, he frequently understands the limitations of this approach. Noting that a variety of homosexual characters are represented in The Boys in the Band, he writes that "the film was not positive, but it was fair."

While contemporary readers might disagree with many of Russo's critical precepts or conclusions, the continuing power of Russo's book resides in its political analysis of social and cultural homophobia—certainly an issue as pertinent today as in 1980. There are two major differences, however, between the gay/lesbian film culture of 1970s and 1980s and the "queer culture" of today. The first is that we've witnessed an enormous proliferation of homosexual images in film and television during the last quarter century— more than Russo and other writers of the 1980s could have imagined. For example, consider the 2007 holiday catalog for TLA, a film distributor that specializes in queer material and features advertisements for hundreds of fairly recent, nonerotic, queer male films (there are also many more erotic titles). Some of these, such as Adam Shankman's 2007 Hairspray are high-quality Hollywood product, while others such as Zak Tucker's Poster Boy are interesting independent productions. Queer audiences today have their choice not only of a wide range of titles, but also eagerly participate in an industry that is aimed specifically at them.

Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine in William Wyler's adaptation of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour

Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine in William Wyler's adaptation of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour

The second change is that the cultural and political definitions of both "positive" and "negative" have drastically shifted. Whereas Russo could label the "sissies" (such as Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn) in 1930s films as homophobic, a character such as Jack on Will and Grace, while not a role model, is now seen by queer audiences as a perfectly acceptable representation of a gay man. I think that no one would ever write—as Russo does in the first sentences of The Celluloid Closet: "Nobody likes a sissy. That includes dykes, faggots, and feminists of both sexes. Even in a time of sexual revolution, when traditional roles are being examined and challenged every day, there is something about a man who acts like a woman that people find fundamentally distasteful." The reality is that while Russo, reflecting the politics of his time, often leaves no room for ambiguity, contemporary queer readings of films are often predicated entirely on exploring, and celebrating, this ambiguity.

Russo's work need not be disparaged, but I've spent some time on The Celluloid Closet in order to highlight the major shifts that have occurred over the past two decades. Much of academic queer and feminist film studies grew out of, and are inseparable from, the political analysis engendered by both Gay Liberation and Second Wave feminism. Both of these movements were inspired by aspects of the Frankfurt School and became concerned with understanding and grappling with popular culture. Academic queer film studies now finds itself in the sometimes awkward position of responding both to a need to continue to professionalize its work as well as to wrestle with the changing state of the market, which is now utterly different than it was a decade ago, never mind three decades.

This cultural shift is, to varying degrees, apparent in the three volumes of recent queer film writing under review. Matthew Hays's The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers is, in some respects, a throwback to the early days of gay movement film writing and commentary. Hays is a Montreal-based journalist and critic who specializes in writing on queer culture. This collection of thirty-two interviews with lesbian and gay male filmmakers gives us a nice, although very general and anecdotal, overview of the past sixty years of queer film history. Beginning with Kenneth Anger—whose 1947 experimental short Fireworks is arguably the beginning of modern queer film—to John Cameron Mitchell on Shortbus (2006), Hays gives us an admittedly haphazard journey that highlights some of the thoughts of noted directors. Because this is a collection of newspaper and magazine articles—often resonant of the in-awe fan style of The Village Voice's Arthur Bell, an early commentator on queer pop culture and a close friend of Vito Russo—its overall impact often feels marginal since Hays, often a perceptive interviewer, cannot make a sustained argument. But what the volume does do very well is give us a sense of the multiplicity of queer sensibilities working today. While veterans such as Rosa von Praunheim and John Waters don't say much that is new, Hays does manage to elicit some interesting comments about the queer sensibility of the Chucky movies from director Don Mancini, and his questions to Eytan Fox and Gal Uchovsky—Yossi & Jagger (2002) and The Bubble (2006)—prompt interesting ideas about the relationship of international queer cinema to Hollywood film as well as U.S. politics.

Vito Russo, one of the first to take on the subject of LBGT cinema

Vito Russo, one of the first to take on the subject of LBGT cinema

Serious film scholars may find aspects of The View from Here interesting, although they may be put off by the ephemeral nature of the pieces. What the volume does do is reinforce the point that actual contemporary queer film culture—as opposed to queer film studies—is far more wide ranging and eclectic than ever before. But in doing so—remember those hundreds of films in the TLA catalog—it also raises two important issues. In this plethora of new queer film there is an amazing amount of commercial, sometimes even unwatchable, junk. This is, of course, simply a byproduct of capitalism— if there is a perceived audience someone, somewhere, will make a product to market to it —but film scholars will have to begin deciding how to understand and write about this phenomena. Does this mean that, along with articles on the queer sensibility of George Cukor or Dorothy Arzner, we will be seeing scholarly pieces on "The Queerness of Chucky" or "Narratives of Orality in Eating Out and Eating Out 2" two highly popular, but inanely stupid, gay male films? The question "Is the proliferation of junky queer films a good thing" is beside the point; they are there and many are quite popular. But scholars will have to come to grips with not only what this new cultural moment might mean, but also with the idea that as the very category of "queer film" has grown enormously, the category itself may have become meaningless, both commercially and critically. These are new questions—queer film studies being such a new field—that have never had to be faced in the past.

One mark of how far we have come from the world in which Vito Russo existed is the publication of James Morrison's excellent anthologies, The Cinema of Todd Haynes: All That Heaven Allows and Jim Stacy's often illuminating Reading Brokeback Mountain: Essays on the Story and the Film. Could Russo—or for that matter Richard Dyer or B. Ruby Rich—have ever imagined a time when an openly gay director's overtly gay work would be taken so seriously or that a distinctly gay male-themed film would receive so much critical adulation? But more important, how do Haynes's films, or Brokeback Mountain, fit into the critical percepts that these critics articulated two decades ago?

As products of academic film scholarship, both of these books are welcome addition to the literature on queer film. Unlike Hays's The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers, they are not intended for the average queer filmgoer and are centered on asking vital questions about specific works of art. While each volume presents us with distinctive strengths and weaknesses, they all demonstrate that queer film criticism —in response to a number of factors—has matured enormously over the past decade. Here are two collections of essays that examine in minute, complex detail queer themed work with no mention of positive/negative images or the effect of representation on realpolitik. Indeed there are few mentions of politics at all. Which is not to say that these books do not emanate from a political consciousness, but rather, perhaps, that they have moved beyond the need to articulate such a position.

A lesbian bar from Robert Aldrich's The Killing of Sister George

A lesbian bar from Robert Aldrich's The Killing of Sister George

The essays in The Cinema of Todd Haynes: All That Heaven Allows deal with myriad issues relating to his body of work: Haynes's relationship to Jean Genet; how AIDS functions as an allegory in Safe; the political use of nostalgia in Far From Heaven; Haynes's use of television to explicate queer childhood in Dottie Gets Spanked; Haynes's thematic relationship to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. And because of their specificity these essays are able to present detailed discussions of aspects of Haynes's work. James Morrison's "Todd Haynes in Theory and Practice," for instance, beautifully sets up a convincing "system" in which we can understand Haynes's films in direct relationship to one another (Safe, for instance, ‘answers' Superstar). And he argues that Haynes's films are not simply infused with theory—from Freud and Adorno to Kristeva and Baudrillard—but actually predicated upon these theorists' work. It's an intriguing idea and Morrison is moderately convincing, but the real power of his piece is that Haynes has constructed a self-contained moral universe that answers its own questions and then questions its own answers.

Scott Higgins's "Orange and Blue, Desire and Loss: The Colour Score in Far From Heaven" deals deftly with how Haynes mimics, yet radically transforms, Sirk's sense of color in All That Heaven Allows in Far From Heaven. This feels, at times, like standard film studies, but what Higgins does here is something more complicated, which is to covertly question the politics of nostalgia. This is a vital point in discussing Far From Heaven, and I wish that Higgins had gone further, especially in exploring how Haynes—whose work sometimes borders on camp—draws upon a distinctly gay male sensibility in doing this.

Perhaps the best, and I think most important, essay in this collection is Alexandra Juhasz's "From the Scenes of Queens: Genre, AIDS, and Queer Love." Here, drawing upon her own relationship with Haynes, her experience as an AIDS activist, and her friendships with gay male friends with AIDS, Juhasz painstakingly locates Haynes's esthetic work in concrete political and historical contexts, and thus makes the works far more alive then most "film studies" pieces do, even though she uses much of the same language and ideas. It is an excellent example of what "queer studies" might, and can, do.

But the question that underlies this volume—and is never articulated—is what will Todd Haynes's place be in film history? This, I think, is a complicated question that really gets to the heart of where queer cinema studies is today. While past scholars have done a splendid job explicating the role of an often closeted gay sensibility in the work of noted Hollywood directors such as James Whale, Mitchell Leisen, and Vincente Minnelli, recent scholarship is now faced with coming up with new ways to evaluate the shape and the form of gay sensibility in the works of a new wave of film directors who are openly gay, and often draw upon the work of past artists. Much of this volume—as wonderful as some of the work is—feels like an ongoing argument for the canonization of Haynes as a major American artist.

Dottie  gets spanked in one of Todd Haynes early films

Dottie gets spanked in one of Todd Haynes early films

And certainly that is a great argument to make—and the answer is probably "yes"—but it is an argument that has to be made in the broader context of what place queer cinema holds in the larger world of film today. What is the relationship between cross-over queer cinema—and one could argue that Far From Heaven or I'm Not There are fine examples of this cross-over—and mass spectatorship? Might this mean that the very category of "queer film" is in danger of being erased or blurred out of extinction? Since so much of past queer film criticism has been devoted to (as in The Celluloid Closet) exposing the injustices done to queer people in popular culture or opening closets and uncovering a coded queer past that a vigorous investigation—as B. Ruby Rich begins in her famous 1992 piece "New Queer Cinema"—new work has the responsibility of taking this legacy into consideration while examining all of the changes that have occurred in the past decade.

A good starting place for this discussion is Jim Stacy's Reading Brokeback Mountain: Essays on the Story and the Film. Through the prism of these fifteen essays— which vary in quality from excellent to the semiobvious—Stacy has, among other things, attempted to place Brokeback Mountain in a historical context that dissects it from a number of angles that implicitly, and in some cases explicitly, attempts to understand the position of the film as a conduit between queer culture and mass culture. There are provocative essays here that specifically explore the "queering" of popular culture. Noah Tsika's "The Queerness of Country: Brokeback's Soundscape" is a fine exploration of how the film uses, and subverts, the conventions of country music to make its points. Xinghua Li's "From Nature's Love to Natural Love: Brokeback Mountain, Universal Identification, and Gay Politics" uses Slavoj Zizek and Ernesto Laclau to dexterously locate the film's juggling of its desire to be both specific and universal. But there is again an underlying question here that is only semiarticulated: why did Brokeback Mountain, for all of its "queerness," become not simply a successful film but a media event? Was it—or will it be remembered as—that breakthrough film that some queer viewers suggested it was, spawning more popular gay-themed films and making a real difference in how mainstream film culture thinks about LGBT content? Certainly the untimely death of Heath Ledger in January may generate a whole new series of essays about the complicated dynamics of gay male spectatorship and fan culture that may give new life to the public discussions surrounding Brokeback. It certainly isn't what Rich described in "New Queer Cinema" and one wonders what Vito Russo, were he still alive, would have felt when he added Jack Twist to his Necrology.

The importance of both The Cinema of Todd Haynes and Reading Brokeback Mountain—aside from the value of many of their entries—is that they, intentionally or not, pinpoint not just some of the extraordinary work being done in queer cinema today but also force us to rethink the very category of gay or queer film and the precepts by which we measure it.

The not-so-picture-perfect couple in Todd Haynes Far From Heaven

The not-so-picture-perfect couple in Todd Haynes Far From Heaven

There is a very complicated relationship between the extraordinary power of popular culture and the more professional world of cinema studies. In the beginning of what we now call "queer film criticism," this relationship felt less complicated. Because so much of the work that was being done was simply about exploring the possibilities of a new discipline and the fact that it was, most often, being done in the popular press, made the connection between popular culture and cinema studies explicit. That is less true now, and it placed some of the basic tenets of the discipline in question. Indeed, queer studies itself—an exciting, and often perplexing volatile mix of theory and politics—is often, because of its sprawling, even somewhat amorphous nature, often purposefully unable to produce a single cohesive theory. This, in the context of an (often unacknowledged) constantly changing queer popular culture, makes for a confusing situation.

The other profound change—and I think this may be the most important one—that has occurred is a generational one. Many of the scholars now in graduate school were not yet born when Parker Tyler, Richard Dyer, B. Ruby Rich, and Vito Russo began publishing. They have grown up with their work and have, to varying degrees, built upon it. But they—and even younger LGBT people—matured in a world in which LGBT cinema has become something very different than it was in 1980. Most of my undergraduate students have never heard of The Children's Hour or Cruising—never mind Mädchen in Uniform or Fox and His Friends—and are far more familiar with commercial fluff like Another Gay Movie or Saving Face, and of course Queer as Folk and The L Word. It's not that they don't come to love and appreciate these older films as they get to know them—but they know them in a much different way than I did in 1964 or 1985. This is the difference that older queer film scholars will have to acknowledge and recognize if queer film studies is going to proceed in any fruitful and exciting manner.

If we think about the future of queer cinema—and of queer cinema studies—we'll have to take very seriously how much the world of "gay movies" has changed in the past ten years and how very different it is from thirty-five years ago. In some ways The Cinema of Todd Haynes and Reading Brokeback Mountain are using an older context to analyze one aspect of a new, and constantly changing, phenomenon. They offer valuable analyses but we need to move beyond them as well and to understand—in the largest historic and political context possible—the impact, and the potential, of queer cinema today.

Michael Bronski teaches Film, Women's and Gender Studies and Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and his latest book is Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps.

To buy The Cinema of Todd Haynes click here
To buy The View from Here click here
To Buy Reading Brokeback Mountain click here
To buy Brokeback Mountain click here

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