Three Queer Film Classics
by David Greven
Trash: A Queer Film Classic by John Davies. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009. 120 pp. Paperback: $14.95.
Law of Desire: A Queer Film Classic by José Quiroga. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009. 120 pp. Paperback: $14.95.
Gods and Monsters: A Queer Film Classic by Noah Tskika. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009. 120 pp. Paperback: $14.95.
Judging by these first three entries of Arsenal Pulp Press’s new series Queer Film Classics, the editors—Matthew Hays and Thomas Waugh—have made a brilliant innovation in queer film studies, providing a welcome queer complement to the British Film Institute’s series of monographs on classic films. There’s something irresistibly compelling about a monograph devoted to one movie, a chance to revel in the select pleasures and special world of a single film. From a queer perspective, the meditation on a single film takes on a particular urgency, one charged with political as well as esthetic and personal concerns. Each of these wonderful treatments has much to teach us, not only about the art of film but also the queer ways in which films can transmit meaning to audiences.
Paul Morrissey’s 1970 film Trash, produced by Andy Warhol, is the epitome of the Warhol Factory, which produced so-called “Superstars” such as Joe Dallesandro and the drag-performer Holly Woodlawn, both of whom star in this film. Jon Davies offers a succinct, informed, and incisive account not only of this film’s importance but also of the Warhol esthetic and demimonde, and the significance of the Factory to the avant-garde movement of the 1960s. Any reader wishing to learn more about Warhol, Morrissey, Dallesandro, avant-garde film, and, especially, the poignantly brief Superstardom of Holly Woodlawn will find much to appreciate in Davies’s scrupulous treatment, informed by great love for the material.
One of the interesting tensions that Davies explores is the distinction between Warhol’s sensibility and Morrissey’s. Warhol’s films refuse psychological interiority, focusing on surfaces. “What makes Warhol’s films…so complex is that the Superstars are in constant, riveting flux between artifice and authenticity.” Drawing on the numerous debates over authorship that accompany discussion of Morrissey’s films for Warhol, Davies describes the tensions between Warhol’s characteristic abstraction and Morrissey’s insistence on linearity and coherence. Though Morrissey’s own political views would appear to be quite conservative, his films are notable for their graphic depiction of queer sexuality, most notably embodied in their preoccupation with the found art of druggie-hustler Joe Dallesandro’s body.
The realism in Morrissey’s work—the focus on dinginess and disarray, the rawness of the settings and the performers—is contrasted to the glitzier aspects of the Warhol esthetic. “What was so disturbing to contemporaneous art critics about Pop art,” Davies observes, “was the work’s apparent lack of distance from the consumer culture it represented; it was often compared to advertising in its literalism.” Some of Davies’s most touching observations concern the role in the film’s development played by Holly Woodlawn, born Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhakl in Puerto Rico. (Lana Turner was his childhood idol.) Arguing that Woodlawn’s presence in Trash embodies its debt to camp, Davies argues that “her practice allegorizes how the crucible of Woodlawn’s social scene, the Factory—also shaped by a camp sensibility—invested value into socially discarded people” such as its fleeting Superstars. Warhol’s esthetic, then, seemed to be interested in linking not just the banality of consumer goods but also marginalized, damaged, yet fiercely self-promoting performers like Woodlawn to an emergent culture of fame that looks presciently forward to the trends of our social networking era. Davies’s account of the Warhol esthetic is precise and richly informed, though one comes away from it—at least I do—less sanguine than Davies about the case for the film as a radical work.
Let me confess, then, that I find Trash an oppressive, cramped, unpleasant experience. I see little of the beauty and the poignancy that Davies believes permeates this film. To my mind, neither Warhol’s nor Morrissey’s filmmaking can compare, in terms of queer film esthetics, to Gregory Markopoulos’s work—jagged, diffident, overwhelmingly sensual. Davies never quite manages to reconcile his account of Morrissey’s personal conservatism and obnoxiousness to the book’s rapturous evocation of Trash’s virtues, nor does he successfully distinguish Warhol’s influence from Morrissey’s auteurist sensibility while assessing the film’s merits. Today, Trash seems most notable for its misogyny, its parade of alternately silly and screechy women revolving around its impotent star (Dallesandro). Davies’s treatment of the film is all the more impressive because it can persuade even non-fans that Trash is a significant queer milestone.
José Quiroga’s study of Pedro Almodóvar’s 1987 film Law of Desire is especially welcome. A bracing film that represents the near peak of Almodóvar’s first phase, which would conclude spectacularly the next year with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Law of Desire showcases the Spanish director’s signature blend of deconstructive cinematic techniques, melodramatic emotionalism which fuses classical Hollywood with the telenovela, vivid, almost cartoonish color, and garish costumes imbued with a camp sensibility.
Quiroga brilliantly contextualizes the significance of the film’s individual scenes as well as its idiosyncratic themes and motifs, while linking all to Almodóvar’s oeuvre generally, treating the 1987 film as a particularly pivotal text not only in Almodóvar’s career but also in post-Franco Spanish culture.
“La Movida Madrileña” emerged in Madrid after Franco's death in 1975, a movement that represented the explosive releases from social, cultural, and esthetic repression of the era and that had powerful implications for gender, class, language, custom, race, cultural identity, and sexuality. Almodóvar’s joyous and transgressive early work vibrantly foregrounds these elements. As Quiroga puts it, Law of Desire was the first film that, for me, portrayed a “different” Spain, not the obsessive and dark visions of Carlos Saura or the allegorical tales that rework the Spanish Civil War in a multitude of themes. It was an international Spain, signaled wonderfully by Almodóvar’s tapping into Latin American sentimental songs, called boleros, which are at the emotional center of this film. I felt it was a kind of Latin-Americanized Spain, paying homage to forms of expression that Spaniards had, to a certain extent, disdained before Almodóvar came on to the scene.
Quiroga is especially deft at analyzing the complex and often unpredictable social arrangements and emotional ties in the film, which more or less exemplify Almodóvar’s motley medley. The aloof, brooding movie director at the center, Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela), loves handsome young Juan, but Juan does not love him; the hotheaded, sullen Antonio (the astonishingly attractive young Antonio Banderas, a fixture of early Almodóvar) loves Pablo, but Pablo cannot return his love; Tina, Pablo’s sister, was once his brother who eloped with their father and then underwent a sex change operation in order to hold onto him (she couldn’t, however). Played by the great Carmen Maura, Tina is a fascinating character fascinatingly played and a catalogue of gender- and propriety-defying themes and attributes. Quiroga is, perhaps, at his best in examining just how poignant Almodóvar’s treatment of the Tina character is—like a post-operative transsexual Holly Golightly, she battles the mean reds of sorrow and rejection with defiant aplomb, as exemplified by the glorious moment in which she asks a street cleaner to douse her with jets of spraying water on a humid nighttime street. Indeed, Almodóvar was quite prescient in his depiction of a transgendered identity in dialogue with homosexuality, and in the way that he populates his filmic world with varieties of sexual difference.
Quiroga analyzes the rich theme of the “chase” in this film as an allegory of the way that “gender is chased by sexuality, or the other way around—to the way in which gender and sexuality operate as a kind of mutual chase of affection and flight.” This motif dovetails with another prevalent Almodóvarian one, the confusion between art and life. And this in turn leads to the film’s rumination on the qualities of desire itself: “Desire never quite involves the transit solely from one point to another, from a subject to an object, from one body to a different one”. Quiroga’s keen insights here correspond beautifully to the complexity of Almodóvar’s vision in this film, on all of these affectional and textual levels. Perhaps the chief symbol for all of these crosscurrents is the movie theater itself, “the meeting point for all of the characters,” a site that once traditionally served as a meeting place for gay male cruising and for “straight men seeking release.” Law of Desire is the ultimate romantic fantasy, much like Hitchcock’s Notorious, and its climax evokes that great 1946 film in many ways. Just as Cary Grant finally admits that he loves Ingrid Bergman and most importantly tells her that he does (“Oh, you love me,” she moans in plangently quiet ecstasy), Pablo, the cold, aloof, rejecting lover, finally holds Antonio in his arms and makes love to him with sweet, sexy tenderness. Of course, this being an Almodóvar film, they only have one hour to be together in emotional and erotic unison. It’s a spellbinding conclusion to a poignant and deeply complex film.
Quiroga points out that Law of Desire is one of Almodóvar’s few explicit treatments of homosexuality in his films, other than the later, much ballyhooed Bad Education. As Quiroga puts it, before Law of Desire, he had not seen “a love dynamic between men treated in such a way that did not turn it simply into an allegory of its right to exist, but rather took that right as a given”. Responding to the director’s comments that the homosexuality of its main characters is a “purely incidental” issue, Quiroga notes that such positions should not be seen as a disavowal of homosexuality, but rather as the director’s desire to produce much broader social commentary.
To my mind, Almodóvar’s films after Women on the Verge are as emotionally vacuous as they are increasingly cinematically sophisticated. With some important exceptions here and there—The Flower of My Secret, Live Flesh (perhaps), Volver—Almodóvar’s films have become boutique, luxe, vaguely decadent super-Euro-art films designed to appeal to a mass middlebrow audience (this certainly includes the pretentious Bad Education and the astonishingly overrated Talk to Her, which would appear to liken its queer male character to the mentally handicapped). It is hard not to feel that with the jettisoning of his explicit queer, camp sensibility after Women on the Verge that Almodóvar relinquished a vital part of his talent as well. Quiroga doesn’t seem to be nearly as troubled by the forfeiture of queer content in Almodóvar as I am, remarking in the end that he has remained “always in awe at the way in which Almodóvar has been able to combine a profound comic sensibility with incredible risks in terms of screenplay and directing.” Unfortunately, that risk-taking, so vitally present in his early films, would soon seep out of his work. Quiroga reminds us importantly of just how vital that early work remains.
Noah Tsika’s treatment of Gods and Monsters heralds the start of a fine career in queer film studies. This entry in the series is at once the most exciting and frustrating of the three. With wit, erudition, and a palpable emotional investment, Tsika carefully explains what is significant, challenging, and interesting about Bill Condon’s 1998 film, set in 1957, about the last days of James Whale (played by Ian McKellan), the British director of the Universal Studios horror classics Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff indelible as the titular scientist’s Monster, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man, as well as a film not customarily discussed as his own project, the film adaptation of the musical Showboat. Based on Christopher Bram’s novel Father of Frankenstein, Condon’s film explores the fictional relationship between the old and increasingly debilitated Whale, who retired from Hollywood in the late 1930s, no longer lives with his lover, and is suffering from recurrent strokes, and Clay Boone (Brendan Fraser), a twenty-six year old ex-Marine and the Whale property’s gardener. Also in the cast, and the subject of a commendable analysis by Tsika, is Whale’s longstanding, long-suffering German maid, played memorably (both campily and movingly) by Lynn Redgrave, whose career Tsika makes startlingly relevant to the queer esthetic of the film. Evoking Redgrave’s struggles with her aloof, cold father Sir Michael Redgrave and her more famous sister Vanessa, as well as Redgrave’s early struggles with her weight and her physical transformations into a svelte knockout (once you’ve seen them, no one can forget Redgrave’s commercials for Weight Watchers, as she triumphantly announced “This is living!” while feasting on low-calorie foods), Tsika refashions her into a poignant queer icon whose spirit infuses the film.
Throughout the book, Tsika’s analysis is finely observed, alert to often seismic nuances. In his discussion of the many-layered scene in which Whale takes on Boone (who has agreed, not without a certain amount of trepidation, but with starstruck enthusiasm, to be the director’s portrait model—Whale designed the famous Frankenstein’s monster look)—to a party for a princess at George Cukor’s house, Tsika expertly alerts us to the numerous dynamics at work. Chief among these are the tension between the closeted gay man Cukor and the flamboyantly out Whale, as well as the tension between Whale and his closeted ex-lover, also at the party; the quiet solidarity between Whale and the figure of Elsa Lanchester, who played the Bride of Frankenstein so hypnotically; Whale’s relationship to Edmund Kay, an obsessed, stereotypically gay male fan who is actually the one responsible for inviting the reclusive Whale to the party; and, of course, Whale’s highly complicated relationship to Boone. Gods and Monsters is an accessible and appealing film, but Tsika shows you what a great film it is, too, ornately stylized and thematically rich.
Where Tsika errs, however, he errs quite dramatically, and I believe that it is worth explaining the severity of his error, not for his own argument’s sake, really, but for what it reveals about the limitations and biases of academic criticism, which in many ways Tsika’s book and this series as a whole promise to transcend. The one misstep in Tsika’s analysis is his discussion of race, which distorts, in my view, a great deal of what this film is trying to accomplish and to say.
Whale grew up in the English slums, a dreamy, artistically gifted boy who made his way to Hollywood. World War I came first, however. In some of the most poignant scenes in Condon’s film, memories of his experiences as an officer during the first Great War besiege the debilitated Whale’s mind, along with episodes from his glorious Hollywood heyday. Seeing the film again recently, what most struck me was its evocation of not only the ravages, but also the precious emotional intensity, of advancing age. Overwhelmed by his physical and mental pains though he is, Whale, as McKellen so exquisitely plays him, re-experiences past feelings with the sharpest keenness. Some of the feelings involve his love for a smiling, gentle upper-class soldier who seems to have hero-worshipped the young Whale and became his lover. The film offers a succinct commentary on war, comrade love, and the ways in which both can overturn and reorder class. But Tsika’s concern is with what he terms the “generic white handsomeness of Whale’s soldier lover.” Similarly, Tsika treats a youthful memory of a nighttime Hollywood pool party at Whale’s house as a “cabal” of white privilege. As the moonlit bodies of young white men swim in the deluxe pool that plays such a significant role in the film, one of the young men says, “Jimmy, watch me dive,” and the old, hallucinating Whale reaches out to his memory’s apparition with palpable longing and desire. The film evokes with superb finesse the blur between memory and tangible reality, a dream of youth and the reality of faltering old limbs. Tsika reduces this scene to the typical old academic story of white male privilege. (Rather hazily, Tsika claims that this critique stemmed from his adolescent self’s rebellion against a regime of cinematic whiteness). While his commentary on the losses involved in transforming the maid character played by Redgrave from a Hispanic into a kooky Teutonic woman makes an important point, Tsika seems to miss out more generally on the film’s quite complex class discourse, and the ways in which it intersects with memory and desire.
While this series moves us bracingly beyond the dark, tyrannous oppressiveness of Lacanian and Foucauldian queer theory, as exemplified by Lee Edelman’s and D. A. Miller’s work, respectively, Tsika nevertheless lapses into some familiar academic positions here. Overall, what seems to “save” Condon’s film for him is that it represents an authentically gay product, a fusion of gay artists’ sensibilities: Whale’s, Bram’s, Condon’s, McKellen’s, even gay icon Redgrave’s. One gets the feeling here that only gays can tell their own story, just as the “positive images” argument that undergirds ideological academic criticism holds that any representation of one group by another is almost always misleading and often quite pernicious. But while I love Gods and Monsters, I certainly wouldn’t say that it offers definitive proof that it takes a queer to represent one. The extraordinary and troubling power of Hitchcock films such as Rope, Strangers on a Train (a forthcoming Queer Film Classic), and Psycho; the plangency of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain; the queer allegories of melodramas such as Now, Voyager all attest to the diversity of queer representation.
Tsika, however, for the most part, insightfully grasps the accomplishment of Gods and Monsters’ accomplishment. The film is about the relationship between a gay man and a straight man, but also about the biases each brings to the relationship. Astutely assessing the contribution of Brendan Fraser’s performance to this film’s success, Tsika discusses the character of Boone in appealingly complex ways. “I am not your monster!” Boone climactically tells the maddened and suicidal Whale, who finally realizes the truth of Boone’s statement, and takes matters into his own hands instead. Tsika’s monograph, like the others discussed in this review, takes queer film studies to promising new vistas.
David Greven is Associate Professor of English at Connecticut College and the author of Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush (University of Texas Press, 2009).
To buy Trash by John Davies, click here.
To buy Law of Desire by José Quiroga, click here.
To buy Gods and Monsters by Noah Tskika, click here.
Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1