Happy Thursday everyone!
To start off our trip into Reelout’s library, I thought it would be a good idea to open with something pretty general. Enter The Celluloid Closet. Based on Vito Russo’s book of the same name, Rob Epstein and Jeff Friedman’s documentary is a comprehensive history of queer cinema, from the early 20th century to the present. Besides being a chronology of, and tribute to, queer film though, it is also an exploration of how film has changed over time, and how it, in turn, is a reflection of the changes occurring in contemporary society (or sometimes itself a catalyst of that change).
The movie is a glorious cornucopia of all that is wonderful about Hollywood, managing to somehow be hilarious, bizarre, touching, and thought provoking, all at once. Interviews with stars such as Tom Hanks and Whoopi Goldberg break up a colourful stream of film clips: Marilyn Monroe is there, flouncing around, while Charleton Heston stews, Audrey Hepburn weeps, and Antonio Banderas bursts into righteous Spanish flame.
Epstein and Friedman do queer cinema full chronological justice, with an exhaustive list of every truly notable feature film of the last century, and there isn’t really a topic that the two-ish hours of footage misses. One thing discussed in detail is how the representation of LGBT characters has changed as time has passed (from the effeminate “sissy” played for laughs in the 30’s, to the terrifying homosexual villain of the 80’s), as are audience reactions to the queer media being presented to them. Another interesting topic that the film tackles is how other social issues and questions of identity have factored into how different sexual orientations have historically been viewed. For example, Western audiences are much more comfortable with lesbian affection and intimacy than any sort of tenderness between men, (as masculinity is traditionally understood to mean that you “don’t feel”), and it was far more acceptable in the 70’s and 80’s for an African American to be portrayed as gay or transgender than someone Caucasian.
The movie also documents the struggles of queer art against the strict censorship that so often ruled American theatres, and shows the sly, subversive ways that directors, writers, and actors would manage to sneak in a gay in-joke, or subplot, acting as a kind of historical “Enquirer” (apparently Antoninus had a little bit of a thing thang for Ben Hur. Who knew?)
What truly took this movie above the level of a simple documentary for me though, was the fact that it took the time to ask, why does it matter? Yes, there’s an admitted lack of queer media in the world, and yes there has been resistance to its evolution thus far, but what are the ramifications of this? Susie Bright claims that, “if you’re a gay audience and you’re accustomed to crumbs…you will watch an entire movie just to see somebody wear an outfit that you think means that they are homosexual. The whole movie can be a dud, but you’re just sitting there waiting for John Crawford to put on her black cowboy shirt again.”
Why this desperation? This is the question that propels Celluloid Closet. The human need to see oneself represented in art exists, regardless of race, regardless of background, and regardless of sexual orientation. Art is a way of not being alone. Hollywood for nearly a century now, has been the keeper of the American dream: has been both the guidebook and the narrator of Western existence. Film is no longer just entertainment; it is a living testament to the dreams, struggles, successes and failures of mankind. Being excluded from that world is like being made invisible. Being censored is being silenced. Celluloid Closet weaves through a century of film, tracks down the whisper of that suppressed voice, and hands it a microphone.