Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Documentary Puts Modern Gay Cinema in Context

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday July 07, 2006

Last month’s San Francisco International Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival screened more than 250 films, an overwhelming bounty featuring a wide array of topics and genres, from documentaries about adoption and AIDS to narratives about love, loss and life. Nearly every facet of sexual and gender politics was explored in a month’s worth of presentations. 

It wasn’t always this way of course. The growth of the festival, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, reflects mainstream America’s gradual awakening to the realities of gay life, a process reflected in film since the medium’s origins at the turn of the last century. 

Granted this is the Bay Area, and there are few, if any, communities more open to gays. But the success of the festival, paired with the success of last year’s Brokeback Mountain, provide an opportunity to take a look at how far the movies have come, and a great place to start is the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet. 

The Celluloid Closet (1995) is based on the book of the same title by Vito Russo. However, the book, like many books on the history of film, can be tough going if you haven’t seen the hundreds of films discussed; brief descriptions never quite do a scene justice. The documentary version then is a good place to start, with the book as a companion piece, providing in-depth discussion of topics and films of particular interest.  

The earliest celluloid image featured in the film is Dickson Experimental Sound Film, an 1895 production by W. L. Dickson, an employee of Thomas Edison and one of the seminal figures in the history of the medium. In his attempt to meld music and pictures to create the first sound film, Dickson played violin while two assistants danced to the music, thereby making it easier to later synchronize sound and image by timing the music to the movements of the dancers. 

The film is erroneously identified in Russo’s book as The Gay Brothers when in reality the film had nothing at all to do with homosexuality, and in fact was not even a commercial release; it was a simple in-house experiment, never intended for public consumption. But the film provides a compelling metaphoric image for the documentary as it becomes a sort of gentle and ghostly refrain, with two men dancing blissfully to a song played just for them—a private performance in a dreamlike environment, just dancers and musician against a black backdrop, a moment captured forever but never meant to see the light of day. 

From there the documentary moves chronologically through the 20th century, tracking the depictions of gays from the silent era through the early ’90s. The earliest images in silent film were stereotypes of the fairy, the effeminate gay man, usually employed merely for comic relief. 

But as the medium matured the depictions of gays likewise matured, with both men and women openly showing affection for members of the same sex, portrayals that were often sensitive and meaningful. Stereotypes still abounded of course, especially in the comedies, but as film came into its own as an art form, reaching a creative peak in the mid to late ’20s, so too did its depiction of homosexuality, be it in the compassionate and loving exchanges between two World War I pilots in Wings (1927) or in Marlene Dietrich’s seductive performance in top hot and tails in Morocco (1930). 

The sound era arrived in 1929, and a few years later the Production Code came into effect, clamping down on material deemed immoral, including depictions of homosexuality. But gays did not vanish from Hollywood; they simply went underground.  

This era of repression gave rise to a series of stunted versions of homosexuals in the movies. The first was the sissy, dandified and limp-wristed, usually featured as a foil for the leading man, reinforcing the masculinity of the hero. And then things took an even darker turn as gays began to be represented by creepcases, by strange, perverse figures, menacing in tone but ultimately proven impotent and harmless. 

The Maltese Falcon (1941) provides an excellent example, with Peter Lorre as the sleepy-voiced Joel Cairo, who enters the office of Humphrey Bogart’s Detective Sam Spade and promptly begins suggestively fondling his walking stick. Later Cairo’s threats are ridiculed by Spade, who easily overpowers the smaller man and slaps him around, leading to one of Bogart’s most famous lines: “You’ll take it and like it!” 

The stifled celluloid homosexual had emerged as a grotesque, as a twisted, two-dimensional caricature. But this was just the beginning.  

Later incarnations became increasingly absurd. For years they were portrayed as self-destructive, suicidal figures, often with the implication that their grisly fates were well deserved. And this in turn gave rise to the gay as aggressor, with any number of films depicting homicidal gay men and vampire lesbians, dangerous derelicts luring wholesome heteros to their deaths, Basic Instinct providing perhaps the most well-known recent example along these lines. 

The Celluloid Closet closes on an optimistic note with Philadelphia (1993), starring Tom Hanks as a man dying of AIDS. However, this was really just a gentle nudge for the mainstream audience, as the filmmakers declined to depict a physical relationship between the Hanks character and his lover, the rationale being that such graphic content would hinder the effort to preach beyond the choir. 

Last year’s Brokeback Mountain can then be seen as the next step in a long and ongoing process, having reintroduced sympathetic, humanistic gay love to mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. But it also contains traces of the influence of the repression of the early 1930s, for the process that stunted the gay character and transformed him from a simple human being to, by turns, a grotesque, a coward, a suicide and a psychopath, has pushed him toward overcompensation, rendering him now as that most masculine and macho of Hollywood archetypes, the cowboy.  

Sure, the movies have come a long way, but they’ve still got a ways to go.