The Celluloid Closet

Coming_out_of_the_closetIt is an old documentary (from 1995), but one I only got around to watching last night.  The Celluloid Closet is worth watching, if you can put aside just how seriously it takes itself, and just enjoy the delightful old movie clips it incorporates.  Oh yeah, it had apparently been a book too, but who reads those (and in this case, film genuinely seems more relevant since it can include illustrative clips).  The basic point of the film is more-or-less what you expect, even if you have not seen it: The Hayes Code, along with general homophobia, of course, censored the comparatively explicit representations of homosexuality in early film.  Homosexuals became marked only by coded language and innuendo, but in such a way that those “in the know” knew what Hollywood films were really about.

I would have liked some more depth to it.  It wasn’t only homosexuality that was censored by Hollywood, and it’s not clear that that particular anxiety was the primary one governing the anti-communist, misogynous, racist, xenophobic, imperialist, and puritanical decades of the 1940s and 50s.  A lot of other matters of interest to writers and viewers were equally only mentioned indirectly and in whispers.  OK, so it is just a documentary for HBO, and it hardly needs address the entire political landscape of America through several decades.  But maybe just a little less of the “woe be upon us queers in Hollywood” in the tone would be desirable.  Yes, they are right on the facts, but a bit greater nuance would be nice.

The real flaw of the documentary is precisely that it was made by too damn many Hollywood folks.  What kills it (to the extent it is less good than it should be) is that it tugs at all the same formal cliches that American cinema in general so vacuously engages in.  Music swells to tell us how we should feel about a clip or interview comment we just saw.  Montage skillfully associates the image fragments that we are meant to keep together in our minds.  Even in the direct narration, altogether too many different films are lauded as “the first ever to…” in this sensationalistic tone of bad journalism and breathless advocacy.

I might be happy to settle for so little work in documentary if it were not for the fact that I have also recently watched Slavoj Žižek‘s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.  I know this is a high bar to set for documentary, and ways of talking about film with intelligence.  Still, it turns out that such is possible.  Moreover, it is possible to do it within a documentary that utilizes and comments on clips of familiar historical films.  The prerequisite, it appears, is that one must make such intelligent films in Ljubljana, not in Hollywood.

4 thoughts on “The Celluloid Closet”

  1. The book, The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo, (who died of AIDS in ’90 and so was not involved in the film version) was groundbreaking when it came out in the early 1980s, before AIDS was even known. In other words, it was a book first, not “a book too.”

    I remember the sensation it caused in the gay community when it was published. My own reaction was, “Finally someone is talking about this!”

    NOTHING like it had ever been written before. Yes, it seems like a product of a different era because it is (especially the tone of the film, which is victim-y, I know–). But back then, people didn’t talk about how gays and lesbians were depicted in culture and how it shaped our image in our own eyes as well as others. (Post-Hayes it usually never was good and THAT needed to be acknowledged.) Russo changed all of this; and you can draw lines connecting his seminal work to everything from gender/gay studies courses in academia to what was on LOGO last night.

    That it took so long, until ’95, to actually produce a film version should be an indication of where we were as a culture when it came to the subject matter. And ironically, Lu, that you think it’s barely relevant is an indication of the success of Vito’s mission.

    Or to put it another way: OMG this was like so totally before Will & Grace :(

  2. Russo’s book in 1981 was definitely in advance of most of Queer Theory. I’m not sure why that was a gap in my reading… back when I could actually read books still (after my doctorate in this stuff, my brain seemed to rot away). By the early 1990s, I was pretty well steeped in the field, giving papers at what was then called the “National Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference” and the like, reading Teresa de Lauretis and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and friends (more for the feminist direction than queer, though there’s large overlap). I am quite confident that the filmmaking cliches of the documentary would have grated on me equally if I had HBO in 1995.

    My comment wasn’t about the relevance of the documentary or its topic. I know things have changed, mostly for the better, since 1995. Rather, it was about the unconscious inability of its makers to avoid schmaltz and cliche in the formal technique of composition. It’s about the soundtrack! (a pitfall which the book most certainly did not suffer).

  3. I just looked at Wikipedia and had my memory jogged about how The Celluloid Closet started as a lecture Vito Russo would present with film clips. I remember hearing about these back in the day but unfortunately I never went to one of them, even though we had friends in common and I actually got to meet him.

    Also, I found come CC clips on youtube, compelling me to add it to my Netflix list. Thanks for reminding me of it. I’m curious to see what my reaction to it is after all these years.

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