It 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.