photo & text by nacrowe
i read film historian VITO RUSSO's THE CELLULOID CLOSET: HOMOSEXUALITY IN THE MOVIES (HARPER & ROW, 1981) while still in undergrad in the early 2000s. its themes regarding IDENTITY and REPRESENTATION in the media very much resonated with me at the time.
i should backtrack and say that a running thread throughout much of my academic career as an ENGLISH major devouring literature and film was the relationship between the author/auteur and the audience. the read/viewer completes a loop set out by a creator whereby SIGNALS are interpreted and assigned VALUE. part of the interesting thing about interpreting art in a college setting is how diverse audiences divine diverse meanings. i knew this phenomena implicitly from my time growing up abroad, but my college and graduate experience, as well as my years as a teacher abroad only further cemented such. with THE CELLULOID CLOSET i was presented with meanings regarding MEDIA REPRESENTATION in film culture culled from a segment of society i was not familiar with at the time: the GAY community.
it still blows my mind how much subtext i missed from the likes of HOWARD HAWKS, DEREK JARMAN, NICHOLAS RAY, GREGG ARAKI, JAMES WHALE, BILLY WILDER, JOHN HUSTON and STANLEY KUBRICK among many others. there was definitely a CODED LANGUAGE regarding MANNERISM, DIALECT and general AFFECTATION that went way past me at the time. what was also lost on me was the unfortunate longstanding history of depicting HOMOSEXUAL men as effeminate self-hating sissies who were undeserving of affection, loyalty or respect. this was in part a cruel legacy of the PRODUCTION CODE of the 1930s that was initiated to "ensure" a level of MORALITY in entertainment, but like any standard bearer of NORMATIVE CULTURE, only served the hegemonic interests of an AMERICAN body politic that despised all that threatened the status quo. thus HOMOSEXUALS were brutally depicted along with ethnic minorities, women and all elements of "foreign" cultures.
the fact that some were able to utilize CODED LANGAGE and IMAGES to bypass the censors and address the experiences of a minority audience in a mainstream film is super fascinating to me. VITO's book is basically a catalogue of examples that showcase the evolution of HOMOSEXUAL depictions in film over time.
in a post-MARRIAGE EQUALITY AMERICA, this conversation may appear quaint, but this is the type of book that really makes you consider how far we have come as a culture in the past century and why it is so utterly disappointing and beyond depraved that there are current elements in our society that want to take us back to this closeted time. THE CELLULOID CLOSET and the documentary that shares its name should be required reading/viewing because it provides evidence about how ostracizing and traumatizing any segment of society effectively degrades us all. as a society we should be more aware of how the AMERICAN experience is lived by all elements of society, not just the CAUCASIAN perspective. this book helps introduce such a unique perspective in a novel way.
i could not recommend it with more enthusiasm. it is desperately needed in our current cultural and political moment.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
i always find it interesting how as a child you are able to identify quality in the art you are taken by without regard for things like context. as a pre-teen having just arrived in NIGERIA, i saw NICHOLAS RAY's iconic REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (WARNER BROS, 1955) and, like everyone else for several generations, was immediately hooked on JAMES DEAN and his emotional performance as a troubled young person attempting to find his way in a hostile new environment.
it felt like my situation. in the world of REBEL the locale was SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA hooliganism with knives, fast cars and macho posturing. for me it was living on a remote compound surrounded by the racist redneck offspring of TEXAS and LOUISIANA oilmen where the weapons were words and micro-aggressions against our AFRICAN hosts. it was hard to deal with.
after watching REBEL i quickly sought out ELIA KAZAN's cinemascope epic retelling of JOHN STEINBECK's CAIN and ABEL-inspired EAST OF EDEN (WARNER BROS, 1955) which similarly found DEAN's character a trouble miscreant in search of identity. the film finds his character seeking out his mother, the owner of a gambling-and-lord-knows-what-else establishment on the wrong side of town, who is the polar opposite of his preaching, holier-than-thou father, only to be rejected.
what i found compelling about the work of DEAN, then and now was his ability to capture the emotional integrity of a scene. in true METHOD ACTING fashion his acting was more about being, it was more about reacting. i appreciate tons of other actors that have followed his lead over the years including JOHNNY DEPP, DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, SEAN PENN, EDWARD NORTON, JOAQUIN PHEONIX and DENNIS HOPPER as well as his peers like MARLON BRANDO and MONTGOMERY CLIFT. what separates those two perfect touchstone performances was his intensity.
because of that he has been my favorite actor since childhood.