I imagine editing a book series is somewhat akin to curating an art show or even a film retrospective: in all three cases the curators/editors need to present works tied together with a thematic thread. For the Queer Film Classics, a series edited by Thomas Waugh and Matthew Hays for Arsenal Pulp Press, it would seem the adjective “queer” is what provides that thread, and thus, presents us with a hodge-podge of titles. And there is nothing wrong with a hodge-podge, for as Waugh and Jason Garrison, in their monograph on one of the titles in the series, Montreal Main (Frank Vitale, 1974), point out “queer” is exactly that. Citing Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s description of “queer” as an “open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” they seem to be providing at least a partial curatorial explanation for the series (Waugh and Garrison, p. 147). In such a vast conceptual and experiential landscape “queer” escapes any kind of direct definition, and the term opens itself up to almost anything as long as it’s counter-heteronormative. In fact the reappropriation of the term “queer” was a move on the part of radicals who saw “gay” and “lesbian” as too normative. And so, if “queer” presents us with ideas that almost always elude the notions of category and standard, how do we deal with the fact that such a standard is ultimately prescribed by the other key word in the title of the series: “classic”? As such, the series’ title is a contradiction in terms. As if anticipating these very concerns, Waugh and Garrison offer us a hint in their use of the definition of the word from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, where a classic work is one that has been “judged over a period of time to be of highest quality… a work of art of recognized and established value” (Waugh and Garrison, p. 247).
Looking at some of the titles in the series I cannot help but wonder how they fit this rather contradictory, though very appealing term “queer classic”. For if a “classic” is to be judged over time how can we apply it to a film like C.R.A.Z.Y (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2005), a movie that is only seven years old. And then what about “queer”, which here is applied to films like Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). Both films are confirmed cinematic classics (the books in this series devoted to them appearing in 2011 and 2012, respectively), though I struggle to see them as queer. The series’ choices so far lead to my own personal lament, one betraying my own cinematic (dare I say ideological) preferences: “Where are Lizzie Borden, Derek Jarman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Rosa von Praunheim or Barbara Hammer?” The LGBTQ community has always been invested in documenting itself and its own experience where film functions as a means of discovering and asserting an identity and politics. As Susan Knabe and Wendy Gay Pearson point out in their monograph on John Greyson’s Zero Patience (1993), queer cinema, in particular during the AIDS crisis, is characterised by a sense of urgency to document itself and create an archive (Knabe and Pearson, p. 150). I would argue that in terms of queer history it is a film’s timeliness (through experimentation with style, novelty of themes, technology, etc.) as opposed to timelessness that makes it valuable, and thus, a classic document for the generations that follow.
Luckily for me the three monographs reviewed in this article are not only on films I consider important to my own personal gay history, but ones which fit quite neatly into the broad umbrella of Hays and Waugh’s Queer Film Classic series. Each film is a labour of love and dedication on the part of its creators, a document of a particular time, a stylistically innovative approach to ideas and urgencies of the culture from which it emerged. Straddling the vast spectrum of Sedgwick’s definition of “queer” they fully inscribe themselves into Waugh and Garrison’s notion of the “classic”, providing fascinating visual histories of the struggles of a community constantly under ideological attack.
As Greg Youmans explains, Word is Out (The Mariposa Film Group, 1978) is the most important documentary regarding the visibility of gay and lesbian people produced up to the date of its release. Four years in the making, the film runs an impressive 132 minutes and attempts a portrait of gay and lesbian communities based on a series of talking head style interviews and reflections. Watching the film over 30 years after its initial run I was struck by its intimacy and the importance of the personal narratives it presents for queer history. In a genius move, Youmans divides his discussion of the film along the lines of the alphabet, where each letter stands to represent a particular analytical thread. As such, we begin with “A is for Anita” (a discussion which takes us back in time to the era of Anita Bryant and her conservative crusades). We then hang around for “G is for Gearhart” and “H is for Hay” (two warm, short and informative portraits of those who came before us), and end with “Z is for Zoom” (an analysis of a cinematic technique that functions within the film to ultimately render gays and lesbians the same as everyone else). “L is for Liberal” is a particularly valuable discussion of how this now washed-out term stems from a political philosophy, which while affording rights to one group denies them to another. More contemporary discussions of liberalism and universality allow us to reflect on how these concepts enable those at the margins to imagine themselves as universal subjects and make political demands. In fact, the film is an actualisation of this particular thought. Youmans ends this chapter by reminding us that whichever the approach, liberalism fundamentally shapes how lesbians and gay men understand themselves. Of course, this observation relates only to people who live within liberal democracies, but to imagine oneself as gay or lesbian in another context is a different problem in and of itself.
Seeing as at the heart of the film lies an ideological effort to portray gays and lesbians as “regular folk”, the filmmakers choose to ignore some of the pertinent issues of the era such as assimilation, radicalism, and sexual and political differences between gays and lesbians. In his own words, Youmans’ structure allows him to “avoid reducing everything to one argument or to one political critique” where he “could let the sections speak dialectically with each other, and maybe open the book up to differently charted courses through the material” (Youmans, p. 29). As such, Youmans’ monograph is a work that is filled with richness and contradiction, elements that fill our daily lives.
Probably one of the lesser-known films in the series, Montreal Main offers us a glimpse into a narrative that has either been abandoned or simply reconfigured to fit the narrow-minded perspectives on intergenerational relationships dictated by the current atmosphere of moral panic. As Waugh and Garrison proclaim, “We recover Montreal Main as an error of the nascent LGBTQ movement, a genomic sequence too mutagenic for the clique that runs GLAAD, a palette of possibilities too far ranging for a community held secure behind the rainbow gates of ‘between consenting adults’” (Waugh and Garrison, p. 136). Innovative and experimental (the film openly plays with the notions of fiction and the lived experience of its creators as it records moments in the lives of English-speaking, bohemian, queer Montreal residents), Montreal Main holds at its heart a story of a relationship between 12-year-old Johnny and 25-year-old Frank. In chapter four (spanning an impressive 110 pages – almost two-thirds of the length of the other monographs) the duo successfully recover the film (through an in-depth, historically minded discussion of the sexual politics of the era) and bring it back into the vast fold of Kosofsky’s conception of “queer”. Citing labels from Kosofsky’s list of “queer”, Waugh and Garrison put to task the queer theoretical corps that chose not to engage with such delicate politics. The call is fierce and loud and puts to shame those whose work it is to unpack social conventions and open avenues for dialogue. Yet, the authors don’t leave the task of reflecting on the multi-faceted nature of intergenerational relationships only to the academics; in a delicate yet explicit manner they implicate us when they ask: “How many of us as youths had an adult friend like Frank who never crossed the line?” (Waugh and Garrison, p. 191). While the question seems to imply that the audience for this particular monograph is strictly male, it did make me think back to my own adolescence, a desire for attention from adult males who were not related to me and the shame associated with it. As they navigate the cinematic landscape of films devoted to intergenerational relationships, Waugh and Garrison attempt not only to place Montreal Main within a family of such works but to also provide a forum for a discussion free of the moral panic and abuse narratives which surround the topic these days. It is not easy to write about a topic that has been de rigour on daily talk shows, investigative reports and the news while staying clear of the abuse tropes that are always associated with such stories. In their historical discussion Waugh and Garrison present us with a time when more was possible in terms of human relationships, when relationships between adults and young people were not always vilified (as hard as it is to imagine today). Montreal Main is a document of such a time.
I first saw John Greyson’s musical about AIDS, Zero Patience, on Canadian TV on 1 December (International AIDS Day) two years after its release. Still in high school, not out but clearly curious, I wasn’t exactly sure of what I was watching, but I was riveted: the bodies, the songs, the camera angles, the clear anger and urgency, and, of course, the two very attractive male leads made my head spin. Since that memorable first encounter, I’ve seen the film a few more times each time walking away with more understanding and appreciation. For those very personal reasons I find Knabe and Pearson’s monograph a welcome companion to my now 17 year affair with the film. In its contextualisation of the AIDS crisis the book presents us with information that may have been common/lived knowledge to some, especially those who were participating members of the gay and lesbian community, but was unknown to others, others like me who was ignorantly living out his adolescence in immigrant Canadian suburbia. As Knabe and Pearson explain the aesthetic influences behind the film’s dazzling visuals (the Busby Berkeley/Esther Williams choreography) and the politics (unpacking of the mainstream media anti-sex, homophobic rhetoric surrounding the disease which was claiming more and more lives) motivating its production they present us with a portrait of Greyson as a Canadian auteur. While arguing against a comparison to Jean-Luc Godard (a comparison Greyson himself eschews) they enumerate the trademark Greyson characteristics – meta-narrative, use of pseudo-documentary or documentary within documentary, faux authoritative narrators, singing interludes, reference to music-video, the movie musical genre and/or opera, technical experimentation, and involvement with the community being documented. More importantly Knabe and Pearson posit him within the larger picture of Canadian national film history alongside Claude Jutra and Norman McLaren, who in Thomas Waugh’s poignant and striking words are “the founding queens of our national cinemas” (Waugh in Knabe and Pearson, p. 75).
Greyson’s work has always been characterised by a multilayered, polysemous, postmodernist approach engaged with academic work (history and queer theory), and the two writers unpack his loaded images, linking Zero Patience to other theoretical frameworks. As such, they use Jacques Derrida’s description of AIDS as a destinérrance – a pun simultaneously referring to one’s inability to get to where one is going and the likelihood of arriving at the wrong place (where AIDS functions exactly this way for the LGBT community). Writing,
in addition to disrupting or truncating people’s lives, it also disrupted what appeared like a difficult, but reasonably direct path, toward LGBT rights and sexual liberation. It also meant we arrived at a different destination… one marked by assimilationist politics, anti-sex rhetoric, and an obsession with monogamy and marriage (Knabe and Pearson, p. 100), they put into perspective the ever-lasting effects of AIDS.
Queer Film Classics
A monograph on a film is a product of a very intimate relationship between the writer and the text. As a particular mode of writing a monograph affords its authors space and time not only to fully contextualise the text they are writing about but also to engage with the many themes and ideas of the chosen film. All three monographs discussed here do a great job of recreating the particular time and political atmosphere in which they were created. As a historian (and someone who is too young to either have been there or to fully understand what exactly was happening) I took full pleasure in reading comments made by the films’ creators. In a shrewd move to counter Barthes’ famous pronouncement of the “death of the author”, the authors allow the films’ creators to speak for themselves, and thus, give voice to the community from which they have emerged. Reading about Montreal (a city I call home at this particular moment) almost 40 years ago was as informative as reading about the highly contested events that surrounded the production of Word is Out, or the very urgent need for a clear and blame-free discussion of AIDS motivating Zero Patience.
Yet, such monographs can also suffer from the lack of an adequate critical relationship to their subject. In a chapter dedicated to Harry Hay (the forefather of gay activism), Youmans points to the film’s lack of engagement with Hay’s contradictory politics. In fact, he cites extracts from Nancy Adair’s interview with Hay (included in the book of Word is Out) which clearly highlight the activist’s ideas about difference between the concept of gays, homosexuals and heterosexuals. And while Youmans points out the difference in the treatment of Sally Gearhart and Hay he never takes the filmmakers to task over this discrepancy. His quotation of Peter Adair’s interview with Vito Russo, “the film would never take an overt, political, rhetorical stance”, only partially explains the film’s reluctance to deal with the politics of the LGBT community at the time.
While Waugh and Garrison do a fantastic job of deploying extra-textual materials (such as the video pre-shoot), a feeling lingers in me that they regret that the filmmakers did not take the final version of the film as far as the preliminary video shoot suggested. However, there is something to be said about this self-censorship on the part of the film’s creators, something which the authors of the monograph do not deal with explicitly. The filmmakers’ decision to cut some of the racy dialogue has as much to do with the kind of funding they were receiving as with the social atmosphere at the time. So the question remains: Why not include an artist’s explanation for the decision? What is the implication of such self-censorship? It seems quite possible that in all the dialogue about sexual freedom and liberation that Waugh and Garrison write about there were still serious anxieties about such relationships.
The biggest omission across these monographs, however, is in Knabe and Pearson’s discussion of Greyson’s accessibility. Greyson’s work has been critiqued as elitist, literally available only to those fluent in the langue of queer theory and history. Zero Patience clearly exploits those fields to a fantastic degree. As the writers point out the film is dialogic and polyvalent, opening up various streams of understanding and instructions. Yet, while the authors unpack those elements of the film in their monograph, they do not mention the gazette, which was handed out at the initial screenings of the film. In a funny, tabloid-style manner, the gazette attempts to explain the multi-faceted nature of the film – the kind of notions and historical ideas it draws on and counteracts. It makes the film more accessible to audience members who, while not entrenched in queer theory, live out their lives in terms the film talks about.
In the same essay cited by Waugh and Garrison to implicate the queer theoretical community in abandoning intergenerational relationships, Kosofsky Sedgwick writes:
I think many adults (and I am among them) are trying, in our work, to keep faith with vividly remembered promises made to ourselves in childhood: promises to make invisible possibilities and desires visible; to make tacit explicit; to smuggle queer representation in where it must be smuggled and, with the relative freedom of adulthood, to challenge queer eradicating impulses frontally where they are to be so challenged. (1)
With the Queer Film Classic series Waugh and Hays are doing just that, except they do not “smuggle queer representations in” but loudly place them alongside other such ventures (here I’m of course referring to the BFI’s Film Classic series), adding not only to popular culture but also to the ever expanding field of queer film studies.
Greg Youmans, Word is Out, Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2011.
Thomas Waugh and Jason Garrison, Montreal Main, Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2010.
Susan Knabe and Wendy Gay Pearson, Zero Patience, Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2012.