Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Doc Watch: The Celluloid Closet (1995)

Watched:  11/07/2021
Format:  TCM 
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1990's
Directors:  Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

This doc came out while I was in film school, and I remember it being suggested viewing, but I don't recall an actual theatrical release locally, and then I just never got to it.

As a cultural touchstone, this film feels like it needs a review by The Kids(tm).  It captures a moment in time, just before Gen-X would start driving the cultural conversation and the ending, cast as hope, now seems quaint in some ways and like a ship was missed in others.  But if nothing else, the film shows the realities of what things came before the mid-90's and - extrapolating to the modern era - how much has and hasn't changed in what is a relatively brief period.  

Loaded with interviews of celebrities, journalists and academics, The Celluloid Closet (1995) is able to say plenty from the people who were there and those who talk about their experience in the cinema - people grabbing at crumbs on screen in hints or coded parts of movies.  And there's no small amount of reflection of how film is not just a mirror of the world, but how it also informs and instructs.  And what all of that means when portrayals are negative or even dangerous.

The film tracks the portrayal of what would now be considered LGBQT+ characters in cinema, from the silent era to the 90's.  There's an anthropological stance - simply looking and being surprised at what appears as portrayals of both actual queer characters and the shared mocking portrayal of "swishy-ness" that movie-makers had to assume would be widely understood by mass audiences in the silent era.  

Archetypes are explored, from the sissy* to the erasure of the 1950's to the weird pivot to dangerous maniac in the 1970's and 80's - a take I found baffling when I learned of it in college and continue to find just plain strange. Of course there's plenty to say about the Hayes Code/ Breen Office and the impact and need to begin working in code on film, let alone what studio execs decided was and was not profitable or met their particular interest.   And, in the years prior to the doc, the slow trickle of films coming out that acknowledged LGBQT+ characters with varying degrees of success, and the frustrating continuation of erasure in mainstream Hollywood film (see: Fried Green Tomatoes).  

There's a quick glance off the pre-code era and what helped drive some of establishment of the Hayes Code as decency leagues took umbrage at the studios, but you couldn't spend the whole doc taking a look at what was in mainstream film in the 1930's without losing the plot.  And there's investigation of how Hollywood portrayed queer characters as deviant and frequently doomed.

As a product of the late 80's through the early 1990's, the doc can't know that by 2021 what would and would not be legal, what would change on TV and movie screens and how the cultural conversations.  What is seen as a glimmer of what's possible has been moved forward in many respects through inclusion and diversity in media.  What does feel like it's taken a step back or sideways is that I'm not sure how much entirely LGBQT+ media there is out there.  I legitimately do not know.  But I don't see trailers for movies entirely about the topic as often as one would think.  Moonlight and Portrait of a Lady on Fire leap to mind.  Not a ton else - but that may be an artifact of algorithms pushing robots and Avengers at me.  

In short - I'd like to see a Part II.  This is a seminal doc of the era, and looking at 30 years of time since is well worth consideration.  The doc arrived at a pivotal moment, and may have done more to impact thinking on the complex issues discussed than we really know.  But the 1990's did see a broadening of perspectives as Gen-X grappled with how to deal with homophobia and what things could be like.

But, yeah, this doc is an excellent way to sit The Kids(tm) down and say:  hey, this was where we were in the mid-90's.  Here is the context people are working from.  This is what has occurred since.  This is what the situation and struggle was for people in the industry and people watching those films.  And, understand, we're on a continuum where some things never change but how we represent those things can. 

*this has nothing to do with the film, but I had no idea "sissy" had sexual connotations until during or maybe after college.  We always used it as interchangeable with "wimp" or "cowardly".  You live, you learn.  

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