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“An Early Clue to the New Direction: Queer Cinema Before Stonewall”

Alfred Hitchcock, Rope, 1948, 35 mm, color, sound, 80 minutes. David Kentley (Dick Hogan).

This month, the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York presents “An Early Clue to the New Direction: Queer Cinema Before Stonewall” (April 22–May 1), organized by the FSLC’s newly appointed programmer at large, THOMAS BEARD. In anticipation of this comprehensive survey, Artforum invited art historian and critic DOUGLAS CRIMP to speak with Beard about the series’ revisionist take on queer cinema before the gay liberation movement.

DOUGLAS CRIMP: You talked to me about the “Queer Cinema Before Stonewall” series well before your recent appointment as programmer at large for the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It’s a wonderfully queer idea, what you’re doing, mixing mainstream Hollywood with independent cinema. To understand queer cinema you have to do that. Queer underground filmmakers were obsessed with Hollywood.

THOMAS BEARD: Absolutely. I think that the only way to organize a series like this is to operate with an elastic definition of the subject. Because, of course, even the phrase “queer cinema” is a willful anachronism when used to describe the period before gay liberation.

DC: It’s interesting that you say “before gay liberation” rather than “before Stonewall.”

TB: The use of Stonewall as a fulcrum is, on some level, arbitrary here. Obviously, there are many other crucial episodes in the history of gay and trans liberation that predate Stonewall—like the Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco in 1966. But the efflorescence of gay cinema that one finds in the 1970s, and which continues through the present day, definitely made that moment in the summer of 1969 a reasonable endpoint for the series.

DC: Stonewall is such a convention at this point that we can’t not use it. At the same time, every time we use it, we reinforce the convention. Many historians are working to complicate the myth of Stonewall as an absolute divide between the notion of queer-as-abject before Stonewall and gay-is-good after Stonewall. That’s something I imagine you want to do too.

When, for you, does gay film start—films that we recognize as “gay” rather than “queer”? Who do you think of as the immediate post-Stonewall gay filmmakers?

TB: Well, in the German New Wave alone you have Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ulrike Ottinger, Rosa von Praunheim, and Werner Schroeter. But I think there’s also a continuity. Consider James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus, which began production years before Stonewall but was only released shortly after it [in 1971], or for that matter a filmmaker like Curt McDowell, whose first films in the ’70s are very much related to the earlier stylings of George Kuchar. The political event of Stonewall does not in and of itself signal a new kind of filmmaking, but it is followed by, say, The Boys in the Band [1970].

DC: Although Boys in the Band is a pre-Stonewall stage play.

TB: True. But although the divide isn’t clear-cut, the ’70s are still legible to me as a distinct moment: the era of Dyketactics [1974], of Je tu il elle [1976], of Nighthawks [1978]. However, hinging on Stonewall means we’re also thinking of a very Western idea of what constitutes gay liberation. That’s something else that’s been on my mind as I’ve organized the series.

DC: Last night I was talking to my friend Henry Abelove, who’s working on a book on gay liberation, and he remarked that a better divide, perhaps, is that between gay liberation and the gay rights movement, which helps to consolidate a gay identity. By 1977, you have a gay rights document like Nancy and Peter Adair’s Word Is Out, which could not have been made before Stonewall. Although certain earlier films you’re showing, such as Victim [1961] and the Weimar-era Different from the Others [1919], might be understood as homosexual rights films. They made the case for changing the laws against homosexuality.

TB: Victim is certainly a message film—a supremely artful one at that. And it would seem to have been politically successful, since sodomy laws in Britain were repealed later that decade. As it happens, Different from the Others has just been preserved by Outfest and UCLA, so we’re aiming to present the new restoration as a special screening this summer, as a kind of coda to the series.

DC: You came of age at a time when gay cinema was firmly established. Tell me something about your interest in this earlier history.

TB: Though I came of age after the arrival of the New Queer Cinema, like you I also had something of a provincial upbringing—in my case, in small-town South Carolina. I vividly remember seeing, quite by accident, the film version of The Celluloid Closet [1995], narrated by Lily Tomlin, on TV. I was by myself in the living room, and I sort of looked around—you know, to make sure this was real, that a topic was being discussed so plainly on the screen that, at the time, I couldn’t even speak of.

DC: You were a film-buff kid?

TB: I was. I was a teen cinephile. My access was very limited. It was basically the public library and a tiny art-house cinema in Columbia, the big city. So The Celluloid Closet was a revelation, and there was this frisson—this tremendous rush of excitement—simply from watching these images at all, but I also remember being a little depressed by what I saw. A tree falling on Sandy Dennis and things of that nature.

I watched Hitchcock’s Rope [1948], one of the films featured in the Lincoln Center show, after that. I’d never seen a movie so drenched in innuendo. Rope fascinated me, not just because there was the suggestion of homosexuality, but because, being based on the Leopold and Loeb case, it was also a movie about the triumph of desire over moral intelligence. That was a lot to take in as a teenager!

And then, when I went to college, my view onto film culture expanded dramatically. Being a gay teenager, I remember feeling this hunger to belong. I wanted to locate a political history that felt invisible to me. Watching things like Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks [1947] and Warhol films, and discovering the somewhat-neglected critic Parker Tyler only fed that hunger. I went on to read other influential studies of the history of gay and lesbian cinema, by Richard Dyer and Vito Russo [who wrote the book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (1981)] and Patricia White [author of Uninvited: Classical Hollywood and Lesbian Representability (1999)], among others. So in a way I began researching “An Early Clue to the New Direction” when I was an undergrad, because all of those accounts influenced the series heavily. I probably first encountered half of the films we’re showing in those books. But even so, I felt that the early history of queer cinema was something I very much had to fashion myself, from numerous sources.

DC: There is no single work that really does that.

TB: Each of those books covers quite a lot of material, but each has its own focus. Reading Russo, for instance, you get references to seemingly every appearance of a sissy stock character like Franklin Pangborn, but less of a focus on, say, underground cinema.

Tyler, in Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies [1972], has a much more idiosyncratic approach. So he writes about Warhol’s My Hustler [1965], but his aim is not to be comprehensive. Dyer’s focus, meanwhile, is more on what Gregg Bordowitz, via Raymond Williams, called “queer structures of feeling,” an “articulation of presence forged through resistance to heterosexist society.” Dyer writes about the Swedish silent film Vingarne [1916] and Mädchen in Uniform [1931] and Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour [1950]. In that context, gay and lesbian cinema is understood as one with gay and lesbian authors, about gay and lesbian subjects. But looking back on all these pioneering books, I realize that I’ve included a number of works in the program that don’t appear in any of them.

DC: There are definitely some that are unknown to me.

TB: There are films that have only recently received sustained critical attention. Lupe [1966] by Jose Rodriguez-Soltero is a good example, the work of a filmmaker who, according to Juan Suárez, was caught between two worlds: too political for the gay demimonde, too queer for the cadres. And Marc Siegel has considered Robert Wade Chatterton’s Passion in a Seaside Slum [1961] very thoroughly, though I’ve hardly seen mention of the film otherwise.

DC: To what extent did queer theoretical texts, beyond the more historical overviews like Dyer’s, influence you? When did you encounter D. A. Miller on Rope or Lee Edelman on Otto Preminger’s Laura [1944]?

TB: The Rope essay I remember from school. Queer theoretical texts have certainly shaped the series, but not in ways that I can immediately identify. Maybe that tradition surfaces in my seeking to define queer cinema elastically, to view it as a malleable concept, conditioned by history, that never exists outside of ideology.

DC: And when did you come across Boyd McDonald’s book Cruising the Movies [1985]?

TB: Probably not long after I moved to New York. And if you want to talk about how a film can be “queer,” McDonald shows us that sexual hunger combined with a lacerating critical intelligence can take movies you wouldn’t think at all to be queer and reveal them as homophile cinema par excellence. He’s just an incredibly perspicacious—and funny—critic. No one else has talked about the contemptuousness of Gloria Grahame in such elegant terms. He often makes fun of the pedestrian blurb writers at the Times and how they miss what’s so valuable in a movie.

DC: Here he is on Michael Callan: “The author of the Times’s listing for The Flying Fontaines, unable to appreciate the beauty of Michael’s butt, sought gratification in the picture’s plot but failed, finding it ‘the old story.’ Homosexuals get more out of watching a movie (or walking down a street); hence the title of my book, Cruising the Movies.”

TB: Exactly! What that line emphasizes, which is everywhere apparent in Cruising the Movies, is that a queer spectator is always already prepared to read a work against the grain. Any conception of queer cinema that doesn’t take a viewer like McDonald’s into account is an impoverished one.

And as William E. Jones notes quite rightly in his illuminating essay for the new edition of Cruising the Movies, McDonald’s is also a kind of anti-auteurist enterprise. Directors are barely there in Cruising the Movies, so the idea that they are somehow the primary creative agents behind a film or the reason you would watch it is just out the window. And that really opens things up, from the perspective of a film programmer.

One of the heartening things about working on this show is that even though there are roughly thirty different programs, so much had to be cut out. It’s nice, when surveying a subject most people would draw a blank on, to find yourself spoiled for choice.

As I began to assemble the lineup, I recalled a film critic friend complaining about suffering from a sort of auteur fatigue. And I understood exactly what he meant, because the dominant model of repertory film programming has largely been, and continues to be, single-director surveys. Though he said it half-jokingly, it made me think about what that model leaves out. It made me realize that you would never have a Barbara Loden retrospective or a Jean Genet series, because even though both of those filmmakers made extraordinary contributions to the history of cinema, they essentially made only one film each. It’s also no mere coincidence that the filmmakers who make one or a couple of remarkable films and then fall silent happen to be disproportionately women and people of color.

I came to believe ever more firmly that more transversal perspectives would allow not simply for a diversity of curatorial approach but for diversity in the kinds of work you’d end up showing. So it was important to me that this series look back on early queer cinema from above, from below, from the art house in between. I wanted to show how the homoerotic imagination found a form in Hollywood, but also in the avant-garde and even in other, equally marginal forms, like educational films and home movies.

Framing the series this way hopefully encourages audiences to watch works together that one typically wouldn’t. And since the program unfurls more or less chronologically, it gives people a chance to see what’s coming up from underground in New York relative to concurrent studio offerings.

Leontine Sagan, Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform), 1931, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 98 minutes. From left: Oda von Oldersleben (Ethel Reschke), Mariechen von Ecke (Dora Thalmer), and Ilse von Treischke (Charlotte Witthauer).

DC: I hope that people will see program after program. To be able to see films like the silent Salomé [1922] or Lot in Sodom [1933] in relation to George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett [1935] is really important.

But I want to come back to where we started. This capaciousness of “queer” stands in contradistinction to the narrowness of “gay.” One of the problems with the current gay movies that you see in LGBT film festivals is precisely the narrowness that comes with the consolidation of gay identity. The result is gay filmmaking with a tendency to normalize gay characters, often simply transposing gay characters into straight genres.

TB: That assessment is, I’m afraid, spot-on. Is it wrong to say that one of the hidden costs of mainstream visibility for LGBT folks and acceptance by the state, in the form of gay marriage, is the erasure of a complex and thoroughly elaborated history of sensibility?

I don’t want to be nostalgic about it—like, “Oh, wasn’t it so great when sodomy was illegal?”—but one of the things that I want this series to do is to show people that the ways in which we might understand queer cinema are many and varied, that desire can be articulated in surprising and manifold ways, and that queer cinema doesn’t just mean a gay version of, you know, Gone with the Wind. I hope we will introduce some truly extraordinary work to audiences who might not otherwise ever see Lot in Sodom or Gregory Markopoulos’s Twice a Man [1963] or a Germaine Dulac film like La princesse Mandane [1928].

DC: When you talk about the cost of gay identity’s broad acceptance, the cost that I’m most aware of is sex itself. We have identity, but we no longer have queer sex. Sex has become closeted—promiscuous sex, kinky sex, sex outside the bedroom of a “committed, loving couple.” When sodomy was illegal—and let’s not forget that miscegenation was also illegal, as was adultery—the laws were about unacceptable sexual relations and kinds of sex, not about identity.

TB: Some of the first queer films that I saw that made their way into the series are very much about sex, if not in a traditional way. In Fireworks, Anger wants to get beaten up by hot sailors, or at least he dreams about it. And the compositions are fittingly oneiric. In My Hustler, a fascinating game of erotic competition and speculation plays out in a way that is terrifically unresolved. People want a lot of different things in these movies we’re showing. There is not one ideal body. There is not an ideal romance.

DC: There are things like Taylor Mead’s sissy faggotry in—

TB: In Passion in a Seaside Slum. I’m glad you brought up Mead, because his presence in that movie highlights another important aspect of the series. Susan Sontag memorably described Mead as a “consumptive, faggot Harry Langdon,” and it’s a perceptive characterization, I think, because his particular brand of underground clowning owes much to the comic vocabulary of the silent era. So in addition to charting a course through both Hollywood and the underground, I also want the program to illuminate the strange afterlife of cinema’s first decades.

Take Alla Nazimova’s Salomé, which at times was percieved as being, in Anger’s indelible characterization, “‘Nancy-Prancy-Pansy-Piffle’ and just too queer for words.” [Laughter.] It’s very much a product of primeval Hollywood, a movie from another age, yet its aesthetic program, from the expressive mise-en-scène to the way the characters move, carries on in later filmmaking, certainly in Anger’s.

DC: Yvonne Rainer’s choreography for Valda Setterfield’s dance in Lives of Performers [1972] is her version of Nazimova’s dance of the seven veils.

Speaking of silent cinema, there are a lot of films in the series that I don’t know, especially very early ones such as Algie, the Miner [1912] and A Florida Enchantment [1914]. Can you talk about the silent films?

TB: The earliest piece in the series is The Dickson Experimental Sound Film [1894 or 1895], a picture that is significant to film history because it’s the only surviving film made specifically for the kinetophone, but that’s just one part of the story. The film depicts W. K. L. Dickson playing a violin while two men dance with each other, and even though this is almost certainly not a film with an overtly homoerotic subject, it’s one that queer artists and cinephiles have long fixed on and drawn from. Here, aided by a productive bit of fantasy, was an occasion for them to see themselves in the movies, and at the medium’s very inception.

Algie, the Miner, a film by Alice Guy-Blaché—an extremely important director, a pioneering figure for women’s cinema—is a gay cowboy film almost a hundred years before Brokeback Mountain. It’s about a fey bachelor who can’t wed his beloved until he butches up, and so he’s sent out west to learn how to be masculine. There’s a lot of prancing about in cowboy hats and so forth until he’s finally tough enough for the job of heterosexual courtship.

And Vingarne was made in Sweden by Mauritz Stiller, who was a fag voluptuary of the Stockholm smart set. The film is based on Herman Bang’s 1904 novel Mikaël—also the source material for Dreyer’s Michael [1924], which we’re showing as well—and it centers on an erotic triangulation between a famous artist, the protégé that he longs for, and a profligate princess.

Vingarne and Richard Oswald’s Different from the Others are also interesting in that they only exist now in fragments. For Vingarne, the original materials were lost in a fire; and the Nazis tried to destroy all known copies of Different from the Others around 1933, so only a portion survives. I find the ellipses in these movies very moving, because they suggest the gaps in queer cinema’s narrative more broadly. The Oswald film is especially profound, because it bears the scars of its political history; the absences become, somewhat paradoxically, a record of social deletion.

Also, curiously enough, the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, who was heavily involved with the production of Different from the Others, is in the air again. There’s a subplot in the current season of Amazon’s Transparent that takes place in a decadent rendering of his Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. You don’t normally expect a Weimar sexologist to figure prominently in a hit TV show!

DC: What about the title of your series? I know Andrew Meyer’s Match Girl but not his An Early Clue to the New Direction [both 1966], the title of which you’ve borrowed.

TB: And Meyer, in turn, borrowed the phrase from A Hard Day’s Night. An Early Clue features a notable cast: Prescott Townsend, who was an early gay rights activist in Boston, the cult actress Joy Bang, and a young Rene Ricard, who is rather of interest to both of them. The film shares a bill with My Hustler, and I think it’s a good fit because the banter in both movies is exemplary; both are animated by an intergenerational, pangender jockeying for sexual attention. And Meyer was an artist in Warhol’s orbit, like so many others. It’s always terrific to be able to show a film like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures [1963], but there’s also an opportunity here to foreground overlooked deep cuts of underground cinema.

DC: Are there any other films that you want to call out?

TB: There’s Mona’s Candle Light, which is a home movie made in a San Francisco dyke bar in the early ’50s. It’s significant to me for some of the same reasons that showing an educational film is significant, because these are precisely the kinds of things that are usually left out of repertory film programming, even though the genres they represent are vital to any thorough understanding of cinema. We’re showing Mona’s Candle Light with a key, roughly contemporaneous lesbian film, Jacqueline Audry’s Olivia [aka The Pit of Loneliness, 1951]. So you have this big-screen depiction of sapphic longing prefaced with a reel that displays how lesbians were actually living their lives and representing themselves in a day-to-day way. It’s a point of comparison one doesn’t often have the opportunity to make.

Speaking of genres that don’t typically find a home in repertory film programs, No Help Needed, a fragment of lesbian porn from around 1940, is something Jenni Olson tipped me off to. It’s actually from her personal collection.

DC: Who is she?

TB: She’s a filmmaker and programmer in San Francisco. The Case of Mr. Lynn, an actual filmed therapy session from the mid-’50s with a troubled homosexual, also comes from her. She urged me to show No Help Needed when we corresponded about the series, pointing out that pornography was, in this period, a major site of lesbian representation. To leave it out would be to turn a blind eye to a not-insignificant part of film history.

We owe a tremendous debt to people like Jenni, and the late Mark Finch, who worked with her as a programmer at Frameline. This project is only possible because they kept so many of these films alive in the public memory by screening them, collecting them, preserving them. The legacy of these movies certainly doesn’t sustain itself.

DC: Does this bring up the question of porn’s place in an early queer cinema series, since porn has existed throughout film history?

TB: We’re showing physique films, too. There are so many kinds of porn you could show, so I just wanted to select some . . . representative instances. And I think that physique films are a good bet—Bob Mizer’s in particular—because they evince a remarkable ingenuity. You see how inventive a filmmaker can be in the face of limitations, legal or otherwise.

Mizer seemed like a nice pairing with The Queen—a 1968 documentary about a transvestite pageant in New York the preceding year—because they present two different types of beauty contests, each simultaneously delighting in and parodying ideals of masculinity and femininity, respectively.

DC: I remember The Queen very well, seeing it when it came out.

TB: Whoa, really?

DC: I saw quite a number of these films. Repertory cinema was so rich in the period when I first lived in New York.

TB: Moviegoing is really important in relation to so many of these films. Looking back on their various exhibition histories, you see how a number of them are shaped by scandal, none more so perhaps than Flaming Creatures, which was back in the news recently. The prosecutor who argued vociferously against the film in 1964 wrote to Jonas Mekas, who had been arrested for showing it, just last year and apologized to him, essentially saying that he was wrong in trying to make the case for its obscenity. There was a whole Times article about it. And Jonas, my hero, played the angles brilliantly, suggesting the lawyer atone by doing some pro bono work for Anthology. [Laughter.]

Now, fifty years later, the flaming creatures are welcomed uptown—at Lincoln Center, no less.