Friday, November 13, 2009

Celluloid Closet, Gay Docos & Plaster Caster

The Celluloid Closet is an excellent documentary about the history of Hollywood's portrayals of gays and lesbians. It is the sort of documentary that the people who most need to see, won’t. Even the documentary itself was restricted by refusals to cooperate.

The first sections, covering early openness to censorsed indirectness—the period when gays and lesbians were largely forced to "read in" into films, or pick up subtexts that were smuggled past the censors—are wistful and funny. The middle section gets rather more emotionally intense as increased openness largely meant more direct portrayal as weird, flawed, villainous (and usually doomed). The final section is hopeful as positive gay images became acceptable. The DVD includes parts of interviews and interviews not included in the documentary itself. (In both sections, Tom Hanks comes across as decent and self-knowing.)

The late Vito Russo’s lecture, given in 1990, which is one of the special features of the DVD, concludes with comments on the lack of black leading men or women, that the black actors who make money are comics. How quickly things change, when one considers that Samuel L Jackson, Will Smith and Morgan Freeman are among top-15 box office stars. Though Eddie Murphy is still box-office number two overall. So four of the top-15 box office stars are black (which means they are over-represented for their share of the US population: women only have two in the top 15) while only one of the black stars is a comic.

And one of the top-20 is openly gay (which is roughly proportional).

As for times changing, only three years after that lecture, Tom Hanks won an oscar for playing a gay man dying of AIDS in Philadelphia. Gay roles have since won Oscars for Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) and Sean Penn (Milk).

A certain box office success has also proved possible: Brokeback Mountain is the third highest grossing gay/lesbian movie (based on rating Interview with the Vampire as a gay/lesbian movie), the sixth highest grossing Western and the eighth highest grossing romantic drama (results not adjusted for inflation).

Other gay docos
Beefcake is a fun and informative mixture of “talking head” personal reminiscences, redone shorts and narrative dramatisation of the era of beefcake mags focusing on the life and vision of the founder of the American Model Guild.

Gay Sex in the 70s starts off as an examination of the amazing upsurge in sexual hedonism that followed Stonewall and becomes a touching portrayal of the effect of AIDS on the American gay community.

Fabulous!: A history of queer cinema is a pleasant, particularly dyke-aware, history of queer cinema in the US, from some very tentative beginnings to its established position as a distinct cinema.

Homo Promo is a series of trailers from films in have some sort of queer sensibility many of which are so camply dated as to be quite funny.

eXposed: the making of a legend is a fun, bouncy doco shot by redoubtable, bouncy, goth lady (Mr. Pam) about the making of the multiple-award winning gay porn movie Buckleroos. This is gay porn as professional, friendly, fun and self-aware.

Pagan capture
On a slightly different, and vaguely related note, I have rarely laughed so much watching a film as when I watched Plaster Caster. The subject is inherently funny, but the participants add to the humour and charm. Particularly Cynthia Plaster Caster herself, who comes across as sweet, everyday and determined (rather than obsessed). In between explanations of how it started, how it is done, organising an exhibition in New York of “her babies”, seeing how it is done, meeting Cynthia and her friends and reminisces from various rock stars, we have unexpected moments such as Camille Paglia informing us that Cynthia’s plaster-casting activities were what made her first start to think about rock music as pagan. Lots of fun.

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