Queering Classical Hollywood Films.
The 1990s have seen an increase in the popularity of short films based on the reediting of classical Hollywood scenes. I am particularly interested in artists such as Tartaglia, Rappaport and Barriga, whose work seeks to reveal queer meanings hidden behind the polished – and policed – surface of Hollywood imagery.
Most of the found footage films produced by these artists engage in a process of queering the archive: they reuse and reshape images from the golden age of Hollywood in a way that challenges their perceived status as inherently patriarchal constructs. In so doing, they seek to reveal the hidden potential of these images for the subversion of their own codes, and for the emergence of queer gender identities and sexualities. I would argue, however, that these queer reconfigurations should be approached not just as strategies of subversion, but also as works of intimacy. I want to show that they retrospectively bring the public, iconic archive of classical Hollywood into the personal, autobiographical sphere. They accomplish a near-archeological work of emotional excavation to bring to the fore the suggestion of an intimate narrative, always already there though originally unnoticed.
I propose to focus on three particularly interesting queer re-readings of Hollywood’s mythology. In Remembrance (1990), Jerry Tartaglia uses excerpts from Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) and turns them into home movies. Out of the archive, he creates the gay characters he yearned for but never found in the films he watched as a child, thereby both exposing and questioning the stringent heteronormativity of the original medium. Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson Home Movie (1992) follows similar dynamics. The film gathers excerpts from scenes starring Rock Hudson, a now openly gay actor, to unveil the gay subtext of his performances. Through cuts and associations, Rappaport creates a ‘negative’ documentary or imaginary archive that brings out the intimacy of the original footage. Finally, in Meeting Two Queens (1991) Cecilia Barriga puts a lesbian twist on originally straight narratives starring Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, thus, in the words of Catherine Russell, ‘opening up spaces’ for feminist readings of Hollywood material.
These works consistently undermine the ideological framework of their source material. But by rewriting and rereading the archive, they also open up new potentialities for images that have become cliché, thereby, paradoxically, saving Hollywood classical cinema from its possible decay and obsolescence.
La face queer des classiques hollywoodiens.
Dans les années 1990, les courts-métrages basés sur la réédition de scènes hollywoodiennes classiques gagnent en popularité. Je me suis en ce sens particulièrement intéressée à Tartaglia, Rappaport et Barriga, dont les œuvres font émerger des significations queer derrière la surface lisse et policée de l’imagerie hollywoodienne.
La majorité des vidéos de ces artistes, telles que nous les avons retrouvées, participent d’un processus de « queerisation » de l’archive, réutilisant et refaçonnant des images de l’âge d’or hollywoodien de manière à remettre en cause leur statut de constructions patriarcales. Par ce biais, elles cherchent à révéler le potentiel caché de ces images, entre subversion des codes, et émergence d’identités et de sexualités queer. J’expliquerais cependant que ces reconfigurations queer ne devraient pas seulement être lues comme stratégies de subversion, mais également comme œuvres de l’intimité. Je veux ainsi montrer qu’elles amènent rétrospectivement l’archive publique et iconique du classique hollywoodien dans la sphère personnelle et autobiographique, signant un travail quasi archéologique d’excavation émotionnelle afin de porter au premier plan la suggestion d’un récit intime, toujours déjà présent, mais jusqu’alors ignoré.
Je me concentrerai sur trois relectures queer de la mythologie hollywoodienne. Dans Remembrance (1990), Jerry Tartaglia reprend des extraits de All About Eve, de Joseph Mankiewicz (1950), afin d’en faire un « home movie ». Grâce aux archives, il crée les personnages gays qu’il cherchait sans jamais les trouver dans les films qu’il regardait enfant, exposant et questionnant de ce fait la stricte hétéronormativité du médium original. Rock Hudson Home Movie de Mark Rappaport (1992) répond à des dynamiques similaires. Le film rassemble des extraits de séquences mettant en scène Rock Hudson, acteur aujourd’hui ouvertement homosexuel, afin de révéler le sous-texte gay de ses performances. Au moyen de coupes et d’associations, Rappaport crée un documentaire « en négatif », ou archive imaginée, qui révèle l’intimité des prises originales. Enfin, dans Two Queens (1991), Cecilia Barriga offre un dénouement lesbien aux récits originellement hétérosexuels de Marlene Dietrich et Greta Garbo. Ce faisant, elle « ouvre un espace » à des lectures féministes du matériau hollywoodien, pour reprendre ici les mots de Catherine Russell.
Ces œuvres déjouent ainsi les tours du cadre idéologique de leurs matériaux sources. Plus encore, en proposant relectures et réécritures de l’archive, ils ouvrent également de nouveaux possibles à des images devenues autant de clichés, et sauvent donc, paradoxalement, le cinéma classique hollywoodien d’une possible obsolescence.
Re-editing and Re-reading Classical Hollywood Iconography: Subversion of a Gendered Archive1
Hollywood had learned to write movies between the lines. And some members of the audience had learned to watch them that way.2
It is well known that classical Hollywood movies are shaped by a number of codes, restrictions and prohibitions. This became explicit in the 1930s with the institution of the Hays Code, which banned all representation of scenes of passion or of what was deemed sexual perversion. These restrictions produced a style that aimed to be smooth, linear, easy to understand, and where faces are often turned into masks. Film images needed to be pleasant to look at and convey only the acceptable norms of the time. Therefore these images were necessarily marked by a conspicuous absence, hidden contents and coded discourses.
Classical Hollywood is particularly known for its restrictive representation of sexuality and gender and its predominance of heterosexual models. Under the sexual censorship of the Motion Picture Code, the male body should never be represented onscreen as an object of erotic contemplation, especially not as the erotic object of another male gaze3.
Today, Hollywood’s Golden Age represents a wide archive of mainstream mass culture from the 30s to the 60s, an archive which could be regarded as a ‘patriarchive’ in the words of Jacques Derrida. The ‘patriarchive’ (as defined in a footnote of his book Archive Fever, 1995) is an image of the past that conveys patriarchal ways to read the archive. Thus, it gathers images that belong to a closed world shaped by men, and assigned one straight heteronormative meaning4, a world that can fit with Hollywood images that are far away from all non-heteronormative readings. In this article, I want to explore possible non-patriarchal modes of seeing or reading the classical Hollywood.
In the 1990s, short films based on the re-editing of classical Hollywood scenes became increasingly popular. Through re-editing and manipulation, a number of contemporary artists sought to reveal the hidden meanings lurking beneath classical representation, already there but unnoticed. In this view, the films of the 50s become encrypted scripts that need to be deciphered, decoded or unfolded. In many cases, the re-editings deal with repressed homoerotic attraction. They break with traditional representations of masculinity and femininity: they reinterpret images through queer interpretive frameworks.
Found footage films from the 1990s align with the rise of gender and queer theory in the academe: there was a parallel drive to question the fundamental categories of identity, gender, and sexuality, in theory, in artistic practice, and in the broader political context. Hence the artists I’m interested in “came to maturity in a social and intellectual climate shaped by feminism, queer theory, lesbian and gay politics […]” and LGBTQ activism5. The 1990s were infused with an increasing need to re-read images Hollywood produced with the help of gender theory.
The term ‘queer’ resists easy definition. It is first a non-normative expression that designates sexual and gender minorities and non-straight identities (it was first used as a synonym for either gay, lesbian or bisexual). But queer represents something more than sexuality. I am particularly interested in the fact that it destabilizes existing categories regarding spectatorship and textual coding. I am using the term queer here to describe alternative to straight, against-the-grain readings of Hollywood images, in terms that resist easy categorization and that are definitely on the outside of Hollywood’s heteronormative world.
I would like to focus on three particularly interesting queer re-readings of Hollywood’s mythology. Firstly, in his short movie Remembrance (1990), Jerry Tartaglia uses excerpts from Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) and turns them into home movies. Secondly, Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) gathers excerpts from scenes starring Rock Hudson, in order to unveil the gay subtext of his performances. Thirdly, the short Meeting Two Queens made by Cecilia Barriga in 1991 puts a lesbian twist on originally straight narratives starring two iconic actresses who never met on-screen: Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo6. Despite their differences, these three films question representations of gender and help us understand what is conspicuously absent in Hollywood images.
Thus, I show that these films are all engaged in a process of queering the archive. They re-use and re-shape Hollywood images in a way that challenges their perceived status as inherently patriarchal constructs. I argue that these queer reconfigurations should be approached not just as strategies of subversion, but also as works of intimacy, that bring out private readings into a public imagery.
Re-editing as an ‘Opening’ of the Public Archive to Intimacy: A Gendered Emotional Excavation
[U]nlike racial and ethnic minorities, [gays] grew up in households where their parents not only did not share their lifestyle but actively fought it with the help of the law, psychology, religion and sometimes violence. For a people who were striving toward self knowledge, Hollywood stars became important models in the formation of gay identity.7
I want to show first that these three films accomplish an archeological work of emotional excavation and take us back to the text of Hollywood not only as a conventional storytelling medium but also as a potential means to bring to the fore unusually personal narratives.
Making home movies with Hollywood, looking for queer and self-recognition
The dreams Jerry Tartaglia has for a Hollywood life are directly intertwined with personal memories in his short film Remembrance: images of Bette Davis are coupled with personal home movies in which he appears at the age of 168. Evoking his quest for models with which he could identify, he underlines that homosexual identities didn’t have access to the “Hollywood archive” and tries to shape his own private archive in order to re-introduce missing identities. He thus creates an autobiographical statement on growing up gay in America. Through editing, Jerry Tartaglia wants to “undo” the images “which dominated his waking and dreaming life”9. This means that classical Hollywood images need to escape the cultural and ideological assumptions that lie behind their production and intended reception.
“I imagine that I am Margo Channing, that my inner conflicts are her inner conflicts, I pretend that I am just like Margo, just infallibly coastal, yet bitchy and eloquent. I am like Margo, in every other strong-willed female dreamed character created by Hollywood movies and Italian opera.10”
Tartaglia also underlines the importance of feminine stars as models in the formation of gay identity, at a time when binary gender identifications precluded any “cross-gender” emotional identification.11 According to Jerry Tartaglia, strong females on-screen “provided gay men with the first fictional characters with whom they could identify”. Bette Davis in All About Eve stands in for women (and, by extension, men) who must fight their way through the world of straight men (and the women who love them). Tartaglia’s intimate appropriation thus brings out queer models in the familiar images of Hollywood.
Rock Hudson’s fictive home movies, digging in and coming out
‘Well – he’s the last guy in the world I would have figured.’12
As the title suggests, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies develop some other kind of home movies (fictive ones) with images starring the famous actor. Looking for implied meanings, Mark Rappaport digs into Rock Hudson’s films in order to expose the unnoticed sexuality of one of the leading male idols of the 1950s, one who was a symbol of perfect, conventional masculinity before his coming out. Through the juxtaposition of fictional images, Mark Rappaport re-writes a fictive biography while documenting Hudson’s real life as a secretly gay actor in Hollywood, which creates a sort of archeological coming out.
The whole film relies on role-playing: the narration is made by an actor – Eric Farr – playing Rock Hudson on-screen. Eric Farr is Rock Hudson’s perfect double: he uses the first person and evokes what might have been his homosexual thoughts while acting out a scene13 as if he were confessing from the afterlife14, also being conscious of his own death from AIDS15. The practice of appropriation does not rely only on re-editing as Rappaport also ‘re-embodies’ the images onscreen. He also literally writes over the images, we understand this process as early as the opening credits written over the original ones:
Whether in fictive recreated home movies or in personal ones, these intimate appropriations challenge the heteronormative identities represented by Hollywood.
A lesbian fan-based archeology: rewriting Garbo and Dietrich’s biographies
Meeting Two Queens also relies on the creation of an intimate biography16. The editing of images starring Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo emphasizes the queer sexuality that was already perceptible in the original images. Remembering Marlene Dietrich’s queer behaviour when dressed up as a man in Morocco or Garbo, also in male costume, openly kissing her young lady-in-waiting in Queen Christina), we can attest that they already exhibited a non-traditional femininity on-screen17.
Looking for the lesbian subtext of their films, Cecilia Barriga imposes her own readings and intimate fantasies on the screen in the form of fan-based archeology18. The sensual union reaches its peak when we see – through editing – the actresses undressing together in a series of mutual gazing, inviting the spectator to cast a ‘feminine’ or lesbian gaze at what originally appeared as straight narratives19. This queer reading, along with the two mentioned above, underlines how the star image can challenge expected gender binaries and propose bisexual models for viewer identification.
Turning Hollywood imagery into home movies, fictive biopics or fan-fictions are means to expose the latent documentary basis that lurks within the fictions. They show evidence of both the presence and denial of queerness in the history of Hollywood cinema and propose a ‘re-domiciliation’20 or a ‘relocalisation’ of the ‘unhomely’21 Hollywood archive.
From the ‘unhomely’ archive to queer ‘homely’ spaces: An uncanny feeling looking at classical Hollywood images
I would like to show now how these appropriations could be linked to the surfacing of uncanny feelings when facing the polished surface of Hollywood. Indeed, looking at the original material, we can feel that something is missing, silenced, that the representation is not complete, an impression which can get closer to the queer feeling that re-editings clearly expose.
‘A queer feeling when I look at…’ 22classical Hollywood images: an uncanny feeling?
In his 1919 essay, Freud defines the ‘uncanny’ – a term that comes from the German word ‘Unheimlich’ – as a feeling of disorientation, of unfamiliarity, in opposition to the ‘homely’ and the familiar. Looking at re-edited Hollywood images can lead to this confusion, as we re-encounter images seen before but in which we do not recognize their new queer reflections23. We feel at ‘home’, but there are some ‘unhomely’ or some ‘Unheimlich’ identities that have burst onto the screen24.
Freud also underlines that uncanny can qualify everything that ought to have remained private, secret, kept out of public sight, and that has become visible. In Freudian terminology the uncanny can thus be a mark of the return of the repressed. We can regard the above-mentioned re-editings as the illustration of what happens when the repressed content of Hollywood is brought to the surface25. Indeed, artists do not impose a foreign meaning onto the original images but only reveal something that was hidden or repressed26. ‘Queer’ re-readings are, in this sense, linked to the arising of a Freudian uncanny27.
Opening ‘homo’/‘homely’ spaces in classical Hollywood iconography
‘Home’ and ‘domiciliation’ are central in the definition of the uncanny. It is indeed based on the intrusion of the ‘unhomely’ in the homely, echoing the uncovering of subversive non-straight identities in familiar Hollywood. Queer re-editings re-locate, give new homes28, new uncanny spaces for diverging images of masculinity and femininity, already there in the films, not created but revealed. Patricia White clearly analyzes this uncanny feeling regarding lesbian representability in Hollywood in her book UnInvited (1999). She shows that such “coded figures are uninvited not because they are forbidden entry but because they are already at home29.”
Such an uncanny feeling keeps a lesbian gaze fixed on Hollywood movies, searching for women in the shadows. It invites us to re-encounter something we’ve seen before but didn’t yet know what the encounter could mean to us.30
In Meeting two Queens, the original patriarchal domestic homes are turned into feminine shared spaces from which men are elided. The film not only ‘queers’ these actresses but releases them from their original narratives31, and, in the words of Catherine Russell “open(s) up spaces” for a feminist return to the archives of classical cinema32. This queer opening also creates spaces for a new spectator making cross-gendered identifications and queer relations to the past images.
Queer Readings and the Persistence of Classical Hollywood
Re-editing practices are able to challenge and to reconfigure the gendered operations that inform Hollywood archive. By opening up new potentialities for these images, these films paradoxically save Hollywood classical cinema from its possible decay and obsolescence. They underline the possibility of always adapting this imagery to the present time beyond its possibly limited and out-dated representations. They thus encourage re-thinking the history of Hollywood cinema and re-shaping its mythology. Finally, ‘queering’ something does maybe not perfectly fit the gesture of these artists, as it would imply that they took a straight thing and did something to it33. If their queer readings aim to reveal hidden contents, they do not ‘make’ things queer but instead suggest that existing images can be understood as always, already, queer34.
1 In reference to Catherine Russell, « Awakening from the Gendered Archive », in. Archiveology, op.cit.
2 Stewart Stern (Screenwriter of Rebel Without a Cause), in. The Celluloid Closet, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman 1995.
3 The Motion Picture Code of 1934 prohibited references to homosexuality in the cinema.
4 In a permanent “domicilation” as if “under house arrest”, cf. Domietta Torlasco, The Heretical Archive: Digital Memory at the End of Film, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2013
5 William C. WEES, « The Ambiguous Aura of Hollywood Stars in Avant-Garde Found-Footage Film », Cinema Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Winter, 2002), p. 15.
6 Mixing for example Blonde Venus with Song of Songs or Morocco with Mata Hari.
7 Christine GLEDHILL, Stardom : Industry of Desire, Psychology Press, 1991, p. 292
8 On the occasion of his Confirmation party: he is the young man wearing the red carnation, surrounded by his favorite family members.
9 I am quoting here the voice-over of the film.
10 Extract from the voice-over.
11 He evokes his own connection with “strong-willed female characters”, seen as sensitive subjects silently suffering (with men retaining emotional dominance). I am referring here to a conversation I had with Jerry Tartaglia last January.
12 An old man’s line in Lover Come Back (Delbert Mann, 1961) talking about Rock Hudson wearing a woman’s fur coat.
13 Speaking for him, dressing like him, and sometimes appearing in the same screen space with him.
14 Mark Rappaport’s short was made just a few years after Rock Hudson had died of AIDS.
15 Voir Rebecca BELL-MATEREAU, « Baby, it’s Cold Out in Hollywood: Rock Hudson’s Multiple Masculinities », in. Star Bodies and the Erotics of Suffering, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, p. 16 et Richard DYER, « Rock, The last guy you’d have figured ? », in. The Culture of Queers, London, New York, Routledge, 2002, p. 159.
16 Thus linking their onscreen life with their off-screen rumoured bi-sexual relationships.
17 Mary DESJARDINS, « Meeting Two Queens, Feminist Film-making, Identity Politics, and the Melodramatic Fantasy », Film Quarterly, Printemps 1995, p. 28, en ligne, URL : https://watermark.silverchair.com/1213292.pdf, consulté le 18 mai 2020.
18 Cf. Mary DESJARDINS, ibid.
19 Mary DESJARDINS, « Meeting Two Queens, Feminist Film-making, Identity Politics, and the Melodramatic Fantasy », op.cit., p. 28 and Catherine RUSSELL, « Awakening from the Gendered Archive », in. Archiveology, op.cit ., pp. 184-217.
20 Domietta TORLASCO, The Heretical Archive: Digital Memory at the End of Film, op.cit.
21 Patricia WHITE, UnInvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1999, 269 p.
22 Reference to the famous line of Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor, 1936) when Michael Fane declares to Hepburn playing a man: ‘I know what it is that gives me a queer feeling when I look at you!’.
23 Patricia WHITE, UnInvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, ibid.
24 We’re familiar with Rock Hudson, but not with the openly gay character built through associations.
25 A process pointed by Martin Arnold and Scott MacDonald in., « Sp… Sp… Spaces of Inscription: An Interview with Martin Arnold », Film Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 2-11, University of California Press, online, URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1212917, and in. Martin J. Zeilinger , « Sampling as Analysis, Sampling as Symptom », Sampling Media (dir.) David Laderman, Laurel Westrup, New York, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 162.
26 Alexander Doty, Flaming Classics, Queering the Film Canon, ibid., p. 2.
27 Just to make one last link between the uncanny gaze on Hollywood archive and its queer prolongation, I want to add that the figure of the double (as set in Rock Hudson’s Home Movies) is also a paradigm of the uncanny. Rock Hudson’s double leads to something very familiar, but not fully identical to the star.
28 Patricia WHITE, UnInvited, Clasical Hollywood cinema and Lesbian Representability, op.cit., p. 68.
29 In her book UnInvited, Patricia White evokes this uncanny feeling regarding the presence of lesbians on-screen. Her title UnInvited evokes the unauthorized reading practices of invisible guests who meet the considerations of lesbian representability in Hollywood. She wants to show that such “coded figures are uninvited not because they are forbidden entry but because they are already at home.” (p. xxiv). She also talks about the presence of “uninvited meanings (that) reside within the ambivalent relationship of cinematic femininity and lesbian desire (p. xxiv).
30 Patricia WHITE, UnInvited, Clasical Hollywood cinema and Lesbian Representability, op.cit., p. 215.
31 Catherine Russell, Archiveoloy, op.cit., pp. 202-203.
32 “An opening to redress the gendered operations that inform the media archive”, in. Catherine Russell, Archiveoloy, op.cit.
33 Cf. Out in culture, Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture, edited by Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty, Chapter “There’s something Queer Here”, Alexander Doty p. 84 “Queer readings aren’t ‘alternative readings, wishful or willful misreadings, or ‘reading too much into things’ readings. They result from the recognition and articulation of the complex range of queerness that has been in popular culture texts and their audiences all along.”
34 Alexander Doty, Flaming Classics, Queering the Film Canon, ibid., p. 2.
Marie-Pierre Burquier is a PhD student in visual studies at Paris Diderot University, where she also teaches a course on experimental cinema. Her research dissertation, under the supervision of Dr Martine Beugnet, focuses on representations of the body in found footage movies from the 1990s, more specifically the reuse of Hollywood classical imagery. Before that, she obtained her MA in film studies at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon. She has published papers in multiple journals, including Hors-Champ, Théorème and Cinétrens, as well as a chapter in Corps béant, corps morcelé dans les arts scéniques et visuels (Ed. Julie Postel & Marie Garré Nicoara, 2017), entitled ‘Animal Bodies in Martin Arnold’s Short Movies’.