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Contributors. Sabrina Barton, Edith Becker, Rhona J. Berenstein, Nayland Blake, Michelle Citron, Danae Clark, Corey K. Creekmur, Alexander Doty, Richard Dyer, Heather Findlay, Jan Zita Grover, Essex Hemphill, John Hepworth, Jeffrey Hilbert, Lucretia Knapp, Bruce La Bruce, Al LaValley, Julia Lesage, Michael Moon, Michael Musto, B. Ruby Rich, Marlon Riggs, Arlene Stein, Chris Straayer, Anthony Thomas, Mark Thompson, Valerie Traub, Thomas Waugh, Patricia White, Robin Wood
Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic
First, my title. I intend equal emphasis on all three terms: gay film critic. Critic: one concerned in problems of the interpretation and evaluation of art and artifacts. Film critic: one who makes the central area of that concern the cinema. Gay–not just the word and the fact it points to, but the word and fact asserted publicly: one who is conscious of belonging to one of society's oppressed minority groups, and who is ready to confront the implications of that for both his theory and his practice.
I can define what I mean here in relation to two types of gay critic who reject this equality of emphasis. First, the critic who for whatever reasons (many different ones are conceivable, of widely varying respectability) resists the public revelation of his gayness, arguing (either as defensive self-justification or as a sincerely held principle) that it has nothing to do with his view of art–the view conceived as "objective," and art conceived as something Out There that one can be objective about. I cannot afford to be too contemptuous of this type, as I belonged to it myself until quite recently, and in my case I was always half aware that the defensive self-justification was of the flimsiest. A gay subtext is intermittently discernible running through my early work; a number of people, including some who hadn't met me, have told me that they deduced that I was gay long before I came out. But if these early writings are worth analyzing at all from the gay viewpoint, it could only be as an analysis of self-oppression–an alternating pattern of peeping out of the closet door and then quickly slamming it shut, and pasting over the chinks with placards on which words like marriage, family, health, and normality were loudly displayed–and with self-oppression becoming, as it always must, the oppression of others. (See, especially, the treatment of homosexual relations in the account of Les Biches in the book on Chabrol I coauthored with Michael Walker, for the most embarrassing moments of which I must accept responsibility.)
The other type of gay critic places the emphasis strongly, sometimes exclusively, on gay, and concerns himself strictly with works that have direct bearing on gayness, approaching them from a political-propagandist viewpoint: do they or do they not further the gay cause? He will find it necessary to review Fassbinder's Fox, but will probably ignore Godard's Tout va bien. My choice of examples here is not arbitrary. The objection to such criticism is not merely that it is aesthetically restrictive but that it implies an inadequate, and insufficiently radical, grasp of what the gay liberation movement stands for at its best, of its more general social significance. Godard's film, in which gayness is nowhere alluded to, seems to me to have far greater positive importance for gay liberation than Fassbinder's sour determinism, with its incidental reinforcing of gay stereotypes for the bourgeois audience ("the truth about the homosexual milieu," as the English establishment critics greeted it).
Positively, I am able to point to two British colleagues who amply fulfill, in their very different ways, my conception of the gay film critic's responsibilities: Richard Dyer and Andrew Britton. The latter's article on Eisenstein in Framework strikes me as exemplary in this respect.
The change in my critical position and practice that many people have noted–some with favor, some with dismay–has been centrally determined by my coming out, and by the changes in my personal life connected with that. Critics are not, of course, supposed to talk personally. It is regarded as an embarrassment, as bad taste, and besides it is an affront to the famous ideal of "objectivity." The typical bourgeois establishment reaction to any form of personal revelation might be typified by a remark by Philip Strick in his ignominious review of my last book in Sight and Sound– a review that managed to trivialize every issue in sight–where my coming out in print was described as "telling us about his love life." Yet I believe there will always be a close connection between critical theory, critical practice, and personal life; and it seems important that the critic should be aware of the personal bias that must inevitably affect his choice of theoretical position, and prepared to foreground it in his work.
I don't believe that any theory exists in a vacuum or as truth. Every theory is the product of the needs of particular people within a particular culture at a particular stage of its development, and can only properly be understood within its context. Our gravitation, as human individuals within, and determined by, our culture, toward one or other of the available critical positions, will depend on our personal needs, on the way we wish to lead our lives, on the sort of society we would like to build, on the particularities of our involvement in the social process. Such a view presupposes a constantly developing, dynamic relationship between criticism and art, between individual and work. There is in a sense no such thing as "the films of Ingmar Bergman," existing as an entity that criticism could finally and definitively describe and interpret and place in the museum. Rather, the films exist as experienced and perceived by the viewer, with the precise nature of the experiencing depending on the viewer's position in society and within ideology. Our sense of the use of art generally, and of the particular uses to which particular works allow themselves to be put, will vary from generation to generation, shifting in accordance with our sense of personal and social needs.
What I propose to do is, first, define what gay liberation means to me, the kind of significance I attach to the movement, the kinds of social intervention I see it capable of making, and then reconsider certain films and directors (not necessarily or centrally concerned with gayness) that already meant a great deal to me before my coming out, in an attempt to indicate the nature of the shift in my critical practice, the somewhat different kinds of interest and emphasis I would now bring to an interpretation and evaluation of them.
As most commonly expressed in the newspapers, periodicals, etc., of our establishment (not to mention various gay society discussions I have attended), the aim of the gay liberation movement would appear to be read as that of gaining acceptance and equal rights for homosexuals within existing society. My basic argument is that such an aim is totally inadequate. Acceptance of the homosexual by society has its obvious corollary and condition: acceptance of society by the homosexual. To see the incongruity of this, one has only to consider the dominant ideological norms of the society within which we live. As far as love and sexuality are concerned, those norms are marriage (in the form of legalized heterosexual monogamy) and the nuclear family (with the alternative, at once complementary and incompatible, of exclusive romantic love). Between them they offer homosexuals the terms on which they might be acceptable: the aping of heterosexual marriage and family (with poodles instead of children) or l'amourfou, preferably culminating in suicide or alcoholism.
Of crucial importance to gay liberation is its very close, logical connection with women's liberation. The present status of both has been made possible by the increasing public acceptance of birth control, with its implicit acknowledgment that the aim of sex is not necessarily procreation, and its consequent undermining of the tyrannical and repressive norm of monogamy and family. The common logical aim of both movements must be, it seems to me, to attack and undermine the dominant ideological norms on all levels. This offers the gay critic a brief that is enormously more open and comprehensive than the examination of the ways in which homosexuals have been presented on the screen (though that might of course become a perfectly legitimate focus of her or his attention, provided the wider implications were always kept in view). The attack, for instance, could–indeed, should–be directed at the economic structures of capitalism that support the norms, as they are embodied in the structure of the film industry itself as well as in its products. Being neither a practiced political nor a sociological thinker, I am going to restrict myself to questions of sexuality and love.
When dealing with ideology, it is always necessary to ask not only what it expresses but what it represses. The opposed, largely contradictory, ideological positives our culture offers (monogamy and family, romantic love) have one obvious feature in common: the insistence on exclusivity and mutual possession, with "fidelity" thought of basically in sexual terms and sexuality mystified as "sacred." Beyond this, there is the furtive extramarital affair, with its penalties of tension, secrecy, distrust, recrimination, etc. What is repressed is the possibility that people might relate freely to each other, on a nonpairing basis, without imposing restrictions on each other's liberty. The dominant ideology has a word for this: promiscuity, a term loaded with pejorative connotations. According to ideology's double standards, there is some difference between male promiscuity and female promiscuity. A heterosexual man who is promiscuous acquires a certain glamour and is a Casanova; a woman who is promiscuous is a bitch, a tart, a slut, a whore. By and large, however, ideology has no place for promiscuity (or, as I prefer to call it, relating freely to one another) as an asserted lifestyle or a possible norm.
My shift in terminology is also a shift in meaning. Promiscuity is always exclusively sexual, and the notion of it within ideology has the function of separating sexuality from love. Relating freely to each other, on the other hand, involves potentially the whole person–including his or her sexuality, without which the relating wouldn't be free, but not restricted to it. (This is not to denigrate the pleasure of quite casual sexual relations, or to suggest that every relationship should be "complete," whatever that might mean.) Much the same distinction could be made if one substituted for promiscuity the term permissiveness–a term popularly understood almost entirely in sexual terms rather than in terms of free human relationships. The term has the added objectionability that it implies that someone or something ("society") is doing the permitting; and to acknowledge society's right to permit is to acknowledge its right to prohibit. In general, ideology's method of dealing with the unthinkable notion of free relationships is to trivialize or dirty it, so that it becomes difficult to imagine what it might actually entail or how it might work.
In Life against Death, Norman O. Brown defines the central characteristic of capitalist man as dissatisfaction, with anxiety as its inevitable companion: the desire to own more, coupled with the fear of losing what one has. Anxiety, or insecurity, certainly seems fundamental to the possessiveness that characterizes most of our sexual relationships. Parenthetically, as a person whose personal insecurity reaches proportions one might describe as grotesque, I must stress that I don't wish to appear to speak from some superior "liberated" position wherein I have solved all life's problems within my own life. On the contrary, I speak as one struggling and floundering frantically among the mess and confusion of sexual relationships as they currently exist; I am prey to all the contaminations of the jealousy, possessiveness, and exclusivity that I attack. One must, however, recognize–otherwise there could never be any progress–that ideas must always outstrip emotions. Our emotions have to be educated, and emotional education is the most painful of all processes, because the education is resisted at every point by what we call our instincts but might more reasonably think of as our ideological structuring. Only with ideas can we confront ideology.
I shall move in a while to two strongly contrasted directors with whose work I have, as a critic, been associated–Bergman and Howard Hawks–attempting to suggest ways in which their work might be reread from the perspective I have outlined. I shall not spell out in detail the differences between my approach now and my books on these two directors, as this would be deducible for those who have read them and boring for those who haven't, but I hope for the former group a critical reflection back over my past work will be implicit. First, however, I want to talk briefly about a film that, long among my favorites, has grown in meaning and in richness for me over the past year: Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game. I have come to reread the film precisely in the context I have defined: our entrapment in ideological notions of love and sexuality, with their emphasis on pairing, choice, and exclusivity; and the continuously repressed but insistent vision of the potential loveliness of genuinely shared relationships, in which none of the participants feels excluded, in which love is recognized as a life principle that transcends the exclusive romantic attachment. To anticipate, one can evoke here one of Renoir's favorite words, and the force it gets from the context of his work: generosity.
Two general or recurrent features of Renoir's work must be made present here. One is the notion (influenced perhaps by the childhood described in Renoir, My Father and the background of French Impressionism) of life as continual flux. He quotes Antoine Lavoisier's "In nature nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed" as one of his favorite texts. The other is the recurring relationship pattern in his films (at once an extension and a questioning of the "eternal triangle") of one to three–usually one woman to three men (The Golden Coach, Elena et les hommes, Diary of a Chambermaid, French Can-Can, and Rules of the Game itself, where there are in fact four men if one counts St. Aubin), though in The River there is one man to three women. The addition of a third option crucially affects the significance of the triangle, which in our culture has always been firmly associated with exclusivity and the necessity for choice (usually, the conflict is between marriage, family, and romantic love, the opposed and complementary ideological poles). If three, why not four, five–or twenty?
The film was initially received (and is still, by some people) as virulent social satire, an attack on a decadent ruling class on the eve of its inevitable dissolution. Confronted with this view, Renoir's own response was one of amazement: "But I love those people.... I would love to have lived in that world." It is consistently analyzable, I think, in terms of a tension between the two impulses these responses suggest.
There's another way of looking at the film's rich ambiguity of effect: it can be read as a film about people who go too far, or as a film about people who can't quite go far enough. Many have commented on the difficulty of defining what, precisely, are the rules of the game. In fact, every character has his or her own rules, or a personal variation on an implied complex of rules. In only two characters do the rules appear clear-cut and rigid in their application: Schumacher (Gaston Modot) and Lisette (Paulette Dubost). One aspect of the film's astonishingly complex yet precise formal organization can be suggested by pointing to three things about them: (1) they are husband and wife; (2) the rules they enforce are the most strongly contrasted of any represented in the film, indeed diametrically opposed; and (3) it is the dual action of their application of their rules that produces the climactic catastrophe. The rules of Schumacher, the gamekeeper from Alsace (who is deliberately presented, in 1939, as an embryonic Fascist), are centered on strict and repressive notions of marital fidelity, the ownership of wife by husband, that give him the moral right to shoot both wife and lover in the event of discovered infidelity. The rules of Lisette, the Parisian ladies' maid, are centered on notions of free sexual play as long as it remains frivolous and unengaged. When it comes to seriousness, the priorities are narrowly social-ideological; Octave (Renoir) is too old for Christine (Nora Gregor), and couldn't afford to keep her in the luxury she's used to.
Excerpted from Out in Culture by Corey K. Creekmur, Alexander Doty. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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