by Thomas Waugh
Cut, no. 16, 1977, pp. 14-18
WILL HOMOSEXUALS BE
The prospect of writing on a few gay-oriented films for JUMP CUT has caused me a few tremors of hesitation. There are obvious dangers in blowing one's professional cover (i.e., coming out) in academia in 1977. But there are worse places to come out in than a Faculty of Fine Arts, like a Faculty of Engineering, for example (to indulge in a little of what is called interdisciplinary retaliatory stereotyping). And if a friend of mine in an English department was able, just last year, to seize tenure from the jaws of a board of Catholic priests, things are looking up indeed. There are other more important reasons for my hesitation, which I would like to outline briefly before I get started.
Dialogue between gay leftists and straight leftists is not a new phenomenon, but until recently it was never conducted equitably or constructively. As a rule, most serious leftists now give at least token support to the issue of gay civil rights, as they do to one variation or another of the feminist analysis — you just can't keep opportunism in the closet these days. Nevertheless, gays still occasionally get expelled from left party formations. The Venceremos Brigade still won't let us go to Cuba with them. An enthusiastic gay contingent gets ignored and insulted at last summer's 4th of July Coalition, Anti-Bicentennial Rally in Philadelphia. And one still has to deal with such provocations as a position paper recently published by a California-based splinter group that states unequivocally that "homosexuals cannot be communists." (1)
As a teacher, I occasionally run into a few other variations of this old song and dance. Two recent examples: "There won't be any homosexuals in the classless society," and a reference to the Nazi extermination of homosexuals as an "isolated atrocity."
Adherents to the robust and rapidly growing gay left movements in North America and Europe constantly run into that kind of bigotry within the Left. Ironically, this more often comes from middle-class intellectuals than from workers themselves, as the experiences of lesbians in working women's groups and of gay men and women in various unions have revealed. The attitudes of these pseudo-radicals usually boils down to, "We think you should have job security even if you are sick and leave the revolution to us." In the face of all of this, many gay radicals have simply resorted to organizing and consciousness-raising within the gay community itself. Others refuse to leave the revolution to straights. For this courageous minority, the model provided by contemporary East Germany is an important one: it can hardly be a coincidence that the most liberal of the socialist states with regard to sexual minorities is also the one in which gays participated most actively in pre-revolutionary party formations. (2)
To return somewhat closer to home, even a journal as progressive in its sexual politics as JUMP CUT needs to examine its own record. The most obvious blot in this record came late in 1974, when a JUMP CUT reviewer casually passed on one of the oldest and most libelous stereotypes going. (3) A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, but the offending article, a discussion of the Clint Eastwood vehicle THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, wittily entitled "Tightass and Cocksucker," needs to be given a decent burial. One of the few critics around to have confronted the homoerotic subtext of the "buddy" genre head-on, the author, Peter Biskind, correctly points to a fabric of sly allusions and suggestive imagery beneath the surface of the film, but then he turns his perception in a direction so perverse and reductionist that it is hard to follow.
The gist of the argument is that there must be some connection between this latent gay motif and the film's much more blatant misogynist sensibility (surely a conventional feature of the genre). But the connection posited by the article is that, as everyone knows, homosexuals hate women. Behind the film, in fact, lies a conspiracy of women-hating homosexuals with the intent of denigrating heterosexuality. This seditious intent is no doubt realized by the total suppression of overt gay references, by the prurient, mocking, and exploitative tone of the gay subtext, and by the startlingly original idea of having the proto-gay character stomped to death. The film is no less anti-gay than it is anti-woman. In fact, it is anti-sex and about as subversively homoerotic as a frat party drag show or a barroom fag joke. Thanks a lot — we could pull off a better conspiracy than that anytime. (Just think of how skillfully we seduce your children.) The mind boggles over how a jumble of sly fag jokes tossed about by presumably straight filmmakers can be read as pro-gay propaganda, and furthermore how gays can then get blamed for the anti-woman attitudes that accompany them. You can't win. For me, the film is definitive proof of the intrinsic identity between homophobia and sexism.
If JUMP CUT's single such slip-up is easily atoned for, a more general homophobia-by-default is less easy to repudiate, as well as to define. Any faggot or dyke worth his or her salt knows that silence is one of the first symptoms of advanced homophobia. And in this sense JUMP CUT is clearly suspect (although the silence of other radical film mags, from CINEASTE to SCREEN, is deafening in comparison-without even considering the latter's adherence to certain latently homophobic aspects of Lacanian psychoanalysis).
JUMP CUT's most recent attempt to deal with the "buddy" movies, Arthur Nolletti's "Male Companionship Movies and the Great American Cool,"(4) was so anxious to block and repress a crucial aspect of the films under discussion-that is, the obvious homoerotic undertone of most of them — that it left a trail a mile wide. Except for a single passing reference, the article's avoidance of the love that dare not speak its name was as conspicuous as that of the films themselves.
It is true, however, that JUMP CUT has been inching forward in this area. I was so excited to see the two open lesbians among the contributors to last summer's special issue that I nearly stopped hating women for a moment. And the two pieces on DOG DAY AFTERNOON in the same issue at least recognized the relevance of the film to the gay problematic, although neither went beyond the call of duty.
Okay, it is in this context that I hesitate in writing this piece. Given the lingering homophobic tendency of the straight Left, does it not amount to treachery to criticize fellow gays (which I am about to do), to provide fuel for existing anti-gay stereotypes within the JUMP CUT readership, to wash the gay movement's linen in front of a possibly unsympathetic audience? Just what the movement needs!
What it really needs, I believe (as does an increasingly articulate segment), is a recognition of its stake in all revolutionary struggles and a firmer commitment to its natural alliance with radical and feminist causes. And not only this. What it also needs is dogged and determined spokespeople within the straight Left loudly refusing to down one or more ounce of shit from the closet bigots therein and defiantly insisting that any Marxist analysis or feminist analysis that ignores the gay struggle is an incomplete analysis. And they must persistently remind the Left that we are planning to turn out in full force, in our habitual percentage, for the classless society.
A VERY NATURAL THING
When Christopher Larkin's A VERY NATURAL THING first appeared in early 1974, the gay men's movement had every reason to be encouraged. "Serious" and "First" were the two words everyone used to describe this feature-length color narrative that dared to deal with gay male life from a gay perspective and in a non-porno framework. And it is true that its seriousness and its innovativeness both guarantee its place as a milestone in gay film history, despite its many obvious shortcomings.
There had been gay films before. After all, by the 70s the concentrated, profitable market of young, urban gay males was a well-tested commercial reality. Everyone from the Mafioso gay-bar entrepreneurs to haberdashers had long since cashed in on this ghettoized market, and filmmakers, at first primarily pornographers, were no different. (During the early 70s the gay porno industry was well ahead of its hetero counterpart in technical and stylistic sophistication.) Even Hollywood would wake up to the economic reality of this market, which gay publications such as The Advocate and After Dark (respectively the largest open-gay and the largest closet-gay national magazines) made clear to their advertisers was composed of freeliving, big-spending young bachelors with sophisticated tastes. However, until A VERY NATURAL THING, the non-porno films that catered to this market seemed relics of that pre-Stonewall past that gays wanted to forget.
Two fairly competent such films had appeared in 1970, for example (the year after the New York Stonewall riots, which symbolically introduced the era of gay lib), and both reflected a gay perspective of gay subject matter. One was THE BOYS IN THE BAND, a quite faithful Hollywood version of a gay-authored play, slightly enervated for general consumption by director William Friedkin. The other was STICKS AND STONES, a more modest, independent treatment of a similar theme, directed by Stan LoPresto. Both of these films, however, embodied an anachronistic defeatism, a morbid, self-directed hatred that surely reinforced homophobia within their straight audiences, curious but still powerfully destructive artifacts of an era when "gay" translated onto the screen meant "trivial, tragic, and tormented."
What was different about A VERY NATURAL THING was that it deliberately attempted to escape the traditional rituals of self-loathing. Here was a film that so many of us wanted to call our own that many of us did so without thinking, not the least because of one specific feature of the film that had vast symbolic important — its happy ending.
DIGRESSION: WHY GAY ENDINGS AREN'T ALWAYS HAPPY
The happy ending is a convention that Hollywood and its foreign competitors traditionally drop off like flies, with clockwork predictability, at the service of dramatic expediency and the sexual anxiety of the dominant culture. 1974, for example, saw, in addition to A VERY NATURAL THING, the successful release of Truffaut's DAY FOR NIGHT. Truffaut's gay audiences were momentarily transported when the film's leading man, Jean-Pierre Aumont, was revealed to be gay and to have a beautiful young lover to boot. But they should have known that it was too good to be true. Truffaut's knee-jerk liberal impulse, upon introducing such a fine affirmative image, was to have Aumont and his lover summarily wiped out by the most freakishly gratuitous highway accident in film history. Two more faggots bite the dust as Truffaut's warm, humane, joyous tribute to filmmaking tidies off its loose threads in the last reel.
As I've said, Truffaut was in traditional company. Death by unnatural causes has been the standard device used by the bourgeois cinema to finish off any token minority member who doesn't know his or her place — blacks and sexually forward or independent women, as well as gays. Remember the dozens of gruesome deaths inflicted on poor Sidney Poitier by 50s liberalism and the hundreds of saloon prostitutes finished off so that Henry Fonda or whoever could end up with the virtuous, submissive girl from the East? The deaths reserved for lesbians and gay men have been particularly mechanical, however, and often fiendishly ingenious. If Shirley MacLaine dangling from the ceiling in THE CHILDREN'S HOUR and Ratso Rizzo's glazed eyeballs in the Miami bus in MIDNIGHT COWBOY are perhaps the images imprinted most indelibly on our collective unconscious, death by gunshot has been by far the favorite recourse of screenwriters looking for a tidy ending. Sal Mineo in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, Stephane Audran in LES BICHES, Don Murray in ADVISE AND CONSENT, and Rod Steiger in THE SERGEANT head this list of the departed. The prizes for the most original deaths go to Mark Rydell for the tasteful way he has Sandy Dennis struck down by a falling tree in THE FOX and to Ken Russell for Richard Chamberlain's magnificent demise in THE MUSIC LOVERS, cholera-induced convulsions in a vomit-laced tub of boiling bathwater.(5)
Even as superficially progressive a film as SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY left poor Peter Finch alone with his stoic courage at the end as his handsome lover jetted off to the New World — a transatlantic flight providing a more discreet way out for 70s chic than the suicide or freak accident that would have been Finch's lot in any other era.
In any case, the flourishing gay audience of the 70s, fed up with all this gore, was bound to get its happy ending sooner or later. Larkin stepped in to fulfill the historical role of providing it for them. And happy it was!
WHY HAPPY ENDINGS AREN'T ALWAYS GAY
Larkin's conclusion to A VERY NATURAL THING was the fulfillment of generations of suppressed and sublimated gay male fantasy: a dazzlingly sunny, climactic beach sequence, with the film's hero and his new-found, not-quite lover running hand in hand, naked, through the surf, penises flinging about with carefully revealed spontaneity, in slow motion, of course, with swelling romantic music (tasteful brass) filling the screen, the theater, and ten million ravaged hearts.
It was a sequence that sent its original audiences out into the dark homophobic world with a euphoric, utopian energy, those sunny, slow motion shots undoing generations of bullets and falling trees (the sequence also provides the standard publicity still used by the distributor). The ending left California critic Lee Atwell equally elated, and he closed what was probably the most intelligent review of the film (reserved but encouraging) with Larkin's own description of the slow motion coda: "expansive with pure joy, playful, free, intimate, passionate—symbolizing the effort of every person who seeks a life informed by beauty, intelligence and love."(6)
If the sequence did in fact capture the mood of a whole generation of gay men who had discovered the freedom and beauty of their own bodies, each other, and the world outside the closet door, it is also true that the pure joy, etc. on the beach had very little to do with the anxious, reflective tone of the rest of the film, and in fact it blocked some of the insights that Larkin was groping for but never managed to articulate fully.
The story follows a year or so in the life of a young New York schoolteacher who has his fantasies of monogamous felicity rudely shattered in the first half of the film by a doomed relationship with a straight-identified young businessman. In the second half, the hero meets Mr. Right but this time manages to keep his cool and resolves to play it by ear. Mr. Right is of course the other frolicker in the surf.
The story builds, then, on a recognition of the inadequacy of traditional romantic patterns for gay lifestyles. The first relationship is destroyed by possessiveness and inflexible expectations based on received heterosexual models. But this recognition, which even the film's gratingly earnest hero, David, seems on the verge of articulating, is ultimately undercut by the sun, the sand, and the pair of gleaming asses in the waves.
This pattern of conflicting loyalties is pure Hollywood: give literal surface allegiance to the correct ideological formation (matrimony and family in the case of classical Hollywood and gay lib's ideal of non-stereotyped sexual roles in Larkin's case), but devote all your visual and dramatic energies to the values you really feel deep down (in Hollywood's case, the strictly non-domestic eroticism that props up the box office and, in Larkin's, the conventional hetero romantic fantasies). Larkin is certainly aware of the limitations of David's pathetic Hollywood-derived expectations — he forces Lover Number One to say "I love you" and to roll through the autumn leaves with David — but Larkin can no more get his sights on an alternative to the old model than can David. Larkin is confined by the very problematic he seeks to resolve. Having dutifully said "no" in the script, Larkin indulges in his slow motion coda, which drowns out that "no" with every fleck of surf and overdetermined flash of crotch.
The final sequence points to other serious limitations in Larkin's insight as well. The beach, naturally, is deliriously empty for Larkin's farewell image. The endless vista of sand and sea could be part of a Bahamas travel ad if both figures had bathing suits on, one being a bikini. Now I do not mean to be too hard on a sequence that moved me no less than it did many others in the original audience and fulfilled a specific historical function in 1974, but the emptiness of it all has disturbing implications. It is as if the two naked figures were gamboling in some pre-social paradise, like the plaintive fantasy of Blake's young chimney sweeps, (7) and such an image unfortunately expresses the social perspective of all too many gay ideologists. It is the ultimate delusive myth of a certain middle-class core of the gay community that sexual liberation can take place without reference to its societal context. Homophobia is just one facet of a totality of sexist and class oppression. Liberation would be no problem if we all had our private beach to play on.
It is no accident that the deserted beach is also a stock image from the pages of The Advocate, the California-based biweekly organ of the non-politicized gay community. Here we find the consumerized, middle-class cooptation of the gay movement expressed in its most blatant terms. The Advocate's millionaire publisher, David Goodstein, the General Pinochet of gay lib, delivers regular polemics against the unrespectable, "unkempt" troublemakers (i.e., radicals) in the movement who hog the limelight and threaten his projected image of the respectable, winter-in-Hawaii, middle-class gay. Much of his space is devoted to features on closeted and straight showbiz celebrities, who all assure their interviewers that some of their best friends are gay. There is even an investment counseling column.
To be sure, Larkin is to be credited with showing slightly more awareness of social realities than The Advocate. He does show all three main characters, for instance, in their occupational milieus (although Goodstein would approve heartily of each one): the hero teaching poetry to a class of girls, Lover Number One carrying his attaché case to and from his office and ordering a female secretary around therein (I couldn't tell whether this potentially provocative insight was intentional on Larkin's part), and Mr. Right, a self-employed photographer, wielding his camera with all the artistic sensitivity to be expected of a gay man. Regrettably, this is as far as it goes. Although, for example, we learn that David cannot come out because of his teaching job, the movie communicates little sense of the dynamics of this oppression — perhaps the most palpable for gays of David's class and profession — and the way it confines him and his businessman lover to their schizophrenic lives and their isolated, fearful ghetto. And, of course, there is little sense as well that most New York gays do not have smart West Side apartments, cozy fireside dinners à deux, Deutsche Gramophone records, and Fire Island summers, with no persecution from landlords, police, thugs, and Salem ads. The New York of the film is that clichéd paradise for lovers from the pages of The Advocate and After Dark, revolving around Central Park, the West Village, Lincoln Center, and Fire Island, a fantasy as sanitized and phony as any Hollywood set in spite of Larkin's skilled use of location shooting and an unknown cast. It goes without saying that there is no sense whatsoever of the affinity between gays and other oppressed groups such as is felt in the work of some European gays, like Fassbinder and Pasolini, and even in that of Americans such as the Warhol-Morrissey and John Waters-Divine duos.
One or two scenes built on David's interactions with his equally ghettoized friends have satiric, even critical potential, which Larkin seems to be aware of without being able to exploit fully. In one dinner party sequence, for example, the camera repeatedly catches the host's gleaming silver services and seems equally drawn to one of the guests' working-class Puerto Rican lover, silent and painfully out of place. This scene suggests a potential analysis of class structures within the gay ghetto à la Fassbinder, but this potential is never fully realized.
One of Larkin's most intelligent choices was to intercut his story with some documentary footage and interviews taken during the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade. In one sense this choice compensates partly for the empty societal backdrop in the rest of the picture. The images of real lesbians and gay men being themselves and talking to the camera are lively and refreshing (the interviews provide the film's keynote and title in one lesbian's comment that gayness is "a very natural thing"). But even here, the atmosphere has a somewhat overstated, euphoric edge to it and the title a strained, idealist ring as well. Seeing the film now, in retrospect, one can too easily find the lurking implication that it is no less easy to talk of liberation and natural things when surrounded by one's gay sisters and brothers in a collective demonstration than it is to frolic slow motion on a deserted beach.
In 1974, however, it seemed certain that Larkin's was a voice to be heard from in the future. Despite the awkwardness and ideological naiveté of his first effort, it seemed possible that he was on the verge of asking important questions. A VERY NATURAL THING itself still appears from time to time: it played in Montreal for a few weeks last summer in ironic juxtaposition to the mass arrests of gays being carried out at the same time by officials who apparently considered gayness A Very Dirty Thing to be swept under the carpet for the Olympics. Meanwhile, Larkin has apparently no plans for a follow-up film. Reportedly disillusioned and bitter about his first bout behind the camera, he has recently produced a commercially successful gay musical, BOY MEETS BOY, which has run in several of the major gay ghettos. Another product for The Advocate market, BOY MEETS BOY is a gay updating of 30s musicals conventions, consummated presumably with yet another happy ending.
WHO ARE WE?
It seems as if North American gay men will have to look elsewhere for a serious expression of their reality, filmic or otherwise. One possible direction in which to look, incredible as it may seem, is the television screen. I'm not referring to the much touted presence of a few token gays in network sitcoms last fall.(8) It would be unrealistic to expect more from such tokenism than blacks got from Julia. After all, the portrayal of Walt Whitman in the PBS special last winter was so innocuous and whitewashed that the uninitiated audience no doubt concluded that the great gay poet was persecuted for his long hair and that the harmless-looking young man he picked up in a taxi and lived with for 20 years but never touched let alone kissed was his roommate. (The only person Wald did touch in the whole hour of histrionics and verbosity was his retarded brother.) So even if Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman does go one step beyond this, it's still not enough.
The question of whether establishment TV can go far enough (in case anyone is still wondering) will no doubt be answered more definitively when Who Are We?, a documentary by and about lesbians and gay men, is finally finished and broadcast on public television sometime in the (ambiguous) future.
In the works for almost four years, the project was initiated by a West Coast documentarist, Peter Adair, whose major previous credit is a documentary on a snake-handling protestant sect that made a modest impression a decade ago. The subject matter this time is somewhat closer to home. Otherwise the film has been a collective endeavor, and now working on the final stages of the film are Adair's sister Nancy, Andrew Brown, Rob Epstein, Veronica Selber, and Lucy Phenix (who was associated with the prestigious radical documentary WINTER SOLDIERS).
The collective's 50-50 composition of women and men reflects their determination to redress the invisibility of lesbians in the public image of the gay movement (item: A VERY NATURAL THING’s only important female part was Mr. Right's heterosexual ex-wife). More generally, the aim of Who Are We? is simply to answer that basic question posed by the title.
This answer has proven to be more elusive, however, than the group at first expected. In fact, the impossibility of the project may prove to be the film's undoing. Consider the sheer ludicrousness of the job of defining filmically a community of twenty million lesbians and gay men that not even social scientists have been able to define to anyone's satisfaction (not that straight social scientists are particularly interested. As with A VERY NATURAL THING, the film’s ultimate importance may be as a symbolic milestone rather than for any intrinsic aesthetic or political virtue.
Simply the very fact of being confronted with a gallery of cinema verité portraits of real, actual people, lesbians and gay men, rather than the fantasies and dramatic pretexts of sitcoms, the soap operas, and the skin flicks — real people describing real situations and experiences to the camera — this fact alone will be an important breakthrough for a minority that has never controlled its own image before.
The conception of the film has been in a constant state of flux since the outset. For one thing, the number of subjects to be presented has risen steadily as the collective has attempted to represent more and more elements within the gay community. When I encountered some of them last summer, they were in search of an East-Coast Third-World Young Male and were collecting video tests of an East-Coast White Student Activist and an East-Coast Lesbian Activist, among others.
Fault will inevitably be found with the spectrum of subjects finally chosen by the group. It will be impossible to please everyone, or maybe even anyone. The criticism they had encountered so far in the course of trial projections came from every direction. Too many monogamous couples (shades of A VERY NATURAL THING). Not enough "effeminate" men. Too many "effeminate" men. What about drag queens?
One of the interviewees, a lesbian around 30, tells of her bitter memories of institutionalization as a teenager and then conducts the camera around her wilderness retreat as she chops down trees, in flannel shirt, jeans, and boots. Is that woman a negative stereotype (escapist and alienated) or a positive one (resourceful and independent), or simply a real person with an important historical testimony to offer?
If 20 subjects are necessary to suggest the diversity of the gay community, will the resulting portraits be too sketchy and superficial? The baffling range of reactions to the work in progress no doubt reflects the range of presuppositions about what the finished film should try to do. Would it be most valuable if aimed at straights? at open gays? at closet gays? The emphasis was at first to find positive role models for the gay audience on either side of the closet door, but the possibly conflicting tendency to reflect a legitimate cross-section of the gay community seems to be present, also. Naturally, there are radically opposing views on what constitutes a positive role model and what constitutes a legitimate cross-section depending on whether you read The Advocate or not.
One strategy of the collective that seems fairly definite and that many radical gays have found dismaying is the soft-pedaling of explicit political rhetoric and analysis in the interviews — in short, according to some critics — censorship.
Adair believes that such rhetoric will alienate non-politicized gays and prevent them from coming out and that a film like HEARTS AND MINDS, with its explicit political viewpoint, talks down to its audience from a position of righteousness. Even if this approach may ultimately be the only realistic way to get on the air, such logic is not likely to placate the radical critics of the project, who see the systematic suppression of political aspects of the subjects' lives as a vicious betrayal. They point to the case of a well-known activist lawyer from San Francisco who was presented in the trial version of the film without the slightest mention of his political life.
Yet when I saw that version along with a small New York audience that included several of that city's most respected gay radicals as well as a larger number of prospective small investors and other gays, the tears flowed abundantly, and there could be no questions of the compelling power of the document on its way to completion.
Whatever may be the situation by the time the collective arrives at a release version (their response to feedback seemed so conscientious that the final shape of the project is hard to predict), it is likely that any radical content will arise from an extension of the film’s documentary ontology itself, rather than in the views articulated by any of the subjects or the exemplary nature of their lives as seen on the screen. I mean this in the same way that the early feminist films, modest records of ordinary women talking about their lives, proved invaluable as a consciousness-raising tool in the women's movement, regardless of the level of awareness reached by the subjects on the screen. If the lively debate triggered by the trial version is matched on a larger scale when Who Are We? is finally broadcast, the collective and the radical gay community will have no cause to complain.
If, on the other hand, radical gays want films directly answering our needs as organizing tools and the needs of the gay community as a whole, films incorporating radical discourse and offering clear-sighted analysis, it is hardly news that we cannot expect these films from the establishment media but must look to alternative media resources instead, the way the feminists and the straight left have been learning to do for some time.
THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT
Another television film produced recently, in England this time, THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT, also appears as a model, encouraging in many respects, of the best that we can expect from the establishment media. A Thames Television International production directed by Jack Gold, THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT is a three-part dramatization of the autobiography of one Quentin Crisp, a British gay in his 70s who, since the film came out last year, has become something of a cult figure for the British movement.
Crisp is a "Queen," as straight reviewers trying to throw around a little gay vernacular without ever ringing true would say (9) (or "graceful," as Olympic sportscasters say of certain male figure skaters) — in effect, defiantly and flamboyantly "effeminate." As we see him in a brief introductory appearance at the start of the film, delicately poising his teacup for the camera, and as the record of his 50-year struggle demonstrates fully, Crisp is in every way worthy of the regal connotation of the term "queen" as well as the vernacular one. In fact, Crisp's story serves as much as an exemplary history of resistance to societal oppression over the years as it does as a personal memoir.
Crisp, as enacted by John Hurt, with his widely fluffed and henna-ed hair and his Cowardly intonation, comes across somewhat like Maggie Smith. Both Body Politic and Gay Left, the Canadian and British journals of radical gay lib, respectively, expressed reservations about the ultimate effect the Crisp image would have in confirming existing stereotypes among the straight and closet gay public (10) (surprisingly, since it is more typical of The Advocate to be concerned about being butch in public. I think however that any potential damaging effect is fully offset by the film's defiant embrace of the "queen" stereotype and its success in fleshing out that stereotype dramatically and historically. It is no mean accomplishment for Gold and Hurt to have realized a popular dramatic work in which an "effeminate" man, the traditional outcast of the more respectable elements of the gay community as well as of the outside world, should enlist such a strong identification from a general audience, as the Crisp character seems to do, without any of the usual shortcuts of sentimentality, condescension, or martryr-olatry.
THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT is remarkably tough-headed. It manages to avoid a feeling of the bland, affirmative image making that gay media critics often seem to be demanding and of which A VERY NATURAL THING is the ultimate expression. It does this by retaining the personal specificity of Crisp's story and exploiting the sharp sense of self-awareness that apparently marked the original memoirs. Furthermore, the script, using a first-person voice-over narrative and pointedly ironic intertitles, has effected a layer of analytic counterpoint above the story itself, commenting at one point, for example, on the self-destructive, exhibitionist urges that seem to motivate Crisp's struggle as much as any more conventional heroic impulse.
As I've said, the film has considerable value as a historical document, a record of an aspect of contemporary history that I daresay straight people (and many young gays) know very little about: the ubiquitous, systematic homophobia of traditional bourgeois society. Once the young Crisp leaves the oppressively middleclass parental home (typical breakfast-time ice-breaker: "Are you going to get a job today?"), his picaresque journey takes him a lot of places. There are various entries into the job market, where he briefly occupies a few of those artistic positions available to discreet members of his caste. He tries his hand as a commercial artist and a tap-dancing teacher, for example. Although his adventures take place at every level of the social ladder, he invariably returns to one of the two ghettos that pre-Stonewall society permitted the uncloseted gay, the lumpen underworld and the upper-class salon circuit of the bohemian-chic intelligentsia.
Along the way, Crisp runs into every kind of persecution offered to the discriminating gay (most of which is still available) by punks, queer-bashers, police, judges, psychiatrists, clergymen, landlords, neighbors, soldiers, psychopaths, liberals, and the upper-class gay who coldly exclude such a tactless brother from their club. Crisp defies one and all to do their worst. He stubbornly refuses through all of it to surrender his chosen identity and lifestyle. His ultimate survival — and triumph, even, as "one of the stately old homos of Britain” — is a happy ending that, in contrast to Larkin's romp through the surf, resounds with inspiration, integrity, and realism.
Humor is one important way by which THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT is able to sharpen its analysis of the social and psychological dynamics confronted by Crisp. The film is wonderfully funny. It is paradoxical, and no doubt significant, that A VERY NATURAL THING and many other gay films make virtually no use of this formidable device. I say "paradoxical" because humor has always been the gay resource par excellence—virtually the only refuge and weapon we had during those eons in the closet. I would even venture to say that it often had the same kind of liberating function in the pre-Stonewall gay community that music and Christianity are said to have for blacks under slavery (and as likely to interiorize society's hatred and serve the oppressor by virtue of its sublimating function). Both BOYS IN THE BAND and STICKS AND STONES, as rooted as they are in pre-liberation ideology, have delightful comic moments. Even if the comic predisposition has resulted in the addition of "bitchery" and "camp" to the faggot stereotype, I think it has often served us well. This makes it all the more amazing to me that, of the ten or so major gay filmmakers I could list, most are unredeemably solemn. The belly laughs are few and far between, for example, in the films of Eisenstein, Murnau, Cocteau, Visconti, Pasolini, and Fassbinder. Apart from the somewhat special case of Laurel and Hardy, and without considering the latter-day lumpen-camp genre of Warhol-Morrissey and Waters-Divine, Lindsay Anderson is the only significant exception whom I can think of.
But to return to Quentin Crisp, the irreverent wit with which he assails every target within the bourgeois order is devastating. As examples, the portrait of the army psychiatrist who crumbles before the task of deciding whether this effete young man in his underwear and nail polish is competent to serve King and Country, or Crisp's version of London gays' patriotic contribution to the war effort in the form of recreational facilities for the GIs ("Never in the history of sex was so much offered to so many by so few"). When it comes to the protagonist's own internalized oppression, the narrator is no less keen. Crisp's persistent fantasy of "the great dark man whose love I will win" is continuously played within the intertitles until finally he wakes up to the delusion of this fantasy, and the viewer is assaulted with the title to end all titles: "There is no great dark man." Class structures within the gay community, the economic bases of ghetto, closet, and homophobia, and the political function of psychiatry are all treated with the same clarity and dispatch.
Crisp's chronicle is a history, as I've said, that must be kept alive. No bourgeois historians are going to bother with it, any more than they bother noting our "isolated atrocity" at the hands of the Nazis. But at the same time, this history needs to be made complete by the qualification that Crisp is likely an exception — many of his contemporaries not gifted with the resources of his courage, tenacity, social connections, sense of humor, and luck, no doubt have succumbed to the bleak terrors of prison, asylum closet, ghetto, and repression. Homophobia is not a gratuitous quirk of bourgeois society but an integral link in a chain of sexism and economic exploitation. The ultimate victory cannot be won outside of society, or despite it, as Crisp's was, but through it by changing it. This is a lesson THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT stops short of articulating, for all its merits.
But this analysis will never be found on establishment television. We will only see it on the screen when we ourselves control our own distribution and exhibition systems, as well as the camera triggers that gay activists are using more and more in the eighth year of the Stonewall era. In any case, now that we have our happy endings, this next step has been pointed to all the more clearly.
1. "Position Paper of the 'Revolutionary Union' on Homosexuality and Gay Liberation," reprinted in Toward a Scientific Analysis of the Gay Question, a pamphlet published by the Los Angeles Research Group, P.O. Box 1362, Cudahy, CA 90201. Also included in this piece of hate literature are the insights that "because homosexuality is rooted in individualism it is a feature of petty bourgeois ideology which puts forth the idea that there are individual solutions to social problems," and that gay liberation "can lead us only down the road of demoralization and defeat."
2. See Jim Steakley, "Gays Under Socialism: Male Homosexuality in the German Democratic Republic," in The Body Politic (Toronto), No. 29, December 1976-January 1977.
3. Peter Biskind, "Tightass and Cocksucker," JUMP CUT #4, Nov.-Dec. 1974. Biskind is a personal friend of mine, and I can vouch that he has come a long way since 1974, has agreed to serve as whipping boy in this article, and has been invaluable in keeping me in touch with my latent heterophobia over the years.
4. Arthur Noletti, Jr., "Male Companionship Movies and the Great American Cool," JUMP CUT #12/13, Dec. 1976.
5. For a more complete sense of this macabre tradition, see "Those Were the Gays," Gay News (London) #101, August-September 1976, an unsigned compilation of over 250 gay roles in the commercial cinema since 1960, with a capsule summary of each one, which reads like a list of the fallen at a veterans' memorial service.
6. Lee Atwell, "A VERY NATURAL THING," Gay Sunshine, A Journal of Gay Liberation (San Francisco) #23, Nov.-Dec. 1974.
8. Bill Barbanes, television reviewer for The Body Politic, summarized his response to the new gay presence on TV in this way (# 28, November 1976):
9. For a glaring example of the misuse of the gay vernacular see Ruth McCormick, "Fox and His Friends," in Cineaste, 7:2, Spring 1976.
10. The Body Politic (#27, October 1976) wondered whether THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT was not open to "serious misinterpretation" in its review by Robert Trow: