Wishful perceptions and archival fervor in queer cinema theory

review by Kevin John Bozelka

Ronald Gregg and Amy Villarejo eds., The Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. 864 pages, 220 film stills and illustrations, $175.00 hardcover ISBN 9780190877996.

It might seem difficult to believe that one sentence could sum up a book as unwieldy as The Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema, an 864-page anthology of 31 essays edited by Ronald Gregg and Amy Villarejo. But indeed, such a sentence appears at the beginning of David Lugowski’s essay “A Duet for Sailors and Pansies: Queer Archival Work and
Male Same-Sex Dancing in Follow the Fleet (1936) and Other Depression-Era Films” in which Lugowski discusses his methodology:

"My adding archival research to textual analysis, along with studying such areas as stardom, genre, authorship, performance, and reception, lends persuasive historical heft and context to what might otherwise seem a queer critic’s wishful perceptions” (187).

The labor of the queer cinema scholar involves a constant guard against claims of reading too fancifully, i.e., too queerly. We must marshal hard evidence to persuade often disinterested if not flat-out phobic minds that we did (and do) exist, that what we are seeing and hearing is actually there. Most of the authors in The Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema, then, pursue archival research with a fervor meant to ward off any attempts to erase our existence, rendering the tome an indispensable model of queer scholarship.

Lugowski, for instance, visited the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences library and analyzed documents from the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) and the Production Code Administration (PCA), two regulatory bodies within the classical Hollywood system to ensure that films conformed to a code of moral guidelines. He discovered that the censors employed by these bodies regularly mandated the elimination of “pansy humor” and any reference to “sex perversion.” Even the U.S. Navy, which assisted in the production of Follow the Fleet (Mark Sandrich, 1936), requested the removal of a scene in which Fred Astaire teaches a group of sailors how to dance.

Possible “sex perversion” in Follow the Fleet (Mark Sandrich, 1936).

That the scene remained, albeit with a less queer bent, demonstrates the centrality of queerness not only to mainstream cinema but to eras in which queerness supposedly did not exist. As Lugowski notes,

“I want to emphasize that the nature of my intervention is to read the texts at hand—the film, the scripts, the PCA files—in conjunction with each other, treating the issue of queerness not simply as one of my reception but also as the historical production of discourse” (208).

Several of the authors included in The Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema, however, contend that their acts of queer perception, no matter how “simple” or “wishful” others may claim them to be, are appropriate scholarly endeavors and feel no need to back up their assertions with archival research. In “Lesbian Cinephilia and Digital Affordances,” Patricia White discusses how digital remixing of sounds and images moves beyond the reflectionist perspective of queer presence in media. She reveals how, for instance, the video essay work of Catherine Grant “engage[s] deeply with representation as an aesthetic process, more complex than a character standing in for a social group” (81) and how fans use the GIF format to “resis[t] resolution…a perfect emblem of the fetish, forever oscillating between desire and prohibition” (87). In these instances, lesbian cinephilia is not simply a matter of identifying and celebrating openly gay characters but rather, an act of imagination to locate lesbianism at all points throughout cinema history.

Ne Me Quitte Pas (Catherine Grant, 2015) engages deeply with representation as an aesthetic process.

In “Arias for an Untold Want: The Queer Desire of the Diva Film,” Dolores McElroy links together films as disparate as Rapsodia Satanica (Nino Oxilia, 1917), Funny Girl (William Wyler, 1968), and Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933) to posit that they share a queer structure of desire. Even though the female protagonists of each title are heterosexual, their greatest love is for themselves, i.e., for another woman. Through a mise-en-scène of mirrored doubles or an extended sequence of solitary reverie, the characters break free from heterosexual strictures and bask in a queer narcissism which “can be a tool, a layer of fat against the long, patriarchal winter” (128). And in “Mirror Scene: Transgender Aesthetics in The Matrix and Boys Don't Cry,” Cael M. Keegan takes up this thread on mirrored doubles to insist that transgender aesthetics play just as much of a central role in The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999), a film with no overtly trans characters, as they do in Boys Don't Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999), a biopic about trans man Brandon Teena, indeed the film that marked a new era in transgender topicality for mainstream cinema. As Keegan avers, trans functions not

“an object of inquiry, but as a praxis of revelation and recovery in response to structures that produce imperceptibility” (495).

But whether conveying archival fervor or wishful perceptions, The Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema is an urgent, even moving act of queer witnessing, Lugowski’s fantastic essay most definitely included. Each of its eight sections serves as witness to the boundless vibrancy of queer cinema. In “Queerly, Hopelessly, Precariously: Reimagining a Queer Politics of Globalization Through Three Taiwan Films,” Hwa-Jen Tsai critiques fashionable queer theories of precarity and negativity to reveal how the precarious situation of migrant workers in three Taiwanese films, Lesbian Factory (Su-Hsiang Chen, 2010), Rainbow Popcorn (Su-Hsiang Chen, 2013), and Thanatos, Drunk (Tso-chi Chang, 2015), creates new, unforeseen forms of queer intimacy. Against recent theories espoused by Ann Cvetovich, Lee Edelman, and Judith Butler, Tsai is

“interested in seeing precarity and negativity not as ontological differences that often lead to a politics of inclusion and exclusion and, therefore, identity politics, but as potential points of connection that can generate new forms of queer relationality” (700-701).

In “Excessive Attachments: 21st Century Queer and Trans Video Art in the United States,” William J. Simmons provides a head-spinning account of trans and queer video art and installations in the 21st century from such artists as Mariah Garnett, Zackary Drucker, Jacolby Satterwhite, and Stanya Khan. What unties the disparate works by these artists is how much they position explorations of the self against normative notions of identity. Simmons suggests a necessarily multivalent critical approach to the analysis of their artwork:

“If queer and trans art always require a relationship to what is normative, there may be some nostalgia for art that only speaks for itself and requires nothing of the critic or historian other than formalist interpretation…there may be a desire to return to a pure historicism, to allow art to become discursive happenstance that illustrates social and political argumentation…We may never be able to find the happy medium among these strategies, so queer and trans video art requires some of each and, at certain times, all of them” (803).

Curran Nault traces the history of queercore cinema in “Making a Scene: Queercore Cinema.” He details a preposterous 2017 Gucci ad which hawked a Queercore Collection of overpriced garments. Against this attempt to siphon the revolutionary energy of early queercore artists such as G. B. Jones and Bruce LaBruce, a slate of documentaries have honored the movement’s punk spirit and resisted its cooptation. Nault analyzes how the frenzied pace of such documentaries as Queercore: A Punk-u-mentary (Scott Treleaven, 1996), She’s Real Worse Than Queer (Lucy Thane, 1997), Rise Above: The Tribe 8 Documentary (Tracy Flannigan, 2004), Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution (Yony Leyser, 2017), and ART Heart: Children of Riot Grrrl and Queercore (Celeste Chan and Eliat Graney-Saucke, 2018)

“conserv[e] the subculture’s visual and aural representations from the time the subculture was at its creative peak” (562).

In “Representing Ourselves into Existence: The Cultural, Political, and Aesthetic Work of Transgender Film Festivals in 1990s,” Laura Horak examines the difficulties of sustaining transgender film festivals, particularly their often tense relationships with larger gay and lesbian festivals. In order to embark on such a project, Horak used the following questions to guide her research:

“Why was this festival founded? What was its relationship to the local lesbian and gay film festival? What was shown at the festival and what were the programming criteria? Where did the funding come from? How did festival organizers imagine the 'transgender' community? What effect did the festival have on the local lesbian and gay film festival? What factors contributed to the festival’s longevity or transience?” (513).

She concludes that

“in the late 1990s, these festivals helped define a specifically transgender identity and community that overlapped with but were not coextensive with ‘queer’” (512).

And in “VHS Archives, Committed Media Praxis, and ‘Queer Cinema,’” Alexandra Juhasz reports on her VHS Archives seminar at Brooklyn College in which students not only interact with but also create new connections with her archive of 200 VHS tapes concerning queer activism. As Juhasz explains,

“[t]he primary goal was activating queer archives in useful ways, not simply digitizing tapes and plopping them on some cul-de-sac on the Web but using them, in community, to make new and linked things, feelings, and ideas” (633-634).

Students engaged in performance art, protests, remixing, and a night of burlesque in tandem with the archive. Juhasz sees this practice as part of

“the harder, less visible, and as or more resource-dependent work of saving, seeing, and using what we made before. Then there’s this work: reading (and writing) all that is not being read, and doing this as queerly as we must” (637).

Several essays steer clear of the typical academic article format to offer more personal reflections on a life in queer cinema. Thomas Waugh conceives of his tenure as a teacher, editor, and writer as a fruitful form of queer pedagogy, one threatened today by impoverished and panicky conceptions of teacher/student interactions. As Waugh contends,

“alongside the radical upheaval of #MeToo, the current turbulence, intensified as it is by litigation, polarization, misunderstanding, and scapegoating, dictates increasingly that this kind of rich intimacy is suspect, indistinguishable from exploitation to the policing bureaucracies, media, and courts” (18).

But Waugh sees his chapter as one that

“urges queer film studies to maintain its sometimes underrecognized legacy of work that is author-driven, personal, and essayistic and engaged with everyday life and political environments, and a canon that strides the spectrum between R. W. Fassbinder and Colby Keller” (16).

In “'A Panorama of Gay Life': Nighthawks and British Queer Cinema in the 1970s,” Glyn Davis offers a history on the making of Nighthawks (Ron Peck, 1978) that bursts with fascinating factoids, especially concerning the travails of funding the film:

And Jenni Olson’s meditation on her “Thirty Years in the Queer Film Ecosystem,” as a festival organizer, critic, filmmaker, and preservationist, is so fun and passionate that it reads like a coffee klatch with a fellow film geek, offering ever more fascinating factoids: while working on preserving the films of Arthur J. Bressan, Jr., Olson found a letter from Frank Capra to Bressan about the latter’s 1974 film Passing Strangers which warns

“don’t be surprised if audiences as well as critics are baffled by the blend of ‘explicitly homosexual’ and ‘heart and passion’” (604).

There are more riches in The Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema than one book review can unearth. In “More than Meets the Eye: On Facing without Fully Knowing the Queer Worlds around Us,” Nick Davis expounds on the usefulness of reticence and withholding in three gay films that critics have slotted as middlebrow: Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night (2016), Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s They (2017), and Händl Klaus’s Tomcat (2016). While these titles avoid the explicit sexuality, revolutionary tenor, and challenging form of more radical queer cinema, they nevertheless “refract attention towards social questions and axes of power” (48). Davis elucidates the operations of these three lesser-known films by linking them to his reception of Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016):

“Watching Moonlight elucidate Chiron’s experience for two hours while evading pressures on all sides to divulge secrets, label desires, or privilege my curiosity over his introversion gives me the same pleasure as a gymnast’s sustained equipoise on the balance beam or an operatic leitmotif that never resolves” (45-46).

Allison McCracken’s “‘There's a Rainbow on the River’: The Affordances of Boy Soprano Bobby Breen in 1930s Hollywood” concerns the phobic reception of 1930s Hollywood boy soprano Bobby Breen. By the 1930s, the boy soprano (along with the higher-voiced crooners popular with female audiences) was being displaced by more “authentic” voices that were heard as expressing the true inner self of the singer, a trope that would later find its apex in rock music. The boy soprano was also associated with Irish, Italian, and Jewish ethnicities, groups that some commentators perceived as not having properly assimilated as Americans. Nevertheless, Breen’s films were quite popular with precisely these devalued audiences. McCracken analyzes these films as well as the discourse surrounding them

“to closely examine the affordances of Breen’s boy soprano voice: not only how it enabled particular queer vocalities, but also the way in which those vocalities in turn enabled sentimental narratives that privileged the cultural feminine, provided white working-class and gender variant representations, and resulted in professional opportunities for marginalized creative talent” (160).

In “Teorema's Death Drive,” Damon Young analyzes Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 masterpiece in order to uncover what this seemingly intractable film has to say about, and offer to, queerness. Young reads the film not as an expression of queer identity but rather, as a springboard for creating new identities and relationships:

“Here, in 1968, we have a first cinematic inscription of homosexual desire as death drive—not in the sense of a murderous narcissism or a criminal pathology, not as any psychological attribute, but rather in the precise sense Lacan gave that phrase when he described it as creation ex nihilo, from scratch, ‘a will to create from zero, a will to begin again.’” (352).

For “Greener Pastures: Filming Sex and Place at Druid Heights,” Greg Youmans outlines the varied use of Marin County’s Druid Heights area in queer and non-queer cinema: The Bed (James Broughton, 1967), Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (Mariposa Film Group, 1977), and the heterosexual pornographic film Skintight (Ed De Priest , 1981). Youmans notes that in 2018, the California State Historic Preservation Office announced that Druid Heights was eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Central to Youmans’ argument, however, is a consideration of what kinds of histories such a designation will preserve including any of the representations of Druid Heights in the films above. His ultimate goal, then, is

“to show how the cinematic archive has a perhaps unique ability to hold historical contradictions in montage—contradictions that are otherwise vulnerable to being separated out into layers of sediment that are then buried and paved over by the official account of what happened” (384-385).

But the most redolent essay in The Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema is Marc Francis’ “For Shame!: On the History of Programming Queer ‘Bad Objects’" for how it epitomizes both the historical and the fanciful strains of the anthology. In this superb article which fuses archival fervor with wishful perceptions, Francis analyzes film programming as an act of reparative historicizing:

“Within this methodology, the historian forges a relationship to the past that does not presuppose loss, deficiency, and pain but is rather one of openness to various positions that one can have to the past” (409).

By spreading out titles across a repertory theatre’s calendar (Francis examines the November-December 1978 calendar of San Francisco’s Roxie Cinema. Click here to see program.), programmers place films in conversation with one another and with various audiences to reveal the polysemy of queer cinema—an ecosystem greeted with shame, rage, and paranoia, to be sure, but also pleasure, joy, and the drive to forge new relationships and experiences. In the face of perpetual attempts to ward off our existence, Francis’ essay and The Oxford Handbook of Queer Cinema overall is a testament to the fact that queerness was, is, and will always central to cinema.