Doc of the Day: The Celluloid Closet Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: The Celluloid Closet

Posted in Days of Docs by - January 28, 2012

Homosexuals have had a long, problematic history in their depiction on film. This doc follows their trials and tribulations through a century of movies.

Poster courtesy of Movie Goods.

Dir. Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, 1996, 107 min

The first work of art was a campfire story. One caveman had a sudden spark of imagination, and shared it with the others. To resonate, all art must find some interpersonal connection, and in many ways, documentaries keep up the oral history in a modern context. It is experience from another time and place related to us personally through the immediacy of film. I’ve talked on this blog before about the docs that I would put on a film study curriculum, and The Celluloid Closet is another one that I’ve added to the list. Why would you use a textbook when there is a resource available that breathes, that makes you feel?

Based on the book by Vito Russo (which, I was sad to discover, is currently out of print), The Celluloid Closet is a chronicle of the life and times of homosexuals on the silver screen. Directors, writers, producers, and actors, both straight and gay, explain how cinematic depictions of the minority has evolved over the years. The doc starts at almost the beginning of the medium: what’s up with the two men dancing in the Dickson experimental sound film? From then on it moves through the years to the present day.

Homosexuality was a taboo topic around the turn of the century, but if an actor displayed the right visual signifiers, the audience would easily understand what he was getting at. The sissy archetype, that male limp of wrist and deficient of gumption, turned up invariably as cheap comic relief. After the Hays code rolled in, gayness could only be hinted at obliquely (think Peter Lorre and that cane he loves to mouth in The Maltese Falcon). After the code was cast aside, the gay character became a sinister boogeyman (Rebecca), and in the fifties a pitiful figure, fit only to serve as a cautionary tale (Rebel Without a Cause). It took an agonizingly long time for movies to even unambiguously acknowledge homosexuality’s very existence, and longer still for positive portrayals of gay people to start popping up.

The history of LGBT rights is one of those subjects that makes you feel ashamed as an American to see. At times, The Celluloid Closet feels like an unending parade of one embarrassing showcase of bigotry after another. The nadir comes in a bitter, heartbreaking montage of scenes from movies in which tragic gay characters are rewarded for their iconoclasm with death. There are occasional upbeat moments, mainly when it features progressive films such as The Boys in the Band, but on the whole, this doc is a surprising downer.

The most sobering aspect, though, is how little we’ve advanced as a culture in this area. Gay-related content in mainstream movies still come mainly in the form of the old stereotypes (the sissy has simply transmuted into the hag fag). The occasional Oscar bait isn’t a real sign of progress. Gay actors are still extremely hesitant about coming out of the closet. Time has made this documentary even more downbeat than originally intended. It ends on a hopeful note; at the time of its release, it looked like some real steps forward were going to be made for the gay community. And while there was some progress, it’s not nearly up to standards of what the doc forecasts.

Even though this history is sad, it is necessary to learn, and The Celluloid Closet is never a boring lecturer. And while the subject is uncomfortable, the movie is far from dour. It’s quite funny throughout, in fact; the highlight being Gore Vidal relating how he wrote Ben-Hur and Messala as former lovers, and informed Stephen Boyd but not Charlton Heston of this fact. And anecdotes about the making of famous films are always interesting, or they are to me, at least.

Beyond gay rights, this doc also acts as a trenchant overview of American society as a whole over the years, since art reflects the attitudes of the times. But art also works to influence those attitudes, and in the twentieth century movies were the premier driving force in challenging the status quo. What victories that can be claimed in the fight for gay rights can be attributed in no small part to the efforts of filmmakers. Above all, The Celluloid Closet is a tribute to that power, and it energized me more than it depressed me. Still, even through all the cultural upheavals we’ve gone through, a squeamishness remains at the core of our treatment of LGBT people. Hopefully, it’s a prejudice we’ll be able to overcome sooner and not later, and we’ll live up to this film’s optimistic ending.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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