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Oh, “murderous gays” and “self-hating lesbians”! You distraught and twisted queers were once our sole image in film. Then things changed, changed again, and now, well. . .. Definitely there’s a history here. Barbara Mennel’s Queer Cinema: Schoolgirls, Vampires and Gay Cowboys (Wallflower Press) provides that history of us onscreen, beginning in the early 1900s. Part of Wallflower Press’ Short Cuts: Introduction to Film Studies series, Queer Cinema situates the LGBT presence in movies and some TV within its social and historical milieu. Unsurprising and necessary are the many parallels author Barbara Mennel, an associate professor of film studies and German studies at the University of Florida, draws between the culture’s comfort level with queers and how we’re portrayed. The writing is workmanlike, clear, and detailed. I am not a film scholar, surprise surprise, and though I probably shouldn’t admit it, I am an IMDB.com fanatic. And, proudly, an L.A. girl at heart. I’m interested. So.
Mennel launches her exploration in Germany’s Weimer Republic, 1918 to 1933, when “gay and lesbian political and social movements thrived” along with the new film industry. The first two films assessed are Richard Oswald’s 1919 silent, Anders al die Anderen (Different from the Others), and Leontine Sagan’s 1931 sound film, Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform). Anders al die Anderen is a story of blackmail, ruined lives—and humanized homosexuals. The “urtext of the schoolgirl genre,” Mädchen in Uniform features a discipline-aplenty boarding school for girls, one kind teacher among the trolls, the student who loves her.
Liberation movements may have thrived in Weimer Germany, but not without prototypical opposition. With Anders al die Anderen there were fears the film’s sensitivity and emotional strength would convert the weak-willed to homosexuality. What lad could resist a concert violinist, his student, great music, blackmail, emotional honesty? The film is notable for exploring how gay men present in public and private, roles assumed, you know. Artistically it was a standout for use of the filmic device, the iris, instead of more traditional establishing shots. “The iris opens from an individual character to locate his position in relation to his social setting. When Kurt and Paul [the two main characters] play music together, the iris closes in on them, creating a moment of harmony but also entrapment.” Paul, by the way, was played by actor Conrad Veidt—Dr. Caligari in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), the gorgeous 1920 expressionist film. Like Marlene Dietrich, Louise Brooks, and other stars, Veidt enjoyed a gender-flexible identity, in which he was “linked erotically in public to men and women.”
Until the National Socialist Party’s (Adolf & co.) rise in 1932, it was a socially rich time, though lesbians were less visible politically than gay men. Women weren’t allowed in universities until 1908 and conventions of male-on-female discrimination, which have yet to be fully abandoned, were business-as-usual in the early 1900s. Fortunately that great thrill, Mädchen in Uniform, was made before the brown shirts moved in. Queer Cinema cites both early and more modern analyses of the film, each of which comment on treatment of authoritarianism—the perspective was too gentle, or just fine.Remember, we’re in a militaristic boarding school for girls.”The film’s spatial, temporal and aural organisation expresses the institutional repression determining the girls’ lives. The film begins with an opening shot of heavy archways through which the girls march in rows and in step.” And,
At the centre of the film’s architectural composition are two staircases, one that symbolises the official flow of power in the institution, which is forbidden to the girls, and the other, where submerged desires and forbidden knowledge are transmitted, to which the girls have access.
Passages like this are a good reminder to look at movies and consider images and meaning, not just actors.
The second (of five) chapter(s), “Camp, Where Trash Meets Art,” moves to the gem-studded throne of cinema, where, in the 1930s, the Hays Code forced Hollywood studios to censor their own product. Censorship gets results though not vibrant odes to the joy of living. “Cinematic camp has a special affinity to classic Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s…” Actors were either in the closet or unemployed. According to Mennel, camp derives from dandyism, a European phenomenon making a lifestyle of aesthetics and encouraging theatricality or exaggeration. Paul Lynde had to be a twinkle in the eye of the first dandy. Reading about Warhol, Glen or Glenda, Suddenly Last Summer, John Waters, The Killing of Sister George, and other films and filmmakers reminded me of the scrim of sarcasm I associate with these films and earlier decades, and I’m glad it’s over.
In the chapters “Stonewall and the Positive Identification Figure,” “New Queer Cinema: A New Aesthetic Language,” and “Gay Cowboys, Fabulous Femmes and Global Queers” the closets have sliding doors or are altogether irrelevant. Desert Hearts, for instance, was a positive leap away from lezploitation to open depiction of intimacy in a scene with an “extreme close-up” of kissing, and orgasm, where “the lack of music, minimal editing, no cut-a-ways and heavy digetic breathing heightens the realism . . . breaks the taboo on lesbian sex onscreen.” The insight into technique as well as rich exposition of public and critical reaction makes Queer Cinema a worthwhile reference. Mennel is unstinting in gender parity, discussing as many films about queer ladies as about queer gentlemen. Asian films are included, and not everyone in the book is white.
Appropriate accoutrement to this survey is its six-page filmography—a full listing of films mentioned and thus most queer films. While “favorites” lists are rampant on IMDB and various blogs, few are as complete or reliable as this. There’s also a bibliography, should this book serve as a jumping off point for a study of film, and index where you can verify that “Hudson, Rock” was mentioned on two different pages; “trash cinema” on five; and you can assure yourself that “Callas, Maria” was included. Every book should include mention of Miss Callas. Queer Cinema does so, and does lots more.
Queer Cinema: Schoolgirls, Vampires and Gay Cowboys
By Barbara Mennel
Paperback, 9780231163132, 136 pp.