Saturday, October 31, 2009

Film Review: Greek Pete

Greek Pete
dir. Andrew Haigh

Peccadillo Pictures DVD

Reviewed by Max Fincher

Greek Pete gives us a glimpse into the world of Pete, a very popular London-based escort who was voted best escort at the World Escort Awards in Los Angeles in 2008. A mix of documentary and fiction, we see the real personalities behind the profiles, and an original view of the escort world.

Pete admits, unsurprisingly enough, that he wants to make ‘as much money as possible’. We see how using Internet chat rooms and websites, and being London-based are essential to being successful. Included is footage of Pete fucking one client, participating in a threesome for a film and some erotic photographic shots of him acting out fetish fantasies involving boot sniffing. He gets through as many clients a week as he possibly can, even taking a call while tucking into his Xmas turkey dinner.

The film challenges any expectations or prejudgments the viewer may bring that the escort is to be pitied, condemned or seen as somehow having no feelings or the perception that they are unintelligent. Pete is perhaps smarter than the viewer gives him credit for as we can infer from Pete’s opening monologue to the film. He asks why we are watching. If our motivation is for voyeuristic reasons, this is ok, ‘as long as you pay me for it’. Good-looking, sexy and well-hung, Pete ticks all superficial boxes to be an escort. But there is something more to him as a person. And it is here that the film’s strength lies in showing us that Pete is more than just a good fuck or wank fantasy.

What emerges distinctly is that, despite his ambition, Pete comes across as very likeable and charming. Confident and articulate about being an escort, he clearly takes a pride in doing the job well, boasting that his many clients return to him repeatedly. One scene in particular shows him chatting with an accountant, describing how excited he is to be going to Los Angeles and the importance of having a work-ethic in life. At no point do we doubt that he takes his work seriously, but perhaps sometimes too seriously. The film at no point patronises him or us.

However, Pete’s matter-of-fact, self-aware attitude does make the viewer question whether Pete really wants to be an escort. There is a sense that something is missing. Particularly after the ‘high’ of being in the spotlight of the World Escort Awards. We see him watching himself alone in his apartment and calling up his friends to proudly tell them how happy he is. In an earlier monologue to the camera, he reflects somewhat regretfully on how he was surprised that his Mum doesn’t accept his ‘choice’ of career, and tells us that his father would be ‘ashamed’ of him. We are left to our own conclusions as to whether Pete is in the right job or not. He never indicates whether he enjoys his work or not. However, what emerges strongly is that he enjoys sharing stories and experiences with his friends and his new family. At times, his melancholy mood suggests that possibly his feelings about being an escort are more complex than they appear.

By contrast, Pete’s boyfriend (also an escort) whose screen name is LondonboyKai, appears withdrawn, vulnerable and more susceptible to his emotions. Dependent on Pete for somewhere to live, he dislikes Pete’s business interrupting their lives. We see a side of Pete that is less pleasant in his treatment of Kai who takes second place to his work. Kai is subject to Pete’s rules and his criticism of his drug dependency. The film draws our attention to the fact that there are darker sides to escorting. When he receives a call from someone in Vauxhall who asks whether Kai can take ‘hard fucking’, Kai says he can and agrees to do ‘G,K or C’ and golden showers. However, he laughs nervously while talking to the client. The film does not shy away from the fact that many escorts need so many clients to pay for their drug dependency. Pete is aware of the realities and dangers escorts face, including ‘gift-giving’ (the deliberate passing on HIV). He tells us that some of the younger boys will ‘say yes to anything’, and we are in fact left to wonder if Kai has in fact been abused in some way.

This honesty is moving and refreshing. The director, Andrew Haigh, commented that ‘I wanted the film to be truly authentic’ and that he wanted to ‘try and get closer to the reality and focus on the everyday nature of things, the nuts and bolts of the job, the real personalities behind the online profiles and magazine adverts’. Undoubtedly, this is achieved. We see that escorts have lives, histories and aspirations like any other person’s whose job does not define who they are.

Max Fincher wrote his PhD at King’s College London, a queer reading of late eighteenth-century Gothic fiction that was published as Queering Gothic Writing in the Romantic Age by Palgrave Macmillan (2007). He has taught part-time on eighteenth-century fiction and women’s writing, at both King’s College London and Royal Holloway, and is an occasional book reviewer for the TLS. He is currently writing his first novel, tentatively titled The Pretty Gentleman, a queer historical thriller set in the Regency art world.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Review: Ganymede Poets: One

Ganymede Poets: One
Published by: Ganymede Books

Reviewed by Gregory Woods

I have been reading gay poetry anthologies in any language with which I’m familiar ever since I began to write a doctoral thesis on homo-erotic poetry in the mid-1970s. Not just anthologies from our own time, but also those from the distant past, put together for private collectors who wanted to read celebrations of their own erotic interests. This makes me, at once, both the best and worst person to review a new anthology. Best because I know the competition; worst because I’ve seen it all before.

Ganymede Poets is an anthology of the thirty-eight gay male poets who appeared in the first six issues of the New York gay literary magazine Ganymede. Like the magazine itself, the book is beautifully produced, lavishly illustrated with black and white photographs, all loosely related to the themes of the poetry.

Judging by their biographical notes, many of the poets collected here have postgraduate degrees in creative writing. The standard reaction to this, here in the UK, would be a kind of affected ridicule, spluttering along the lines that no decent writer needs to be taught how to write. Well, just tell yourself that when you next read a British anthology of gay poetry! If nothing else, at least these guys have read other poets. Most of them write what is called ‘free verse’, but it is informed free verse. Apart from a couple of non-American contributors, I think it’s safe to say that virtually all of them are familiar with the poems of William Carlos Williams; many with Ezra Pound and others. They know where to put the words on the page. They know the limits of their ‘freedom’. By contrast, generally speaking, most of the contributors of free verse to anthologies published in Britain seem never to have heard of Williams, let alone read him with any care. And that is not to mention Charles Olson or George Oppen or Louise Glück…

So what impresses me here, before we even begin on the content, is the quality of the verse. Christopher Gaskins, for instance, impresses me not so much for what he says as by the way he says it in lean, sinewy, unsentimental free verse. The same might be said of Matthew Hittinger’s syllabics and Jee Leong Koh’s disciplined, rhyming quatrains. And there are always individual lines to take one’s fancy: I did enjoy this sentence from R.J. Gibson’s ‘On Main Street’: ‘Like some classist / prat in a Forster novel with a boner for the help, you want a little trade’.

Matthew Hittinger

All the poets are somewhat overshadowed, as you might expect, by a selection of Daniel Mendelsohn’s translations from the Greek of Constantine Cavafy. But to read Matt Cogswell’s ‘How I Spent the Afternoon’ straight after Cavafy’s ‘Their Beginning’ (one of my favourite ‘gay poems’) is not conspicuously to move from a great poet to a mediocre one so much as to make a cultural shift from an absolute, classical belief in the power of art to memorialise its fleshly inspirations, to something much more tentative and speculative, an attempt to grasp the slippery pleasures of virtuality in the medium of solid print. In the end, the fundamental motivation is pretty much the same as Cavafy’s.

After so much talk of technique, I suppose it might make sense to give a clearer view of the experience of reading the book from cover to cover. (I never just dip into poetry books, whether multi-authored anthologies or single-authored collections.) There is more queer life between these covers than in virtually any gay novel you might care to name. The difference is that, here, you can’t rely on the infantile joys of passively listening to a linear narrative and waiting for what’s going to happen to happen. Here, a whole world of queerness will pass before your eyes (and through your ears) in a fragmented and contingent order (the authors are presented alphabetically), raucous with expressions of desire and longing, articulated by a range of voices, mostly young but otherwise pretty varied in attitude and background; and you will feel at times a part of it all, and at others apart from it all. Read it as a strangely irrational postmodern novel—with sexy pictures.

Gregory Woods is Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University. His critical books include Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry (1987) and A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (1998), both from Yale University Press. His poetry books are published by Carcanet Press. His website is


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review: ANGELS OF ANARCHY: Women Artists and Surrealism

Angels of Anarchy
Manchester Art Gallery
until 10 January 2010.

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

For one moment, standing in the (suggestively) red velvet-lined gallery on the top floor of Manchester Art Gallery, it was like WWII had never happened. Not, perhaps, in any vastly significant way: it’s that, by exhibiting the work of women artists from the ‘teens to the 1970s together, Angels of Anarchy suggests a continuity uninterrupted by the scattering and decimation of European artists, or by the re-domestication of women in the US and UK in the 1950s. Instead, it places side-by-side the work of artists who, after the London-Paris heyday of Modernism, often worked in isolation from each other and from the mainstream art world. Sisterhood is powerful, and here the women interact through their strange and vibrantly erotic works.

The story of Surrealism, Cubism and all the other fun –isms of the 1920s has been told many times, but until the groundbreaking work of Bonnie Kime Scott, it was most often told as an Exquisite Corpse composed of famous men, with women as little more than the objects they passed between them. While Paris Was a Woman and Women of the Left Bank definitively marked the lesbian desire circulating in literary expat circles, the world of the visual arts – overshadowed by the overpowering figure (and sex drive) of Pablo Picasso – has remained far more straight and macho, with women artists often downgraded to helper or muse.
It’s certainly true that many of the artists in this exhibition were married to, or lovers of, male artists or writers such as Man Ray, Paul Éluard, Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy, often to more than one. It’s also true that they spent a great deal of time in each others’ company, as witnessed by Lee Miller’s extraordinary portraits of artists Dorothea Tanning, Nusch Éluard, Léonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Valentine Penrose, Dora Maar, Eileen Agar and Meret Oppenheim. Miller, once Man Ray’s shadow, has been rehabilitated by Carolyn Burke’s biography and last year’s exhibition at the V&A – which didn’t include these photographs, significant both for their incredibly 21st century styling (Dora Maar’s alice band could be in this month’s Vogue, for whom Miller worked in the 1940s) and for the world of female friendship and aesthetic endeavour they suggest. There’s nothing overtly lesbian in the gazes or poses – unlike the work of Claude Cahun, which also feature extensively in the exhibition – but there is an intensity, a bodiliness, that suggests just how liberated these women were through another woman’s gaze.

Cahun, the radical genderqueer photographer whose story is beautifully told in Barbara Hammer’s documentary Lover Other, is not the only queer artist in the show; Frida Kahlo is represented rather beautifully by work that encompasses her bisexuality. There’s Diego y Frida 1929-1944, in which the two artists’ faces form a bi-gendered composite, but also by a short film shot by photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo (who also shot a number of powerful portraits of Kahlo that feature in the exhibition). Kahlo emerges from a dark room into daylight, where she kisses a young blonde woman (Tina Misrachi) on the ear, then follows her back into the room before shutting the French windows with an expression of desire and defiance. Once in the room, the two women engage in an eye-to-eye wordless conversation of extraordinary intimacy. One critic suggests that Misrachi represents Kahlo’s death but I think that’s over-reaching: there’s no need to assert a symbolic layer of meaning when the gestures and expressions speak so powerfully for themselves.
Elsewhere, symbolic meaning opens up the work to queer possibilities (Mimi Parent’s Maitresse, a whip made of two blonde braids! Francesca Woodman’s three kinds of melons! Léonor Fini’s painting of Leonora Carrington in a dark bedroom, wearing a black leather cuirass and scarlet boots! all those magnificently mixed-up Exquisite Corpse bodies!), not least in what’s probably my favourite objet of the show: Dorothea Tanning’s Pincushion to Serve as Fetish. In the catalogue photograph, it looks a lot like Free Willy, but there’s more than one organ pulsating amongst the black velvet and peach satin. For a start, the piece morphs as you walk around its glass case, flashing an orifice here and some cryptic chalk marks there. Silver pins glint like piercings against the velvet. It’s a brilliantly deadpan reworking of a domestic, feminised object, an unravelling of the double meaning of fetish (ritual object, like a voodoo doll, and Freudian sexual tic), a well-constructed craft object, and the single most lickable, strokable piece of art I’ve seen this year (well, since Roni Horn’s big pink sweetie/heart/cunt at Tate Modern).

No stroking allowed, of course, but the rich erotic energy of this show does make you wonder who might have been stroking who (or wanted to), and how that flow of desire might have lent its charge to the vivid and riveting display of female sexuality. Enter between the walls of red velvet and see for yourselves.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Exclusive Interview with Edmund White by Richard Canning

New York City Boy: A Conversation with Edmund White, on the US publication of City Boy, 9th October 2009

By Richard Canning

Photo of Edmund White in Venice in 1974, with Alfred Corn (left) and David Kalstone (right)

RC: You open with a description of 70s New York: 'grungy, dangerous, bankrupt' but artistically in its zenith. That's pretty evidently meant to contrast with present-day Manhattan. Are there any major cities today which feel especially creative?

EW: I've just spent two months in Madrid, which seems vibrant and alive, full of young people who inhabit the center and who stay up all night, a gay life that is flourishing... New York seems to have lost its edge.

RC: By page two, you're hanging around, hoping to bump into Susan Sontag or Paul Goodman, author of the journal Five Years, a big deal in its day for its openness about his bisexuality and erotic adventures. The contrast in subsequent reputations of this pair is rather poignant, isn't it? As you point out, Goodman is scarcely recalled today, and almost never read. I wondered if, in the seventies, when the "newness" of gay art and culture and writing was so obvious, you remember having some sense of the people and works that would last? And, in the thirty years that have followed, have those instincts clarified or changed much?

EW: I think I thought that Sontag's reputation would last because she had so much integrity, was so high-minded and so uncompromising - and because every line she wrote contained a unit of thought. I think I was right. Though people might gibe about those very qualities now, nevertheless she remains a beacon of high culture and seriousness. I also felt that John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill were all making lasting contributions, though to my surprise Bishop has nosed her way to the front, and Merrill is now in third position. So I guess I'd say I could spot a winner but couldn't predict the order of celebrity they would eventually assume.

RC: One of your first lovers then, Stan, you describe as having a 'classic' look of beauty which was 'generally acknowledged.' Rather cleverly, I thought, you don't describe him in too much physical detail; the reader can then supply his or her own version of that classical beauty. Do you accept that these things are culturally specific, even as they feel universal, eternal or classic?

EW: I guess we all prize virility, even a joli-laideur now, more than we did back then. Stan had a John Barrymore kind of classical handsomeness that would still be appropriate to a marble statue.

RC: You confess in the book to having been politically apathetic: You also imply that this apathy was widely shared; that nobody thought of there being a gay community or society. Would you say that artists in particular shied away from political engagement? And how much do you think AIDS would change all of this? (After all, you co-founded GMHC).

EW: I felt generally alienated from the culture and its ideals. I was terribly cynical and astounded that people got so worked up over a "little thing" like Watergate or Chappaquidick, or even cheating over Twenty Questions. I assumed everyone was cheating all the time. This cynicism and a complete sense of disaffection and disabuse kept me away from politics in any form. Larry Kramer sort of shamed me into joining (and eventually heading) GMHC, but I was happy to duck out as soon as possible. Partly I had an artist's fear of unnecessary and time-consuming entanglements that other people could do just as well or better.

RC: One of the best things about the book is its tender, considered account of long-term friendships, which 'feed the spirit' - in particular, through the examples of Marilyn Schaefer, still with us, and David Kalstone, who died. Perhaps this is a topic which fits uneasily in fiction, since its very constancy risks being undramatic; it's easier to think of fiction bringing to life dramatically the experience, say, of the betrayal of friendship. Were you aware of this book offering the chance to document such friendships, finally?

EW: It seems to me that many people count relatives and mates as their best friends. Some people are extremely attached to childhood friends. I suppose the chance of meeting people later in life and cultivating an intense friendship with them is rare - and perhaps gays, with their (previous) lack of interest in family life and marriage, were best suited for developing these intense friendships later in life (even if "later" is defined as occurring in one’s twenties or thirties).

RC: You describe escaping to Puerto Rico with Stan for holidays, and sexual release there. I suppose it goes without saying that racial politics in gay culture has changed a lot, in the last thirty years. Would you comment? And do you worry about how you represent the racially other in your writings?

EW: Of course there is rather a "colonial" sound to my Puerto Rican adventures, but I think most Blacks and Puerto Ricans, for instance, would rather be loved and admired for the wrong reasons than ignored altogether. Anyway, City Boy is quite clear about the moment it is concentrating on. It would be ahistorical to attribute to my narrator attitudes that didn't come into being till much later.

RC: I loved the comment that gay "intellectuals" in the seventies found that, through their learning, they simply had more evidence arguing against their own existence - they could 'torment' themselves 'with extra zeal' with Freudian ideas. On the other hand, extensive reading in literature has often been described as liberating, particularly at this time, for its offering of role models in fiction and so on, if not always positive ones. Did you encounter, let's say, untutored gay men whose self-understanding seemed more positive and mature than others', in Manhattan in the seventies? And were the books with gay themes that people devoured appreciated, would you say, for featuring gay content at all, or (especially) for featuring positive gay storylines?

EW: I think I was thinking of "non-intellectuals" who weren't aware of Freud's prejudices against homosexuality as a form of character disorder or infantilism. They were the lucky ones because they didn't dwell on all the ways in which they were "sick." I wasn't (as you suggest) thinking about those who were versed or unversed in gay literature written by gays. It's true that if all you'd read was Giovanni's Room or Death in Venice or even Proust, you'd come away with a strange view of gay experience. On the other hand, Andre Gide's journals were nourishing because he seemed a self-respecting man with far-flung interests.

RC: You mention revering writers such as Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Greene, considered to have rather unelevated prose styles; 'readable' authors, as well as Henry Green, whose prose is somewhat more challenging, surely. Your own fiction has often been viewed as split into two camps – the ‘readable' autofictional works, and the more baroque, stylised novels such as Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes and Caracole. Would it be fair, by now, after Fanny and Hotel de Dream, to argue that the 'readability' has won out in your case?

EW: I suppose I lost interest in the degree to which prose seemed "experimental." What interested me in Graham Greene was the extremely subtle use of figurative language (he's really the best in the business for similes and metaphors). With Bowen it was the easy way in which she could embed apothems in her running narrative, something I've carefully emulated, though it gives a "moralistic" and slightly old-fashioned tone to the writing. Henry Green is a comic genius and his seemingly rattle-brain (but actually very scheming) women are hilarious, and his idiosyncratic use of dialogue is dazzling. I also like his way of letting a sinister subplot slowly emerge. I agree with Ian McEwan that these are writers who've been upstaged in literary history by more obvious experimentalists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, though Bowen and Green are better than Woolf.

RC: You make a true, and rather comic observation: that gay men always feel too old, wherever they are, whatever they are doing. It's poignant, because at first that sounds like a terrible curse or imposition. But once you've appreciated the truth of it, it could become liberating, no? Particularly for... a relatively senior gay man... (Coughs).

EW: Yes, it is liberating to put all that worrying behind one. Now I have a Spanish boyfriend who appreciates me because I have white hair and I'm chubby - I'm his type! I never would have guessed that when I was young. When I look at the photo Alfred Corn just sent of me when I was thirty-four, I remember I hated my looks then, and thought I was ugly, though in fact I was quite presentable.

RC: I wanted to ask if there's anywhere in the US you could imagine living today, outside Manhattan? City Boy seems to suggest not. You spent a period in San Francisco, and even that didn’t work out...

EW: I always get this lonely forlorn feeling in other American cities, though I do like to spend a month a year in Key West, and could easily spend more time if I had the money or opportunity. It might be fun to teach for a semester in New Orleans or Austin, but otherwise I'm not too tempted by other cities, especially since I don't drive.

RC: There's a provocative moment, where you describe the 'three great geniuses of the twentieth century' as 'Stravinsky, Nabokov and Balanchine.' I laughed, because it follows a comment about New Yorkers at that time being 'still obsessed with a hierarchy of the arts and the idea of the Pure.' So, here's another hierarchy! I don't expect you to back down. But it's intriguing that you linked these three because of their imperial Russian ancestry, their time in France and their later careers in America... Could you say something more about what you mean here by 'genius', or about the way this succession of transplants may have informed it?

EW: All three of these geniuses are Romantics, or at least are addicts of beauty and a certain dreamy vision of beauty. But at the same time all three are witty and crisp and decidedly "modern." Balanchine, in his big white ballets like Symphony in C, or Nabokov in the love passages in Lolita and Stravinsky in the romantic grandeur of The Fire Bird... In these works, we feel the grandeur and scope of Imperial Russia. But all three could be very angular and witty as well - Stravinsky in Jeu de Cartes, Balanchine in Agon, Nabokov in Pale Fire. And all three are always renewing themselves - Nabokov in his very late Look at the Harlequins! (which is a delicious parody of autofiction and its coarsest preconceptions), Balanchine in a big story-telling ballet such as Don Quixote (precisely the opposite of everything he'd otherwise stood for) and Stravinsky in his late, twelve-tone scores such as Dumbarton Oaks. I think all three were "light" and flexible and unsentimental, though very romantic because of their years of contact with French culture.

RC: I can't have been the only person waiting for your take on Susan Sontag, which turns out to be very balanced, and nuanced. You've space for her good qualities ('protective and generous', etc.). On the other hand, I wondered about some of the apparently neutral observations: 'Susan was also like a queen in that she had a full life, largely ceremonious'; 'Her genius was in saying the obvious in a strong and dramatic manner.' This one, though, took the biscuit for humour: 'She should have been given the Nobel Prize. That would have made her nicer.' Ouch! Could you reflect on the uses of humour in the memoir form? Have you erred, ever, or been misinterpreted in the way you've laughed about people from your past, or your interactions with them?

EW: Of course the people I write about and their friends are never happy. James Grauerholz just wrote a pretty wounded e-mail to me about my treatment of him and William Burroughs. He thinks I failed to see their love for each other. He also thinks I didn't really "get" Burroughs. Craig Seligmann, who wrote a book about Sontag and Pauline Kael, said I was trashing Sontag, which shocked him since I'd already attacked her in Caracole. So I guess we should ask the victims of my humor what they think. I, of course, think I was pretty even-handed. I was determined to be objective or at least fair about Sontag...
RC: The book ends with AIDS, which, once again, introduces the essential nature of human friendship. It's a logical close, and leads to your departing for Paris, which you've sketched a little already (in Sketches from Memory, also published as Our Paris). It also brings us to the present, in that we know that the author of City Boy is now ensconced in Chelsea. Where do you go from here? It feels as if this may have drained the pool of material for memoir, at least for now. Do you have a fictional project in mind?

EW: I'm a hundred pages into a novel about a straight man and a gay man who are best friends. I'll follow them through three decades. Then I'd like to do a memoir about Paris in the 1980s. And eventually a memoir about my nephew, Keith Fleming, who committed suicide last spring, and his mother, my sister, whom I've almost never written about.

RC: So much to look forward to. Thanks so much for your time.

City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and 1970s appears from Bloomsbury in the UK on 4th January 2010. Richard Canning has known Edmund White for over fifteen years. He interviewed White for his first book, Gay Fiction Speaks (Columbia University Press, 2000), and included his story ‘The Painted Boy’ in the anthology of gay fiction Between Men, as well as the story ‘An Oracle’ in an anthology of fiction about AIDS, Vital Signs (both Carroll and Graf, 2007). White has also contributed an essay on Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memories of Hadrian to Canning’s latest collection, 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read (Alyson, 2009). In the same book, White’s novel A Boy’s Own Story is discussed by San Franciscan author Robert Gluck. This year, Canning has also seen the publication of a second gay fiction anthology, Between Men 2 (Alyson), and a brief biography of E. M. Forster (Hesperus, November), following his first, on Oscar Wilde (Hesperus, 2008). He can be contacted at


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Film Review: The Celluloid Closet

The Celluloid Closet
dir. Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Reviewed by Max Fincher

The re-release of The Celluloid Closet, originally screened in 1995 on Channel 4, is based on Vito Russo’s groundbreaking study, The Celluloid Closet (published in 1981, and reissued in 1987). One might ask whether we need to be reminded of Hollywood’s history of predominantly stereotypical and negative portrayals of gay and lesbian people, at this particular moment, given the success of independent queer film making. Nevertheless, this history warns gay film makers and audiences against complacency.

Russo’s study was one example of a self-conscious attempt by many gay and lesbian writers and academics in the late 1970s and early 1980s to reclaim gay identities and histories as their own. Several studies in film, literary criticism, history and sociology revealed hidden histories of gay life and identities that were often denied or simply invisible in the presence of an institutionalised version of history, always heterosexual. Watching this documentary again, we are reminded of how sophisticated gay and queer representation has become since the mid-1980s. But we are also reminded how Hollywood can still blows bubbles of homophobia to audiences through the veil of comedy, in for example films like Bruno, even if we overlook its irony.

In fact, comedy is a film and television genre where gay men still often find themselves predominantly (mis)represented. There is a lack of serious drama about gay lives and/or history. As Lilly Tomlin, the narrator, explains, ‘homosexuals on screen either inspired fear, pity or were to be laughed at’. The documentary’s narrative (written by the novelist Armistead Maupin) centres on examples around these three themes. Shots from Chaplin’s films like ‘The Soilers’ and ‘Wanderer of the West’, and an excerpt from a Laurel and Hardy film, emphasize how double entendre, cross-dressing, camp performance and close friendships between men could all signify to audiences ‘in the know’ that there might be seeing something more on the screen than just campy antics. Queer goings on in silent film morphed in the 1930s to the figure of the sissy. In films like The Gay Divorcee (1934), Myrt and Marge and Call Her Savage (1932), the sissy was present and ‘occupied the space between men and women’, and was often the butt of jokes. Harvey Fierstein confesses that he likes the sissy and would prefer ‘visibility at any cost’. One of the entertaining aspects of this documentary is the impressive array of commentators, including actors, scriptwriters, film-makers and film historians, who are all often witty. Significantly, Quentin Crisp is included, and as he says of the sissy: ‘there is no sin like being a woman’.
Or, in the case of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, like being a man. Carefully selected performances of these two sexually ambiguous actresses are included to point up the lesbian subtexts to both Morocco (1931) and Queen Christina (1934) through the vehicle of cross-dressing. Epstein and Friedman capture these ‘fleeting’ moments in the style of the documentary which alternates between fast-paced montage shots, and longer excerpts from key films discussed in the book. These snapshots are intercut with both informed historical context, along with personal reminiscences and thoughts on how many people looked for images of themselves on screen, with the figure of the closet dominanting both the production and reception of the films.

From the mid-1930s, with the advent of the Hays Production Code, it became increasingly more difficult for screenwriters and directors to represent any kind of sexuality on screen, let alone gay and lesbian sexualities. Novels were rewritten as screenplays and they were heavily edited, overseen by Hollywood’s censor, Joseph Breen. The lesbian became stereotyped as a monster, a predator on the young, innocent or virginal, as in Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Rebecca (1940), while gay men were cast as sociopathic murderers, most notoriously in Hitchcock’s films, Rope (1948) and Psycho (1960) or as tragic alcoholics as in A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The ‘Legion of Decency’ enforced a series of rules and as Gore Vidal comments: ‘It was like working under the Kremlin. You just couldn’t use the word’.

Nevertheless, many writers and directors managed to bypass the dull-witted censors by writing between the lines or directing actor’s gestures and looks carefully, enabling the audiences to infer that that there was a hidden level of meaning, oblique, but always present. In the 1950s, described by Jan Oxenberg as ‘a decade of towering dullness and stupidity’, icons of (supposedly) straight masculinity like James Dean, Marlon Brando and Rock Hudson ruled the screen. Any whisper of effeminacy signalled that a man might be queer. Musical scores could also encode gay desires. Full renditions of ‘Secret Love’ by Doris Day, and ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love’ by Jane Russell (Gentleman Prefer Blondes, 1953), are included, both of which can be read to represent how gay men felt, particularly as Russell camps her performance up in a gym full of indifferent buff male athletes!

Gore Vidal notes that writers became very adept at projecting subtexts into their screenplays, and directors into their actors’ performances. For Ben Hur (1959) Vidal proposed to the director, William Wyler, that the story of Ben Hur should be about the rekindling of a love relationship between Ben Hur (Charlton Heston), and Messala (Stephen Boyd) his Roman teenage friend. Wyler advised that Heston who should never know that the story was about homosexual love, or he would never agree to it, while Stephen Boyd, who played Messala, should be in the know. Our awareness of this anecdotal knowledge allows us to see how the performance of Boyd is supercharged with desire, and is a delicious irony. It is now impossible not to read the film as a story of love between two men, now we know both Vidal and Wyler’s intentions. As such, The Celluloid Closet draws our attention to where the traces of gay sexuality are in supposedly ‘heterosexual’ stories.
Epstein and Friedman signal the importance of Dirk Bogarde’s performance in the British film Victim (1961) as tacking homosexuality head on in contrast to Hollywood’s reticence. Hollywood literally made victims of gay men and women from the 1960s onwards, although the trend started earlier with Rebel Without a Cause (1955). We are shown a montage of characters’ deaths whose sexuality is suspicious. The sequence culminates in a climatic scene from Suddenly Last Summer (1959). The character of Catharine (played by Elizabeth Taylor) screams manically for help on a mountain top while her queer cousin Sebastien, the perfect homosexual, ‘one without a face or a voice’, is devoured by a group of young male cannibals on the remote island of Lope de Vega. Catherine’s call for help perhaps signifies that this was how audiences themselves were feeling when confronted by so many repeated tragic and negative images. Hollywood suggested that the natural trajectory for a gay man or woman was either suicide (The Children’s Hour, 1962) or violent murder (The Detective,1968) often at the hands of those who were repressing their sexuality. Armistead Maupin confesses that he was scared when he saw the film Advise and Consent (1962), one of the first to feature a gay bar: ‘I felt that the end of that road would be suicide’.

In the 1970s, two films seemed to offer promise that there could be more positive alternatives: The Boys in the Band (1970) and Cabaret (1972). Throughout the 1970s, despite increased visibility, stereotypes still abounded with the audience laughing at characters predominantly rather than with them, a phenomenon that continues to this day. We are reminded of how subtle, and not so subtle, homophobia in Hollywood could be with the use of the word ‘faggot’ in films from the 1980s, and from personal testimony. Ron Nyswaener, the screenwriter of Philadelphia (1993) relates his experience of going to see the controversial film Cruising (1980) where he and his boyfriend were chased out of the cinema by a group of homophobic thugs and they were gay-bashed. When Twentieth-Century Fox released Making Love (1982), the film was prefaced by titles warning that ‘it may be too strong’ for audiences. Hailed as the first sensitive depiction of love between two men, (a precursor to Brokeback Mountain almost) the studio head of Fox declared to the producer that it was ‘a god-damned faggot movie’ at the pre-screening and walked out. As did audiences.

Epstein and Friedman’s narrative is, inevitably, more circumscribed than Russo’s book which covers many more examples and many films from the late 1980s and early 1990s are included in a montage. Sadly, this re-release might have included an extra on what has happened to gay representation since the 1990s, although the extras do include deleted scenes and a fascinating interview with Vito Russo. The viewer is taken up to the time of Philadelphia (1993) and Thelma & Louise (1991) and there are some revealing anecdotes from Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon on their views of these landmark points in their careers and gay film. Nevertheless, an impressive spectrum of films is covered. Informative, humorous, moving, and sometimes painful to watch, this is one of the most significant documentaries on gay film history in the last twenty years. Hopefully, it will educate a new generation of audiences on where current representations have come from, and how Hollywood ‘taught straight people what to think about gay people’. And as Maupin observes: ‘Hollywood still runs scared’.

Max Fincher wrote his PhD at King’s College London, a queer reading of late eighteenth-century Gothic fiction that was published as Queering Gothic Writing in the Romantic Age by Palgrave Macmillan (2007). He has taught part-time on eighteenth-century fiction and women’s writing, at both King’s College London and Royal Holloway, and is an occasional book reviewer for the TLS. He is currently writing his first novel, tentatively titled The Pretty Gentleman, a queer historical thriller set in the Regency art world.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Film Shorts Review: Here Come the Girls

Multiple directors

Cast: Nathalie Toriel, Yolonda Ross, Lucy Liemann

Peccadillo Pictures DVD

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

Film festival shorts programmes can be melancholy affairs: not because of the films per se, but the feeling that these slices-of-life or fragments of wild imaginations may be seen here and never again. More often than not, shorts don’t act as calling cards for the big-ticket feature, and the director of that film you loved is never heard from again. It’s like a brief pick-up, a smile and dance in a bar or a single fuck at the baths: you’re haunted by the question, could they have been the one?

All of shorts on Here Come the Girls have played their parts in film festival programmes, both queer and general, many of them winning awards as well as the prized Official Selection tag, so the DVD is like a festival of festivals curated across the last ten years of lesbian cinema – which is looking pretty healthy. There’s a diversity of content, narrative styles, performers and tones across the collection, from Suzanne Guacci’s sweet two-hander of domestic metaphors A Soft Place to Roberta Munroe’s Dani and Alice, a hard-hitting short about partner violence between two African-American lesbians that pays stylish tribute to 1980s issues-led TV movies while subverting their conventionally tragic endings (which contrasts again with Monroe’s very different, Whit Stillman-meets-The L Word/lesbian Woody Allen witty short Happy Birthday).
And there’s a diverse group of artists being recognised: several of the directors are either accomplished feature filmmakers – all hail Guin Turner! and friend-of-Chroma Inge ‘Campbell’ Blackman, recently feted at NY’s Queer Black Cinema festival – or went on to make features, like Laurie Colbert and Dominique Cardona (Finn’s Girl). Munroe made her films with the prestigious Fox Searchlight Directors Program (after several years as a Sundance programmer) and Cassandra Nicolaou, whose first feature Show Me starred Ginger Snaps cutie Katherine Isabelle, is a graduate of the Canadian Film Centre’s Resident Programme. While fellow Canadians Colbert and Cardona tell the tale of two school-age best friends experimenting with desire and identity (if you like boxing, you’ll love this short), Nicolaou tells a story of older lesbians, a lifelong couple facing up to dementia and terminal illness, in what could be called a lesbian Away from Her.

But it’s the emerging directors whose films charmed me the most, maybe because they came of age, as artists, in an era when they have models like Blackman, Munroe and Turner to look up to – and to challenge. Angela Cheng’s Wicked Desire is American indie at its best: the warmly quirky observation of Me, You and Everyone We Know, the blue-collar grittiness of Boys Don’t Cry and the almost poetic strangeness of Wild Tigers I Have Known. I hope Cheng gets funding for her feature soon, because Wicked Desire is bursting at the seams with great ideas, as it follows a young girl reading dimestore romance novels, flirting with the Thai boy next door, and discovering that her sister Jessica is enrolled as a boy at school.
Abbé Robinson’s Private Life also blurs the boundaries between lesbian, trans- and straight identities and desires, offering the challenge of ‘fluidity’ to lesbian cinema – all in 1952 Yorkshire. Drawing on the same historical taproots as Sarah Waters blockbusting novels, Robinson uncovers and tells a slender tale of female-female desire between the mill boss’s daughter and a young female mill hand who meet cute at a backstreet jazz bar in Leeds. Class, race, and gender really are meshed in this touching tale, which combines the sexy camp of La Cage aux Folles (as Ruth swaps her evening gown for pal Louis’ sharp suit so he can attend a boys’ night as Lauren Bacall) and the English romanticism of Brief Encounter: Never has Leeds railway station looked more dreamy.

So far, so narrative and character-driven. The two superstars, Turner and Blackman, offer more conceptual and experimental delights. Turner’s Late is a surprisingly complex and bittersweet film based on a simple conceit: the viewer listens to a series of answerphone messages left for Maggie as the camera pans around her apartment. It’s a neat solution to the thrills of the thriller and Maggie’s apartment is given incredible texture and vividness by the production designers. Texture, colour and style are entwined with the substance of Blackman’s Fem as well, a catalogue film unlike any I’ve seen before, a pin-up calendar of almost overwhelming femme variety. Beginning with Eve in the garden, the film reclaims lushness and excess, the camera lovingly recording every curve that each performer gladly exhibits. It’s a mutual seduction poetically voiced by Split Britches’ Peggy Shaw, and is definitely the short to show your next hot date. At one point Shaw praises the gorgeous femmes for “inventing new rules from old games.” Each filmmaker here takes up that challenge differently, but few are as successful as Blackman at inviting the viewer to play.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at


Saturday, October 03, 2009

Review: Another Love by Erzsebet Galgoczi

Another Love
By Erzsebet Galgoczi

Published by Cleis Press

Reviewed by Paul Kane

The most important character in this novel, Eva Szalanczky, is killed off in its very first pages, shot while attempting to cross the Hungarian border. Yet the crucial question of what motivated Eva’s act, whether it was a genuine effort to escape to the West or at root desperation, a reckless gesture that was tantamount to suicide, is what consumes the bulk of the book.

Janos Maros is the army officer who identifies Eva’s body. An old childhood friend, he is driven to investigate her life – to traces its pattern, to somehow get inside her head. Maros is made aware of the overt political stance that she took as a journalist; this in 1959, some three years after the Soviet Union quashed the popular uprising (revolution, counter-revolution, call it what you will). He learns about Eva’s life as a lesbian and skirts around the periphery of a gay subculture of secrecy and clandestine liaisons, with a fair incidence of blackmail and the occasional murder. Inevitably, perhaps, Maros’ unofficial investigation encounters resistance from the state security service, as it spirals out to encompass the repressive political climate that was Hungary in the 1950s. Ultimately, Maros is forced to confront his own life and the choices and compromises – both personal and political - that he has made.

Erzsebet Galgoczi

Another Love has something of the flavour and atmosphere of Josef Skvorecky’s Lieutenant Boruvka novels, but with an excoriating political edge. Here, though, the mystery is not ‘Who done it?’, but ‘Why?’ What is it that impels Eva headlong toward what she believes is right, impervious to danger, armed with simply a wayward notion of truth?

The novel was filmed as Another Way in 1982, directed by Károly Makk, with the Polish actress Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieslak in the lead. By most accounts, the film too is worth seeking out.

Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. Hewelcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at