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On the irresponsibility of a certain film critic: a note to an "Outsider".

The responsibility of addressing a theme as complex and as politically significant as "Queer Cinema"(1) is, no doubt, a daunting one--especially given the variety of projects and perspectives that appear on the programs of the ever-growing number of festivals and conferences dedicated to the topic. Certainly, one of the most pressing responsibilities faced by any author engaged in such a project is responding to certain questions, the answers to which establish the limitations of the project, define the common terms and themes that appear throughout the work, and provide an overview of what he/she feels the significance of the work is and/or will be within a social and political context. How does the author define the parameters of the project, or even the term "Queer Cinema," under which the project is organized? Is a work's "queerness" based upon the sexuality (or sensibility, even) of its director, upon its content, or some combination of both? Does establishing a genre of "Queer Cinema" (and thus separating discussion and debate about the films in it from the "mainstream," if only for one specific analysis) further contribute to the marginalization of the filmmakers and works included in it by constructing a sub-genre or category under which they can be conveniently written off?

Unfortunately, neither Robin Wood nor Richard Lippe--the editors of Cineaction issue number 35--address these questions, choosing instead to sidestep the issue by making vague claims of a "commitment both to the emerging "New Queer Cinema' and to progressive work within the mainstream." Like so many of the terms that are thrown around rather haphazardly in the issue, "progressive" is never sufficiently defined in specific social or political terms. On the other hand "mainstream" is (mis)interpreted by the editors as somehow synonymous with "heterosexual," both in their preface and in their essays--especially Robin Wood's. Wood and Lippe write, "Gays and lesbians have many stories to tell and many issues to raise; gay history as it has been (and is continuing to be) lived is very much in need of documentation....But these films primarily address and reach an gay audience, and while we acknowledge the importance of this, we are equally interested in the ways in which gay characters and gay issues are beginning to reach the heterosexual mainstream."

First and foremost, gay history, as such, isn't really "lived" but, rather, is the discursive medium in which gay experience (which is lived) is (re)written and interpreted in another larger (historical, political, etc.) context. Second, Lippe and Wood's decision to privilege "the heterosexual mainstream" seems a rather self-defeating tactic, given that such a move writes heterosexuality back into the center, into the mainstream, and pushes anything and everything else to the margins. At the same time, it denies access to "the mainstream" to anyone but heterosexuals, re-establishing the binarism of "straight"/gay" and writing out the possibility of multiple subject positions--a strange move, given that it is Wood's supposed ability to occupy both "gay" and "straight" subject positions that forms the basis for his claim to intellectual superiority over the gay "radicals" who threaten his intellectual security. Of course, the privileging of a "heterosexual mainstream," whether in reference to films or viewers, seems oddly incongruous in an issue dedicated to the analysis "Queer Cinema."

Problems like these take on an even greater significance in light of the limited scope of material that the editors have selected for inclusion in issue 35. In their preface, Lippe and Wood admit, somewhat shamefacedly, that while they recognize the omission of lesbian perspectives from the critical framework of their project, "[i]t was never our intention to exclude lesbians from this issue." They go on to explain that if they had received "distinguished work by or about lesbians" they would have accepted it, and add that they have "suggested to the collective that there should be a `lesbian' issue to balance the present one." The responsibility of recognizing the diversity of the gay and lesbian community thus shifts from the editors back on to the collective, and thus pushes lesbian issues, once again, onto the "back burner."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the editors never define exactly what "distinguished work" might be, although their own work seems to fit the bill quite well. After reading through the issue, I was left wondering why the editors' own work comprises just over half (forty-three) of the issue's seventy-two pages, not to mention the three pages dedicated to Cory Silverberg's final exam, in which one finds a liberal scattering of quotations from Wood and Lippe as well. Such overrepresentation of the editors' own contributions only serves to further accentuate the general lack of intellectual diversity in the issue.

By far the most problematic contribution to the issue is Wood's own essay, "The New Queer Cinema and Gay Culture: Notes From an Outsider--An Irresponsible Article." Wood's piece opens the issue and, given its placement and its author, sets the issue's overall tone. I find two things particularly disturbing about this essay (although, as Wood, himself, writes in a different context, "the list could go on indefinitely"). These are: Wood's need to align himself with a heterosexual subject position and the subsequent over-valuation of heterosexuality that accompanies this identification, and Wood's misinterpretation/misrepresentation of both artistic achievements and responses to them (e.g., "camp") in an effort to support his own status as "privileged other."

Wood defines himself as both an "outsider" and an academic. He opens the essay by outlining what he will not address, characterizing his work as "unashamedly personal, and...written from a position that many will be reluctant to recognize (its opinions will probably be found, again, `at best idiosyncratic, at worst offensive')." Right away Wood is on the defensive, and right away he sets out to even the score with some unnamed other. Unfortunately, not all of us are familiar with all of the criticism that have been directed against Wood and/or his writing, at least to the extent that we can recognize references without context or citations. For Wood to assume otherwise (which he, by virtue of the inclusion of such material, obviously does) merely illustrates what an inflated sense of self-importance Wood apparently has of himself and of his work's significance on a large scale. Without grounding his response to criticism with references to the works or critics in question, Wood's bizarrely aimless finger-pointing calls to mind Michael Snow's camera that pointed in any-and-all directions, all the while constantly switching its positions.

Even as he admits (or fantasizes) that his work will be attacked for being intellectually unsound (which it undeniably is), Wood begins to construct himself discursively as an authority figure, establishing his undeniable importance as a film critic by assuming that his reading audience will, no doubt, be familiar with the in-fighting in which he is taking part.

Wood establishes his critical expertise in quite another way: Wood's singular ability to analyze films seems to have arisen, as we shall see, as a by-product of living life as both an "openly gay man" and a "middle-class `heterosexual.' " Ironically, despite the fact that Wood's claim for intellectual superiority rests upon his ability to simultaneously occupy two supposedly conflicting subject positions (sexual identities), the remainder of his criticism is built upon the establishment of sets of static binarisms (e.g., gay/straight, old/young, intellectual/activist) composed of terms between which no fluctuation (outside of Wood's own, perhaps) can occur.

After a lengthy introduction that details his confused and traumatic adolescence and his eventual initiation into the wonderful world of heterosexuality, Wood writes "I became completely immersed in the mainstream heterosexual/patriarchal culture and especially in its amazingly rich and complex artistic achievements over many centuries....I really cannot imagine what my life would be without, let us say, Mozart and Stravinsky, Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Ozu and Renoir (the list could of course be extended indefinitely)." Wood's admiration for these artists and their works is perhaps understandable, but why he feels that this appreciation is somehow a privilege of heterosexuality--or at least a privilege that he would not have enjoyed had he not identified himself as a heterosexual--is never made clear.

The essentialism of Wood's sexual "definition" of these artists and their work is further underscored by his association of an appreciation of Tchaikovsky with his own budding homosexuality: "I discovered the word `homosexual' in a biography of Tchaikovsky (appropriately enough my favourite composer at that time). But this only made things worse: it was offered as the reason for Tchaikovsky's anguish...and there was no suggestion that the blame might be put on social pressures and prejudices...." Wood seems to be aware of the social and cultural dimensions of the analysis of sexuality and identity. Why, then, does he feel free to make such a simplistic (and unsupported) association between the above list of artists and heterosexual culture, when such a move merely replicates the same uninformed formulations about sex and culture as the Tchaikovsky biography that he criticizes?

While Wood identifies himself throughout the piece as an "openly gay man," his strong desire--need?--to align himself with the dominant culture, with traditional notions of "high" art and mainstream narrative cinema, and, above all, with a heterosexual subject position, tends to undercut any and all of the essay's sexual politics. Wood writes the piece as "an outsider," distancing himself from gay activism and establishing his position within dominant patriarchal and heterosexist culture--a culture of privilege. "Despite the fact that I have been openly gay for twenty-five years now," writes Wood, "and have foregrounded this as a major component of both my writing and my teaching, I have come to feel that there is no real space for me in the `mainstream' of gay culture, that I live and work and fight only on its fringes and in an uneasy relation to it." Wood goes on to define his difference of "vision" from those of "gay activists," claiming that his is concerned "with what happens after these goals [treatment for AIDS and HIV infection, ending homophobia, establishing equal protection for gay men and lesbians under the law] have been achieved."

Perhaps it is this unique "vision" for the future (and as politics backslides into 1950s conservatism, that future seems even further off than before) that separates Wood from the " `mainstream' of gay culture." As an "openly gay man" who supposedly brings sexual politics into his writing and teaching, how can Wood afford to direct his energies toward some fantasmatic utopian future where we all "just get along?" How does Wood rationalize putting issues like HIV and AIDS or gay-bashing aside so that he can devote his energies to such lofty "issues" as analyzing the importance of Mozart and Stravinsky for his personal identity?

On page 4 Wood writes, "The point of all this [autobiographical material] is to try to help readers of younger generations (the younger the more emancipated) understand why I spent the first two-thirds of my life trying to learn heterosexuality, and why I lived a heterosexual `lifestyle' until I was almost forty. Many of the present generation of young gay men find this very difficult to grasp." Why was it necessary for Wood to "learn" heterosexuality when heterosexuality is such a privileged part of dominant representation? Wood himself identifies the mainstream literally as the heterosexual, so "learning" it couldn't have taken much effort. By the same token, why does Wood assume that "the younger [gay men are], the more emancipated [they are]"? Perhaps the social and cultural changes of the past few decades have created a slightly better environment for gay men and lesbians, but it's still no utopia. Wood's selfish claim to knowing real oppression sounds like a parent telling an ungrateful child how he/she had to walk five miles to school through the snow.

Wood claims that "the impulse of most critics today who announce themselves as `radical' or `progressive' appears to be to reject as much of the past as possible...." Wood might have a point here, but as his readers, we can never really know since his argument is composed entirely of generalities. Who are these critics and why is Wood so angry with them? What, exactly, about the past do they reject? Indeed, how can anyone involved in critical writing truly reject the past when the very nature of criticism is so over-determined as an historically-engaged venture, especially given its basis in a tradition--a history--of methodologies and its construction around a set of central authors and texts?

A few lines later Wood writes, "I still feel myself essentially a part of the mainstream culture that produced me, while most gay, or `politically correct' critics feel alienated from it." Again, citations might help both Wood and his readers. Surely, given his commitment to gay issues, Wood cannot be unfamiliar with critics like Alexander Doty, Philip Bryan Harper, and Kaja Silverman, whose works deal with marginalized subject positions within the mainstream. These critics never claim (for themselves or the subjects of their analyses) alienation (in the form of separation) from dominant culture, but instead theorize a myriad of reader-identities and identifications that exist for mainstream texts--a possibility that, at least for Wood, seems impossible, except for himself

"I read English at Cambridge University, England," writes Wood. "I have learned to be very sensitive to language, and to the (social) meaning of words, at both the denotative and connotative levels." How is it, then, that Wood can refer to the images on the bulletin board of the AIDS crisis center (and not, as Wood mistakenly claims, of the bookstore) in Laurie Lynd's RSVP as "pictures of AIDS victims?" Certainly Wood, a Cambridge-educated academic who is so sensitive to language, cannot be unaware of how problematic the representation of people living with AIDS as "victims" is, especially given the highly publicized debates over such representation (see, for example, Paula Treichler's essay "An Epidemic of Signification" in Douglas Crimp's AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism).

Wood's "sensitivity" to representational politics lapses yet again when he claims on page 3 (in a sentence that reads as an afterthought) to address lesbian readers and then, on the next page, writes of his first "sex education" session, "[It] left me with a vague sense--which endured for several years more--that the woman had to hold some mysterious part of herself open while you peed into her" (italics mine). Lesbians everywhere must have really identified with that one. Still later, Wood writes (again on page 4), "When I was twenty-nine I managed to have sex with another human being for the first time, and within a year we were married." The gender identity of the "other human being" with whom Wood experienced sex for the first time is literally written out. That this "human being" was, in fact, a woman, is made clear only in retrospect by Wood's reference to his marriage.

Wood's attitude toward women is, as I believe these two references suggest, somewhat problematic. Women seem to exist solely to bear the burden of representing Wood's heterosexuality, and with it, his intellectual superiority. That women might exist as desiring subjects is never really explored in Wood's piece--in fact, it is disavowed. "...I greatly enjoyed the `heterosexual' family life which I'd accepted and cultivated: I loved my wife in every way except the sexual," Wood writes, as though sexuality were neither a part of marriage nor a part of heterosexuality. "Women regarded me as an "ideal" husband because I was more than willing to bathe babies, change diapers, cook dinners, and assist at childbirths." Judging from Wood's essay, what women really want is just someone to cook, clean, and babysit. Wouldn't Freud be surprised to hear that?

Points like these may seem unimportant to some; however, I believe that they are symptomatic of the more general problems (e.g., Wood's heterosexist collapse of "mainstream" with "heterosexual" and his insistence upon establishing an allegiance to both) that plague the essay--discursive "symptoms" through which Wood's own identity crises are enacted on a more grand scale and in a form that allows Wood to play the "good guy."

Wood rationalizes his ignorance of pressing political issues and concerns by bringing up the generation gap between himself and a younger generation of "activists," and in such a move finds himself in a strange representational bind, desiring, as he does, to assert his own primacy in matters intellectual (see below) while formally distancing himself from the political fray that such a move entails. This is worked out, at least in terms of this essay, in Wood's constant fluctuation between a "gay" identity and a "heterosexual" reading position. This consistent association of gayness with a "radicalism" that limits the critical and intellectual abilities of all identified with such a position and, consequently, his association of heterosexuality with some sort of authority, with the ultimate and unquestionable ability to recognize "truth" and "art," are both equally troubling. At one point Wood actually writes, "In short, the criteria that I apply to these films are somewhat different from (and I think more complex than) those that most gay activists seem to apply." Because of his ability to watch films "with the eyes of a middle-class `heterosexual' " Wood is a privileged spectator. He has, after all, spent some forty-odd years "learning heterosexuality." He is "equally appalled by [gay critics'] general lack of generosity on the one hand, [and their] reckless and (to me) misguided enthusiasm on the other."

Did this unflattering view of gay critics influence Wood as he reviewed paper proposals for this issue? Was he reading these works as "an openly gay man" or as a "middle-class `heterosexual' "? More important, did his sexual identity (or lack of one) play a part in his inability to find any "distinguished work by or about lesbians?" Of course, as a heterosexual Wood can afford to be "more optimistic about the future than many contemporary gay activists....[T]hey are young: they want full human right now, for themselves--the rights that I have only recently learned to believe that I have the `right' to...." He can make such ridiculous claims as those found on page 9, where he writes, "It seems to me that gay people, male and female, are in a uniquely privileged position to take, not just one step, but many: they are not encumbered with all the heterosexual baggage of traditional marriage-and-family" (italics mine). Is Wood here referring to the myriad of legal, social, and financial privileges that heterosexual married couples enjoy and to which same-sex couples do not have access? Is it really so taxing to be able to adopt children (if one so desires); to continue to live in a rent-controlled apartment after one's partner has died; or to have the right to visit one's partner in the hospital, even if his/her parents disapprove? Where is the privilege in being discriminated against or, even worse, being bashed because of someone else's groundless homophobia? Furthermore, why is it, if Wood really feels that "heterosexual culture is today (to borrow a title from Gregg Araki) totally f***ed up," that he insists upon inscribing himself firmly within its parameters? Why does he assert his own "irresponsibility" while insisting that gay men and lesbians have a responsibility to address the "heterosexual mainstream" in word and action? Even if Wood's piece were written as irony, which, unfortunately, it seems it is not, such inflammatory jargon is at best only insulting to an audience who neither needs nor appreciates such moronic tactics.

It is, perhaps, because John Greyson's Zero Patience is not directed to "the (straight, white, middle-class) man on the street," or written so that, as Denzel Washington's character in Philadelphia seems to enjoy saying, "a six year old could understand it," that Wood feels the need to attack it. Wood's dislike of the picture seems to be based entirely upon his belief that Greyson's film cannot succeed in reaching this "mainstream"--the heterosexuals that Wood has "always wanted primarily to address." And yet, why is this a problem? Despite the fact that AIDS should now be the concern of everyone, regardless of race, sex, class, whatever, it is, at least in the States, still viewed by many (and apparently by many working in the media) as primarily a condition that affects gay men. The burdens of the short but devastating history of AIDS are thus placed upon the shoulders of this population. Greyson's film, then, with its refusal to carry the weight or the responsibility of representation and blame, is a work of great political significance. It is the first feature film to reject explicitly the popular American myths of the origins of AIDS and the transmission of HIV that locate blame not only with gay men, but also with a certain Canadian airline attendant.

Wood's other objections to Zero Patience are formulated as part of his rejection of camp; he claims that camp tends to trivialize significant issues and, therefore, such an approach is unsuitable for such serious subject matter as AIDS. Wood seems to completely misunderstand what camp is or how it works. This is painfully apparent in his claim that "[w]e are told, for example, that John Wayne is `camp.' " By whom? In what essay? In what context?

Camp is, according to Jack Babuscio in his essay from the late 1970s, the ironic incongruity between "an individual or thing and its context or association."(2) Because the incongruity that camp addresses is usually a sexual one (camp has historically been seen as a gay phenomenon), camp primarily focuses upon representations of gender, and many times takes "femininity" (e.g., women whose onscreen performances, like Joan Crawford's, are "masculinized," while their offscreen behavior follows the rules of "correct" or "ladylike" behavior to a T) as its subject matter. This explains the over-representation of female figures (e.g., Bette Davis, Jayne Mansfield, Maria Montez) in the canon of camp icons. Camp does provoke laughter, even in the face of painful situations (e.g., alienation, rejection), but its objective is less to desensitize the viewer in the way that Wood suggests, than to heighten the subject's awareness of just how constructed cultural and social standards of "normal" behavior really are.

Greyson utilizes camp in Zero Patience to deconstruct the popular image of the "homosexual" as somehow inherently sick--notions that fill the works of sexologists from the nineteenth century and many dominant representations of the twentieth century (see Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet). Greyson adopts several representational conventions from popular Hollywood films (e.g., Zero's invisibility, the "impossible" romance between Zero and Burton, the characters' breaking into song and dance in the middle of a scene) and then playfully re-locates them within a specifically gay contemporary setting. The "distance" between the forms taken by the film and its "incongruous" subject matter (after all, these forms have established the very standards of heterosexual romantic behavior) provokes laughter in those who recognize this incongruity. As such, camp creates a potential space of "community" among its spectators.

Sure, Greyson's postmodern style of filmmaking (drawing on references to everything from Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s to the scientia sexualis of the nineteenth century) is not for everyone: it requires work and at least a minimum of intellectual reflection. What it doesn't provide is the quick-and-easy emotional-fix-by-numbers of the kind of watered-down pablum for the masses of which Philadelphia is exemplary--the kind of film the Wood apparently loves.

Zero Patience dares to deal with issues of desire (which is not merely the "projection of one's ego"-- Wood's misunderstanding of Freudian psychoanalysis and its basic concepts is appalling--the very inclusion of Freud's name seems merely to be a pathetic attempt to cash in on the current popularity of psychoanalytic criticism), sexuality and HIV. Instead of representing Patient Zero as some sort of desexualized diseased pariah, Greyson makes him sexy, desirable--a real Canadian pin-up boy--the exact opposite of the image of Patient Zero/Gaetan Dugas perpetuated by mainstream media representations. If it does nothing else, Zero Patience shows that HIV does not make those infected by it into "monsters" (or victims, for that matter). In it, Greyson shows that people living with AIDS are anything but helpless victims. The HIV-positive characters that populate his film are all vital, politically-committed people who are pissed-off with government inaction. Greyson details how medical, historical and social constructs inform public perceptions of homosexuality and AIDS in a humorous but never trivializing way. His film is an outstanding, if somewhat challenging, creation--a fact that Kass Banning recognizes explicitly in her outstanding analysis on the film.

Near the end of his essay Wood writes, "Older people (and especially tenured and authoritarian academics obsessed with sustaining their own misplaced sense of self-importance) might learn a great deal [from a younger generation of critics]." Perhaps Wood should take his own advice, painful as that might be.

(1) I place this term in quotation marks to underscore the fact that it is a term chosen by the editors--and not by me--as an organizing focus for their project.

(2) Jack Babuscio, "Camp and the Gay Sensibility," Gays and Film, ed. Richard Dyer (New York: Zoetrope, 1984).
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Author:R.L. Cagle
Publication:CineAction
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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