Blog Post #3: The Celluloid Closet–Watch Between the Lines


Image Credit:  Thirteen: Brandy Eve Allen

          I found The Celluloid Closet (1995) extremely enlightening.  Never before had I considered the complex history between homosexuality and film censorship.  I am aware of Catholicism’s sexual stringency.  After all, masturbation—sex with oneself—is deemed a mortal sin.  So religious opposition to homosexual passion, while disappointing, surprised me not.  I didn’t realize, however, the influence the Church held over cinema nor did I grasp the power of The Hays Code enforced in Hollywood following the pope’s threat of mass boycott.

I commend early filmmakers whose sharp wit and bravery worked around the stifling system.  The documentary reveals black-and-white pictures with subtle portrayals of queer craving.   To evade censors, homosexuality was indirectly explored through gender-bending wardrobes, characters who transgressed conventional treatment of masculinity/femininity, intimate friendships that hinted at more, as well as play with phallic objects such as guns.  I’m sad that the majority of explicitly queer characters in early films are murderers, monsters, or mad.  Such poor representations suggest an inherent link between homosexuality and mental illness.  Nor am I a fan of the sissy trope which likens gay men to impotent wannabe-women.   Constant death and punishment of gays in cinema while reflective of real world prejudice still disturbs me.  Persistent sad-endings suggest to gay viewers that their lives will ultimately end in misery.

Still, negative visibility is better than invisibility.  To acknowledge LGBT existence is in itself a feat given the puritanical constrictions of heteronormative society.   Hope is what I took away from the film.  Audiences have the power to inject their own persona into the projections shown on screen.  We have the responsibility and capacity to alter the future of film in the name of equality.  Shows like The Fosters, Glee, and American Horror Story depict LGBT members in a positive light, granting viewers characters for whom to root and with which to identify.

But despite progress, many films still rely on indirect condemnation.  Silence can be unsettling.  In Thirteen (2003), virginal Tracy is corrupted by seductive BFF Evie.  Tracy’s obsession with Evie is erotic.  While kissing a boy, Tracy watches her friend the entire time.  Her decline into drugs and delinquency is tied to the intimacy she shares with the beautiful femme fatale played by Nikki Reed.  Similarly, films like Hot Chick (2002) perpetuate negative stereotypes.  Popular teen Jessica wakes up in the body of a grungy man.  As a result of her girly mannerisms, everyone assumes she—now in male form—is gay.  In the film, being a woman and being gay become inseparable, denying gays their status as “real” men.  We still see same-sex kisses used as assaults.  In American Hustle (2013), Jennifer Lawrence aggressively plants a wet one on Amy Adams.  Change comes slowly.

Same-sex desire isn’t a product of the 21st century; it’s a force as primal and essential to the human species as hunger or thirst.  Originating with the dawn of man while preceding the flame and wheel, “queer” is everywhere.  Time to open our eyes and watch between the lines.

The Celluloid Closet. Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Perf. Lily Tomlin. TriStar Pictures,

1995. Youtube. 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?