It’s not an especially unique observation that historical works are usually more indicative of the time when they were made than they are of the time they intend to represent. That quality of the mid-90s Gay Cinema documentary The Celluloid Closet still took me by surprise, though. The film still stands as an important work a quarter-century later, but the further we get away from its time of production the more peculiarly (and encouragingly) antiquated it becomes. Adapted from a critical text of the same name, The Celluloid Closet is intended to function as a history of onscreen gay & lesbian representation in Hollywood movies. In practice, it’s more of a documentary about how desperately starved queer audiences were for positive onscreen representation in the 1990s in particular.
As gay filmmakers & commentators walk the audience through the sordid history of Hollywood’s first century of homophobia (guided by a Lily Tomlin narration track), I found myself actively disagreeing with a lot of their opinions on what constitutes The Wrong Kind of Representation. I gradually recognized that I was feeling that way because of a somewhat spoiled vantage point of having a lot more variety in Queer Cinema to choose from decades after its sentiment had taken hold. At large, The Celluloid Closet is extremely dismissive of transgressive, morally troubling, or even actively villainous gay characters, the kinds of representation that generally creep up in movies that I personally tend to love (thanks to my bottomless thirst for low-end genre trash). Friedkin’s forever-controversial works Cruising & The Boys in the Band were singled out as especially toxic hallmarks of The Wrong Kind of Representation in the film, a poisoned leftover of Hollywood’s long history of unmasked homophobia. I love both of those movies; I’d even cite them among some of my all-time favorites. That’s an experience colored by a life lived when Normalized gay representation has since been achieved in popular media, even if it is still too rare to fully declare victory. In the 90s, transgressive, destructive creeps were the only gay characters who were allowed onscreen since the invention of the medium, which I totally understand would sour the thrill of their flagrant misbehavior.
Cataloging the censorship of The Hays Code era, the de-sexed caricature of the Sissy archetype, the villainization of “deceitful” trans characters, and so on, The Celluloid Closet mostly now served as a reminder of just how far gay representation has come in the couple decades since it was released. A lot of its searching-for-crumbs sentiment in its quest for positive onscreen representation sadly still resonates today, especially when looking for any prominent gay characters in big-budget media from corporate conglomerates like Disney. However, its push for cleaned-up, all-posi gay representation now feels extremely dated to me. I no longer believe we’re in a place where every gay movie has to be a sanitized Love, Simon-style journey of sunny self-discovery. I want to live in a world where Hollywood can catch up with the transgressive queer freak-outs of foreign indie releases like The Wild Boys, Knife+Heart, and Stranger By the Lake. In the 90s, when all the gay characters you’d ever seen were minor roles played for “comedy or pity or fear” we obviously weren’t there yet. Revisiting this documentary is a nice reminder that things have changed, however incrementally.
Documentary filmmaking itself has also apparently changed in recent years. I was shocked that The Celluloid Closet doesn’t label its films or its talking heads for the audience’s reference. You either recognize Quentin Crisp or you don’t, which would be highly unusual in a modern doc. We can refer to user-generated Letterboxd lists & IMDb cast lists to clear up any confusion or gaps in knowledge, though, so the real hurdle is just in understanding & reckoning with the film’s dated POV. As one of the talking heads explains (I wish I had caught their name, dammit!), “Nobody really sees the same movie.” Our personal biases and life experiences shape the way we internally experience art. The Celluloid Closet’s greatest asset is in documenting the biases & life experiences of gay audiences in the 90s in particular, since the history of onscreen representation in Hollywood is obviously an ever-evolving beast so no one documentary on the subject could ever be a definitive, everlasting work.