The Celluloid Closet (1995)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Orlando (1992)

The phrase has recently devolved into something of a critical cliché, but I find myself becoming increasingly possessed by the idea of “pure cinema.” In the modern pop culture push to blur the lines between what is cinema and what is a video game, television series, or “virtual reality experience,” I find myself receding into the comforts of art that can only be expressed through the medium of film. “Pure cinema” titles like The Neon Demon, The Duke of Burgundy, and Beyond the Black Rainbow, with their hypnotic tones & basic indulgences in the pleasures of sound synced to moving lights, have been the movies that captured my imagination most in recent years and I often find myself chasing their aesthetic in other works. Sally Potter’s 1992 fantasy piece Orlando delivered my much-needed pure cinema fix with such efficiency and such a delicate hand that I didn’t even fully know what I was getting into until it was maybe a third of the way through. Initially masquerading as a costume drama with a prankish dry wit, Orlando gradually develops into the transcendent pure cinema hypnosis I’m always searching for in my movie choices. It pulls this off in such a casual, unintimidating way that it’s not until the final scene that the full impact of its joys as a playful masterpiece becomes apparent. This is the exact kind of visual and tonal achievement that could only ever be captured in the form of a feature film, a cinematic reverie that’s nothing short of real world magic.

I’m not sure why Tilda Swinton kept making films after she already found her perfect role in 1992. Orlando is essentially a one-woman show that finds Swinton navigating the only place where her unearthly presence makes any sense: the distant past. Playing the titular role of Orlando, a fictional (male) royalty from a Virginia Woolf novel of the same name, Swinton looks all too at home in her costume drama garb, as if the actor were plucked from a 17th Century painting. Orlando is a nervous little fella, often breaking the fourth wall with Ferris Bueller-type asides to the camera to alleviate his anxious tension. Early on, he finds himself squirming under the seductive scrutiny of Queen Elizabeth (played by an ancient Quentin Crisp, another genius choice of gender-defiant casting). The Queen promises that Orlando may retain possession of and lordship over his family’s land as long as he obeys a simple command, “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” He keeps this promise through an unexplained triumph of the will & fairy tale logic, living on for centuries in his youthful, androgynous state. The only change in Orlando’s physicality is that after a brief experience with the masculine horrors of war, he transforms into a woman. She explains to the camera, “Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.” This shift is treated less like a huge rug pull and more like an internal, gender specific version if the identity shift in Persona. It’s a casual, fluid transition that leads to interesting changes in how Orlando experiences love, power, and property ownership, but had little effect on her overall character. Time continues to move on from there, decades at once, and the movie shrugs it off, concerned with much more important issues of identity & sense of self.

Besides the refreshing way it casually disrupts the rigidity of its protagonist’s gender, Orlando is impressive in the way it’s narrative structure more like a poem than a traditional A-B feature. Segmented into sequences titled (and dated) “1600: DEATH,” “1650: POETRY,” “1750: SOCIETY,” etc., Orlando reads more like a collection of stanzas than a period piece or even a fairy tale typically would. Its isolated meditations on topics like “LOVE,” “SEX,” and “POLITICS” shake it free from any concerns of having to fulfill a three act structure, allowing characters like Queen Elizabeth or a sexed-up Billy Zane drift through Orlando’s life without any expectation of achieving their own arc. Each piece is a contribution to the larger puzzle of Orlando’s curiously long & gender-defiant life. When seen from a distance, the big picture of this puzzle is pure visual poetry. Scenes are short, amounting to a hypnotic rhythm that allows only for a visual indulgence in a series of strikingly beautiful images: Swinton’s impossibly dark eyes, Sandy Powell’s world class costume design, love, sex, war, heartbreak. If you had to distill Orlando down to an image or two, there’s a scene where a living tableau is staged on ice as dinner entertainment and a soon-to-follow dramatic performance featuring traditional Shakespearean crossdressing that’s disrupted by loud, but oddly beautiful fireworks. They’re entertainments created solely for the sake of their own visual beauty, a spirit the movie captures in its sweeping fairy tale of a life that never ends.

Sally Potter makes this pure cinema aesthetic feel not only casual & effortless, but also frequently humorous. Orlando’s knowing glances to the audience are a prototype version of a mockumentary style later popularized by shows like The Office and the magical realism of their gender fluidity is often treated like a kind of joke, especially when they declare things like, “The treachery of men!” or “The treachery of women!” The final scene of the film perfectly nails home this half fantastic/half humorous tone as well, playing something like a divine prank. I feel like I can count on one hand the movies I’ve seen that achieve this balance of dry wit and visual opulence: The Fall, Ravenous, The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover, Marie Antoinette, and maybe Tale of Tales. I’d consider each of those works among the greatest films I’ve seen in my lifetime and after a single  viewing I’m more than willing to list Orlando among them. My only disappointment in watching Sally Potter’s masterful achievement is that I’m not likely to ever see it projected big & loud in a proper movie theater setting. Watching it at home on the same television where I’d steam a Netflix series or a pro wrestling PPV felt like an insult to a movie that deserves a much more grandiose environment. It is, after all, pure cinema.

-Brandon Ledet