As part of our “Movie Of The Week” discussion of All That Heaven Allows this week, Keith Phipps wrote an essay about Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, Mark Rappaport’s 1992 essay-film about how Rappaport believes Hollywood covertly teased and punished the closeted gay actor in his films, while Hudson secretly allowed his sexuality to seep through his performances. (Rock Hudson’s Home Movies is included on Criterion’s new All That Heaven Allows Blu-ray.) As it turns out, many of our readers have been harboring strong feelings about Rappaport’s intentions and methodology for years, and didn’t hesitate to vent, both for and against it. Here’s a sampling of the conversation:
Alien Jesus: “I really have to disagree with the prism in which this film peered into Rock Hudson’s life with the benefit of hindsight, or as mentioned, viewed through a ‘smirk’ lens. There are countless examples of stars and scenes in films which when viewed with a cynical eye could clearly be viewed as gay (or salaciously camp), and by default so must be the performers in those scenes. Look no farther say to Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw. There is an entire scholarly claim, that I admit exists only when viewed through the ‘smirk lens,’ that the entire antagonism of Doc Holiday and Pat Garrett is a vying for the carnal attentions of Billy The Kid… and by default a self-projection of Howard Hughes’ bisexuality. You have to be squinting really hard to come up with that. In the case of Rock Hudson, he was so very protective of his career and went to absurd lengths (and at times with the help of studios) to protect his privacy so as not risk exposure and the death of his career… So to claim that Hudson telescoped his sexuality intentionally in film for those looking for it is, in my mind, disingenuous. It flies against everything he stood for while in good health. But horrible circumstances removed that agency thereby releasing a tsunami of snark by revisiting a handful of his films.”
Julius Kassendorf: “1992 was about the right era for this film. It was an era in which gay filmmakers were chopping up, re-appropriating, and re-contextualizing the past to reflect the present knowledge. Haynes was doing it in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. He also re-contextualized formulas from the 1950s, 1970s and 1980s in Poison to reveal monstrous gay themes. Swoon abused the real lives of Leopold and Loeb. Not that this was new, as both Rocky Horror and Thundercrack! re-contextualized the past by making the queer subtext into the text— both using The Old Dark House as their starting point… Rapaport was clearly working in the NQC milieu of reclaiming the past. It isn’t an academic movie, but a totally tongue-in-cheek film to say that this beloved uber-hetero star was always gay. He was gay when he was a duet with Doris Day. He was gay when he was a soldier. He was gay in his Douglas Sirk movies. Hudson was always gay, even when you (‘you’ being the hetero audience) forced him not to be, both on screen and in the press. Rock Hudson’s Home Movies has the snark of catty gay culture, but it also has a cutting truth that all the best cultural snark has: in this case, that what you believed regarding sexuality was a lie. The specific instances and scenes aren’t that important, so much as the re-contextualization of a gay man’s work from when everybody thought he was straight. And it’s not merely to have a lark at Hudson’s expense, either. He’s just the case being used because his homosexuality was the biggest surprise.”
Son Of Griff: “Getting back to the Movie Of The Week, it seems that the appropriation of All That Heaven Allows in Marxist criticism and queer cinema from the 1960s through the 200s is perhaps a more important part of its legacy than the impact it had during its original release.”
washington: “Though the question there becomes what is appropriation and are we making a distinction with re-appropriation? Sirk himself was a Marxist and a pacifist and I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw more than a little of himself in Hudson’s character in this film and certainly Marxism is in the text of the film, while the queer elements are at best subtext. In this way I think the film(s) has always been Marxist, but only with Fassbinder did they become queer. The only one of Hudson’s films that I feel has anything in the way of a queer text is Seconds, but that same queer text could easily be applied as Jewish text for Frankenheimer.”
Son Of Griff: “While Sirk was a Marxist, I don’t know if he would have subscribed to Comolli and Narboni’s reading his films as symptomatic of stresses and fissions within the ideological/representational matrix of the melodrama: an interpretation that subordinates the director’s intent and privileges an elite critical, as opposed to an immersive, experience for the spectator. Re-appropriating Sirk would require understanding how he leveled a critique of American society—more specifically consumerism—by blending the codes and expectations of the Hollywood Romantic Fantasy Aesthetic with modernism during its Freudian stage. As stated in some earlier Movie Of The Week posts, I think that All That Heaven Allows is about legitimizing the moral authority of feminine spaces of love, sentiment and sacrifice so as to question not only the ethos of consumerism, as well as exposing the egoism embedded in a traditional, transcendentalist based anti-modernism. A clearer way of saying this is that the audience is supposed to identify with Cary more than Ron. Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, besides positioning the queer subtext to the front, is also fairly Gramscian in its attention to the cultural codes that define working class/petite bourgeois identity. Sirk has inspired a legacy of critical writing and artistic output, all of it interesting and important, but much of it indicative of the historical period of which it was produced as opposed to a deep historical reading of what he was actually up to.”
There’s a lot more thoughtful give-and-take in the comments, which I encourage everyone to read in full, especially since the positions of some the commenters gets clarified and modulated as the discussion plays out. I don’t have a lot to add to this discussion, except to offer my recollection of seeing this film for the first time in the early 1990s (and seeing Rappaport’s From The Journals Of Jean Seberg and The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender in the years that followed), and appreciating the way that Rappaport encouraged viewers to approach classic films from new perspectives, whether or not I agreed with his conclusions. I feel much the same way about Room 237: Its greatest value is an exercise in active viewing. I don’t think The Shining is meant to be watched the way the obsessives in Room 237 do; but I do think spending time with the subjects of Rodney Ascher’s film is a welcome reminder to pay more attention while watching movies.
That said, even though I’m inclined to agree with Julius and Griff that this kind of cultural scholarship is important for what it reveals about the scholar and the times, I’m sensitive to what AJ and washington have to say. I do think that sometimes critics look back at work from decades past and either “discover” buried themes that were never all that buried (I saw a thinkpiece a few months back that presumed to unpack the secretly satirical elements of Starship Troopers, which, believe me, weren’t that secret even when the movie came out), or impose a reading that’s either ignorant of or insensitive to the culture of another era. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood for this reason, which is something we may discuss more when we talk about Plan 9 next week. Burton may think he’s honoring Wood and his circle of collaborators, but I sense a lot of condescension and presumption from Ed Wood, and I’m not completely onboard with the movie using real people to make a point that those people might not have endorsed.
I don’t think there are hard-and-fast rules about how artists, critics, and academics should attempt these kinds of cultural reconsiderations, though for the most part, I think the attempt itself is worth the risk of doing it appallingly wrong. As always, the best way to counter one skewed perspective is to keep offering another.
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