The first queer film, according to some historians, was made in the early silent era. In ”Dickson Experimental Sound Film,” which was made to test the Kinetophone, William Dickson and Thomas Edison’s attempt at synchronized sound features one man playing the violin into an enormous recording horn while two other men dance. It looks pretty gay to contemporary eyes. Vito Russo certainly thought so, including it in his landmark 1991 book “The Celluloid Closet.”
Then again: Homosocial dancing was pretty common in the 19th century. It’s unlikely that the two men in the film were intended to be seen as a romantic couple. The music choice, a cabin boy’s song from a French operetta, casts the film as a joke about heterosexual men sequestered on a ship, akin to the all-male environment of Edison’s studio.
Not that such an environment doesn’t lead to actual homosexual activity anyway.
This looping argument, back and forth between the assumption of queer content and the heteronormative burden of proof, is often at issue when looking for cinematic representation of LGBT people. “Does it really count?” is a very common question, one which often misses the point.
This is why it’s so exciting to see an open approach to the LGBT cinema on display in An Early Clue to the New Direction: Queer Cinema Before Stonewall, a series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The nearly 50 films represented run the gamut, both introducing a canon of LGBT cinema and undermining the very idea of such a restrictive list.
After all, canons are about exclusion, saying “no” to films that aren’t up to snuff, that are somehow “lesser” works. And while this particular series includes a handful of films with already universally-acknowledged significance, there’s more going on. Defining an open, vibrant queer cinema canon should be about saying “yes” to things.
Opening night, for example, pairs Jean Cocteau’s “The Blood of a Poet” with Leontine Sagan’s “Madchen in Uniform,” a stunning Weimar-era story of identity crisis in an all-girls boarding school. It’s an underseen, gorgeous accomplishment that deserves much, much more attention.
An Early Clue to the New Direction invites us to say “yes” to “The Queen,” a documentary about a 1967 drag ball, which will come as a pleasant surprise to anyone whose knowledge of drag history goes back only so far as “Paris Is Burning.” It extends its focus to experimental work as well, from such off-the-beaten-path luminaries as Gregory Markopulos and Curtis Harrington.
It also reaches out to stranger, rougher representations of queer people. Produced by the Inglewood, California police department, “Boys Beware” is a pearl-clutching piece of anti-gay propaganda that warns young boys away from the adult, homosexual predators that have apparently overrun their town. Today it plays as a comedy, brimming with the brief moments of knowing nuance that J. Bryan Lowder identifies as camp.
Why bother reclaiming such a ridiculous, offensive relic? Well, for one thing, the word “queer” itself is a rehabilitated slur. And the age of paranoia around protecting “the children” from queer people is hardly over, as North Carolina and Mississippi have reminded us just this month. But there’s also an artistic value lurking in these offensive absurdities. The public perception of predatory, ugly gay men may be unpleasant, but it also gave John Waters something to transform into his own triumphant celebrations of filth.
And so instead of constructing a canon of exclusion, An Early Clue to the New Direction endorses a much more rewarding project, the pursuit of a polyphonic history of queer cinema. This embraces clandestine and blissful pornographic shorts such as “No Help Needed” and “Monte Hanson and Tony Gallo.” It extends to Hollywood flops that tried to introduce queer elements and were met with confusion, like George Cukor and Katherine Hepburn’s charmingly subversive “Sylvia Scarlett” and John Huston’s ostentatiously tortured “Reflections in a Golden Eye.”
For when it comes to taking inspiration from queer history, it doesn’t matter how hidden or even illegal the source may have been. Todd Haynes transformed the deliriously erotic imagery of Jean Genet’s oft-banned “Un Chant d’Amour” into a sequence in his 1991 debut feature, “Poison.” Barbara Hammer used “Lot in Sodom” as raw material for her masterpiece of queer historical memory, “Nitrate Kisses.”
Much of this comes down to “permission,” a concept that often arises at Adam Baran and Ira Sachs’s New York-based Queer/Art/Film series, at which artists present the films that gave them the artistic permission to follow in their footsteps. Inspiration becomes an interpersonal relationship.
Queer history, after all, is constantly being discovered and rediscovered. “Mona’s Candle Light,” an amateur film shot in a San Francisco lesbian bar sometime around 1950, is a real highlight of this series. It screens on a double bill with Jacqueline Audry’s adaptation of Dorothy Bussy’s “Olivia,” a novel that draws much from “Madchen in Uniform.” This history is really a form of cultural genealogy, growing a family tree of influences that only profits from inclusion.
With this open framework, the “Dickson Experimental Sound Film” features cinema’s first queer images, regardless of original intent. It’s a beautiful coincidence that they were captured in 1895, the very same year that Oscar Wilde was put on trial and imprisoned for gross indecency. That this event, the defining incident of the state-sanctioned homophobia of the 19th century, would coincide with the birth of the queer images of the 20th, is about as blunt a spiritual endorsement as one could imagine.
The Wilde connection also ties things to another film in this series, Alla Nazimova and Charles Bryant’s 1923 adaptation of “Salome.” Its lush, Aubrey Bearsley-inspired style was dubbed “Nancy-Prancy-Pansy-Piffle” by Kenneth Anger, a ringing endorsement if there ever was one. It is in Wilde’s epigraph that one finds a spiritual connection with the open-minded pursuit of living queerness in the cinema of the pre-Gay Liberation world: “The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.”
In its proper context, this explains Salome’s morbid and sensual fascination with the head of the prophet Jochanaan. But replace the word “mystery” with the word “history,” and you’ve got yourself a queer curatorial ethos.
New Direction: Queer Cinema Before Stonewall runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center April 22 – May 1.
Watch a trailer for “Gayby Baby” below: