Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Gender or the Sex?

I've begun reading Daniel Humphrey's new book Queer Bergman: Sexuality, Gender, and the European art Cinema (Texas, 2013).  I knew there were gay and bisexual characters in some of Ingmar Bergman's films; already from reading Humphrey's introduction I've learned that there were more than I knew about, and the prospect of a queer-oriented reading of Bergman's work has promise.  I was also aware of the connection between European art films and sexual frankness in 1950s America, and that some "art houses" which specialized in showing such films later became porn houses, some of which harbored male-on-male cruising and on-site sexual activity.  But the mainstream movie palaces were also proverbial cruising places.  One thing I've begun to notice is that Humphrey seems unaware of this connection, of the overlap of the cultural uses to which film and its temples were put.

So, for example, Humphrey cites work on film narrative by the critic David Bordwell, who wrote that "in the art film, 'personal psychology may be indeterminate'" and that in many art films "'scenes are built around chance encounters, and the entire film may consist of nothing more than a series of them, linked by a trip ... or aimless wandering."  Humphrey then suggests "for the post-World War II queer spectator, a historically specific sense of queer relationality -- the habits of disaffected homosexuals searching for their lost reflections, the closeted queers' search for their equally guarded kindred spirits, the drawn-out experience of cruising urban landscapes for fellow travelers" (45).  Bordwell, according to Humphrey, prefers this "connotation-based" approach to cinematic narrative and exalts it for its "ambiguity" (46).

There may be something to this, but I have some objections.  First, although cruising has the episodic quality Humphrey assigns to it, it is also goal-directed, seeking a particular kind of connection.  It may also lead to finding community, among those queers who stick around in the cruising places to socialize.  Second, I think Humphrey is conflating the post-Stonewall closet with its predecessor: the former means not telling straight acquaintances that one is gay, the latter means cutting oneself off from the fellowship of other queers.  "Coming out" (though not "out of the closet") in the pre-Stonewall period meant making one's debut in gay society, and having one's first homosexual copulation.  The "search" Humphrey mentions was the quest for the secret society, though in large cities it wasn't all that secretive or "guarded."

Most important, even the supposedly unambiguous Hollywood mode of narrative had its ambiguities, which gay fans made the most of, looking for in-jokes, double meanings, and the like.  Other gay critics have pointed out that there were plenty of gay people working in Hollywood, most of them in crew and technical areas, but also writing, acting and sometimes directing, and their sensibilities would have been reflected in their work, sometimes deliberately.  There's a large literature, starting with Parker Tyler and Vito Russo, on queer readings of Hollywood film.  Perhaps the style of European art film would have signified homosexuality in different ways, but gay moviegoers didn't have to go to art houses to find plenty of material for speculation, gossip, and wishful thinking.  I'm wondering if Humphrey isn't, to some extent, constructing a false dichotomy here.

Another area where I quibble is in his discussion of lighting and close-up styles for actors.  Humphrey writes that some European art films' "sexual allure also results from the ways in which the male actors are lit and photographed, reinforcing a sense of passivity, at least to an American spectator, which is in strong contradistinction to the ways men were typically lit and photographed in the classical Hollywood cinema ... Beginning with American motion pictures of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the image of women was concretized by using the rich, eroticizing chiaroscuro patterns that the artists Rembrandt and Caravaggio had conceived for their subjects centuries before, while male protagonists increasingly became more functionally illuminated through what cinematographers refer to as 'flat', or high-key, lighting" (42).  European art films continued to light male characters with those "rich, eroticizing chiaroscuro patterns" at least some of the time; Humphrey discusses Andrei Tarkovky's Ivan's Childhood (1962) at some length for its lighting of the male leads.

Again, there is something to this, but I still wonder.  Flat lighting of male stars in American films doesn't seem to have inhibited gay male (or straight female) fans from eroticizing them, even when they were not pretty boys in the mold of Rudolf Valentino, Ramon Navarro, or Ivor Novello.  Humphrey seems to assume that physical beauty means femininity, and that if men aren't lit and photographed in the same way Hollywood treats its women, they won't be attractive.  This is a weird kind of essentialism to my mind: far from being queer, it's built on the third-sex, quasi-heterosexual model so dear to 19th century and 20th century sexologists, and to not a few gay people.  But as I've pointed out before, this model is incoherent.  It assumes that erotic desire is male, and that eroticism always consists of an active subject (assumed to be male) and a passive (assumed to be female) object.  This assumption underlies a lot of cinematic "gaze" theory, pioneered by Laura Mulvey, which essentializes the camera as male, and the actor of either sex as female.  (As I recall, Mulvey was much more tentative in her 1975 "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" than her disciples have been.)  But if a woman, let alone a sissy boy, gazes longingly at Clark Gable (whose advent, Humphrey declares, "portended the end of that era in mainstream Ameridan cinema, one that has never really been repeated" [44]), the woman/sissy becomes the man and the man becomes the sissy/woman.  The essentialist-despite-himself Gore Vidal claimed that this was why Hollywood actors became alcoholics: being subject to the objectifying gaze of the camera was emasculating, because men aren't supposed to be looked at.  (Actresses, he claimed, took up knitting, though I guess nobody told Judy Garland.)  Maybe this is true, but to me it suggests that gender needs to be decoupled from the Gaze and other related concepts.  Gender is accidental, not essential, in such analysis.

Like just about everybody these days, Humphrey seems to be of at least two minds about "gender."   He straddles the line between using the word in its 1970s feminist/sociological sense (where gender as behavior or personality traits is distinguished from biological, bodily sex) and its present confused and confusing sense, where it means both body and behavior.  So, for example, he opposes "male" and "feminine" several times.  "Male" is a sex, so its opposite should be "female."  But on page 109 he writes:
In many of his writings, Freud seems beholden to the conventional thought of his day, which suggests that it can only be a person’s “feminine” sensibility that desires to have sex with a “masculine” partner, and vice versa. In other words, masculinity requires femininity in its sexual object, and femininity requires masculinity in its sexual object. While Freud would later develop a theory of homosexuality in ways that seem more in line with contemporary understandings, only with the development of queer theory would scholars fully conceptualize homosexual and heterosexual object choices as distinct from – although not completely unrelated to – female and male gender positions. Meanwhile, the notion of bisexuality remained problematic in psychoanalysis; while it stood for a mere masculine-feminine mixture in the person, it was often discussed by Freud as part of a heterosexual-homosexual dynamic in the psyche. Put simply, Freud made the mistake of confusing gendered identity with sexual object choice. 
This problem is hardly confined to Freud or "the conventional thought of his day."  The tendency to assume that erotic desire for females is innately male, and vice versa, is older than Freud and persists in the present, where it's the unspoken assumption that structures scientific study of "sexual orientation."

Having just finished reading Queer Bergman, I've begun to reread Emma Donoghue's Passions Between Women (Harper, 1993), which shows how women who loved other women were assumed from antiquity until the 19th century to be physical hermaphrodites, with oversized clitorises or possibly even genuine penises that came bursting out of their bodies like a Ridley Scott alien (only lower down).  The savants who postulated this couldn't decide whether the penis produced or merely enabled desire for women.  Nowadays, however, gender itself has been reified into a discrete matrix of traits and behavior, somehow radically separate from the body yet still obscurely tied to maleness or femaleness.

I can't blame Humphrey for succumbing to the conventional thought of his day, but this passage indicates that he can see the way out.  Queer Bergman was well worth reading, and I'll probably check out some of the early Bergman films Humphrey discusses, as well as look again at some of the later ones.