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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Gay > Film Culture > Silver Screen - Color Me Lavender (Documentary)

The Silver Screen – Color Me Lavender   (Documentary)


Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: C-     Documentary: B



Mark Rappaport has been making unique documentaries that combine old film footage, new footage, and even digital tricks to make important points.  The Silver Screen – Color Me Lavender (1997) offers a twist on the idea of overreading Gay subtexts in old Hollywood films.  In the case of this film, it examines specific successes in filmmaking that are surprisingly so, considering they were films for a straight market.


Dan Butler (of TV’s Frazier) hosts this well-constructed cinema journey that singles-out Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, their “road film” cycle, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, the Grant/Scott connection, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Walter Brennan, Military comedies, Westerns, some lesser-known-but-successful-in-heir-time actors (namely Wendell Corey and the 1947 Lewis Allen film Desert Fury) and even some foreign classics.  Those include films by Jean Cocteau, Luchino Visconti, and the troubles with masculinity in Henri Clouzot’s 1954 classic Wages of Fear.


Since a large audience has not seen most of these films, the generous, well-placed use of clips has maximum impact.  For those who have seen the films, they might be surprised by innuendos they missed.  Sometimes, the Homoeroticism is so blatant, you wonder how it got past the censors of the time.


In Gay studies of cinema, there are often many cases where the analyst goes overboard to look for a Gay subtext or just generally labels things so, no matter how vague.  Here, the films and performers have been carefully chosen to make a very convincing argument about what was Gay.  As the film goes on, there are two ways to take it.  One, as a hilarious comedy, seeing how campy and stupid the films were, as well as wonderment over who the audience was supposed to be.  The other is a stern, shocked reaction at extreme, hateful Homophobia.  The idea of how these films were meant to demean Gays on a grand scale.  You can still believe the latter and laugh, however.


The most politically correct are bound to be the extremists in the crowd.  The Homophobes watching this are bound to laugh with some contempt for Gays.  The film as presented is not extreme itself.  It does definitely make jokes, some of which are no-brainers.  The only thing it misses is the possibility that these straight performers (where applicable, as the film does not claim they are all secretly Gay), is the more complex idea that Gays would always be in the background and in the minority to many of the filmmakers.  Even though Hollywood had many Gays helping to build it even then, the dominant ideology was Conservative/White Patriarchal Heterosexual.  On one hand, the jokes acknowledge “the funny people” (read Gay) by way of the top “funny people” comics in the business.  Gays existed and it could not be denied, so “we’ll have fun” with the limits of how this is being ignored.  On the other hand, it can be seen as a brutally insensitive series of insults and stereotypings meant to hurt and oppress a minority.


Both can hold true, paradoxically.  The film does not attempt top call any of these performers angry Gay bashers either.  Of course, those who hate are automatically dubbed Gay by bad “Freud 101” critics over-generalizing, and who happen to be either pro-Gay, or actually Homophobes themselves.  The film avoids all that.


What is good about the film is that it exposes the recent wave of Homophobia as revisionist history in current filmmaking, as if Gays were never alluded to in the first place.  It also reminds us how much of a waste the Gay New Wave has been in not countering the current wave of cinematic hate or respecting the past.  That cycle has a big problem with the past, the way it usually ignores or is shockingly non-political and reductionary about the AIDS crisis.  The Silver Screen – Color Me Lavender is a strongly welcome exception to all of that.


The full screen picture is above average, as one would expect for a patchwork of a few hundred clips in various condition, both in monochrome and full color.  The picture quality is still better than you’d expect for such a work.  The Dolby Digital 2.0 is usually mono, due to the age of the clips, but Dan Butler’s moments are in a simple stereo at best.  The extras include some trailers, a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” put-on T-Shirt stills gallery, and a short on the persona of John Garfield, who is also addressed in the main program.


This runs 100 minutes and is never boring.  If anything, it shows how plastic some of the filmmaking was at the time, and that the hang-up over Gays was a primary reason.  Rappaport has also done similar works like From the Journals of Jean Seberg and Rock Hudson’s Home Movies.  He is an innovative filmmaker, and we can only hope he will continue to make challenging works about icons of cinema, because they are worth everyone’s time.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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