The Silver Screen –
Color Me Lavender (Documentary)
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,
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