Monday, May 21, 2007

SCREENED OUT: GAY IMAGES IN FILMThe Evening Class Interview With Richard Barrios

Holding degrees in musicology and cinema studies, Richard Barrios worked in the music and documentary film industries before turning to the area of film history. His first book was the acclaimed A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, which received the prestigious Theatre Library Association Award. Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall, his second book, was a finalist for that same prize. He has written for numerous publications including The New York Times, and has lectured on film at the Smithsonian and American Film Institutes, among other venues.

For Turner Classic Movies, he narrated and appeared in Busby Berkeley: Going Through the Roof, which was also shown on PBS's Great Performances. His numerous appearances in documentaries on television and DVD also include Fred and Ginger: Partners in Rhythm and Oklahoma!: CinemaScope vs. Todd-AO. Additionally, he has served as audio commentator for the DVD releases of State Fair, The King and I, South Pacific, and Words and Music. Originally hailing from the swamps of South Louisiana, Barrios currently resides in the Philadelphia area.

Richard kindly consented to a phone interview. My heartfelt thanks to TCM's publicist Sarah Hamilton for helping facilitate same.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Thank you for taking a few minutes today, Richard, to talk about the upcoming TCM broadcast of Screened Out.

Richard Barrios: Glad to do it. I was actually reading your blog this morning and enjoying it vastly. I can't wait to see La Vie En Rose and I love the background you gave for it.

Guillén: Thank you, I'm glad to hear that. Now, I want to make sure, this is the first time that this program is being run on TCM?

Barrios: Yeah. Last year they ran a comparable program called Race In Hollywood: Black Images In Film. This year it's on Gay and Lesbian film.

Guillén: In his review of your book Screened Out for the Guardian, Simon Callow commented: "Barrios's admirable book seems perhaps to be overstating the importance of the movies—television, both here and in America, is again becoming a great engine for social change, more adept at reflecting realities than its older brother. …Television is again the medium of the future." It must feel particularly sweet to have had your book cross over to the "medium of the future" to be used as the template for this month-long program?

Barrios: Absolutely! I admire Simon Callow immensely as an actor and a writer and everything else. I didn't always feel he quite grasped what I was getting at in the book and I do say in the book that the period after the book cuts out—I cut out with Boys In the Band in 1970—it wasn't until after [1970] that television did pick up the slack and has continued to. It's much richer in its programming of gay and lesbian images than film; but, that didn't happen until [the time period] after my book had cut out. To have this opportunity for us to have this retrospective and talk about how these films spoke to audience members—gay and straight—is an extraordinary opportunity. I'm very grateful.

Guillén: Extraordinary and phenomenal. It's amazing that TCM would be doing this for the queer community during Pride Month. Can you speak on how the project manifested itself? Were you approached or did you pitch a proposal?

Barrios: It was actually very interesting. It came from good networking. When Screened Out (the book) first came out in the Fall of 2002, I actually went down to Atlanta to speak and present a screening of the film Turnabout, which is actually going to be part of our Screened Out series and there's a still from it on the cover of my book. That was at the Out on Film Festival that they have in Atlanta every year. When I was there, I met a gentleman named Lee Tsiantis who works in the legal department, not of TCM but more the parent Turner organization and he's a great movie buff and he had been a big fan of my first book, A Song In The Dark. He and I touched base and exchanged email and every once in a while we'd write over the next few years. Last year we were speaking and he mentioned that one of his friends and business associates worked in the programming department at TCM, a man named Dennis Millay. Dennis was not familiar with Screened Out and Lee mentioned it to Dennis and they basically both had a light bulb go off together. Dennis called me and I put together a proposal and film clips of some of the pertinent films to show them the variety and richness of what was out there. Dennis pitched it and TCM took it. I was ecstatic and a little surprised because it is further afield than TCM has gone; but, I think very appropriate. By December, we knew it was going to happen and I shot the shows actually in April.

Guillén: It speaks to TCM's courage and farsightedness in how they're reaching out not only to a younger audience but their queer constituency, as well as responsibly educating their straight audiences as well. Did the transposition to television present any complications for you?

Barrios: The only consideration was that the last night of The Fox and Staircase and Boys In the Band and The Killing of Sister George were all originally rated R. Actually Sister George when it first came out was rated X and then they changed it to an R later. That kind of material has to be run after certain hours. It has to be run later. That's why whenever TCM runs Raging Bull, it's always in the wee hours; they can't run it in prime time. So that necessitated a bit of shifting around. As big as TCM's library is, the fact that they went outside the library to get these—all four of these are TCM premieres and we have several others that are being TCM-premiered—what better support could you ask for? I'm lost in appreciation for how much they've extended themselves.

Guillén: That's wonderful to hear about TCM's support in helping you develop this program. If—as Callow also comments—"film mirror[s] the prevailing social climate", what distinguishes the historical approach of your project from, let's say, Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet, which—tethered to the temper of its time—eschewed negative stereotypes in an effort to portray positive mainstream images of queer identity? You seem unfettered by that concern and willing to embrace and celebrate performances that might be considered negative stereotypes. What value or relevance does that have for queer folk today?

Barrios: Some of the films that I write about, I've seen audiences and spectators react either way to them, either cringe or really embrace them. It's a matter of context and of the eye and ear of the beholder. People ask me, of course, about Vito Russo a lot and—without his work—mine would have certainly not been possible. When he was writing The Celluloid Closet, look at the decade he was coming off. It had been just horrible. After The Boys in the Band, there weren't any major follow-ups. The big four queer movies that we're running the last night of the series—and there were a couple of others like The Sergeant and one or two others—after that, there was nothing except people to be murdered or villains or psycho-dykes. Then, of course, it climaxes with Cruising—gee, thanks—so when he was writing his book, he was coming off that and I think his anger and railing against the negativity was an apt reflection of what he and audiences had just been seeing. At the same time, a lot of the earlier [films] that I write about, especially a lot of the [films] made before the Production Code, they were not available to him. There was no TCM in the early 80's,of course, so he didn't know about a lot of these [films]. One of the reasons I was able to write Screened Out, in fact, and have as many films in it as I did—and that I'm now programming at TCM—is because I saw things on TCM that sometimes just astonished me about the range and sometimes the explicitness of these portrayals, even in movies made in the early 1930's.

Guillén: My experience has been similar watching movies on TCM. The subtext within which so much of queer history has been marginalized and hidden accomplishes—at the same time—a witty subversion. Have you set criteria by which to distinguish when queer representation has been an act of purposeful subversion incorporated into a film against recontextualizations of when queerness has been read into a classic film, which is subversion of a different color?

Barrios: Actually Robert Osborne and I have a discussion on camera about matters to that effect on at least one occasion of all the films that we're co-hosting, when we're running Gilda. He takes the view on camera: why would anyone see queer stuff in Gilda? I've always seen it but I also know it's not just existing in a vacuum either and that many many others have seen it. You go back and you wonder, "Did they really mean it?" Well, Glenn Ford was quoted as saying he did know it [whereas] the director Charles Vidor said he did not know it. So you get a "he said, he said" sort of thing. I really did want to put everything into its context and not have the content as something that we see now and attach our retrospective opinions and cynicisms upon. I really wanted it to be more about what audiences saw in these films when they came out because I think film's role in giving especially gay and lesbian spectators—who naturally would have been incredibly hidden away in the 30's and 40's and 50's even—a sense of identification that they probably wouldn't have gotten anywhere else from any kind of mass culture, even when the images are fleeting or momentary. When I did the research, [I found] out more and more that, yes, this is what they intended. They were broadcasting these scenes and messages and characters to those who would be capable of receiving them.

Guillén: That's what I find essentially radical about your scholarship; that this is how these films were intended to be seen and not just recontextualized by wishful projection.

Barrios: You can basically read anything as queer if you want to. [That's] certainly one of the cornerstones of queer theory. I got one review online that mentioned that I only referred in the book to queer theory in passing and that I misunderstood it. I don't usually get insulted but I really was insulted by that because I do work with queer theory; but, I chose to use the parts of it that suited my thesis. I didn't want to fit everything into that template either. It was more important for me as a historian to go back and see, "Is this what they meant? Is this how it was received?" Over and over I found out, yes, it was.

Guillén: Michael Musto, Ron Nyswaner, Charles Busch, Tab Hunter and Alan Cumming have also been enlisted to provide commentary and retrospective on the series….

Barrios: And Don Murray, which I'm really excited about!

Guillén: Don Murray, eh? How's that to be set up? Are you in dialogues with them?

Barrios: No. I never met any of them actually. They're [filmed] for the interstitial [segments] that run between movies throughout the month.

Guillén: I imagine your book covers many more films than were chosen for the television program. Was it difficult to winnow out the films you wanted to present? How was that selection process accomplished?

Barrios: Basically Dennis Millay, the programmer, and I talked for a while. Once the decision was made to limit the films to the same time span that I covered in the book, and that parameter was set—because, you know, part of me would have loved to add Making Love maybe or Longtime Companion, Parting Glances, Go Fish, whatever—but, they wanted to keep it in the same time frame as the book. After that [parameter was set], I knew there were some [films] that were really key, some that were just personal favorites of mine for one reason or another, some that I knew were incredibly important and then it turned out that there were one or two that were just not going to be available. I would have loved, for example, Hitchcock's Rope—which would have been an important film in this whole area—but, it was not available. They couldn't get it.

Guillén: Are there any films included in the program that are not written about in your book?

Barrios: The only one that is [not in the book] is one that I wouldn't have had any way to know about when I was writing the book. I don't know if you saw it last month when TCM ran the RKO Lost and Found group of six films?

Guillén: Regretfully, I didn't catch that, no.

Barrios: There were six movies released by RKO in the 1930's that had not been part of the t.v. packages and had basically not been seen in more than 40-50 years. One of them [in that group] was a racy comedy drama from 1933 called Double Harness with William Powell and Ann Harding. What the people at TCM had found out because they had all the legal correspondence was that it had originally featured a scene with Jean Malin who was the most famous gay American entertainer of the 1930's. He was like the superstar of the pansy craze that swept the country in the early 30's. They filmed one scene with him where he's wearing rouge and is playing a dress designer. Once the studio chiefs realized who he was and they did a little checking and realized how notorious he was, they made them go back and re-shoot the scene; but, we actually have a still of him in the scene. For Malin's queer notoriety to have been a consideration in a movie shot in 1933, I said, "Oh yeah, we have to run that. That's just too important a part of the history."

Guillén: I'm definitely glad I get a second chance to take a look at that. Are the evening's themes patterned after chapters in the book?

Barrios: No. Not really. We had to go with what was available and extant. In the first couple of chapters of the book a lot of the movies I wrote about are basically lost. I went more with, in some cases, genre. We have an evening of comedy, an evening of horror, film noir, the early pre-Code [films]. Some of it's more historical, like the last couple of nights are the films that really pushed the Production Code starting with Tea and Sympathy and then the films that were out and open after the code was gone and there was the rating system. So [the programming] is a combination of genre and historical [importance].

Guillén: Well, I'll take this opportunity to say that—one of the reasons why I have to ask you so many questions about the book—is because I've had trouble locating it here in the queerest of cities in the world. I sincerely hope your publisher Routledge Press will do some restocking in urban centers of your book in preparation for the TCM broadcast.

Barrios: I would certainly hope so. I know that TCM has attempted to talk to Routledge about that. I don't know what the story is. All I'll say on the record is that the distribution of this book is not [that admirable].

Guillén: All the more important that you've been able to transfer your research to this TCM program to make your thoughts more widely available.

Barrios: Robert Osborne does make a point of holding up the book several times every night, which I'm really happy about. [Laughs.]

Guillén: That's funny. Let's talk about some of the films you've selected. I'll be posting the entire schedule, but, for our purposes, let's begin with—what I understand—is one of your favorites: Cecil B. DeMille's Sign of the Cross (1932), whose notoriously steamy "Naked Moon" sequence was claimed by Cecil B. DeMille—in a "magnificently hypocritical" piece of direction—to be "a dreadful warning."

Barrios: [Laughs.] Well, yeah. He wanted to turn people on as well as shock and repel them. He wanted to have it all ways. He knew that "Naked Moon", the lesbian song and dance, was going to be shocking for people and he thought it was a big turn-on as well. That's the whole cornerstone of a lot of DeMille's work. You have to show the appeal of sin in order to condemn it.

Guillén: That's moreorless how I've lived my life. Now, I note that you include two queer noir selections—The Big Combo and The Maltese Falcon—and I was curious, first of all, if you know anyone who has been writing on queer noir? Secondly, someone like Raymond Burr who frequently features in queer noir as a straight heavy; where do these closeted performances fit into the queer canon?

Barrios: It's very interesting. In the book I don't deal a great deal with offscreen [affairs]. I only do it insofar as it impacted on the onscreen images, like with Rock Hudson in some of the comedies where he plays faggy to get the girl like in Pillow Talk and A Very Special Favor. A lot of times I don't necessarily deal with [closeted sexuality] when I don't find that it has a large impact on the screen persona. With Raymond Burr, you don't think of many of Raymond Burr's characters having any sexuality. Even in Perry Mason, his sexuality wasn't there. Generally in noir, there's so many figuratively and literally shadowy personalities. The whole layout of noir both physically and dramatically encourages ambiguity.

Guillén: Do you know anyone who's writing on that?

Barrios: Not offhand though I'm sure it has been [written about]. The Maltese Falcon has been written about so much in that way. So much so that I didn't feel that it was essential for us to have to host that and that's why it's on late night. I felt something like The Big Combo—which had not been written about as much as The Maltese Falcon had in this context—and the relationship between Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef's characters in The Big Combo are brilliantly important and very explicit as well.

Guillén: You complete the series (and your book) with Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, which came out nine days after the Stonewall riots. The Boys in the Band—whose commitment to film Simon Callow terms "a relative triumph" even as another critic described it as an "instant relic"—is further described by Callow as "a truthful account of some gay lives at a time of considerable oppression, though scarcely an affirmation of gay liberation." I remember being horrified and repulsed by this script when I first read it as a teenager, even though now I can respect its tribute to painfully enunciated strategies of survival. Why did you choose to stop your inquiry with this film? Why didn't you continue on writing about queer cinema as it's being expressed today?

Barrios: It was my feeling that the period after The Boys in the Band had really been covered by other writers starting with Vito Russo with thoroughness and candor. It was more important for me to illumine the earlier years that I didn't feel had been covered enough. I had done that with my first book as well. Song in the Dark is about the birth of the movie musical and I cut out right when Fred and Ginger were getting started because I wanted to illumine the earlier part, which wasn't as well [documented]. It's also a way to respect other people who have done really good work. I don't think I could have brought anything to those later films after The Boys in the Band that Vito Russo hadn't already done with all that. I made it a point in the book to refer to The Boys in the Band as the gay equivalent of The Birth Of A Nation. On the one hand it's groundbreaking, extremely important on a lot of levels, and you look at it today and it's certainly not impossible to feel repelled by it.

Guillén: I'm hoping that the TCM broadcast of Screened Out will engender invitations for you to come to the Bay Area to present a program. Have you ever lectured here?

Barrios: Not in the Bay Area, no, and I would love to so if you know anybody, I'd be more than happy. I even bring 16mm film clips with me.

Guillén: That's excellent. I'll actually mention it to Jennifer Morris who is the programmer for our Frameline Festival because I would love to hear you speak in person.

Barrios: They like me. [Laughs.] There's just so much richness of material in the clips and the nature of a lot of these movies is that they get at the short excepts very well. A lot of these images are fleeting and you get it across in just a few [frames]. Just like that famous moment in Wonder Bar when the two guys dance off on the dancefloor. You get the whole thing in just a few seconds. They're very excerptable.

Guillén: Well thank you very much, Richard, I appreciate your taking the time and I certainly look forward to the broadcast.

Barrios: Thank you so much. Thank you for everything.

Cross-published at Twitch.


Anonymous said...

This is absurdly exciting! I must learn everything there is to know about Jean Malin! I'm so glad you sought this out, Michael! It's fantastic, timely and not published anywhere else!

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks for the kind words, Sara. Like you, I have become completely intrigued by Jean Malin and have already been researching him for a companion piece during the broadcast.

Anonymous said...

Hey Michael,

As always, thanks for the work you put into this post. It has me thinking about several things.

I just finished Christine Acham’s book REVOLUTION TELEVISED: PRIMETIME AND THE STRUGGLE FOR BLACK POWER, that revisits some maligned shows/entertainers about African-Americans and investigates the ‘hidden transcripts’ where the actors advocated narratives counter to the ones they acted within. It seems that Barrios’ work here is doing something similar to Acham’s encouraging us to get beyond binary negative/positive portrayals and explore the complexity of multiple narratives weaving into the cultural products. Plus, I also appreciate the audience/reception studies angle. Writing about film on blogs is an audience study of one, but it’s important to test our assumptions about how film is received across wider audiences and the various sub-audiences.

Pre-Code Cinema is what finally got me to let go of linear views on history. The feminist/queer/progressive portrayals that Pre-Code permitted and then the Code squelched demonstrate that it isn’t really getting better all the time. The Code came in and squelched something very vibrant, something released in the 60’s and 70’s, which gives me hope about the horrible rotation we’re experience right now with the Cheney/Rove regime.

And finally, if you’re looking for anything Routledge, the California Press Bookstore on Bancroft in Berkeley, just half a block before the PFA has a plethora of Routledge titles to remind you that you’ll never tire of fascinating books to read.


Michael Guillen said...

Adam, thanks for the food for thought. The Acham volume sounds provocative. I'd agree that Barrios is unfettered by positive/negative stereotypes and is more concerned with social issues of more breadth, depth and overall complexity.

Your comment on what studying Pre-Code films has taught you historically is perhaps one of the most valuable correctives to the false notion of a progressive linearity.

Thanks for the tip about the UC bookstore; I'll take a look there next time I'm in Berkeley.