Michael House and I last conversed when his documentary The Magnificent Tati (2009) premiered at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Part of that conversation went up on SF360 with the balance appearing on The Evening Class. House has followed up his portrait of Jacques Tati with the equally informative Revealing Mr. Maugham (2012), premiering in the Bay Area as part of the 36th edition of the Frameline Film Festival.
With earnest thoroughness, House recounts W. Somerset Maugham's fascinating literary career and reveals intriguing elements of his personal life that enrichen an appreciation of Maugham's body of work. Archival materials are ample—photographs, film clips and rare interview footage with the author—and are supplemented by commentary from several talking heads who are either professed experts on Maugham or family members offering personal recollections. House's reliance on scholastic expertise backfires a bit, especially when said experts lack on-camera charisma, and one wishes all of this information could have been scripted into a narrative voiceover delivered by a recognized actor. Among his ensemble of talking heads, Pico Iyer comes across as the most energized speaking to why Maugham's work remains accessible to reading publics across the globe and it is, of course, always a pleasure to hear Armistead Maupin opine on any subject, his comments on how creativity is fueled by pain being especially noteworthy here. Maupin is the first to admit his reluctance to put words in Maugham's mouth as to how he went about writing his books.
Revealing Mr. Maugham succeeds as another entry in the queer historical canon—not so much as a homostylized fantasy of a known cinematic icon (Joshua Tree (1951): A Portrait of James Dean), or a rescue from the dustbins of memory of a nearly forgotten rock star (Jobriath, A.D.)—but as an accentuation and inclusion of someone admittedly famous and world-reknown into a brethren that—despite increased membership over the years—still comes off now and again as famished for fellowship. How insecure can a queer community be? And how important is Maugham's homosexuality to an understanding of his work?
If, as suggested by one of the film's experts, Maugham guised his sexual interests in female characters who have since become some of the most famous women of literature (and filmic adaptation), he joins the ranks of such writers as Tennessee Williams and Noel Coward in having an indelible impact on culture, albeit indirectly, for expressing what at the time was the love that simply could not speak its name. It's amusing to consider how much the foundations of culture rest upon the constraints of the closet, which—almost as much as poverty—inspire artists to be clever and circuitous in their creative self-expression.
More significantly, however, is the role that Maugham's long-time companion Gerald Haxton played in procuring access to the experiences and personalities that informed Maugham's stories. Maugham, suffering from a stammering speech impediment and characterized as introverted, might never have met the prostitute who became the template for Sadie Thompson, for example, had it not been for Haxton providing introductions. Important for capturing the mannered climate of the time, Revealing Mr. Maugham likewise recapitulates the complicated sex lives of the early 20th century, limned by impropriety, scandal and unhappy marriages of convenience.
Perhaps one of the most interesting inclusions in the documentary's commentary on Maugham is the montage of entries from Maugham's Facebook page, where videotaped testimonials from Maugham fans illustrate the author's continuing relevance to contemporary audiences.
I'm grateful to Michael House for providing streaming access to Revealing Mr. Maugham and to being amenable to answering a few questions via email.
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Michael Guillén: Taking a look at your IMDb profile this morning, I took note that you consider yourself an editor more than a director? How would you distinguish the two?
Michael House: In fact, I really don't consider myself either. I am a guitarist if I am anything. In my mind directing and editing are just another two labels applied to the complicated process of making a film. Nowadays, an individual can do nearly all the jobs on a factual film so all the little steps—such as directing or editing—are within the whole process, but for me the films are largely made in the edit so the editing is really important. Interviewing and filming (things that fall under "directing") are often sheer luck and very unpredictable so I tend to seize control and find the narrative in the edit.
I never look at IMDb. My profile is not accurate and I am not keen on IMDb because I know much of the voting for films on IMDb (at least on my films) are not real votes. They also make it hard for film makers to list things. I guess I just don't like IMDb.
Guillén: I note that Tati scholar David Bellos, who contributed to your Tati documentary, is likewise a producing credit here. Can you speak to your continuing collaboration with Bellos and the formation of SWiM Cinema?
House: David Bellos is a professor at Princeton University. He is also one of the world's most respected and important translators. His best selling book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is simply wonderful. David and I became friends because he wrote a book on Jacques Tati that I love. After the film on Tati, David offered to help me make more films about artists and, well, here we are.... He understands that arts education needs all the help it can get and that factual films on art are a wonderful way to introduce overlooked icons (i.e., Tati and Maugham) to people. He is a true supporter of the arts and I adore him.
SWiM cinema is a project I started in March to make films on art available to anyone on earth with the internet. Most people don't understand how a film is distributed but I can tell you it is not easy, nor practical to have a small factual film made available to a viewer in, say, Japan or Russia. Even places such as Brazil are really hard to get a film made available. It is not because there are not people who would like to buy the films in these places but because iTunes or DVD companies make it nearly impossible for the indie film maker to distribute their work there. People think that the internet has opened up the global market for indie film makers but that is not really true. One must find a distribution company such as iTunes in each market, and there are like 650+ markets, so for a small niche film the idea of selling it everywhere is still really hard.
I set up SWiM cinema to try to solve this problem and to create a global platform where I could offer my films, and other film makers' films, ("artumentaries" I call them). Obviously I have to subtitle them and find promotion methods to let people know the films are available—all of which we are doing. SWiM does PR by screening its films with non-profit organizations, museums and by other methods. For example, we team up with an organization and donate a portion of each sale to them. Revealing Mr. Maugham shares its proceeds with the British Stammering Association and Pride London. As you know, Maugham was a stammerer and gay. So SWiM is a new way for factual films to find viewers. We don't do DVDs, only downloads. DVDs are, in fact, very bad for the environment and we want to keep it as green as possible. (When I say "we", I mean "me".)
I think with specialized films on art the audience is not massive but it is certainly international. I gave all that some real thought and came up with SWiM cinema. It is slowly working. We sell the films to people all over. I think Maugham was bought first by someone in Iceland then in India, both on the day SWiM released it. That could never happen if we tried to sell with normal "traditional" sales methods. I plan on growing the catalogue to include many artumentaries from numerous countries as well as some films of stage plays and concerts, nothing super mainstream, just interesting things you won't ever find on BBC or PBS.
Guillén: Can you speak to the genesis of this project and how you went about shaping it? What is your personal engagement with Maugham?
House: I owe Maugham a lot because The Razor's Edge (1944)—which I read when I was 19—really inspired me to live my life as I wanted to and not to follow the normal path I was raised to follow. It gave me the idea to move to Europe and be an artist. After The Razor's Edge I read all of Maugham's work (and I still do read him). I love his stories. He is a true "internationalist", which is very rare in fiction. His "voice" is also one I really like, never anything but interesting and compatible to me.
I knew Maugham had gotten a bad rap in his last years and so I had (for years) wanted to make a film that looked into that. I felt it needed to be cleared up. Selina Hastings wrote her biography The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham about three or four years ago and she really unlocked all of the misunderstandings about Maugham, so she and I got together and asked the Royal Literary Fund to allow us permission to use Maugham's work. He willed them his copyrights.
I then started trying to find writers on the best seller list who were into Maugham. Armistead Maupin was the first, then Pico Iyer, Alan Furst, Alexander McCall Smith, these are all giants in the world of publishing so I asked them and they all basically said, "Yes, I'd love to talk about Maugham. He is a major inspiration to me." To me the measure of an artist is how seminal he / she is with real artists working today and Maugham truly takes the cake on that point. So I started interviewing all these "big" writers and was pleased to find they were all "mini-Maugham-experts". I then asked Maugham's family to be in the film and they agreed, thanks to Selina Hastings. So it all came together, as these things do, because wonderful, intelligent people agreed to participate.
Guillén: In your NPR interview you made a point of correcting the description of Maugham as bisexual to assert he was homosexual. Some might argue—as the comments section heatedly reveals at Towleroad—that this is "bisexual erasure on behalf of Gay, Inc." Why is it important for you to understand Maugham as a homosexual, and not a bisexual?
House: We know Maugham only involved himself with women after he was the age of 40. More importantly, he only involved himself with women after he was London's most famous playwright. Up to that point—when he was a mere struggling writer—he was only involved romantically with men. Fame was the reason he got involved with Syrie and other women. Remember, Maugham became famous only 10 years after Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for being queer.
Maugham lived his whole life with men as lovers. Gerald Haxton was his main lover for 30 years but—before Gerald—Maugham was deeply in love with a man named Harry Phillips. They left England together to live as a couple in Paris around 1905, in fact. I am certain that marriage, women lovers and fatherhood would have never entered Somerset Maugham's life if he had not become the world's most famous playwright by 1912. Being gay and famous was not possible back then and a "conventional marriage" was your cover. It is hard to understand how famous Maugham was in the 1910s. We are talking mega-star of his time so public image was a real consideration.
I also think one has a serious obligation to be fully honest when you make a "factual" film and I found no evidence while making this film that Maugham ever felt sexual love towards a woman—men, yes, over and again—but never towards a woman. So to me he was homosexual, not bisexual.
Guillén: How important is Maugham's homosexuality to an understanding of his work?
House: I think Maugham was an outsider and his writing is from that perspective. His being gay was one of those elements. Armistead Maupin says being gay helps one live like a "spy"—growing up keeping secrets, observing people's reactions very closely, things like that. I think this all added to Maugham's perspective and helped him observe better, which made him a better writer. But to be honest, I think Maugham's work is for anyone who in their heart is an outsider—gay or straight.
Guillén: I note the documentary is already available for purchase online. Does this mean that—other than for a festival presence—a theatrical release is not in the works? In terms of festivals, where is it booked next?
House: Revealing Mr. Maugham is for the festivals only. I haven't really had any thoughts beyond that. It will be in festivals in Greece, Ireland, South Africa and loads of others. Every week a new one asks to screen it. It was at the BFI in March and will show at the very cool Chichester Festival in August, also in Germany, Russia and Japan. Although I have festivals asking for it, I don't think Revealing Mr. Maugham is a film for general theatrical release, but what do I know?