“Because, as gays, we grew up isolated not only from our heterosexual peers but also from each other, we turned to the mass media for information and ideas about ourselves… we could use the film–especially those not directly offering us images of ourselves–as we chose.” -Richard Dyer, “Introduction to Gays and Film“
As a young queer cinephile, I consider myself lucky to live in a time when it is not particularly difficult to find representations of my own experiences and desires depicted within films, television, and other types of media. Just last night I had the opportunity to attend a screening at San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival, the oldest LGBT film festival in existence, and beyond the (excellent) films itself, just the fact of taking part in watching a cinematic depiction of gay lives and relationships along with some 1,400 other individuals was itself an incredibly powerful and moving experience.
But on the other hand, I remain endlessly intrigued about times in the not-so-distant past when this type of situation could hardly be imagined, to say nothing about it actually being a reality. One of my favorite things is to sit and gab with two of my “uncles”–a gay couple now in their late 80’s and early 90’s respectively–and listen to their memories of films and stars from the Hollywood studio era, and, most especially, all the juicy gossip that circulated in gay circles (who cares if it was ever true or not?). It always fascinates me how vibrant many of these stories and perceptions remain for them, and what shape that they take. For me, these conversations serve as a vivid demonstration of what queer scholars have been writing about for decades–what Dyer describes in the groundbreaking collection of essays he edited Gays and Film as a kind of “queer bricolage.” Taking the term directly from French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, he defines “bricolage” as “playing around with the elements available to us in such a way as to bend their meanings to our own purposes.” Through this process “we could pilfer from straight society’s images on the screen such that would help us build up a subculture, or what Jack Babuscio calls a ‘gay sensibility.'”
Even with increased queer visibility and representation in contemporary cinema and culture, this process hasn’t entirely disappeared, but has now largely takes the form of looking back and attempting to decipher and read the queer coding embedded in the films of the past, often wittily recasting these films in our own image. Christianne over at Krell Labs provided one of my favorite examples of this in her thoughts regarding the last shots of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, stating that she prefers to think that Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell aren’t in fact marrying their rather dull male suitors, but each other. Posting an image where Monroe and Russell exchange a meaningful glance as visual demonstration, it’s a marvelous re-reading–and queering–of these image(s).
In this spirit, I wish to offer up my own bricolaged interpretation of a classic film I dearly love. And funny enough, it also stars Jane Russell–the 1951 pseudo-noir His Kind of Woman (John Farrow, USA, 1951). Russell co-stars with Robert Mitchum, and this is the first of two films in which she was paired with Mitchum, with the second, Joseph von Sternberg’s Macao from the following year the one most usually remembered (despite being overall the lesser film). I had never heard of His Kind of Woman before when I checked out the DVD from my local library on a whim, and was immediately charmed by it–Russell and Mitchum make one of my very favorite screen pairings (now there’s a man that’s Russell’s equal!), their banter is bright and witty, the mood and black and white photography is appropriately atmospheric, and there’s the’s one amazing, bravura tracking shot through a vintage 1950’s resort lounge that ranks with the best of Ophüls. People often cite Vincent Price’s comic relief as one of the film’s chief attributes as well, but I can’t say I’m not particularly fond of it myself.
I had also been disappointed with the unexpected tonal shift the film takes in the final third, with the sly detective yarn transforming into a rather serious action film, involving a villainous Raymond Burr. But upon writing about the film in honor of Jane Russell’s passing last year, what I had found is that memories of the film had taken a weird turn. While I couldn’t recall any of the plot details, what had stuck with me was the fact that Mitchum had been captured by a group of thugs, stripped of his shirt, brutally tied up in various positions and whipped, and then the rest of the film involving a barechested Mitchum running around a boat with a gun. In other words, in my memory the last third of His Kind of Woman became something akin to a gay S&M video. And judging from some of the original promotional material, I might not be the only one:
[It can't just be me--there is something a bit visually odd about an exclamatory "His Kind of Woman!" seeming to caption an image of a shirtless and supine Mitchum, right?]
For this blogathon I decided to revisit the film to see if my memories held up; I’m not sure if I’m exactly surprised to find it’s ever gayer than I remembered. So what I present below is a series of images that represents the queerly bricolaged memory version of His Kind of Woman–an aggressively heterosexual title that methinks doth protest a bit too much!
His Kind of… Man?
Jane: “Do you have something to tell me?”
Jane: “How about now?”
Vincent: “This coat? Yes, isn’t it fabulous? By the way, I have some friends you should meet.”
Robert: “Err, this isn’t exactly the type of party I had in mind.”
Raymond: “Can’t I at least get a kiss?”
Robert: “That’s a big… gun you have.”
“This isn’t exactly what I signed up for.”
Jane: “So did you have a good time last night?
Robert: “You don’t even want to know.”
Swelling music and final fadeout.