Some movie books give you gossip (who threw a tantrum on the set), others high-minded film criticism (Susan Sontag on Bresson). Arsenal Pulp Press’s ongoing series on Queer Film Classics is evidently going to run the gamut.
The way these three most recent volumes (paperback, $14.95 each) examine their movies are as different as the films themselves.
“Death in Venice” was a glossy rendition of the Thomas Mann novella, which director Luchino Visconti opened with a ship steaming across the Adriatic to the adagietto of Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Unfortunately, for many people this was the movie’s high point; even Will Aitken concedes that passages of Visconti’s film remind him “how boring the movie can be.”
But the book he’s written is anything but boring. “ Death in Venice ” is partly the story of the very aristocratic Viscontis (Luchino’s brother died charging the Allied lines in World War II while shouting, “A Visconti does not bow to the Windsors!”; partly the story of Mann’s predecessor August von Platen, a German poet who fled to Italy in the 19th century because “the Italians are so much handsomer than the Germans” and died of cholera there. Aitken zigzags from Platen to Plato to Visconti’s love life with irresistible charm. Reading this book is like eating chocolate mousse.
Reading “Word Is Out” is more like eating granola: Greg Youmans, a scholar with a PhD in the history of consciousness, examines the famous documentary (which premiered six months after Anita Bryant’s successful 1977 crusade to overturn a Florida gay rights ordinance) by creating entries for each letter of the alphabet, which cover everything from Anita to the zoom lens. But his book gets interesting mainly toward the end, when Youmans comes out with his feelings about the ground-breaking film, and then the ironies mount. Conceived as a movie for high school students, “Word Is Out” morphed into a chance to show heterosexual Americans that gay people were just like them. But that’s the problem, in Youmans’ eyes: The older generation — which talks about promiscuity and butch/femme roles — steals the show from the young ones, whose function in the film, Youmans writes, was simply to usher in “a new era” in which a person could “calmly assert ‘I am gay’ and then sit complacently, looking and acting no differently but feeling wonderful. Thus a young scholar for whom the closet is history finds himself admitting that the documentary he’s honoring has sanitized his own heritage, something its originator, Peter Adair, worried about.
Adair died in 1996 of AIDS, which is the subject of “Zero Patience,” a musical comedy made by Canadian artist/activist John Greyson to savage “And the Band Played On,” a history of the epidemic written by American journalist Randy Shilts. Unfortunately, Susan Knabe and Wendy Gay Pearson have written it in the jargon of Queer Theory — where discursive imbrications of the hegemonic dialogical can totalize discourse — which makes reading this book a bit like eating rocks. Beneath the esoteric language, however, is a gripping tale: Shilts’s book made Gaetan Dugas, an HIV-positive French-Canadian flight attendant whom scientists researching the spread of AIDS named Patient Zero, the Typhoid Mary of the plague. Six years later, Greyson made a high-camp musical attacking “the factual inaccuracies of received accounts . . . and the mainstream — heteronormative, white, and patriarchal (and commercially viable) — perspective that produces them.” In other words, the sex panic and scapegoating of Dugas that characterized the first years of the plague.
If all this seems like ancient history, what’s telling is how these books trace the crooked path to gay assimilation. In “Death in Venice,” Obsession=Death. In “Zero Patience,” Silence=Death. In that comparatively innocent moment between the two, “Word Is Out” merely argued that Invisibility=Persecution — although AIDS, ironically, kicked gay people out of the closet much faster than any documentary could.
Of these three books, only “Death in Venice” is a romp; “Word Is Out” is readable but earnest; “Zero Patience,” though passionate and smart, will probably be of greatest interest to scholars and activists.
Holleran’s most recent novel is “Grief.”