Thursday, October 13, 2011

Crypto-Gay Motifs: Is It Or Is It Not?

It has taken me a while to write again, because I have been trying to do some investigative work. I have been watching movies from the 1920s trying to find crypto-gay motifs. Cryptic means that these moments are secret or hidden, but they seemed to be so very well hidden that they can only be discovered after several glasses of wine.
I selected three movies that were recommended to me, 7th Heaven (1927), Wings (1927), and Street Angel (1928). After watching all three of them, I felt irate and refused to write in my blog that because a man didn't jump at the first advance of a woman, or was slow to fall in love, or was able to have an intimate, caring relationship with another man, this could be read as a latent queer motif.
So I asked my husband to mix me a rum and coke to appease the fury, and watched 7th Heaven again.
Janet Gaynor as Diane and Charles Farrell as Chico in 7th Heaven (1927)

And there it was: a guy pretends to marry in order to help a girl avoid trouble with the law, yet feels uncomfortable kissing her and afterwards makes sure to clarify it to her: "I didn't mean it!" He decides to marry her anyway, apparently because she cooks and cleans and cuts his hair and makes things so convenient, but when he gives her a wedding dress and she complains: "But you never said - you love me." He rebukes: "I can't say it! It's too silly!" And he opts to say instead: "Chico... Diane... Heaven!" (As if that were any less corny.) Plus all that contempt he has for religion. And I had to admit it had all a bit of a parallel with the lives of many gay men of old and not-so-old.
Of course in the last act of the film it all changes and he falls madly in love with her, and he tells her so, and that's why all these motifs are quickly forgotten.
In Wings (1927) the motif was that beautiful friendship between Jack and David, which ends in the epic goodbye kiss.
Charles Rogers as Jack and Richard Arlen as David in Wings (1927)

This scene inevitably took me back to the future to Lord of the Rings (a trilogy where plenty of crypto-gay scenes have been quoted and disputed) and the farewell scene between Boromir and Aragorn. I wonder how influenced, if at all, was Peter Jackson by Wellman.
Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn and Sean Bean as Boromir in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

In the case of Borzage or Wellman, I don't think either director had any intention to portray any kind of gay motifs in their films. As I have written in previous posts, I also think perceptions regarding this kind of "hidden" clues are very much related to culture and times, and can thus be easily misinterpreted.
In Street Angel (1928) I was completely unable to find any crypto-gay motifs, no matter how hard I tried to rack my brains and to sip desperately on my rum and coke. If anyone has any insights, please feel free to comment. All I could find on further research were some obscure allusions about Charles Farrell's "soft" manners and unproven claims about him being a homosexual, but nothing in reference to the film itself.
Crypto-gay motifs in modern TV are much more intentional and evident. On August 21, 2010, videosauce posted a video on YouTube from the series Sherlock (BBC, 2010), together with the following comment: "this [is] the FIRST serious, explicit and undeniably canonical discussion of homosexuality in the entire history of the Sherlock Holmes franchise. [...] Gone are the days of limiting proclamations of sexuality to nearly-invisible subtext."
If you watch the clip you'll realize the alleged proclamation is not at all as explicit as videosauce insists, and many viewers commented about this underneath the video. However, it is true that the sexual text is now very visible, even when very ambiguous.
Sherlock (BBC, 2010)
These ambiguous characters, who are perhaps confused, perhaps curious, perhaps hiding, or perhaps just having fun at the expense of others, tend to mask behind parody, and abund in today's television. There is Tobias F√ľnke in Arrested Development (FOX, 2003-2006):
Arrested Development (FOX, 2003-2006)

Crowley, the crossroads demon in Supernatural (CW, 2010), who always seals his deals with a kiss:

And Vince Noir in The Mighty Boosh (BBC), who actually likes to call himself The Confuser:
The Mighty Boosh (BBC, 2007)

In conclusion, when I watch the older films with my straight eye I either do not notice the cryptic so-called gay moments, or, if I notice them, I immediately beat myself up about my prejudices and stereotypes, and quickly convince myself that the motif is no such.
The modern screen plays to these insecurities with its variety of ambiguous characters. In these cases, I don't wonder about the existence of the queer motif. It is evident that it is there. But I am left wondering about the character, who I know is now playing mind games with me. At least now I can always opt out in a dignified way just as Watson did, and reply carefully: "It's all fine."