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Documentary Film  
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Interrogating the Image

Queer documentaries have rigorously interrogated fictional film images of mainstream British and American movies that claim to represent our lives and behavior. Interrogation reveals the nature and pattern of negative representations of glbtq people and documents any shift toward positive portrayals.

The best known of this kind of documentary is Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's The Celluloid Closet (1995), based on the book of the same title by Vito Russo. The film is an historical overview of Hollywood's negative construction of homosexuality and the homosexual.

Andrea Weiss takes the same approach with mainstream British films in A Bit of Scarlet (1996). In Dry Kisses Only (1990) filmmakers Jane Cottis and Kaucyila Brooke add comedy to the deconstruction of classical Hollywood films by re-editing scenes to bring out a lesbian subtext and satirizing the seriousness gay studies brings to interrogating the film image.

Homo Promo (1991), curated by Jenni Olson, investigates the ways Hollywood sold queer people to the general public in the period from 1956 to 1976. By editing together film trailers and promotional material that dealt with homosexuality and deviant sexual behavior, the film documents how Hollywood depicted the homosexual as self hating, disturbed, and dangerous.

Documentarians have also dissected mainstream fictional films to steer viewers to queer subtexts and queer expressions in the behavior and speech of "straight" characters. These documentaries analyze for the queer community images that some lesbians and gay men had already appreciated and appropriated.

Mark Rappaport pioneered this approach in Rock Hudson's Home Movies (1994) and The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997). In the former film Rappaport meticulously isolates and juxtaposes the words, phrases, and glances of Hudson that suggest some of the characters he plays are queer and that Hudson himself is leading an illusionary life. One extensive section of The Silver Screen argues for a homosexual subtext in Walter Brennan's relationships with John Wayne and Gary Cooper in several Westerns.

Documenting AIDS

Documentaries played a central role in demystifying HIV/AIDS by presenting the faces and bodies of people with AIDS and letting them speak in their own voices. Peter Adair's Absolutely Positive (1991), Kermit Cole's Living Proof: HIV and the Pursuit of Happiness (1993), and Ellen Spiro and Marina Alvarez's (In)visible Women (1991), employ the techniques of direct cinema, letting narratives unfold with nominal editing and minimizing questions by the interviewer.

The camera in Juan Botas and Lucas Platt's One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave (1993) simply records a group of men in an intravenous medication room as they talk about surviving.

These AIDS documentaries present diverse voices, as people with AIDS discuss symptoms, medical treatments, and the ways they cope with the disease and a homophobic society. Another type of AIDS documentary, the memorial film, also tells individual stories. Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1990) is the best known of the memorial documentaries.

Documentaries such as Jay Corcoran's Life and Death on the A-List (1996) and Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman's Silverlake Life: The View From Here (1993) graphically depict HIV ravaging the body. In Silverlake Life, Tom Joslin and Mark Massi--both HIV positive--carry a video camera everywhere they go, unflinchingly chronicling each other's activities as AIDS racks their bodies. Silverlake Life is gut-wrenching as we watch intimate moments of suffering and the horrible conditions of death.

The unrelenting exposure of the victim speaking and the body displayed in AIDS documentaries led Derek Jarman to alter radically the representation of AIDS in his film Blue (1993). Blind during the production of Blue, Jarman mounts an auditory assault on the audience over one solid blue image for 75 minutes, privileging the vision of the mind's eye over sight. Jarman believed representational images distracted viewers from identifying on an experiential level with the conditions of living with AIDS.

Jarman's aural images condemn a homophobic British government and society, memorialize friends who have died, and depict a battle to save his sight. But the primary "content" of Blue is the series of poetic images that let Jarman's imagination, and the viewer's, transcend the limitations imposed by the representational visual image. With Jarman, the viewer also has lost sight, but not the vision of the mind.

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