I was recently working on a syllabus for a course at the City University of New York Graduate Center on Gay and Lesbian Experimental Film from Edison to Haynes. After making my selections, I decided to watch them all in chronological order to see what was revealed.
I began with Dickson Experimental Sound Film, an 1895 short of two men dancing. This product of the Edison empire is a romantic evocative film, entirely unaware of the meaning it would have for a gay viewer. Then I watched Watson and Webber's Fall of the House of Usher (1928), a deliberately Gothic work about the power of forbidden sexuality to distort form as well as character. The men in Dickson had nothing to hide, didn't have to hide, and so just danced. The men in Usher didn't want to hide, but needed to, and so relied on melodramatic surrealism to make expression possible.
Next on my list was Alla Nazimova's Salome (1922), directed by and starring the lesbian icon and silent film star. After appearing in the first ever production of Chekhov's The Seagull at The Moscow Art Theater in Russia, Nazimova was forced out of the troupe for being a Jew. She came to New York, performed in a Yiddish stage company, on the lower Eastside, whose stage manager was Emma Goldman. Nazimova was the first person to bring the Method to America, in a production of an Ibsen play. She worked at Eva La Gallienne's Theater. The woman had a fascinating life. She ended up living in Los Angeles with her lover, who happened to be Nancy Reagan's godmother. Salome is mythic camp-a precursor to the theater of Charles Ludlam. It winks, but it's not silly. And even though Nazimova was a triple-threat filmmaker, her camera looks at more than herself. I paired it with Willard Maas' Geography of the Body (1943), a tortared homosexual film that daringly focuses on a male nude with desire, precision, and longing.
At this point, I could identify some foundational forms for lesbian and gay cinema. There was unconscious realism, conscious artifice, the courageous portrait, and lesbian authority imposed on a biblical classic.
But it was in the next round of viewing that a shocking revelation came to me about the history of our cinema. I watched Leni Riefenstahl's' Triumph of the Will (1935), then Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1944), and I realized that the two most significant aesthetic trends in gay and lesbian cinema came from the work of two straight women.
Riefenstahl, of course, was Hitler's great propagandist. Triumph of the Will is a documentary of the Nazi party Congress in Nuremberg. With stark, clean camera work and tight, persuasive editing, it highlights the perfect beauty, order, precision, and power of the Aryan male. In fact, Triumph of the Will uses male beauty to propagandize for fascism. Watching the film makes clear that the fascist aesthetic that Riefenstahl pioneered in cinema may be the single greatest influence, since the Greeks, on gay male representation.
What makes Triumph of the Will so deceptively homoerotic is that it represents an all male world. The film takes place in a Utopia of male bodies, sensibilities, and most importantly, male camaraderie (i.e., patriarchy, the foundational principle of fascism). Beautiful Aryan men pledge loyalty to each other, sweat together, and then shower together. And yet, the film is shot with a heterosexual woman's eye. She is the one "gazing" at these young men. She is establishing the camera's values, and it is her desire and admiration that transcend the age. And yet, because we don't think of women being behind a camera, and because she is never visible, the viewer becomes engaged, simultaneously, in an all male world, and an invisible heterosexual woman's erotic eye, resulting in a male homosexual dream-more powerfully surfacing in the context of National Socialism, which was simultaneously homosocial and anti-homosexual. Ironically, because Riefenstahl is both heterosexual and a particularly bold iconoclast, Triumph of the Will and her other great Nazi propaganda film, Olympiad, were the most daring, overtly sexual, cinematic idolizations of the Aryan male that had ever been seen. …