Richard Dyer with Julianne Pudduck. Now You See It: Studies in Lesbian and Gay Film, Second Edition. Routledge, 2O03. 339 pages; $75.00.
How You see It
At first glance, Now You see It is the most straightforward film book imaginable, a chronological survey of gay and lesbian films from the First World War to the present day, with contexts and themes highlighted as they emerge. Among many other things, Richard Dyer discusses the early films of the Weimar period in relation to the prevailing screen conventions and attitudes towards male and female homosexuality; elsewhere, he studies the underground cinema of Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol, delves into what he calls "lesbian cultural feminist film," and sniffs around post-Stonewall, "affirmation" cinema. Hundreds of films are cited or discussed, from Jean Genet's Un Chant d'amour to the prolific output of Barbara Hammer. All lesbian/gay cinematic life is here.
The book's real interest lies as much in its overarching themes as in its investigation into particular films or historical periods. At the top of the list is the central problem of definition; this journey through films past and present is not a clear run towards a predetermined point. For "now you see it" is heavily dependent on how you see it. As Dyer's final pages make clear, the very nature of homosexuality is a complex question and, indeed, may not exist in the ways that are commonly supposed. There are, very roughly, two schools of thought. The first argues that, throughout the ages, same sex desire has been a fixed entity, although it has manifested itself in different forms according to the mores of the particular time. By contrast, the second school believes that "gay" and "lesbian" are merely linguistic forms imposed by society on something that is far more fluid and elusive. Hence, there is no essential "gayness"; what you do in bed, or desire to do, has no inevitable connection to what you are, or believe yourself to be. Some readers may feel that these critical issues should have been laid out right at the beginning; without them, the book is like the hall of mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai, a kaleidoscope of reality and appearance.
These shifting patterns are vividly illustrated in the two new chapters that open and close this revised and updated edition. Dyer kicks off with a study of Vingarne ("Wings"), Mauritz Stiller's gay(ish) film of 1916. It tells the story of the intense relationship between a sculptor and his male model, but it is set within a heterosexual framing story, which concerns the making of the drama itself. This method, the author argues, allows Stiller simultaneously to assert and deny the gay content: "By framing its homosexual story within a desultory heterosexual one, Vingarne can signal homosexuality even as it apparently withdraws from it." Naming and yet not naming is a standard technique of that time, a way of asserting gay identity by slipping through the heterosexual gaps, but, in the new, closing chapter, Julianne Pudduck surveys developments since the 198Os and reveals how the space between "gay/lesbian" and "straight" is now merging into the more amorphous term, "queer." In this brave new world, hetero and homo are not mutually exclusive, and, perhaps as a result, some of the evangelical tone of the post-Stonewall affirmation tradition has been overtaken by new queer cinema, with its emphasis on ambiguity, difficulty, and the darker side of the sexual force. …