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The Square Peg

“Why make it sad to be gay? Doing your thing is O.K. Our bodies are our own so leave us alone. Go play with yourself-today.” – John Lennon, The Gay Liberation Book, 1972

German film poster

The subject of homosexuality had arrived at a watershed moment by 1967. The mainstream of Hollywood could no longer repress depictions of homosexuality into the niche of lesbianism in accordance with heterosexual male fantasy. Successes like Andy Warhol’s My Hustler (1965), Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963) in the underground cinemas of New York and other urban centers had paved the way for new characterizations of queerness in the American cinema at large. Until 1967, depictions of male homosexuality had been limited to Tony Randall and Rock Hudson’s relationship in a slew of films with Doris Day or to foreign film markets. Anyone familiar with the works of such critics and film essayists as Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Richard Dyer, Andrea Weiss, and Mark Rappaport knows at this point how brutally closeted Hollywood was (and still is). That is to say that there exists a large body of film criticism dedicated solely to deciphering the coded messages of queerness in the cinema.

Homosexuality in the novel is an entirely different matter. Gay characters were not as restricted as their Hollywood counterparts by the mid twentieth century. Though still a controversial “subject” from the perspective of the American mainstream, homosexuality in the novel enjoyed a rare degree of liberty. It is important to note that depictions of homosexual love that were the least bit explicit were bound to get an author’s work branded as the worst kind of debauched pornography (such was the case with Jean Genet for instance). It was into this milieu that Carson McCullers unleashed her novel of longing and repressed desires Reflections In A Golden Eye in 1941.

When, in 1967, Warner Brothers released their film version of McCullers’ novel, the film bombed terribly. In part this was due to the general conservatism of America as a whole, and partly because Reflections In A Golden Eye wasn’t released in the same manner of distribution as the films of Warhol, Smith, and Anger. The presumed target audience for such a film was not going to be interested in a John Huston film, nor were they going to rush to some “square” theater if a hip and happening alternative theater is showing something more in line with the times (Warhol, Smith and Anger). Or even worse, they wouldn’t want to be seen attending a screening of such a film for fear of being outed.

It does make sense for a Hollywood major to select material like McCullers’ novel to adapt into a film. This is primarily because the novel is so adept at articulating its character’s sense of repression and guilt that it would be easy, while adapting the work, to imbue it with enough heterosexual paranoia as to negate any realistic depiction of queerness, thus continuing to vilify and deride homosexual characters. So where the novel’s focus is clearly the existential crises of identities distorted through social repression, the film recasts the circumstances of the novel to focus instead upon the theme of queerness as subterfuge of traditional heteronormative marriage.

The Penderton stables

Of all of John Huston’s films, Reflections In A Golden Eye is by far the most unusual. He certainly doesn’t appear at first to have been the director most suitable for the material either. Huston’s name, and indeed his legend, centers on the kind of machismo one associates with Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer. Huston’s reputation as an auteur had only recently been established by Andrew Sarris in the early sixties. When he made Reflections In A Golden Eye most audiences knew Huston better as a larger than life adventurer who directed such beloved films as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948). What was perhaps Huston’s greatest gift, however, were his abilities as a screenwriter. A talent that Warner Brothers neglected to enlist when adapting McCullers’ novel. The screenplay was penned by Huston’s close friend Gladys Hill (who would work again with Huston on The Man Who Would Be King) and Chapman Mortimer (an alias of Scottish author W.C. Mortimer).

The film Reflections In A Golden Eye centers upon two couples which provide the center of its narrative complex. There is on the one hand Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) and his wife Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor) and on the other hand there is Lt. Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith) and his wife Alison Langdon (Julie Harris). Within this primary complex the couples are intimately linked, not by friendship, but sexually; Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon are having an affair. Which leads to the next outer ring of the complex. Both Major Penderton and Alison Langdon have found new outlets for their affections that are impossible to physically, and therefore sexually, obtain. Major Penderton longs for Private Williams (Robert Forster) just as Alison longs for Anacleto (Zorro David), her servant.

Alison’s relationship with Anacleto is the most unusual in the film. Her servant is depicted as extremely feminine yet retains a gender ambiguity. However, with blocking Huston conveys another level in the relationship. The compositions of Alison and Anacleto together recall classic depictions of Sapphic love. This suggests that Anacleto, due to his inherent degree of intimacy and his constant proximity as well as his androgyny, is merely a substitute or surrogate for Alison’s lesbian impulses. This relationship goes undetected in the narrative, for Lt. Colonel Langdon is so hostile and homophobic toward Anacleto that he never truly observes his wife’s companion. These are all details concerning Anacleto that are never actually articulated by the character himself. As both Langdons project their unique concepts of Anacleto’s identity on to him, he is destined to remain relatively neglected in the film.

This can also be said with regards to the character of Private Williams. When we are first introduced to Williams in the film he is observed nude, voyeuristically watching the Penderton’s house. As he becomes more daring, eventually breaking in to watch Leonora sleep and steal a kiss, he provokes the attentions of Major Penderton. Williams, like Anacleto, remains relatively abstract and unknown to the audience. Instead we are left only with the reactionary sense of fear provided by both Pendertons and the sexual longing provided only by Major Penderton.

Brando & Keith

This complex, akin to a planet and it’s satellites in orbit, clearly places the idea that it is the queerness of Alison and Major Penderton that has undermined their marriages to the point where their spouses have no recourse other than to have an affair. The result of this chain of cause and effect is brutal and sadistic towards the films queer characters. Alison, with the aid of Anacleto, commits suicide in a sanitarium to which her husband has had her committed as they await their divorce. Likewise, Major Penderton, once exposed, is unable to reaffirm the necessary masculinity to retain either his wife’s respect nor the regard of his fellow officers. Major Penderton, at the end of the film, has been emasculated by his wife, scorned by his fellow officers, and rejected by the object that he desires. In both characters’ cases it is essential to, as with most people practicing a queer or alternative lifestyle during that time, to remain in the closet. This unjust circumstance has the effect of Stockholm Syndrome, where the emotional ties in marriages like the ones depicted in Reflections In A Golden Eye are very real, as is the sense of self-identity that is born out of such emotional intimacy. The film Reflections In A Golden Eye, unlike the novel, casts queerness as a tragedy.

Yet, there is more to Reflections In A Golden Eye than just the dramatic complex of its relationships. Like so many of Huston’s films during his late and most provocative period (commencing in 1964 with Night Of The Iguana and concluding with The Dead in 1987), there exist moments of such truthful visual poetry that entire sequences appear to transcend or entirely re-contextualize the rest of the film. From the start Huston has employed a wide variety of powerful signifiers. First, there are the Penderton’s horses which come to represent fertility, then the Privates’ uniform which represents the facelessness of the unknown, and finally, a thicket that comes to represent crucifixion. Still, the most moving sequence in the film occurs the second time Major Penderton goes riding on his wife’s favorite steed, hoping to catch a glimpse of Private Williams sunbathing in the nude atop a boulder.

The sequence unfolds in a series of long takes, panning with Major Penderton through the woods. Soon, shots of Williams are interspersed, but the framing stays wide. Then, the close up on Penderton’s face. Brando, seemingly doing nothing at all, conveys in a few briefly sustained shots a wellspring of emotions. In Brando’s eyes one can feel the carnal desire, the fear of these desires, and even more the fear of one’s self realized, confronted. What follows is the most disturbing but effective sequence in John Huston’s career: the rebuff, and the thicket in which Penderton becomes terribly scratched, then the beating Penderton administers to his wife’s horse. All these elements provide a climactic and nightmarish catharsis. All of Penderton’s repressed emotions, beautifully communicated by Brando using just his face, come pouring forth powerfully in a violent stream of frustration.

It is tempting to credit the powerful sequence addressed above and its sense of atmosphere that permeates the rest of Reflections In A Golden Eye solely to John Huston, given his adeptness for psychologically intense character investigations as evidenced by Fat City (1972), Wise Blood (1979), and Under The Volcano (1984). But the uniqueness of this moment in the careers of both Marlon Brando and John Huston indicates otherwise. Not to mention the contributions made by cinematographer Aldo Tonti, whose previous credits include films by Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini.

Keith, Taylor & Brando

All of Brando’s subsequent scenes in Reflections In A Golden Eye are replete with the same emotional intensity. This enables the film to transcend the script’s queer shaming agenda to become what is probably the most impactful portrait of closeted homosexuality in the mainstream of American cinema until the 1990s. But this makes Reflections In A Golden Eye all the more problematic. The audience has the opportunity to emote with Major Penderton in a way that is denied to Alison and Anacleto. Similarly, Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon come of progressively more and more elitist, sleazy, and bigoted. Such characterizations are hardly out of place in a drama set on a military base, but it does signify an obvious preference on Huston’s part for the character of Major Penderton. Essentially, it is a matter of Huston and his collaborators working against the script to do two things. First, to humanize an outsider character that typically would not be allowed to appear so sympathetic and realistic. Secondly, to showcase a major star and celebrity as a means to get away with a sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual.

Brando himself is a major part of the visual complex employed by Huston in Reflections In A Golden Eye. It is uncertain if John Huston was aware of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising or if he ever saw it. Regardless, the film Jonas Mekas described as “brilliant” upon its premiere provides an association or reference point for the visual schema of Reflections In A Golden Eye. Anger’s sordid tales of biker boy debauchery and satanic euphoria that compose Scorpio Rising employs an image of Marlon Brando, taken from László Benedek’s The Wild One (1953), of the star decked out in tight black leather. The mirror images of Anger’s own biker beauties with that of their idol/ideal metamorphoses the Brando image from The Wild One beyond its original context and into a signifier and fetish item. This fetishized image of Brando is recalled, intentionally or not, in a brief scene in Reflections In A Golden Eye where Brando, wearing an under shirt similar to that which he wore in The Wild One, ogles his biceps in a mirror. So in one instant, Huston is able to re-orient Brando/Penderton as a fellow spectator, idolizing and fetishizing his own image while also re-enforcing, beyond a doubt, the queer potential of the Penderton character.

It should be noted that not only were most homosexuals being oppressed or living closeted lives in 1967, but that even in the wake of Reflections In A Golden Eye filmic depictions of queerness within the mainstream still struggled to escape vilification (or heterosexual male fetishization in the case of lesbian depictions). One of the few depictions of homosexuality in the sixties that was not designed to shame or vilify came two years later; Stanley Donen’s Staircase (1969). Staircase could get away with a more “truthful” or sympathetic depiction of homosexuality than Reflections In A Golden Eye because the two stars (Rex Harrison and Richard Burton) were notorious womanizers that no one could take seriously in the parts of homosexuals (something that couldn’t be said for Brando), the source material had been a hit show for playwright Charles Dyer, and its ad campaign trivialized the subject matter to the point of farce (needless to say, Staircase met with the same fate as Reflections In A Golden Eye at the box office). Filmic depictions of queerness from the sixties that have become popular now like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968) and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait Of Jason (1967) had a severely limited run in American art-houses, thus negating any national exposure and remaining completely inaccessible to most of the gay community. In this way the explicit depictions of homosexuality remained exactly where most of America wanted them in the sixties; in the margins of our society.

-Robert Curry

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Kubrick’s Phobias

My last boyfriend watched Barry Lyndon over ten times while we lived together. I have not had the heart to re-watch it since we parted over three years ago. Kubrick’s films are not conducive to emotional attachments, even his harshest critics, seldom they are nowadays will tell you that much. It’s odd that what has been perceived as maybe his coldest, detached film is one that lifts the lid to a well of bottomless emotion for me. When I think of Barry Lyndon I think particularly of two scenes, one being Barry’s encounter with his future wife at the gambling table. Lady Lyndon is awash in candle light, we know then that our hero will stop at nothing to have her as his own. Later, he follows her to the balcony, planting his firm a kiss on her lips. The lady does not protest; she clearly enjoys being hunted, perhaps she fears she’ll never be pursued with such vigor ever again. The second scene finds Barry Lyndon after he has deserted the British Army, where he encounters two admirals bathing nude in a pond. The two are two fey stereotypes, professing their undying love for one another as Barry sniggers behind the bushes. There, he takes one of the men’s uniforms left behind, acquiring a disguise so he may go over the German Border without being caught.

Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon

I wondered often about my ex’s obsession with Barry Lyndon, one has to clearly be looking for something if you watch the same film so many times, especially one that is known to not be easy viewing. My ex was a man’s man, who felt joyous glee in being able to pass for straight, shocking people he’d just met with a casual mention of gay sex, or something his boyfriend did, waiting for their cue to mention that they had no idea he was even gay. Often, he’d take girls phone numbers, texting and flirting with them for weeks until that moment of disappointment would gradually come when they realized he was far from interested. His gendered confidence lent him to getting whatever he wanted, even if that meant another person with a will of their own, that didn’t matter to him, not really. I’d like to think we watch films to validate our own character, our own story. Maybe my ex related deeply with the story of a scoundrel, whose own inherent masculinity lends itself to cleverness and determination, yet because he is so unwilling to play the rules of the game that it leads to his own destruction. We all love a rebel, and it doesn’t hurt if he can win fist-fights and women by the pound. Often, I felt like the unfortunate Lady Lyndon whose love for Barry has been won on his accord, a love that knows no bounds and yet she has no words or actions that can change his ways. On worse days, I felt like one of the effeminate men in the pond Barry leers at as he takes advantage of him, taking away his clothes and horse unnoticed.

Three years ago, notorious author Bret Easton Ellis set off a series of tweets supposedly outing the acclaimed director, Stanley Kubrick. “Has anyone heard that Stanley Kubrick was gay? Info from two very good sources that despite wife and kids he had a long-term male partner”, “Kubrick’s gayness: insider proof. It’s all there. ‘Ghosts’ in The Shining giving blow jobs. Cruise being attacked as gay in Eyes Wide Shut…’ Whether the orientation of an artist truly pertains to their work as a whole is a question that will endlessly be debated, Kubrick’s films lend themselves very little to any real autobiography, let alone emotion, you take what you perceive. People return to Kubrick’s films time and time again for their open-endings, the lee-way it gives any viewer to make their own interpretations and theories, even ones of conspiracy as the wildly popular documentary Room 237 tells us, where several theorists rap about the endless complications and mysteries in his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. If Bret Easton Ellis believes that Kubrick was indeed gay, he certainly couldn’t have been as self-loathing of his gayness as Ellis.

What Bret Eason Ellis forgets, or perhaps doesn’t know was Stanley Kubrick’s well documented anxiety about depicting any sort of sexuality on film throughout his entire career. Starting with his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in 1962, Kubrick regretted the compromises he had to make with the strict Censorship code in Hollywood at the time. In this story of a pedophile falling in love with a 13 year old girl, the most scintillating scene is a peevish James Mason delicately painting the toe nails of his nymphet, Lolita and a screenplay with an exhausting glossary of sexual innuendos. After this film, sexuality develops in Kubrick’s films in an almost autistic absence of any true understanding or empathy concerning sex. When sex appears in A Clockwork Orange, it is seen only through the eyes of a depraved teenager, the camera fails to blink as a woman is savagely raped in her own home, and Alex has a threeway with two girls he picks up at a record shop, Kubrick can hardly be bothered to address even that scene, he fast tracks the footage and plays Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in cartoonish fashion. In the 1970’s, author Terry Southern proposed a high budget pornographic film entitled Blue Movie. While interested, Kubrick feared the difficulties the project would ensue and the potential ruin of his own career. Eyes Wide Shut was to be the film that cemented Kubrick’s interpretations of human sexuality. While the film has slowly gained acclaim from critics and fans, unlike its icy reception on its initial release, the film fails miserably in providing anything illuminating about how sexuality pervades and exists in our daily lives. You know things are one sided when Nicole Kidman can show her breasts at a moment’s notice and fantasize about being fucked by a sailor, but Tom Cruise can hardly be bothered to take off his own underwear or have sex with a prostitute though he already paid her. Kubrick’s real failing as a director is his real ignorance of sexuality. But one wonders if this bias comes from Kubrick’s real ignorance seeping through his films, or are these the compromises Kubrick was forced to make from working with major Hollywood studios?

Little Alex's threesome

Little Alex’s threesome

It is undeniable that there are gay images throughout Kubrick’s oeuvre but what is peculiar is how even the most passionate Kubrick fan will forget quickly that they are even there. Homophobic images throughout media are so deeply imbedded in our collective consciousness that we often have to look twice to even comprehend them for what they are. While Ellis may call these images “Fascinating and illuminating”, it is doubtful it illuminates anything about Kubrick’s own sexual identity than a deeply entrenched homophobia and an almost puritanical view of human sexuality in general. Practically all of Kubrick’s filmic narratives center around the viewpoints of hyper-masculine, heterosexual men, and their very narrow but normative views of the world around them. The morally ambiguous teen rebel Alex who rapes and murders with unthinking glee in A Clockwork Orange, the alcoholic abusive father Jack Torrance in The Shining and the neurotic Dr. Bill Hartford in Eyes Wide Shut are the uncontested narrative place holders of each narrative. Whenever Kubrick’s main characters witness or perceive homosexuality, it is depicted as only freakish or humorous. Ellis’ ‘Ghosts giving blowjobs’ in The Shining perhaps cements Kubrick’s homophobia the best, at the height of the final act of the film, Jack Torrance’s wife Wendy runs through the haunted Overlook Hotel looking for a way out. In one hallway we are shown the terrifying image of a man in a dog suit giving fellatio to a man on a bed. The dog suited man looks up to Wendy, who gasps in terror and continues to flee. Interestingly, in Stephen King’s novel The Shining, the man in the dog suit is in fact the gay lover of one of the previous owners of the Overlook Hotel who ‘follows him around like a dog.’ The Overlook Hotel itself is an endless labyrinth far from the straight and narrow path. The two lovers are proof of that, as Wendy continues to run in horror, struggling to find a way back to a world of normalcy. The same moral dilemma as professed in images occurs again in Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut when Dr. Bill Hartford becomes determined to have an extra marital affair and winds up in the trappings of an elaborate sex cult. Sneaking his way into a mansion safe guarded by passwords and endless conspiracies, we find two men dancing in the ballroom among others, the men can only show affection because like everyone else there, they wear masks and elaborate clothes to hide their identities. The two male lovers can dance, but they may only do so in a den of vice and depravity. Later, Dr. Bill Hartford tries to investigate exactly what happened the night he visited the orgy and encounters an effeminate bell hop who merely tries to make a pass at him. With the bell hops demeanor and two dimensional flirtations, he may as well swam out of the pond in Barry Lyndon, replacing his stolen clothes and horse with a hotel uniform and a service bell. Are we seeing the world through each characters eyes, or Stanley Kubrick’s? One is forced to ask once one looks hard enough. But one thing is inevitable, while Kubrick is acclaimed for his vast, almost endless film landscapes whether it be 18th Century Britain or outer space, his depictions of human dynamics and interpersonal relationships are as small as a matchbox.

the hyper-masculine orgy in Eyes Wide Shut

the hyper-masculine orgy in Eyes Wide Shut

Are my theories on Kubrick’s sexual phobias meant to take away from his work? Frankly, not at all, in an odd way it makes me love his filmography even more. If anything I hope my theories will help trigger a deeper, more emotional response to his films that are typically not to be found on standard viewing. Kubrick’s films are what you make of them, and that is where their genius lies. One can find hundreds of clues and answers, but mostly more questions in each of his films. But if one wishes to find a clue to Kubrick’s own presumed homosexuality, I wish them all the luck in the world. Kubrick merely reflected the homophobia and sexual paranoia of his own time, nothing personal. If one wishes to find the answers to that, they’re bound to be lost in a labyrinth more complicated than the hedge maze of the Overlook Hotel.

-Thomas Lampion

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