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AS THE STARGAZING couch potato behind such "fictitious autobiographies" as Rock Hudson's Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg, Mark Rappaport is not exactly a documentarian and something more than a filmmaker. You could say he's a movie critic who writes by remote control, scanning through thousands of hours of videotape in search of old Hollywood moments--sidelong glances, playful innuendoes, conspicuous costumes--that might be construed as queer. Or perhaps he's more like a gossip columnist with a penchant for outing, only his targets are Hollywood texts rather than actors.
Addressing a San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival crowd at the Roxie Theater, where he screened his latest queer clip reel, The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender, Rappaport suggests himself as a helpful time-saver in an era of information overload. "I think I've spared you the burden of watching this stuff all the way through," he says, insinuating that a lot of the films he studies--low-brow buddy pictures with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, kiddie-comedy vehicles for Danny Kaye, and the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "road movies" of the '40s--are in many ways insufferable.
Which is sort of the point. Rappaport's M.O. is to raid the lower rung of American Movie Classics for a mix tape of semi-consciously gay in-jokes; and, by stripping the material of either context or intent, he manages to obliterate the auteur theory while turning straight fluff into queer art. Suddenly those fussing and fidgeting waiters, butlers, and bellhops--most with limp wrists and lisps--become sassy critics of their hetero employers. Read only slightly against the grain, My Favorite Wife emerges as the story of Cary Grant's deep-seated desire for co-star Randolph Scott. Assembled end-to-end, the bevy of butt jokes in the Hope/Crosby films begins to take on a much wider meaning. The "grizzled old prospector" sidekick from many an ancient Western appears a made-to-order role for Walter Brennan, an actor "whose toothlessness," Silver Screen's narrator licentiously suggests, "could also account for his charm."
Say what? "In Europe, people say this is all fabricated--I'm shitting on their icons," Rappaport reports. And at the Roxie, some viewers express frustration with the filmmaker's ideological refusal to put dates and titles on his clips ("It's not a PBS documentary," he says) or to ascribe intent to the queerdom. Was Bob Hope aware that he was swishing for the camera? "We'll never know for sure," Rappaport says, "but who cares?" Unlike the Celluloid Closet movie, The Silver Screen expands rather than limits the range of possible interpretations, empowering the viewer to act as private investigator, Freudian psychologist, and armchair film historian.
This freedom is made legally possible by a fine-print clause in the Constitution that allows "fair use" of copyrighted material for critical, journalistic, or educational purposes--"and I think my films have all of those," Rappaport says. In other words, anyone with access to two VCRs has the power to rewrite film history. This seems a particularly tempting offer in light of Rappaport's decision to forgo any mention of lesbian cinematic subtexts, which he describes as "too complicated a problem for me to deal with in this format--let someone else deal with it." Any takers?
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