“I Know Thee Not, Old Man”: Orson Welles and the New Queer Cinema
By John ThomasonNovember 23, 2015
TEN YEARS after the massive success of Brokeback Mountain, Hollywood films centering on gay characters and themes have become unremarkable. This fall, the release of the gay dramas Stonewall, Freeheld, The Danish Girl, and Carol, all within roughly two months of each other, has aroused barely any comment. That the film industry has largely relegated queer content to middle- and highbrow dramas may not be surprising — these forms are most amenable to redemptive progress narratives that promise to absolve the industry’s ongoing exclusions — but this outcome should not be blamed on queer filmmakers themselves.
Roughly a quarter century ago, films united under the loose banner of the New Queer Cinema sought, like today's gay dramas, to portray queer identities and sexualities that had been rigorously excluded by Hollywood throughout its history. However, rather than promoting the “positive images” of LGBT characters to which multiplex viewers have very recently become accustomed, the New Queer filmmakers frequently depicted social outcasts who mainstream audiences might consider perverse, deviant, or otherwise unsavory. They also eschewed the highbrow aspirations and conventions to which Hollywood typically attaches prestige. This was not just a matter of necessity — these were low budget, independent productions — it was an ethos. B. Ruby Rich, the critic and academic who first coined the term “New Queer Cinema” in 1992, wrote that the films were united by some measure of “appropriation and pastiche, irony […] these works are irreverent, energetic, alternately minimalist and excessive.” For examples on this spectrum we might look to Derek Jarman’s Edward II (1991), an adaptation of Marlowe peppered with gleeful anachronisms; Gregg Araki’s outlaw road movie The Living End (1992), which upends the genre with AIDS-era malaise; and Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), a true crime story that strays from docudrama realism to riff on Hitchcock.
These films’ embrace of appropriation, pastiche, lowbrow genre conventions, and tonal heterogeneity — the way they wear their cinephilia on their sleeves even as they subvert the very foundations of Hollywood filmmaking — is of course not without precedent. For an unlikely comrade we might look to none other than Orson Welles, who, after the success of Citizen Kane (1941), spent the rest of his career cobbling together financing for sensational genre films (The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil, Mr. Arkadin) and irreverent literary adaptations (The Trial, Chimes at Midnight). Note the proximity of film scholar James Morrison’s description of the late Welles to Rich’s description of the New Queer Cinema: Welles “combined low budgets with virtuoso technique” and “reconstructed genres pieced together with impromptu ingenuity and various shades of burlesque and seriousness, parody and pastiche.” Beyond these affinities of form, genre, and circumstance, a queer undercurrent in Welles’s oeuvre can often be detected at the level of character: From Joseph Cotten’s Jedediah Leland in Citizen Kane, to Mercedes McCambridge’s gang leader in Touch of Evil, to Anthony Perkins’s hyper-repressed Joseph K. in The Trial, to virtually all the male performances in Chimes at Midnight, Welles eschewed the rigid heteronormativity that Hollywood so relentlessly enforced, though admittedly this was far from his central narrative or thematic concern.
However, few critics besides Morrison seem to have pondered an affinity between the New Queer Cinema and Orson Welles. The reasons for this are plain: Welles’s style grew out of the modernist tradition of the German Expressionists, whereas the New Queer sensibility was firmly rooted in the postmodernism of its own time. Further, Welles publicly espoused the kind of liberal universalism that the New Queer filmmakers rejected in favor of more radical political projects. Finally, despite his late embrace of elements of camp and pastiche, Welles held fast to transcendent notions of art that were falling quickly out of fashion. It’s difficult, for instance, to imagine the iconoclastic New Queer filmmakers having any respect for the Welles who stands before the Gothic cathedral at Chartres in F for Fake (1973), his final released film, marveling solemnly at its incorruptible beauty and the “anonymous glory” of an earlier time. One can even imagine that they might invoke Shakespeare’s prince Hal at the moment he disavows Falstaff: “I know thee not, old man.” (It would not be the first time these exact words were directed at Welles — he portrayed Falstaff himself in his film adaptation of the Henry plays.)
Still, when Hollywood ultimately took notice of the considerable talent united under the big tent that was the New Queer Cinema, the two most enduring crossover films that resulted were quite explicit homages to Welles (irreverent and iconoclastic homages though they were). Gus Van Sant’s first feature, the 16 mm Mala Noche, opened to festival acclaim in 1985, and afterward he immediately began pitching, unsuccessfully, his next project about a gay, narcoleptic street hustler in Portland. He did not find the narrative mooring for his project, however, until watching Chimes at Midnight, Welles’s campy but elegiac mash-up of the Henry plays. It’s not difficult to see the qualities that Van Sant’s queer sensibility may have found inspiring: Welles departs from Shakespeare by centering Falstaff’s tavern rather than Bolingbroke’s court, giddily portraying the homosocial affection it sustains and the complications engendered when the “young, wanton and effeminate” Hal prepares to assume the throne, disavowing Falstaff and his associates in order to reestablish social respectability.
The resulting film, My Own Private Idaho (1991), was a critical and commercial success, proving that the film’s LGBT themes were hardly the poison that studios feared when they refused for years to finance the project. Van Sant’s breakout success opened a window, however small, for New Queer filmmakers to commandeer Hollywood resources without sacrificing the defiant formal and narrative outsider-ism of their cinema. The two principal beneficiaries of this moment were Van Sant himself and the art house darling Todd Haynes, whose first feature Poison (1991) was a surprise Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance. (Financed in part by an NEA grant, the film’s breakout success aroused the righteous passions of conservative culture warriors who angrily denounced the film as publicly funded “homosexual pornography.”)
Haynes harnessed this momentum to make Velvet Goldmine (1998), a fictionalized history of glam rock. With characters modeled on David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed, Haynes portrays the movement and its proponents as reckless and decadent, but aggressive in their transgressive political righteousness. His narrative owes even more to Welles than Van Sant’s: as in Citizen Kane, a young journalist interviews former associates and lovers of a larger-than-life celebrity based loosely on an actual cultural figure. Among these interlocutors are clear analogues to the characters in Kane, including an estranged associate now confined to a hospital (with the specter of AIDS looming large in this update) and a bitter lover who drinks her evenings away in an empty nightclub. Indeed, the scenes introducing the latter are briefly recreated shot-for-shot from Kane.
By the time Velvet Goldmine was released, the moment that My Own Private Idaho had inaugurated for the New Queer Cinema in Hollywood was almost certainly over. Van Sant’s follow-up, an adaptation of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), was a critical and commercial failure, and by 1997 he had taken refuge in more conventional territory than anyone might have predicted, earning an Oscar nomination for Good Will Hunting. Though Haynes continued to carry the New Queer torch the following year with Velvet Goldmine, that film earned back less than a quarter of its $9 million budget and garnered mixed reviews from mainstream critics. His next feature (Far From Heaven) was a clever piece of genre deconstruction, but it was stately enough in form and narrative to pass for a prestige picture, earning the critical, commercial, and awards season success that eluded Velvet Goldmine.
LGBT film in Hollywood subsequently shed its New Queer origins in favor of the more conventional fare that the movement’s progenitors had shunned. Whatever the merits of Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right (2010), and Van Sant’s own Milk (2008), their formal, tonal, and narrative distance from My Own Private Idaho and Velvet Goldmine — to say nothing of these crossover films’ more avant-garde peers — is impossible to deny.
We’re left, then, with an odd kind of symmetry. My Own Private Idaho and Velvet Goldmine form the two obvious bookends for the New Queer Cinema’s crossover period, and each pays homage to a bookend at one pole or the other of the career of Orson Welles.
The affinities between My Own Private Idaho and Chimes at Midnight extend well beyond their similar (and similarly loose) readings of Shakespeare. Both are decidedly tragicomic, shifting suddenly but effortlessly between these tonal poles. Consider, in the former, Mike’s (River Phoenix) tender fireside confession of his love for Scott (Keanu Reeves), a single shot with naturalistic composition and dialogue that contrasts starkly with the highly kinetic editing and theatricality of the nu-Shakespeare scenes in Portland. The film embraces different generic modes at different points — kitschy Americana in the opening and closing scenes, muted European art house during one extended middle section, and slapstick interspersed throughout — only to subsequently disavow them for something totally incongruous. This mirrors the New Queer Cinema’s thematic preoccupation with identity as an ever-shifting process of embrace and disavowal.
Mike’s narcolepsy partially functions to excuse the abrupt tonal and generic shifts within the film’s diegesis, but the cumulative effect is that My Own Private Idaho rejects conventional emotional identification, the kind that relies on a coherent narrative to introduce us gradually to a character’s desires so that we might have a stake in the fulfillment or frustration of said desires. Instead, the film forces us to conceive of desires and the identities they sustain as mutable and ephemeral, but no less compelling for their lack of unity. Though My Own Private Idaho takes this ethos to a certain extreme, the project of alienating viewers from conventional avenues for emotional identification was Welles’s too, from Citizen Kane all the way to Chimes at Midnight.
Velvet Goldmine is formally disarming as well, though for another reason entirely. Rather than bouncing between tonal poles, it inhabits a constant mode of bewildered, orgasmic wonder, and this fever pitch is maintained by remarkably consistent tone, pacing, and mise-en-scène. It’s a post-MTV film recalling a pre-liberation moment of giddy rebellion, and it is no less queer for its unified formal presentation. While the basic narrative is structured along the lines of Kane, the different accounts and histories the characters provide to reporter Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) hardly function to construct the legible narrative that we get in Kane. Instead they seem to bleed freely into one another and mix openly not only with the memories and fantasies of Stuart — the mediator of all this past — but with collective origin myths and imagined histories. (The film opens with a spaceship apparently delivering an infant Oscar Wilde to a Dublin doorstep, and the images from this sequence recur throughout the film.)
It would be easy, then, to cast Citizen Kane as Velvet Goldmine’s staid antecedent, so it’s worth remembering some of the reasons the former was considered so revolutionary. The film’s innovations — the abandonment of continuity editing in favor of long takes, wide-angle shots, and deep focus — served a particular thematic agenda: to deny easy access to the inner lives of its subjects. But the impulse to discover that point of easy access is the narrative motor of the film, with the reporter Jerry Thompson dispatched to discover the meaning of Kane’s final word, “Rosebud.” The search ends in Kane’s mansion, the reporters surrounded by the endless detritus of his life, and Thompson declaring: “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life.” The denouement, however, takes us to the furnace where Kane’s belongings are thrust, and we see the sled “Rosebud” begin to burn. Should we accept this apparent offer of a skeleton key?
The cinematic interventions of Haynes and Van Sant respond to this very moment, a moment where the audience (and the larger social body they represent) can either accept the intimacies of another as unknowable or fashion an overriding narrative that explains away their difficulty. The queer commitments of these filmmakers roundly rejected social demands for universal legibility, especially regarding the experience of intimacy. Their films insist that intimacies and the inner lives they sustain need not be widely legible to deserve recognition. They respond to Hollywood’s legacy of exclusion not by carving out space for themselves or their characters in a dialectic of progress, but instead by demonstrating sources of communion that fall outside its universalizing conventions.
We need not credit any of this to Welles, but the depth with which Haynes and Van Sant engage with his work suggests an affinity beyond the larger avant-garde project of audience alienation and the subversion of convention. It’s too often assumed that, because the emotional payoff of Hollywood fare makes audiences feel good, the avant-garde must make them feel bad; that visceral displeasure is the best way to sever audiences from the regressive comforts of Hollywood. What separates both Welles and the New Queer Cinema from this main current of the avant-garde is that the alienation they achieve is borne of an excess of pleasure rather than displeasure: the pleasures of camp, of genre, of hysterical performance. (“Above all,” B. Ruby Rich wrote to sum up the New Queer films in 1992, “they’re full of pleasure.”) By staging ephemeral pleasures unmoored to any narrative telos — even as the plots themselves feature pervasive violence and tragedy — these films neutralize the appeal of the delayed gratification of conventional narrative film. In this sense, the films are not just alienating; they are liberatory.
While Welles’s first two films only hinted at this strategy — both Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) are tragedies punctuated by moments of hysteria and giddy comedy — by the release of Chimes at Midnight he had flipped the equation, centering the delirious carnivalesque of Falstaff and his associates to defy the tragic course of the narrative.
As the centenary of Welles’s birth is commemorated this year, a consensus on his oeuvre is more assumed than actual. The critical recovery of his post-Kane work — which was widely ignored or maligned upon release — has been decades in the making, but it’s still difficult to find devoted partisans of Mr. Arkadin (1955), the made-for-TV The Immortal Story (1968), and his adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial (1962), though Welles once declared that the latter was the best film he ever made. Considering these films alongside the more well-regarded — but equally mercurial and abrasive — Touch of Evil (1958), F for Fake (1973), and Chimes at Midnight (1966), we might begin to see an otherwise disparate corpus united by an insistent foregrounding of audiovisual ephemera and the affective power of the pleasures it can produce. And considering how, decades later, the New Queer Cinema took much the same tack to revolutionize American independent filmmaking, Welles’s legacy looks much more radical than it is generally considered. Maybe, in other words, Orson Welles’s greatest contribution to cinema was his commitment to the fleeting.
John Thomason is a researcher for The Intercept. He lives in New York City.
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