“Homosexuals get more out of watching a movie (or walking down a street).”
— Boyd McDonald, Cruising the Movies
Recently, in an attempt to expand recent concerns over the lack of diversity in Hollywood, the Atlantic ran an article titled, “Why Are So Few Film Critics Female?” While not its immediate provocation, the article did become a central component in a larger conversation on Twitter among film reviewers and culture critics about the state of film writing and its possibilities for positive growth in the future.
The conversation is a complex one because films are never just films. Since cinema’s earliest days, the pleasures offered by “the pictures” have been diverse, diffused throughout the general culture via product tie-ins and media driven cults of personality in an attempt to capitalize on the seemingly endless audience appetite for star images and fantasy projections. In addition to the actual film industry, gossip columnists, trade papers, and films critics were all core components of this illusion of an otherworldly Hollywood that, while perhaps less relevant today, still provides the background for our understanding of and appreciation for the movies.
Film writing in particular has a long and rich history full of almost as much scandal and sensationalism as Hollywood itself, and many aspiring critics are still driven by the good ol’ days when the opinion of one lone cinéphile could make or break a career. In the age of the Internet, film reviews have become a core component of online media, and streaming services have made it easier than ever for the average blog owner to develop a sophisticated repertoire of film knowledge.
However, the truth is that despite the proliferation of film writers online, the form of film writing has changed very little. The “critic personality” seems to have largely become a thing of the past, as writers opt more and more for plot recap shallowly anchored into the current political moment with unproductive generalizations about whether or not such and such film is feminist (by which we usually mean has a strong female lead), represents “the issues” well, and has a diverse enough cast.
It’s not that these aren’t important issues; it’s that we suffer from a collective lack of imagination in how to use them as frameworks for critically engaging films in new and interesting ways. Is there a way that we can rethink film writing in order to make it (almost) as entertaining as the movies themselves? It may take less innovation than we think.
Originally published in 1985 by the Gay Presses of New York, Boyd McDonald’s Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to the Oldies on TV has recently been republished by the independent press, Semiotext(e). This edition brings the original collection of film reviews written between 1983-85 for the gay satire and lifestyle magazine, Christopher Street. However, this new, expanded addition includes extra material, including “previously uncollected articles” and a new introduction written by artist and filmmaker William E. Jones.
If I had to really carve up Cruising the Movies’ formal preoccupations, I would say that it’s a book about three things: star discourse, 20th century television culture, and practices of queer reading. Consciously and vocally, McDonald dispenses with the usual metrics of film criticism. He doesn’t care about the industry, auteurs, or formal film analysis. He doesn’t care about performance style or acting talent; never once does he mention composition or mise en scène. Boyd is interested in personality, in desire, and in the intangible quality of presence that launched the celebrity culture so central to Hollywood’s Golden Era.
He’s also interested in bodies—specifically asses—and he provides a solid (though by no means exhaustive) foundation for a catalogue of cinematic asses ranging from the “bareassed jock poses” of the Athletic Model Guild studio to more mainstream fare like the Elvis beach flick, Blue Hawaii (1961). Some readers may find such a critical metric superficial and, well, mean-spirited, but in actuality the figure of the ass in McDonald’s reviews serves as a rather sophisticated analytical tool, allowing him to read desires that were repressed by the exigencies of the Motion Picture Production Code (that is, his own desires) while simultaneously deconstructing the sexual ideologies that are often taken for granted in such films.
Body parts, such as Ronnie Raegan’s “bizarre legs” in John Loves Mary (1949) or David Nelson’s pelvic bulge in The Big Circus (1959) are both objects of sexual fascination for a particular kind of viewer often excluded by the cinematic (and critical!) apparatus, but they are also metonyms for political and social realities that underwrite that exclusion. “Straight” masculinity is lampooned as often as it is consumed, destabilizing the sexual hierarchy often assumed to be inherent in classical narrative film. Boyd writes about bit player Michael Callan in a way that is singularly unusual for critical treatment of male stars: “I suspect, however, that the reason Michael failed to become a star is that producers and directors failed to recognize what a valuable property he was as a piece of meat.” (The meat in question was earlier referred to as a “fuck prong”, an academic term, Boyd assures us.)
Part of why Boyd is able to do this is because he has no allegiance to anything except his own desire, his own aesthetic sensibility in which masculinity and femininity are decoupled from gendered bodies and instead attached to star personalities and screen presence, allowing for a fluidity of expression and identification in classic film that seems impossible until Boyd shows you that it was always already there.
Of Gloria Grahame, he writes, “[she] is a high school boy’s dream of cool, of real, effortless masculinity as opposed to the effort to act masculine made by her co-star in In a Lonely Place (1950), a poseur named ‘Humphrey Bogart’.” Interestingly enough given that film is fundamentally predicated on artifice, what drives much of Boyd’s celebrity appreciated is a kind of intangible, unaffected star quality. He comes closest to describing this quality in his description of the charms of Richard Widmark:
“Perhaps because so many men today seem merely non-homosexual rather than positively heterosexual, today’s actors swaggering about bareass or in their underpants lack the sexual authority of Widmark fully clothed. For it is a question of the face (the eyes, the mouth) and personality, not the body and not the underpants. Widmark’s face cannot be directed or scripted (or even described). Thus, his work is strictly a personal triumph for him alone. He demonstrates the important of star reviews over mere movie reviews, with their constant complaints about plot. “A movie is the last place in the world to look for literary distinction,” he writes.
While Cruising the Movies is a book that is unequivocally about movie stars, it’s also about the relationships that we, as viewers, have with them, and one of the more charming aspects of Boyd’s style is his ability to write himself so seamlessly into his essays. Whether by situating a particular image within his own desire or using a film to point to broader cultural trends, Boyd is always “on the scene”, as it were. This is partly facilitated by his constant reference to the date, time, and channel on which he watched whatever given film he is reviewing.
Writing of the Annette Funicello “turkey” Fireball 500 (1966), Boyd writes, “I determined to catch its showing at 12:30 a.m. September 21, 1983 on channel 7.” It is easy to forget — though Boyd refuses to let us — that like sexual desire, cinematic spectatorship is a physical experience.
That these films are, within the text and within his critical experience, already passé, consigned to late-night reruns on public access channels is crucial to the book’s relevancy, for it models the ways in which film images and icons are, in some magical way, eternal. I am sitting in this leather chair in 2015, reading Boyd’s ideas about female masculinity in classic film, which were written in 1985, two years before I was born and almost 30 years after most of these films were made. Boyd’s unique way of reading films is inspiring me, 22 years after his death, to think about my own relationship to these films, to my desires, and to my reading practices. That these images, stories, and celebrities can unite people who have never met across continents and centuries is the constitutive magic of cinema, something that contemporary film writing now long-divorced from the queer subcultures that temporarily revived it in last few decades of the 20th century seems to have forgotten.
Cruising — the gay subculture of looking for anonymous, casual sex in public places — is about self-affirmation, pleasure, and being playful with our desires. Ideally, this is what the movies should be about, too. Cruising the Movies is film writing that delivers that magic with verve, wit, and self-deprecation. It is, against all odds, a piece of film criticism that is as entertaining as the movies that it looks at, and contemporary film writers would do well to take a page from Boyd’s book. I know that heading into the New Year, I will definitely be doing so, though perhaps with fewer, uh, “academic terms”.