From the editor and writers of Bright Lights Film Journal
Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran
(Anthem Art and Culture), by Gary Morris (Editor), Bert Cardullo (Introduction), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Foreword). London and New York: Anthem Press, 2009.
"I dare anyone to squeeze between two covers a more varied, useful and flat out entertaining sampling of the personalities that make the seventh art the liveliest."
David Hudson, IFC.com
Defending the Deviates
Evelyn Hooker Documentary Changing Our Minds on Video
"It had something to do with my sexual intercourse"
Director Richard Schmiechen's fond look at the life and work of pioneering psychologist Evelyn Hooker (1907-1996) opens with a curious image. Archival footage, perhaps from the 1940s, shows a handsome, shirtless man mindlessly opening and closing lockers in what looks like a mental hospital. While he's so engaged, the narrator explains what we're seeing: "This is a boy of 19, a dreaming, sensitive individual interested particularly in the current musical idiom of bebop. He heard voices accusing him of abnormal sexual practices, and believed he was the second coming of Christ." This "boy," never named, is then seen being given a "trans-frontal lobotomy," followed by an interview in which, asked why he was operated on, he says vaguely, "It had something to do with my sexual intercourse."
This chilling scene offers in a nutshell the prevailing view of homosexuality — reinforced by the too-interested government, medical profession, and church — and its "treatment" for much of the twentieth century. Artistic inclinations and words like "sensitive" have long been recognized as codes for queerness, and the answer to this "problem" was sought in incarceration in jails and asylums, where shock therapy, aversion techniques, or an icepick through the eye into the brain for a quick lobotomy (tools above) could be administered.
Such barbarisms didn't set well with Evelyn Hooker, a formidably tall, plain, and plainspoken psychology professor from Colorado. Hooker's interest was piqued while teaching at UCLA in the 1940s, where she met a young gay man named Sam who became a good friend. Her gaydar wasn't particularly strong at that point, but her husband's was. After he met Sam, whom she adored but didn't realize was queer, Mr. Hooker asked his wife why she hadn't mentioned his sexual orientation. Surprised, she asked him how he knew. "Well, he did everything but fly out the window."
Hooker made up for lost time, however, getting to know Sam's lover and pals and eventually presiding over a bohemian salon that included plenty of gay men at her home in famed Los Angeles suburb, Silverlake. (A trip to the drag show at Finnochio's, shown here in rare period footage, was undoubtedly de rigeur for Hooker's trip from naivete to consummate faghagdom.) Among the more famous of the "boys" who bloomed under her sympathetic eye were Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, both seen in this documentary in color home movies from the early 1950s. Hooker's friend Sam, knowing she was fearless and had a strong sense of social justice, asked that she consider doing a psychological study of the gay community. She obtained a grant in 1953 and three years later released a pioneering paper detailing the results. Hooker's study was the crucial early step that eventually led to decriminalizing homosexuality, legitimizing it as a subject of study, challenging then-conventional views of queerness as a pathology, and jump-starting the gay liberation movement.
Changing Our Minds, narrated by the ever-gay-friendly Patrick Stewart, lets Hooker speak for herself throughout, and her voice is eloquent but surprisingly modest considering what she achieved. "To go against the prevailing viewpoint," she says simply, "I had no problem with that." She was unfazed by her increasing notoriety for doing what officials and some of her peers laughingly called "the fairy project," but she did protect her subjects from harassment by interviewing them at her home, hidden behind a veritable forest on an acre of ground. She did the unthinkable in casually trumping three of the male "experts" in her field who insisted they could determine which of her study groups — 30 gay and 30 straight men — were gay or straight based on rorschach, MAPS, and other crackpot tests then in vogue. Of course, Hooker was vindicated in her conclusion that queers are intrinsically no more or less pathological than straights, a victory in the 1950s that paved the way for the medical establishment to finally remove homosexuality from their list of disorders two decades later.
Director Schmeichen, who also made the much-lauded (and Oscar-winning) The Times of Harvey Milk, uses powerful archival images of how queers were treated to remind us just how important and necessary Hooker's work was. In one unsettling bit of footage from the '50s, a 19-year-old soldier is busted at a public park. We see the policemen's faces, but never his. But we do hear his voice with its spiraling desperation as he begs them not to "ruin my life" for something he says he doesn't know why he does. Elsewhere we see a young man strapped onto gurneys and administered violent shocks that trigger convulsions; we can only guess whether his screams quelled the pain. (They only increase the viewer's.) And for anyone who believes California was always (or ever, really) a bastion of tolerance, there's this choice headline from a 1950s newspaper: "California Infested With Sex Deviates Who Roam At Large Through City Streets." If only.
The film shows Evelyn Hooker as a funny, warm, intensely empathetic woman, drawn to what would be her life's work as much by personal feeling and social conscience as by scientific curiosity. The title of the film has a double meaning. Some gay people may have had their "minds changed" in the wrong direction by the brute force — electroshock, lobotomies, jail — inflicted by an uncomprehending society. Hooker changed much of the collective mind for the better simply by telling the truth.
November 2004 | Issue 46

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