Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Out Takes, edited by Ellis Hanson

Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film, edited by Ellis Hanson (NC: Duke University Press, 1999), Trade paper, $19.00 U.S., ISBN 0-82232-342-7

Out Takes is the latest offering from Duke University Press’s venerable Series “Q” of scholarly books on queer studies. Having tackled other realms of cultural subject matter in this series, attention has now turned to the interrelationships between film and homosexuality, concentrating mainly on historical — as opposed to contemporary — examples. Ellis Hanson, a professor of English and noted authority on queer visual culture, served as the editor of Out Takes and has done an admirable job of amassing a variety of interpretive and critical essays, spanning a wide topical spectrum within queer studies as applied to film theory. Gay male and lesbian perspectives and cinematic examples are equally well represented. While most of the essays concentrate on individual films, directors, or actors, most also encompass a broad theoretical basis, taking ideological and interpretive constructs and methodologies from the likes of Foucault, Kristeva, and Judith Butler. Despite this strong academic grounding, refreshingly, very few of these essays get bogged down in the stiff, European argot that many works derivative of Foucault, Kristeva, et al. are known for.

Although I would feel safe in claiming that each essay included in this collection has very strong merits and that all are worthy of inclusion, several stand out as exceptional. Eric Savoy’s essay on Doris Day and her 1950s movies offers a very lucid, albeit rare, perspective on Day — something of a reversal of the typical image that one may have of Day as the epitome of domesticity and the American fifties. Savoy’s use of cinematic examples and his care to interpret but not read too far into Day’s onscreen personas makes this essay one of the best I have read on film in the 1950s, period. In a similar vein, Amy Villarejo’s “Forbidden Love: Pulp as Lesbian History” offers a historical appraisal of the role of lesbians and lesbian ideas in American filmmaking. Steven Cohan’s “Queering the Deal” also is a superb work of writing and analysis, although I believe that the author could have incorporated recurrent themes found elsewhere in the book into his essay, as some of his comments and intellectual wanderings simply do not seem to probe deep enough. Still, the essay is valuable and, along with Ellis Hanson’s introduction to the book, offers a good context for approaching the other essays.

Most book reviewers who speak with any degree of honesty are able to find some minor misgivings about even those books they like; in the case of Out Takes, my main complaint is that most of the essays included deal with films that were made well over 30 or even 40 years ago. The stated intent of the book was to offer interpretations of films that have significant queer themes or undercurrents that were produced well before the current boom in gay and lesbian filmmaking, and I take this into account in my appraisal. Still, it is difficult to read the views of contemporary writers on these films — views that by and large are sponsored by contemporary theoretical precedents — without wanting some comparison to current trends in queer cinema. For that matter, numerous recent mainstream films and television series have included gay or lesbian characters, and this phenomenon rarely is examined here in contrast to the lack of overt homosexuality in the works discussed. Film critics and scholars, unlike their peers in art history, literature, and the other humanities, must remember that they are dealing with a young artistic medium that is as much about mass entertainment as it is purely creative and aesthetic trajectories. Thus, it is impossible to divorce historical examples from contemporary trends when dealing with minority social issues, as is the case in Out Takes. Perhaps Hanson will edit a second volume that picks up where Out Takes leaves off to deal with contemporary efforts in queer filmmaking.

I would recommend Out Takes to all who are interested in serious scholarship of queer theory in the context of cinema as well as to university and institutional libraries. It would make a useful addition to undergraduate-level courses in gender theory and lesbigay studies as a supplementary reader, although the detailed focus of the majority of the essays would prevent its use, in my opinion, as a primary course text.