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Nostalgia for Gay Good Taste

Nostalgia for Gay Good Taste

The Vanity Tables of Douglas Sirk

Mark Rappaport and Jenni Olson personalize documentary at 'The Art of the Real'

"By reconnecting us, nostalgia could be the very thing that saves us," says filmmaker Jenni Olson in The Royal Road, one of several extraordinary gay films featured in "The Art of the Real: Documentary Redefined," this year's non-fiction film series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Olson's comment on nostalgia makes a great introduction to two new video essays by Mark Rappaport, the innovative director known for the best films about gay movie history, The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997) and Rock Hudson's Home Movies (1992).

Rappaport uses nostalgia for old movies in a thrilling way. His newest works, Becoming Anita Ekberg and The Vanity Tables of Douglas Sirk go from a fan's notes on big-breasted female icons to erudite interest in the gayish emotional extravagance of Hollywood melodrama. Rappaport's insight and intellectual curiosity matches any serious scholar's -- on a par with Britain's great film historian Richard Dyer (author of Stars, Heavenly Bodies, White and Now You See It: Studies in Lesbian and Gay Film). But because Rappaport uses actual film clips as his medium -- not traditional literary discussion -- his analyses have sensual rhythm and kinetic wit.

After extolling Anita Ekberg's Nordic fabulousness in Fellini's classic La Dolce Vita and a series of Hollywood comedies where she graced the title sequences and played variations on her own identity, Rappaport dares a cheeky digression. He splashes a gigantic parenthesis on the screen then makes an instructive aside about jazz singer Abby Lincoln wearing Marilyn Monroe's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes red dress in The Girl Can't Help It -- a commentary on Hollywood racial practices.

Talk about the audacity of hope! This visual shout-out lets Rappaport open up a new means of documentary discourse, broadening the perspective of film history docs that are usually trivial and self-congratulatory. The Abby Lincoln tangent thrills for its own beautiful sake, turning marginal gossip into a meaningful part of cultural history that is often hidden, or considered extraneous. Rappaport's interposed device is crucial to his art. His mission has always been to engage and interrupt cinematic conventions; even when he made feature-length narratives like 1979's Imposters, his work provided artful criticism in the manner of the French New Wave and New York's gay avant-garde.

Douglas Sirk

Rappaport expatriated to Paris a few years back and it felt like a necessary search for regeneration. His return in these two new essays shows an exhilarating, fresh approach. The Douglas Sirk essay on that director's visual style and its expression of desire and gender roles demonstrates one reason gays knowingly respond to the melodrama genre with special interest and affection: Sirk explored the idea of vanity as a key to identity with a drag artist's shrewdness.

Rappaport concentrates on the lives and artistic expression of film artists, sustaining emotional continuity in gay cultural awareness. His nostalgia for old movies is informed by an aesthete's sensibility; it confirms what used to be understood as good gay taste.

Olson's The Royal Road corroborates Rappaport's nostalgia with her own personal formalistic essay. On an autobiographical California road trip, Olson relates the history of the Mexican-American War to her identify with what she calls "gender dysphoria." (She refers to her tomboy childhood as "a borrowed masculine persona.") References to Hitchcock's Vertigo also overlap Rappaport's nostalgia but Olson's emphasis on empty cityscapes and personal disaffection robs her of the emotional, cinematic wonder Rappaport admires. Olson asserts: "I crave the catharsis of narrative." Unfortunately, smart as she is, she doesn't find sustenance in the movie heritage Rappaport claims as a defense against gay alienation. As Rappaport jokes in his Ekberg doc, "With luck and the right movie you might become a sex goddess."

"Art of the Real: Documentary Redefined" takes place at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York City, April 10-26. Check out Ron Peck's 1978 gay classic Nighthawks on April 25.

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