Published: Feb. 1, 2001 By

[1]   JAGOSE: Your book on gay male spectatorships notes Cinema, Fantasy, Gay Male Spectatorshipsthe cultural persistence, both homophobic and anti-homophobic, in reading the movie fan and the male homosexual in terms of each other. (figure 1) Indeed, a couple of times you offer incidents from your childhood – your grandmother’s gift to you, aged ten, of a book on Judy Garland, soon to be learned by heart; your even earlier Julie Andrews initiation, taken as a three year old by your mother to The Sound of Music – in which your ardently cathected relation to spectatorship points up your proto-gayness. Can you talk a bit about the various ways – historical, psychic, perhaps even autobiographical – in which the figures of the cinematic spectator and the gay man amplify each other?

[2]   FARMER: One of the things that intrigues me – and one of the things I set out to explore in the book – is the extraordinary correspondence that has developed historically between male homosexualities and cinema. Gay male cultures have mobilized cinema in all sorts of interesting ways as a privileged forum for specifically gay investments to the point where cinematic spectatorship has itself become a key element in cultural tropologies of male homosexuality. Indeed, the idea that gay men have some type of passionate attachment to film, especially Hollywood film, is so widely circulated in the popular imaginary as to be all but hegemonic. If I might take up your invitation to reference autobiographical narratives, I can recall that many of my earliest queer identifications were made not so much through erotic as cinematic cathexes. As I was growing up, there was an almost inescapable compulsion, exercised in equal measure both intra- and inter-subjectively, to read and make sense of my own developing cinephilia as a palpable sign of sexual dissonance. Whether it was my adoration of Julie Andrews, my passion for MGM musicals, or my obsession with vintage Hollywood film more generally, a raft of cultural discourses conspired to determine these be read as symptomatic signs of queerness (figure 2). Now, I would be the first to concede that the Julie Andrews in full alpine twirl in The Sound of Music.cinematic tastes I was cultivating were hardly normative for the time and place of my childhood – Australian suburbia in the seventies – but it is instructive that they should so readily have been interpretable, by myself and others, as markers of homosexuality.

[3]   FARMER: The reasons for this insistent discursive correlation between cinephilia and male homosexuality are of course many and varied. It is, in part, a reflection of the undeniably significant role that cinema has assumed in gay cultural history. As suggested, throughout the twentieth century and beyond, cinema has provided a singularly fertile source of gay subcultural capital, generating a wide range of specifically gay taste formations. In and of itself, however, this isn’t quite sufficient to account for the intense and enduring cultural correspondence between gay men and film. Other social groups have equally used cinema as a forum for subcultural articulation, yet haven’t inspired anywhere near the same sort of popular associations. To explain this, we need to look perhaps at the some of the discursive homologies that exist between cinema and homosexuality and that, I would suggest, fuel and sustain their persistent representational confluence. Apart from the fact that cinema and identity-based homosexuality are, broadly speaking, historical contemporaries, they share a number of striking discursive similarities. Both are centrally invested in psychosocial formations of the erotic and the perverse; both occupy liminal spaces situated – often ambivalently – across key social binarisms; and both have strong structural tendencies toward semiotic excess and disruption. Indeed, for all its long history of heteronormative idealization and homophobic censorship, cinema – and, by implication, spectatorship – is marked by a profound queerness which is precisely why it has been so amenable to gay subcultural appropriation but also why it has inspired a persistent representational correspondence with gayness.

[4]   JAGOSE: The recognition that Hollywood cinema, so committed to the narrative of heterosexuality that it seems often enough to mistake the one for the other and structured, explicitly in the Production Code period, around a prohibition on homosexual representation, nevertheless generates a field of meaning resonant with homosexual significance has been a point of productive fascination for gay cinema studies, as can be seen perhaps most recently in Patricia White’s Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability. How does what we might call Hollywood cinema’s doubled investment in homosexuality work in relation to your understanding of spectatorship, particularly gay spectatorships?

[5]   FARMER: Organized around the consumption of what, as you note, is a vigorously heterocentrist cultural form, gay spectatorship would seem fundamentally riven by paradox. In fact, from the perspective of a certain tradition of film theory where cinema is characterized as a massively functioning apparatus for the production of phallic heterosexual identification, gay spectatorship might even seem a veritable contradiction in terms. Yet, it is precisely this contradictory tension that grounds gay spectatorship and furnishes much of its structural dynamism. In the face of a representational system anchored in compulsory heterosexuality and predicated, more often than not, on the explicit exclusion of homosexual desire, gay audiences of Hollywood film have been forced to engage resistant reception practices and to develop a versatile repertoire of counter-normative reading processes. Camp, subtextual interrogation, star gossip, intertextual referencing and other such forms of resistant reading have been widely used by gay spectators to combat cinematic heterocentrism and to reconstitute film with a variety of gay significances.

[6]   FARMER: Ironically, these processes of queer reading may in fact be actively facilitated by the heteronormative structures of cinematic textuality. Denied the manifest concretion of denotative representation for much of Hollywood’s history, homosexual desire didn’t simply vanish from film but made its signifying appearance in and through the more protean economy of connotation. In an essay discussing Hitchcock’s Rope, D.A. Miller has influentially argued that, far from instating a proscriptive erasure, Hollywood’s relegation of homosexuality to the register of the connotative had the reverse effect of dispersing it as an omnipresent potential across the entire field of cinematic representation. In her terrific study to which you refer, Patricia White reads this process as a form of metaphoric “ghosting” and traces its effects on the conditions of both lesbian cinematic representability and lesbian spectatorship. As the absent presence that “haunts” cinema – quite literally in the case of the classic horror films she analyzes – lesbianism is returned in White’s revisionist account as a pivotal element of cinematic meaning that, precisely because of its spectral immateriality, can pop up in the most unexpected places and produce the most unforeseen effects. This is perhaps part of the reason why classical films sometimes seem “queerer” and are often capable of sustaining more intense gay investments than many openly gay or lesbian films where the “spectre” of homosexual desire is channelled – if not corralled – into specified “images” of homosexuality, the semiotic functions of which are explicitly linked to and delimited by the stabilizing regimes of denotative meaning.

[7]   FARMER: This critical (re)reading of classical Hollywood as a representational system that simultaneously marginalizes 
 Footlight Parade.and fosters homosexual desire is deployed in my own book as an analytic entrée into various formations of gay spectatorship. To cite just one example: gay subcultural popularizations of the Hollywood musical. (figure 3) More than any other cinematic genre, the Hollywood musical has supported a long and spectacular history of gay subcultural receptions. On the surface, this would seem perplexing for the musical is also widely noted for its heterosexist structure and its ideological celebration of hymeneal union as hegemonic ideal. While acknowledging its heteronormative constitution, I argue that the musical is equally invested in potential formations of perverse desire that offer wide-ranging scope for the production of gay investments and identifications. Gay spectatorships of the Hollywood musical latch on to the destabilizing impulses of libidinal excess to which the genre is so spectacularly prone and mobilize these as the grounds for distinctively queer readings.

[8]   JAGOSE: So let’s talk about musicals. In your book, you suggest that it is the generic form of the musical – in particular, its ambivalent construction around both “a teleological structure of narrative” and “a spatial structure of spectacle” (83) – that enables the widespread gay appropriation of its overwhelmingly heterosexualising plot. Can you expand on this a little?

[9]   FARMER: There’s certainly no need to press too hard to engage me in a continued discussion of the musical as I can only confess to being a dyed-in-the-wool fan. While my fascination with the genre is, for the most part, subjective, a legacy of childhood passions, I harbour strong intellectual interests in the musical as well. Significantly, though not perhaps surprisingly, my personal and intellectual enthusiasms for the musical both issue from much the same source: what I suggested earlier were the genre’s perverse dynamics. Regardless of one’s position on current debates over cinematic classicism and whether or not Hollywood film was ever as homogeneous or rigidly rule-bound as is generally thought, the musical is a genre that is profoundly transgressive vis-a-vis orthodox modes of Hollywood textuality. Largely anti-naturalist in its representational economy and unapologetically anti-realist in its aesthetics, the musical breaks many of the basic conventions that we have come to expect of mainstream narrative cinema. In fact, with its excessive textual heterogeneity and formal discontinuities, the musical would seem more akin to the traditions of avant-garde cinema than those of mainstream Hollywood. This excessive textual unorthodoxy is undoubtedly why the musical has been more or less marginalized in film theory, it doesn’t sit comfortably with traditional critical models of Hollywood film form, but it is precisely one of the reasons why the genre has attracted, and been able to sustain, such enduring traditions of gay engagement.

[10]   FARMER: As you note, my analysis of gay appropriations of the musical is largely focused around the genre’s distinctive admixture of narrative and spectacle which I suggest produces a rather unstable,
 Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra enjoy a nautical pas de deux in Anchors Aweigh.multi-levelled textuality that is wonderfully amenable to variable interpretation and libidinal investment. The constant breaks in the musical from a conventional mode of linear narrativity – which in the musical, as elsewhere, is almost always harnessed to heteronormative teleology – into extravagant song-and-dance numbers enact a metaphoric textual perversion where the constraints of the “straight” plot are overthrown, if only temporarily, for the fluid liminality of spectacle. That this process of textual rupture occasions a radical revision of not just aesthetic but erotic economies is plainly evidenced by the array of queer moments displayed so ostentatiously in the Hollywood musical number. From homoerotic dance sequences and cross-dressed performances to orgiastic carnivalesques, the spectacular space of the musical number offers an unparalleled archive of cinematic queerness rich with gay interpretive possibilities. (figure 4)

[11]   JAGOSE: Given the multivocal signifying capacity of the musical, what has happened to the previously vital energy of this cultural form? Take a studio like MGM that produces dozens of musicals across the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s but which, by the 1970s is cannibalizing its own archives for meta-musicals like theThat’s Entertainment series. Since the textual excessiveness of the classic musical is the explanatory context for thinking about gay musical fan practices, is it too simple to index the more recent slump in the production of musicals to the post-Stonewall or, at least, 1960s availability of cultural forms able to address homosexuality less slantingly?

[12]   FARMER: I must admit I’ve not really considered that the historical demise of the Hollywood musical may have been directly related to the rise of explicit forms of queer representation but I’m entirely happy to entertain the prospect. I do think if we concede the musical offered filmmakers and audiences of the classical era a covert means for imaging and exploring sexual and erotic material otherwise proscribed by censorship, whether in the literal form of the Production Code or the abstract form of sociosymbolic taboos, then the emergence in the sixties and after of more overt cinematic forms of sexual representation would certainly have diminished the cultural need for the musical. Maybe this explains why the only mode of contemporary western cinema where the musical form continues with any real force is children’s cinema and animation because these are modes still subject to rigorous, even obsessive sexual censorship.

[13]   FARMER: Of course, I wouldn’t want to go too far with this type of reading. There were many other, far more prosaic factors that played a role in the decline of the film musical including the fragmentation of both cinematic and popular music markets in the post-war era and the concomitant emergence of domestic technologies such as hi-fis and television as dominant sites of musical entertainment. Indeed, in relation to the latter, it would be erroneous to think that the film musical simply died out in the sixties for much of its semiotic and sexual energy was transferred to, while at the same time inevitably transformed by, the smaller screen of television in the form of, first, variety shows and, more recently, music videos. The celebrated formal unorthodoxies and astonishing gender and sexual aberrance of modern music videos would suggest that filmic traditions of musical queerness have continued to the present day. From MGM to MTV, the beat may have changed but the song remains pretty much the same.

[14]   JAGOSE: With that modern reference to music video and MTV, maybe now is a good time to ask a question that arises for me at various moments reading your book. Many of the texts you discuss in your investigation of gay male spectatorships have, as you write of the musical, “moved from mass cultural form to nostalgic object” (75). Even when a contemporary film is considered at length – I’m thinking of your excellent discussion ofKiss of the Spider Woman – it is one which diegetically reprises the same themes of a spectatorship underwritten by nostalgia, by a time and place emphatically other. How might you theorise nostalgia as it takes the measure of the dislocation between the cultural artefacts of, say, classic Hollywood and the thoroughly contemporary psychic formations they, in part, enable?

[15]   FARMER: I’ve long believed nostalgia receives an unjustly bad rap in much cultural criticism. Characterized as an archly conservative mode whose primary function is the denial of contemporary materialities through an idealist fantasy of return to a prelapsarian past, nostalgia has been charged with all sorts of reactionary effects from anti-feminism to postmodern apathy. I wouldn’t want to deny that nostalgia services and possibly even motivates forms of political quiescence, but it would be wrong – or, at the very least, grossly reductive – to make conservatism the sole measure of nostalgia’s diverse operations. Defined literally as a desire or longing for home, nostalgia is not so much a reactionary withdrawal from the present as a search for placement and belonging, an attempt to produce meaning and value in the present out of the archives of the past.

[16]   FARMER: Queer cultures have something of a privileged relationship to nostalgia. Not only has there been a long line of patently nostalgic queer cultural practices from decadent neoclassicism to retro-camp, but discourses of gay and lesbian identity are themselves constitutively invested in what, from a certain perspective, would seem fundamentally nostalgic operations. Whether in public practices such as the historical memorialization of Stonewall Parades and queer historiographic projects of “recovering the gay and lesbian past”, or the more intimate rituals of personal coming out narratives, queer identities are centrally constructed and
 The Wizard of Oz as ur-text of queer celebration.circulated through nostalgic processes of historic revision and (re)production. Far from a reactionary escape, the historical returns signalled by these variable formations of queer nostalgia don’t so much repeat the past as journey through and interrogate it in order to get some place else in the present. An obvious illustrative example – and one that offers a convenient segue into a more specific consideration of gay cinematic nostalgia – would be the gay subcultural canonization of The Wizard of Oz. (figure 5) With its aphoristic mantra, “There’s no place like home” and its iconic status as the archetypal classic Hollywood text, The Wizard of Ozhas been an inevitable lure for all sorts of nostalgic appropriations. Unlike mainstream receptions, however, where the film is generally marshaled as emblematic of “lost” traditions of small-town, Anglo-American family values, gay cultures reconstruct The Wizard of Oz as an empowering ur-text of queer celebration and survivalism, a mytho-epic journey from heteronormative mundanity into queer difference. The nostalgic fetishism that frames this particular Hollywood artifact in gay cultures operates then as a sort of queer counter-history, a going back to the past that produces a different set of meanings for the present.

[17]   FARMER: Not surprisingly, given its own central investment in historical revisions and mnemonic returns, psychoanalysis offers a particularly rich critical apparatus with which to read and make sense of these nostalgic reconstructions. In my book, I make use of the psychoanalytic notion of nachtraglichkeit or retroactivity as an interpretive frame for analyzing the complex logics of gay spectatorial desires. Used in psychoanalysis to refer to the distorted temporalities of fantasy – in particular, the way in which two moments or scenes entirely distinct in terms of temporal and spatial instantiation can, in the present tense of fantasy, animate each other and produce new formations of psychic significance –nachtraglichkeitspeaks productively to, among other things, the disorganizational doublings of gay cinematic nostalgia where the cinematic past is obsessively and lovingly mined for contemporary fantasmatic productions. Interestingly, in her theorization of lesbian cinematic engagements, Patricia White also seizes upon and uses the concept of nachtraglichkeit to think about queer cinematic nostalgia or, what she cleverly terms, “lesbian retrospectatorship”. I’ve no doubt this critical coincidence can be comfortably explained in terms of shared academic traditions and precedents, but it highlights the extent to which gay and lesbian spectatorships alike are grounded in productive processes of revisionary cinematic nostalgia.

[18]   JAGOSE: And maybe also highlights the ways in which lesbian and gay cinema studies are revitalizing those very psychoanalytic models that are more frequently represented as indentured to heteronormativity. In this regard your insistence on the productivity of gay maternal identifications, the intensely identificatory relation between mother and gay son that you refer to as “gay matrocentrism” (153) can seem provocative in the best sense of that word. I want to ask you a question here that is maybe a little complicated – or perhaps just difficult to convey. In the Freudian account of psychic acculturation that you recuperate for your homocentric project, the proto-homosexual boy identifies with the mother and takes himself as the object of desire. Your own revisions to this model emphasise the gay maternal identification but it is less clear – at least to me – what happens to the trajectory of desire. Given that you foreground the “structure of pleasurable contiguity” that knits up the gay son with his mother (164), I suppose his spectatorial models of desire might be fashioned after hers, although that presumes her heterosexuality in ways that seem more continuous with the traditional psychoanalytic project than yours. Or perhaps gay matrocentrism specifies a desiring identificatory relation. How do you see desire being configured across “the dyadic figure of mother and gay son” (154)?

[19]   FARMER: I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit to a vague anxiety regarding the status and role of psychoanalysis in my work. Although I clearly seek to claim psychoanalysis as a vital, even indispensable, tool for my project of theorizing gay spectatorships, I am keenly aware of the monstrous deformations that it can wreak on constructions of queer desire, and, thus, I tend to engage psychoanalysis in a roundly ambivalent fashion, rushing to embrace certain elements from its rich constellation of critical insights and ideas, while distancing, if not shunning others entirely. This equivocal deployment might seem to some an example of poor scholarship or, worse, critical opportunism, but it is in many respects the only productive approach available to an anti-homophobic engagement of psychoanalytic theory or, for that matter, any engagement that seeks to resist the normalizing labours to which psychoanalysis can be all too readily put. As numerous commentators have pointed out, the whole Freudian project is the site of a paradoxical movement both toward and away from a radical, anti-naturalist theory of sexuality and it bears multiple traces of this janus-faced constitution. In order to combat its own residual tendency to domestication and reopen its most progressive insights, the Freudian text needs, therefore, to be read symptomatically, selectively and, as it were, incoherently. Indeed, to the extent that the containment of psychoanalysis’ most seditious dynamics often stems from its own pretences to coherent or systematic meaning – what might be termed, its drive for epistemological mastery – reading Freud incoherently may be the best way to recuperate psychoanalysis against itself.

[20]   FARMER: My deployment of the Freudian myth of gay matrocentrism is, in this sense, wilfully and strategically incoherent. Although I certainly use it as an interpretive mechanism through which to represent and make sense of various formations of gay spectatorship, if not gay subjectivity, more generally, I am not all that interested in systematizing its signifying relations and/or pursuing them in an exhaustive or even logical fashion. In fact, what appeals to me the most about the whole concept of gay matrocentrism is its profound resistance to coherent or stable meaning, the way that it disrupts traditional narratives of erotic and subjective organization. With its blatant transgression of orthodox sexual and social boundaries and its refusal of fundamental patriarchal taboos, the figure of the mother-identified male homosexual is scandalously – and wonderfully – anarchic.

[21]   FARMER: Freud’s own response to the libidinal anarchy of gay matrocentrism was ambivalent to say the least, but he largely sought to rein in its subversive dynamics by resituating it within a heteronormative economy where it could be both castigated as perverse and recontained within the master scripts of heterosexuality. The critical turn to which you refer where Freud extrapolates a systematized reading of gay matrocentrism in terms of a polarized division of identification and desire is a good example of this heteronormalizing tendency. The Freudian model of sexual organization as structured around disjunctive axes of gendered identification and object-choice is predicated on a heterosexual presumption and is, as such, largely inadequate to representing the erotic distinctions of homosexual desire. This is not to say that this model has no correspondence to or can’t be employed to read and think about queer psychic formations, but any attempt to marshal it as a fixed, all-purpose hermeneutic is bound to fail miserably.

[22]   FARMER: I try and pitch for a rather more capacious theoretical paradigm in which matrocentrism is assumed as a conceptual springboard into a speculative exploration of gay libidinal relations but in a way that hopefully maintains the unpredictable diversity of those relations. Rather than presume, as Freud does, that a primary psychic maternal identification automatically instates a prestructured libidinal program in which desire is routed through the mother’s heterosexuality (which itself begs the obvious: can the imaginary mother be said to desire “heterosexually” when her preoedipal status would position her if not outside, certainly in excess of the codes of heterosexuality?), I prefer to keep the question of matrocentrism’s libidinal patterns and effects considerably more open and undecided. In my readings, the relations of identification and desire operative in gay matrocentrism are approached and understood less as disjunctive polarities than as interlaced modalities that both articulate and are articulated through variable configurations of erotic and cultural queerness.

[23]   JAGOSE: Similarly, your discussion of gay spectatorships and figures of masculinity crucially depends on a refusal to make any indelible distinction between desire and identification. Analysing gay spectatorial relations to cinematic masculinity – relations that “common sense” might understand as more straight forward than the matrocentric ones previously discussed – you point up “the disorganizational impulses of [such] queer objectifications” (216). What exactly gets disorganized in gay receptions of the spectacular male image?

[24]   FARMER: In many respects, my final chapter on gay receptions of cinematic masculinities offers the most cogent exemplification of one of the book’s fundamental premises: that the specificity of gay spectatorships may be located in their far-reaching capacity for disruptive revisions of orthodox systems of cinematic meaning and desire. Masculinity has long been regarded as the regulative linchpin of mainstream cinema’s erotic and textual economies, the nucleus around which its discursive and enunciative networks are organized. In film – as, regrettably, so often in life – masculinity is assumed as privileged norm and this impacts fundamentally on male cinematic constructions, according them a high degree of structural governance, obviously, but also imbuing them with authoritative attributes of elementary typicality and authenticity. There’s a straight-shooting artlessness about cinematic masculinity that is very different from the tropology of otherness and enigmatic allure that typifies cinematic femininity. Where women in film are often a site of difference and thus an explicit source of fascination and anxiety, men are, more often than not, a site of identity that is given and unproblematic. To borrow a quip from Richard Dyer: masculinity in film “is a bit like air – you breathe it in all the time but you aren’t aware of it much.” (28)

[25]   FARMER: Gay spectatorships disrupt this cosy economy of phallocentric normativity in various ways. At an obvious level, their introduction of an explicit position of male homosexual desire into the film viewing contract destabilizes the presumed heterosexual coding of cinematic masculinity and its primary function as identificatory ideal. It’s long been a commonplace in film theory that the structures of cinematic vision are largely, even obsessively, predicated on a logic of heterosexual division, expressed succinctly in Laura Mulvey’s pithy formula: male active subject/ female passive object. Within the terms of this hegemonic schema, the male image is understood to operate almost entirely as a site of identificatory agency that is barred from eroticization because any sexual objectification of the male body would compromise its agential dynamics and its – admittedly precarious – claims to phallic authority. This reading undoubtedly identifies a dominant structural tendency of mainstream cinema and helps explain the awkwardness, both aesthetic and ideological, that attends cinematic displays of the male body, but it rests on a dubious assumption that the erotic relations of film are determined solely at the level of textual representation. To say that cinematic masculinity is not eroticized because there are few explicitly sexualized male filmic images is to displace both the conditions of male erotic representability (what criteria decides whether a given image is erotic or not) and the role of the viewer in determining those conditions. No amount of regulatory labour on the part of individual film texts or even the cinematic institution, at large, will negate the active ways spectators can and do engage filmic representations as objects of sexual fantasy. Gay spectatorships have long appropriated male cinematic imagery for an explicitly homosexual fantasmatic economy and, by so doing, have revised many of that imagery’s central meanings and pleasures. Far from shielding the cinematic male body from a direct sexual gaze, gay spectatorships submit it to a continuous and quite spectacular process of objectification that undermines its presumed equation with exclusive, agential subjecthood. It’s a process that I characterize in my book as a “dephallicization” of the male image, a stripping of its conventional pretensions to phallic sufficiency and authority and a concomitant “opening up” to the destabilizing effects of receptivity and objectification.

[26]   FARMER: One of the primary examples I use to explore these disorganizational conundrums is gay subcultural receptions of the classic Hollywood star, Montgomery Clift. In many ways, Clift offers a textual
 Montgomery Clift and John Wayne in Red River.embodiment of the whole notion of queer dephallicization which is, in large part, the source of his enduring gay appeal. With his extraordinarily sensitive acting style, his professional predilection for playing marginalized male characters, and his astonishing beauty, Clift was something of an aberration in mainstream traditions of male stardom. Indeed, it’s instructive to watch him in a film like Red River where his style of male gender performance is so vastly at odds with that of his co-star, John Wayne as to seem almost incommensurable. (figure 6) Where Wayne is all steel-jawed authority and lumbering physicality, Clift turns in a highly mannered performance that accents his character’s inner fragility and emotionalism. Gay subcultural receptions of Clift frequently celebrate this capacity for aberrant male performance, mobilizing it as the grounds for various forms of gay identificatory investment.

[27]   JAGOSE: In his reading of Suddenly, Last Summer – a film that you also discuss – D. A. Miller is amusingly critical of the Mulveyan formulation that insists male cinematic bodies stand as ciphers for the male gaze while never themselves subject to its objectifying mechanisms. Pointing to the nearly unbounded potential of the male image for sexual objectification, Miller writes: “And of anyone who hasn’t seen that potential abundantly realized in the screen appearances of Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, William Holden, or Montgomery Clift, to go no further forward than 1959, it is safe to say that, instead of going to the movies, this person must have stayed home reading Laura Mulvey.” (109) Evoking the very stable of stars you are also, in part, working with, Miller’s list makes me wonder whether the dynamic models of spectatorship you put forward are dependent for their articulation on classic cinema – what we earlier in this interview referred to as “nostalgic cultural objects” – or whether they might as readily be worked out across a contemporary archive? Can I ask you to respond to this last question by recommending as a pleasant homework task, say, five films your reader might watch to test or extend your hypotheses about gay male spectatorships?

[28]   FARMER: This nagging question of historical specificity and relevance is one that plagues considerations not simply of gay spectatorship but of cinematic spectatorship more generally. In an age when the transformative dynamics of global media convergence, new technologies, and cross-media entertainment forms have radically rewritten the cultural landscape, is it truly possible to speak of cinematic spectatorship as a separate mode of cultural reception? For some, the answer would be a categorical negative and, while my own response is obviously less closed, I do think we have to concede that, in many respects, spectatorship today is qualitatively different to what it was or may have been in earlier historical moments. In terms of gay spectatorship, cinema no longer plays the same sort of privileged role it once did in gay subcultural consumption practices, ceding to and combining with a host of competing practices focussed on more recent entertainment forms from television and the internet to dance parties. As a result, film spectatorship is probably a much less isolable, certainly less coherent site of contemporary gay subcultural investment and production. Nevertheless, I would still insist that the sorts of cinematic reception practices I identify and explore under the sign of a theoretical gay spectatorship are not outmoded historical artifacts but vital traditions of gay cinematic reading that continue to inform and help determine contemporary practices of gay and queer cultural consumption.

[29]   FARMER: For starters, the “histories” of gay film spectatorship that I reference have not just vanished into the mists of time but are reappropriated in ways that continually renovate their currency in contemporary gay subcultures. A casual glance through any gay lifestyle mag or a quick visit to a video store or repertory theatre in an urban gay neighbourhood would reveal that there is a veritable sub-industry of cinematic canonicity at work in contemporary gay culture where the “historical” texts and traditions of classical gay spectatorship are recycled as integral components of modern gay subcultural capital. Indeed, given that new technologies have made virtually the entire Hollywood archive available in ways previously unimaginable, contemporary gay reading formations have both greater access to the texts and, arguably, greater facility with the interpretive protocols that constitute the histories of gay spectatorship. But these protocols equally continue in relation to gay receptions of contemporary cultural products. Take an obvious example like camp. Contrary to the complaints of a critic such as Daniel Harris that camp is a dying tradition of gay culture, practised only in a debased form by younger gay men as a type of superficial mockery, I would contend that it thrives robustly and productively in all sorts of contemporary gay subcultural productions from Mardi Gras to Wigstock. Cinematically, camp remains a central strategy of gay film reception as evidenced in the recent gay popularization of films as diverse as Addams Family Values, 
 Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother.Showgirls, Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss or, even, the current cult phenomenon of Sing-along Sound of Music. One could add to this list almost anything by contemporary gay film makers like John Waters or Pedro Almodovar who have deliberately mobilized gay camp as an integral strategy of their distinctive film styles. Indeed, Almodovar’s recent film,All About My Motheroffers a wonderfully self-reflexive meditation on gay spectatorial histories, referencing and incorporating many of the very forms that I explore in my book from matrocentric star devotion to homoerotic objectification. (figure 7)

[30]   FARMER: I ultimately decided to focus my own analysis of gay spectatorhip largely on classical cinema rather than these more contemporary examples for various reasons. In part, I was wanting to acknowledge and theorize the rich histories and traditions of classical gay spectatorship; histories and traditions that, as I’ve suggested, continue well into the present. However, I was also wanting to challenge the heterosexist models and understandings of spectatorship that have been fostered and reiterated within film theory on the basis of orthodox readings of cinematic classicism. By showing that the very system of classical cinema upon which these models depend not only is less heterosexual than previously imagined but has in fact generated an elaborately organized history of gay fantasmatic investment and use, I was seeking to undermine at least some of the recalcitrant heteronormativity that still pervades and constrains much contemporary film theory.



  • Addams Family Values (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1993).
  • All About My Mother (Pedro Almodovar, 1999).
  • Anchors Aweigh (George Sidney, 1945).
  • Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, (Tommy O’Haver, 1998).
  • Dyer, Richard. “Male Sexuality and the Media.” In The Sexuality of Men. Ed. Andy Metcalf and Martin Humphries. London: Pluto, 1985. Pp. 28-43.
  • Farmer, Brett. Spectacular Passions: Cinema, Fantasy, Gay Male Spectatorships. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.
  • Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon, 1933).
  • Harris, Daniel. The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture. New York: Hyperion, 1997.
  • Kiss of the Spider Woman (Hector Babenco, 1985).
  • Miller, D. A. “Anal Rope.” In Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. Ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991. Pp. 119-41.
  • Miller, D. A. “Visual Pleasure in 1959.” In Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film. Ed. Hanson Ellis. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999. Pp. 97-125.
  • Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen16:3 (1975): 6-18.
  • Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948).
  • Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948).
  • Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995).
  • The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965).
  • Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1959).
  • That’s Entertainment! (Jack Haley, 1974).
  • That’s Entertainment! Part II (Gene Kelly, 1976).
  • That’s Entertainment! III (Bud Friedgen and Michael J Sheridan, 1994).
  • The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939).
  • White, Patricia. Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999.