Monday, 6 July 2009

Re-Reading a scene from Red River

Retrospectatorship after Brokeback Mountain

Patricia White in her book unInvited proposes the concept of retro-spectatorship. Retro-spectatorship is a way of negotiating the history of Hollywood through contemporary practices of spectatorship and the identities and cultural politics we now bring to our viewing of the past. Through retro-spectatorship, Brokeback Mountain solicits us to re-view the classical Hollywood western ‘that belongs to the past but is experienced in a present that affords us new ways of seeing’ (97). Therefore, as a contemporary western Brokeback Mountain’s helps us to shape a retrospective reading of older westerns, particularly those westerns such as Red River and Calamity Jane that have either struggled to disavow their homoerotic underpinnings or made obvious a range of queer possibilities. Its not that re-reading the classic western is an appropriating practice or subversive re-imagining rather, no reading of the text is the correct one its just that straightness is the default position of culture that we have all some point internalised as a practice. The point here is that Brokeback Mountain answers the call to all those elided and hinted at stories of same sex desire in the Hollywood western by retrospectively prompting a return back to films like Red River from a vaulted position of contemporary spectatorship. Brokeback Mountain engenders a privileging of being able to un-think assumptions about westerns in relation to sexuality. As Patricia White brilliantly demonstrates in her re-reading of lesbianism in classical Hollywood cinema, our spectatorial vantage point as queer subjects is steeped in knowingness about how Hollywood edited out homosexuality and cast it to the realm of the merely connotative. D. A. Miller in his analysis of Hitchcock’s Rope, suggests that the eliding of homosexuality’s denotation ‘exploits the particular aptitude of connotation for allowing homosexual meaning to be elided even as it is also being elaborated’ which, explains how homosexuality by its absence is made meaningful throughout classical Hollywood cinema.

A contemporary viewing of Red River, armed with the knowledge that one of its central stars Montgomery Clift was gay, provides the insight that retrospectatorship reveals in the films homoerotics that are barely contained in ‘the shadow kingdom of connotation’. (Miller: 125) The spectator’s first introduction to Montgomery Clift’s as the Matthew Garth character is startling in its invitation to look at his handsome boyish looks, standing aloof he seems to be gazing down towards John Wayne’s crotch while sucking on a piece of straw (shot 1).

Shot 1

The camera cuts from the medium shot to a close-up of Clift’s face as he looks towards Wayne that instantly constructs him in relation to a relay of desiring looks. In the facial close-up Clift looks on, tonguing the single piece of straw that dangles from his mouth.(Shot 2 and 3) The shot of Clift’s face seems to linger for an extra beat but it’s the minor detail in the piece of straw where a queer reading of Clift’s body and performance values such minutiae as it suddenly jumps out retrospectively as a signifier of Clift’s queerness, his character’s desire for Wayne and our desire for him. He plays with the piece of straw in a way that hints and suggests sex, an oral tease, delicately phallic but undeniable in its capacity to be read as homoerotic.

Shot 2

Shot 3

Steve Cohan also discusses Clift’s performance in Red River describing how he ‘uses physical gestures to draw attention to his presence in a shot, rubbing his face, caressing his nose, holding his chin, sitting side-saddle on his horse’ to the extent that it ‘implies Matthew’s passivity as erotic spectacle’. (216) Cohan’s reading of film emphasis ‘the trope of boyishness’ in Montgomery Clift in contradistinction to the manliness of John Wayne as the film sets out working through its opposition between the soft boy and the hard man. Clift’s softness in Red River helps to define his erotic appeal and Cohan points out that its precisely this aspect of his performance which challenges the hegemonic forms of masculinity typified in the film by John Wayne.

Steve Cohan (1997) Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties. New York and London: Routledge
D. A. Miller (1991) ‘Anal Rope’ in Diana Fuss (ed) Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. London and New York: Routledge.
Patricia White (1999) unInvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

(Images: screen grabs; permissions)

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