Monday, May 15, 2023

Queering (and restoring) The Trial - plus, The Cinematheque reopens today!

People have remarked upon the casting of gay men in the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock before - most notably in Rope, where two gay actors, Farley Granger and John Dall, are cast as queer-coded characters, done just subtly enough to slip past the censors of the day; their identification does not seem all that covert now. North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, Psycho, Rebecca, and The Lady Vanishes all have been mentioned in this regard, as well - but I've long wondered if there's something even more subtle going on beneath the surface of a couple of these films. Hitchcock seems interested not just in having gay actors in his film, or characters coded as gay, but in having the former overcome the latter. Cary Grant - either gay or bisexual, depending on ones sources - most famously has to battle and overcome an overtly gay "bad guy," Martin Landau, in North by Northwest, by which process Grant eventually achieves sexual potency; Strangers on a Train similarly has Farley Granger - a gay actor - having to defeat Robert Walker (the actor is straight, but Bruno, the character, is coded as gay) in order to succeed in his relationship with Anne. People wanting to note how progressive Hitchcock is in this regard seem to de-emphasize that in order for normalcy to be restored in these films, homosexuality must be defeated; but the narrative in both these films itself seems to offer a symbolic struggle with homosexuality, as an evil which gets in the way of happy straight coupling. And of course, in this regard, some representations of gender noncomformity in Hitchcock's films are pretty virulent  

(A brief  aside - if you haven't seen Contrapoints on JK Rowling, I suggest coming back to it later; the video is long, but the discussion of the harm done transpeople in Psycho, Dressed to Kill, and Silence of the Lambs is worth coming back to)..  

Anyhow, as I say, observing such things in Hitchcock is not all that new. But until reading up on the restoration of Orson Welles' The Trial, apropos of tonight's screening of the film at the re-opening of the Cinematheque, it had never occurred to me that Welles might also have deliberately structured his film to capitalize on his lead - Anthony Perkins - being gay (or bisexual). That's the read given it by filmmaker (and friend to Welles) Henry Jaglom: 

Casting Perkins brought another, unspoken element to "The Trial." Welles knew that the actor was a closeted homosexual, Jaglom says, and used that quality in Perkins to suggest another texture in Joseph K, a fear of exposure.

"The whole homosexuality thing—using Perkins that way—was incredible for that time," Jaglom says. "It was intentional on Orson’s part: He had these three gorgeous women (Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Elsa Martinelli) trying to seduce this guy who was completely repressed and incapable of responding."

"Psycho" had come out only two years earlier, and Perkins’ role as cross-dressing killer Norman Bates had made an indelible impression on moviegoers. It was Welles’ intention, Jaglom says, to echo and reflect that persona in "The Trial."

"Orson thought it was important to use whatever a famous actor brings with him to a role. The closetedness of Perkins’ homosexuality, the mama’s-boy thing from ‘Psycho’—he thought that brought a whole wonderful subtext.

"I remember him saying that they never talked about it, but he felt that Perkins definitely knew what he was doing."

The Trial was not well-received in its day (Andrew Sarris described it, apparently, as "the most hateful, the most repellant, and the most perverted film Welles ever made," which definitely increases my interest in it!). I recall - but cannot say where - seeing past criticism that singles out Perkins as being miscast as Josef K. But seeing it through the lens of Jaglom's observations here seems like Perkins' casting becomes kind of essential and enriches the narrative considerably. It even (kind of) enriches the context of the screening, as the film - along with the Vancouver premiere of the Korean film Walk Up, which I know nothing about - marks the reopening of the Cinematheque after being shut for renovations to the bathrooms, to make them gender-neutral (also a digression but if you  haven't heard Ivan Coyote's TED Talk on why we need gender neutral washrooms, it's worth your time). 

Of course, there's lots more to say about Welles' The Trial; I hope to post more about it before subsequent screenings, one of which, on May 26th, screens in a double bill with my favourite documentary at the 2022 VIFF, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (which featured in several blogposts by me during the VIFF, but the most informative is here). The new 4K restoration was done from the original negative; I'd somehow missed the news that the film's negative had been rediscovered, and have only ever seen it in imperfect public-domain presentations sourced from damaged prints. The trailer looks gorgeous (if a bit weirdly contemporary-feeling - vintage trailer this is most definitely not). It's a film I've wanted to revisit for decades; I had not known that Welles had described it as the best he'd ever made, and had not realized that he'd retained full authorial control over the film - a rarity in his body of work. 

I will be holding off until the 26th to see the film, myself - and hope to have more writing up before that time - but there aren't that many screenings (it also plays May 23rd - is that a new thing, that the Cinematheque is open every second Tuesday?). 

This is kind of like seeing a brand new Orson Welles film - more exciting to me than the restoration of Touch of Evil, personally. Whichever night you go on, if you're a cinema lover, I would not miss it..

Consult the Cinematheque calendar here for more

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