For a long time gays and lesbians were acceptable in literature and film only so long as they were evil, tragic, or doomed. That’s the conclusion held by many queer scholars, like Vito Russo, author of the seminal volume The Celluloid Closet. While the movies examined in two of Arsenal Pulp Press’s latest Queer Film Classics entries are about much more than that, readers will pick up plenty about the disparaging association between homosexuality and death.
Susan Knabe and Wendy Gay Pearson, a pair of feminist scholars at Western University, take on Zero Patience, a musical about AIDS by Canadian filmmaker John Greyson. The film caused confusion and controversy in 1993, even disregarding numbers like “Pop a Boner” and “Butthole Duet” (which, the book wryly notes, no reviewer can resist mentioning). Little is clear-cut: the movie features Victorian-era sexologist Sir Richard Francis Burton, who has survived to the early 1990s thanks to a run-in with the Fountain of Youth, alongside the ghost of Patient Zero, loosely based on real-life Canadian Gaëtan Dugas, who was accused of first bringing AIDS to North America. Miss HIV – a personification of the disease – and an African green monkey belt out their own songs.
Clearly this is a tale worthy of examination. Knabe and Pearson do a stellar job summarizing the political and populist discourse about AIDS in Canada in the early years of the disease, as well as elaborating on the film’s core mission: condemning society’s preoccupation with blame, especially as manifested in the fable of Dugas as a murderous “queer vampire.”
However, after discussing the film’s reception by critics (who could only stomach its tragic, not comedic, elements), the book becomes a history of AIDS and queer film in Canada, referring back to the musical only rarely. While Zero Patience is inseparable from the tumultuous and often toxic discourse of the 1980s and early ’90s, it’s also unlikely people interested in an esoteric AIDS film would need this much background. Plot and character considerations only return in the final third. The examination that follows is astute but hardly exhaustive; readers will be left with unanswered questions.
Death in Venice, by broadcaster and Realia author Will Aitken, is equally unbalanced, but that isn’t a problem here. Director Luchino Visconti’s languid 1971 creation (based on Thomas Mann’s novella) isn’t heavy on plot: Gustav von Aschenbach, a stuffy, introverted artist, travels to Venice where he glimpses Tadzio, an impossibly beautiful adolescent boy, and quickly falls in love. The man’s shameful obsession grows (although the pair never exchange a word of dialogue) until he succumbs to a growing cholera epidemic and dies.
It’s a simple, if provocative, premise – Aitken quips that he’d love to have sat in on the pitch to Warner Bros. – but there’s real complexity in the film’s yearning gazes, camera pans, and complex emotional states, all of which are addressed in detail. A biography of Visconti is overlong, but not entirely devoid of interest – the life of a queer aristocrat turned Communist resistance fighter makes for a seductive read. Not to mention the fact that a thorough understanding of Visconti and Mann is essential to the larger critical debate: whether Aschenbach is being punished for homosexual lust or redeemed through his platonic adoration. For his own part, Aitken’s answer is nuanced, but largely embraces the latter reading.
Unlike Knabe and Pearson, Aitken also criticizes the film he loves, even including an amusing chapter titled “Boredom” (possibly a desired result on Visconti’s part, it seems).
Both books feel delightfully modern – Zero Patience references Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” while Death in Venice directs readers to YouTube – but Aitken’s personal, expressive, and sometimes vulgar language livens up his text, in contrast to the largely academic tone of Zero Patience. If neither style appeals, fear not. There’s a lot to appreciate in both books, but in each case anyone interested in the films alone can safely skip to the last 50 pages.