2003, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
GAY REPRESENTABILITY, FILM NOIR,
AND THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE
By Vincent Brook and Allan Campbell
While independent, foreign, and crossover films offer complex and challenging images of gays and lesbians, mainstream Hollywood has progressed at a slower pace than many assume. The number of big-budget, wide-release films with substantive gay themes, characters, and content remains alarmingly small, although the number of secondary, “incidentally queer” characters has risen dramatically.
--Suzanna Danuta Walters, All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America
I am something in the nature of a film editor emeritus, and brothers Joel and Ethan Coen are self-styled cinéastes who had begun shooting this, with little concern to what it might be called. Pansies Don’t Float was an early working title that, thank goodness, they were prevailed upon to discard.
--Roderick Jaynes, introduction to the published screenplay The Man Who Wasn’t There
Roderick Jaynes is the pseudonym employed by the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen to disguise the editing of the films they otherwise produce, direct, and write together under one or both of their given names. The use of this fictive persona (a source that dares not speak its name) in regard to the neo-noir ultimately released as The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) is doubly ironic. Here it foregrounds a similar subterfuge of identification in the film itself, a subterfuge that has gone largely unnoticed or at least not remarked on in the discourse surrounding the film.1
As for the
working title, “not to float” suggests submersion, something kept
beneath the surface, and what in a Hollywood film is more likely treated as
submerged (“subtextual,” if you will) than the representation of
a homosexual? Yet “Pansies Don’t Float,” like “Roderick
Jaynes,” both shrouds and reveals, for, as we will show, more than one
“pansy” (beyond the secondary character openly disclosed as homosexual)
lurks beneath the surface of The Man Who Wasn’t There. Besides
“outing” none other than the film’s protagonist, and assessing
the significance of his “closeted” gayness, this essay will analyze
the relation of homosexual submersion to film noir as a genre specifically,
and to the issue of “gay representability” in American commercial
cinema as a whole.
THE ABSENT CAUSE: PLOTTING THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE
The year: 1949. The place: the northern California town of Santa Rosa (last seen, most memorably, in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 noir classic Shadow of a Doubt). The protagonist: pathologically passive, atypically reticent barber Ed Crane (played by Billy Bob Thornton). Stoical victim of a deadening job and a cuckolded marriage, Crane hatches a plot to blackmail his cuckolder, Big Dave Brewster (played by James Gandolfini), into coughing up the $10,000 Crane needs to get in on the ground floor in the dry-cleaning business.
backfires ferociously. Big Dave uncovers the plot and tries to strangle Crane,
who knifes Big Dave in the neck in self-defense. Crane’s wife Doris (played
by director Joel Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand) is falsely accused of
Big Dave’s murder and ends up committing a “double murder”
in prison—of herself and her unborn child conceived with Big Dave. Crane
tries to redeem himself by boosting the career of a gifted teenaged pianist
Birdy (Scarlett Johansson), but this plan runs aground when the two are nearly
killed in a car accident. Crane recovers from the accident but ultimately is
sent to the death house for a crime he didn’t commit: the murder of Creighton
Tolliver (Jon Polito), the gay traveling salesman who had inspired Crane’s
dry-cleaning scheme and whom homophobic Big Dave had beaten and drowned. This
bizarrely tragic series of events, which would send most people down a sinkhole
of despair, leads to an odd form of redemption for Crane. Believing that he
has been singled out by aliens and will be spirited away by flying saucer, Crane
accepts his state-sanctioned electrocution with beatific calm.
As with most film noir and neo-noir, The Man Who Wasn’t There’s expressionist visual style vies for attention with its convoluted crime story if not trumping it altogether (Bergan 95). In the hands of the Coen brothers, this cinematic “excess” is both heightened through the brothers’ postmodern self-consciousness and transposed through their quirkily mordant humor. The film is shot in the obligatory black and white of classical noir and features noir’s favored chiaroscuro lighting and atmospheric mise en scene. It is set in a time period contemporary to the genre’s heyday of the mid-1940s through mid-1950s and is rife with allusions to notable noirs such as Shadow of a Doubt, Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Scarlet Street, Asphalt Jungle, Out of the Past.
The mood is sullen and murky. The worldview, filtered through the shadowy lens of the main character, is laden with alienation and anomie. Yet an “incredible lightness,” the Coen “touch,” permeates the noir haze. Much of this emanates from the cheeky construction of the ambivalent protagonist, Ed Crane, whose taciturn personality seems as incongruously attuned to his role of voice-over narrator (another classical noir referent) as it is to his barber’s profession.
A more mundane, less “cinematic” occupation is barely imaginable. Notwithstanding the metaphoric connection to “cutting,” the job as barber is static, sedentary, uneventful, all talk and no action—and, in Crane’s case, at least diegetically, not even talk. Yet, for the psychological, interior, hidden conceits of film noir, the combination of immobility and muteness turns out to be not a bad match after all. Indeed, when the sexual orientation that dares not speak its name is added to the mix, the seeming incongruity becomes a coup. Barbering is one of the few public professions in which a man is not only allowed but encouraged to touch—in a sense, to fondle—other men, indeed the whole range of the male population, with no gay stigma attached.
In the other
major socially sanctioned male-on-male occupation, contact sports, while sexual
overtones are certainly in abundance, the range of maleness is more limited
and the physical contact more aggressive. Compared to a man’s pinning
another down or knocking him cold, cutting a man’s hair connotes a kinder,
gentler homoeroticism. Beyond the physical closeness it engenders, barbering
also entails a certain kind of intimacy in conversation. Of course, in Crane’s
case, conversation is precisely the part of his job description that is missing—an
absent cause pointing to a graver lack in both Crane and The Man Who Wasn’t
THE DESIRE THAT WASN’T THERE: OUTING ED CRANE
Despite the film’s glorious black-and-white, intertextual pastiche, sardonic wit and cinematic razzmatazz, an initial viewing of The Man Who Wasn’t There might leave one with a nagging suspicion that less is there than meets the eye, until one proceeds from the assumption that Ed Crane is a repressed homosexual. This inference adds considerable resonance to the film both textually and generically. Textually, a gay strand enhances the complexity of a character whose extreme passivity remains otherwise unexplored and whose hyper-alienation from society and himself is explained solely (by his defense attorney) in terms of his paradigmatic status as “modern man.”
Generically, such a character evokes not only classical film noir’s “obsession,” in Frank Krutnik’s words, “with male figures who are both internally divided and alienated from the culturally permissible (or ideal) parameters of masculine identity, desire and achievement”; it also relates to the genre’s tendency to address this obsession “through an intricate play of evasion, dissimulation, and transmutation, rather than in any direct manner” (xii, xiii).2
The neo-noir twist in The Man Who Wasn’t There, however, is also twofold. First, the gay element in the film, befitting the post-Production Code conditions of its release, is more overtly expressed than in noirs past. Unlike Parker Tyler’s (1947) Freudian, and Claire Johnston’s (1978) Lacanian, queer readings of Double Indemnity (1944), for example, the uncovering of a gay subtext in The Man Who Wasn’t There relates, in David Bordwell’s terms, to its implicit rather than symptomatic meaning. Second, unbefitting a post-Stonewall, post-Ellen era in which gay visibility is “all the rage” (Walters), why should it still require an epiphany to disclose queerness at the heart of a recent neo-noir—or any contemporary film for that matter? Much less, why would such an epiphany be so rare that among all the individuals consulted and (150-odd) reviews scanned for this essay—gay and straight, professional and lay—none but The Nation’s Stuart Klawans has arrived, without prompting, at a similar conclusion?
And even Klawans isn’t sure that what he sensed is substantiated by the text. Subheaded “Department of Rorschach Testing,” Klawans’ article leaves open the possibility that his retrospective interpretation of Crane as “a deeply closeted gay man” might in the end be idiosyncratic:
[A]s I look back on it, blinking my eyes, I keep seeing something that seems to be going unmentioned….I may be Rorschaching; but I still think there’s a there in The Man Who Wasn’t There (45).3
is the textual evidence supporting Klawans’ guarded, and this essay’s
less equivocal, imputation of “deeply closeted” gayness to Ed Crane?
In retrospect, it is quite considerable. Starting with the film’s ending
and moving backwards, an accretion of story elements, details of character,
and aspects of the mise en scene point to Crane’s divergence from normative
constructions of masculinity:
• The magazine for which Crane has written his account of the tragic events that have landed him on death row, he tells us three times, is a men’s magazine.
• A copy of one such magazine, Muscle Power, with a flexing hunk on the cover, lies displayed on his prison cell desk (remindful of a wall poster of a body builder glimpsed earlier in the barber shop).4
• Crane’s boss and brother-in-law, Frank (Michael Badalucco), shouts three times at Crane in court—echoing the earlier, twice-uttered complaint of Crane’s wife’s boss and lover, Big Dave—“What kind of man are you!”
• Crane refuses sex from the precocious teenager, Birdy, to whom he is strongly attracted but apparently only platonically (“sentimentally,” in Klawans’ words).
• Crane not only admits to not having “performed the sex act” with his voluptuous wife Doris “for several years,” but he earlier seems as curiously unaffected by his own celibacy as by Doris’s affair with Big Dave. (“I wasn’t going to prance about it,” Crane tells us. “It’s a free country.”)
• The stiletto-like letter opener with which Crane kills Big Dave in self-defense is referred to by Crane’s lawyer, Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), as a “dame’s weapon.”
• Crane tells us that a couple of weeks after they met on a blind date (in what would have been the late 1930s or early 1940s!), Doris proposed to him.
• One of Crane’s in-laws asks Doris at a wedding reception of Doris’ cousin: “How come you got no kids?”
• Doris, for her part, is unperturbed at finding Crane alone with Birdy at a party at Big Dave’s department store.
• A man approaches Crane at the party and asks out of the blue: “Haven’t I seen you up in Ladies Wear?”
• Instead of gaining more traditional “tough guy” revenge on Big Dave—who himself later says, “I’d understand if you came in here and socked me in the nose!”—Crane secretly scams him out of $10,000.
• When the salesman and future murder victim, Creighton Tolliver, subtly tries to seduce him, Crane not only discerns the “pass” instantly, but turns it down with surprising nonchalance—especially for a small-town “straight” male in the United States of late-1940s. Moreover, he proceeds to consummate their business deal rather than reject “the goddamn pansy” (as Big Dave calls him) out of hand.
• Crane visits Tolliver in a cheap hotel because Crane, even when earlier shaving his naked wife’s legs, can’t stop thinking about…dry cleaning. (“It’s clean…and no shrinkage.”)
• In the context of their asexual relationship, Doris treats her husband like the house eunuch, having him zip up her dress as she puts on her make-up and shave her legs while she reads in the bathtub (a ritual that is homoerotically—and sadomasochistically—reversed in the end when a male prison guard shaves Crane’s legs as he sits strapped to the electric chair).
• Crane was rejected for military service in World War II, Doris snickers, “on account of fallen arches.”
• Crane’s barber occupation: the one thing in his life, he will tell readers of the men’s magazine, about which he “felt remorse.”
• Crane’s name: an intertextual reference to Psycho’s Marion Crane that also alludes, as in Hitchcock’s film, in a “femininely” symbolic sense to birds. The feminine aspect is reinforced in Man through the rhyme of Crane’s platonic love, Birdy.
• The film’s title.
• The film’s early working title.
Identifying the “there” in The Man Who Wasn’t There only takes us part way, however. Just as critical to an understanding of Crane’s character as his gayness is its repressed nature, which problematizes the terms of its representation in the film. In describing the affectless barber as “deeply closeted,” Klawans is extending “closeted” beyond its common usage of someone who, despite conscious awareness of his or her taboo desires, is unwilling to disclose them publicly. Ed Crane, Klawans and we are saying, is unwilling to admit his desires even to himself. Klawans explains,
[The film] is perfectly, elegantly reticent about its subject matter as suits both the theme and the tradition of film noir (a type of filmmaking that thrives on unstated motives) (45).
of course, The Man Who Wasn’t There is not a film noir, but a
neo-noir. This is an especially apposite distinction for a film that turns on
the notion of conscious awareness. The term neo-noir emerged in the
1980s to describe a body of dark, sexually tinged crime films that exhibited
much of the defining visual, narrative, and thematic traits associated with
classical noir, yet which diverged crucially in one respect: the filmmakers’
noir consciousness (Silver and Ward; Erickson; Naremore5).
Another of Man’s noir twists, then, is that a prime focus of its generic hyper-awareness is the hyper-unawareness of its main character. Crane’s motives may go unstated in classical noir fashion; but atypically for either classical or neo-noir, the motives’ “unstatedness” is both loudly proclaimed and much of the point. This “contradiction in terms” is literalized in narrator Crane’s opening comment, “I don’t talk much,” as he proceeds to talk us through the entire lengthy and convoluted story. The subsequent tale abounds in allusions to veiled truths and patent deceit:
• to “dirty little secrets” and “secrets bigger even than the one about what really happened”;
• to the Uncertainty Principle and “the meaning behind facts that have no meaning”;
• to things “making less sense the closer you look” and there being “no ‘what happened’” because “looking at something changes it”;
• to “things going deep” and of “some greater scheme than the State has yet to uncover”;
• to Beethoven’s “never having heard” the piano sonata Birdy plays for Crane “except in his head”;
• to Crane’s telling the story “step by step” yet not being able to “see any pattern in it”;
• and to finally being able “to tell [in the afterlife, or in some sublime alien realm] all those things they don’t have words for here.”
One explanation for the overdetermined subtextuality of Crane’s repressed homosexuality is the postmodern penchant for ironic self-consciousness the Coen brothers so self-consciously purvey. Another is to be found in Foster Hirsch’s Detours and Lost Highways: A Map to Neo-Noir. Hirsch suggests that the treatment of homosexuality is problematic in both classical noir and neo-noir. In classical noir, given the Hays Code’s prohibitions against sexuality generally but even more severely against homosexuality,
homosexuality was strictly confined to subtextual currents the audience wasn’t supposed to, and often didn’t, notice.
In neo-noir, gayness, though no longer a proscribed subject, still leads
within the context of the psychological and erotic thriller…to a moral quicksand.
If classical noir’s disguised sexuality was marked as dirty and sinful, how much more “disruptive and dangerous” is the noir homosexuality that is blatantly exposed? Homosexuality and noir are invariably a “bad match,” Hirsch concludes, because in almost every instance in which homosexual behavior appears,
it has been branded, as the noir narrative element, the source of aberrant and criminal behavior (205).
The idea that
transgression need not be regarded regressively, indeed quite the opposite,
is a mainstay of structuralist and poststructuralist theory. However, Hirsch’s
point is that, given their status as an oppressed minority with a dearth of
representation in general, homosexuals are better off with no images at all
than with ones that deride them.
The term visibility and its corollary, invisibility, have been enduring ones for understanding the homosexual in society. They occur from the seminal socio-cultural discourse of the early-Cold War period that forms the backdrop for The Man Who Wasn’t There (to be discussed below) through recent critical surveys written from a proudly queer perspective. Such surveys include Larry Gross’ Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America and Suzanna Danuta Walters’ All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America—both published, coincidentally, within weeks of The Man Who Wasn’t There’s release in 2001. Yet one needs to treat the notion of visibility with skepticism for it risks implying ideological transparency. More specifically, it fails to acknowledge that the very idea of the homosexual (or gay, or queer, etc., each term used to articulate common political interests of particular people at particular times) is grounded in representation (D’Emilio; Foucault; Vidal; Weeks; et al.).
A more nuanced
term, both textually and ideologically, is representability. Adapted
from Patricia White’s study of lesbian representation under Hollywood’s
classical studio system, the term representability suggests both the ability
to represent something and the available means with which to do it,
given the interdependent constraints of ideology, aesthetics and commerce. From
the standpoint of gay male representability, therefore, one might wonder whether
the (homosexual) man wasn’t (accessibly represented as) there, because
pansies don’t (have much opportunity to) float (to the surface of mainstream
recognition, let alone acceptance). This supposition remains dependent, of course,
on the commercial viability of the particular choices in representation. In
other words, can a film—even of the so-called independent, art-house variety—win
over a gay and gay-friendly audience while evading widespread homophobic rejection?
If so, what heterosexist assumptions will the filmmakers avoid challenging,
and what issues will the viewer be able to avoid with little effort?
In examining gay representability in The Man Who Wasn’t There, we find that the lone explicitly queer character, Creighton Tolliver, is relegated to a supporting role without much time on screen. Yet Tolliver obtains textual “compensation” through excess in his characterization and also through narrative excess. He has a farcically vain manner and garish appearance, topped by a ridiculous wig that, not coincidentally, covers his “lack.” Also, his shady dealings propel the story on its tragic trajectory to blackmail, murder, and beyond.
The terms of Crane’s gay representability are the complete inverse. As the film’s protagonist and its literal storyteller, he not only appears in but supplies voice over commentary for every scene. However, his diegetic “presence” is conveyed precisely through lack: long silences, understated gestures, overdetermined asexuality, and passivity that verges on the paralytic. If perceived as something in need of deciphering, the mystery of Crane’s (homo)sexuality can enhance the nominal suspense of what his blackmail (for money) and eventual killing of his wife’s lover (in self-defense) will mean for him and the people in his life. But it is not essential for understanding the basic outline of the story.
of understanding the crimes and their outcomes is rendered explicitly. That
of gleaning the protagonist’s deeper motivations is left to a viewer’s
willingness to infer representation from action, inaction, sound and spectacle,
connecting the dots to make a portrait that satisfies his or her need for a
sufficiently legible representation. Such a spectatorial need, in turn, is influenced
by the viewer’s level of sympathy for the leading man, the auteur filmmakers,
the noir homage, or any combination thereof. As the focal point in the narrative’s
unfolding, Ed Crane is as gay as one wants or needs him to be.
Seen in this light, we can find our own earlier attribution of Bordwellian implicitness to Crane’s repressed homosexuality problematic. Alexander Doty has challenged the viability of relegating queer meanings to the level of connotation and subtext. He suggests that overvaluing such “privileged readings” among cineastes or academics leads to underestimating the persistent obliviousness or resistance to such interpretations among the population at large. Still, in a society that stigmatizes far more erotic discourses than it indulges, one needs to acknowledge that some sexual representations are designed to be less determinate than others, allowing for plausible deniability to the easily offended.
notes the tradition of “Hollywood’s contradictory refusal to enforce
interpretive closure at the same time as it provides plot resolution”
to multiply address different kinds of viewers (349). As an example, he points
to the strategic use of dissolves at a critical juncture in the 1942 film Casablanca
that suggest that Ingrid Bergman’s character only potentially sleeps with
her former lover (Humphrey Bogart)—although by the narrative’s conclusion,
more legibly and predictably, she and her husband (Paul Henreid) are reunited
and reconciled. The text’s very indeterminacy, Maltby extrapolates, is
inseparable from the ideology of the commercial aesthetic, and to the degree
that a film has obvious meanings, they are the ones least likely to challenge
the status quo.
However, as described by Tony Bennett, intertextual relations can suggest the frames of reference that shape meanings at a given historical moment, and in film interpretation, these remain the wild cards. Intertextual relations may represent broader shifts in the general ideological climate of reorganized aesthetic norms, or simply changes in a given celebrity’s public image. When Bergman retained a relatively innocent star persona, her character’s fidelity in Casablanca seemed plausible, but when the actress had an adulterous affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini a few years after the film’s release, some fans felt that they, like her actual husband, had been betrayed.
Of course, much has changed in the six decades between the releases of Casablanca and The Man Who Wasn’t There. In the New Hollywood tradition of the artful genre pastiche (Neale; Bordwell 1985), self-conscious intertextual allusion is the name of the game. Now filmmaking constraints are more imposed by the filmmakers themselves than dictated by industrial norms. In Man, for example, shadowy sets and black-and-white photography, once necessitated by low budgets, are now daringly employed by “independent” auteurs in defiance of contemporary commercial aesthetics and even fiscal conservatism, as color film stock has become more readily and cheaply available.6
At the same
time, even with Hollywood’s Classification and Ratings system supplanting
the old Production Code, some subjects may still only be represented with relative
explicitness to earn an industry rating no stronger than an R (Restricted to
Adults) in exchange for wide distribution (theatrically as well as in the markets
of television and video). Certainly, in Man, the Coen brothers take
some representational latitude: occasional nude display, off-color remarks,
and ethno-racial epithets. Yet even this makes the moments of coyness, such
as the film’s “reticence” on sexual matters, seem like affectionate
tributes to the classical period and the more explicit moments seem more courageous
than they would otherwise seem in a contemporary film. At the same time, some
of the same ideological pressures, at least regarding gay representability,
continue to influence the film’s signifying practices.
No major scandal has yet befallen the cast members of The Man Who Wasn’t There. Of course, with the changes in ideological climate since the 1960s, the criteria for what constitutes a scandal have also changed. Nonetheless, some interesting “confabulation” (David Alan Black’s term for the body of media and interpersonal speculation generated by film texts) has attached itself to Man. Its star, Billy Bob Thornton, was “there” at an historic moment in queer representability. He makes an uncredited cameo as a grocer in the 1997 television episode of Ellen that features the title character coming to terms with her sexual orientation. In that same episode, Laura Dern, with whom Thornton was romantically linked at the time, plays the desirable lesbian who prompts Ellen’s revelation.
Since his relationship with Dern ended, Thornton has been married until very recently to actress Angelina Jolie, who has publicly described herself as bisexual, an admission that now seems more quaint than scandalous. Her self-assessment does have intertextual significance, however, in regard to her own non-heterosexual film roles (Foxfire from 1996 and, more famously, the 1998 HBO film Gia)7 and, more pertinently for our purposes, to how her husband’s sexuality might be perceived. In a 2001 article that appeared on Entertainment Tonight Online just months before the release of Man, Jolie’s description of her marriage intimates a certain sexual flexibility for both her and her husband:
The reality is, I love people. If Billy was a woman, then I'd be a lesbian. If I was a man, we'd be a gay couple (“The World According to Jolie”).
Thornton suggests his own sexual ambiguity in an advertisement screened theatrically in art-house cinemas in 2002 to promote the Independent Film Channel (IFC). Here he professes his love for walking poodles, then tells the camera/audience:
People will probably say I’m gay…which I’m not. But what if I was, what if I was?!
defensiveness is complemented by his cryptic commentary on Man’s
DVD, in which he bemusedly tells the heard-but-not-seen Coen brothers about
his on-screen tête-a-tête with Tolliver, “This is one of my
first gay scenes.” The brothers break out laughing.
A large number of gay people working in Hollywood remain hesitant to come out as anything but heterosexual (Ehrenstein), an unremarkable fact when compared to most businesses in the United States (Mann). The statistic becomes noteworthy in light of Hollywood’s persistent role in promulgating sex and romance —almost always between a man and a woman—to both a national and an international audience, and paradoxical given the film industry’s traditionally high percentage of gay personnel (Mann; Brownfield). Coinciding with a new wave of queer activism by the 1990s, there were protests against “negative” lesbian portrayals in Basic Instinct (1992) and the outing of Jodie Foster in the course of some gay activists’ protests against the arguably gay-coded serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Such incidents were high-profile expressions of a general hunger among gays and lesbians for more inclusive and less stigmatized representations of eroticism between individuals of the same sex.8
uproar over these films, a mounting number of rumors about, outings of, and
a few actual comings-out by those working in Hollywood have accompanied an unprecedented
increase of regular main characters on television (notably on Will and Grace,
Queer as Folk, and Six Feet Under) and a striking increase in
gay supporting roles in fiction film (see Gross; Walters).9
This seemingly post-Ellen development, a product of ongoing and widespread mobilization
of gay activists on a variety of issues, surfaces in the mass media as the new
“visibility.” And into this category even a film as “discreet”
in this regard as The Man Who Wasn’t There has been placed.
A prominent gay-identified publication, The Advocate, exemplifies the spirit of gay “visibility” in its headline:
Big Gay Twists: They’re b-a-a-ack—those wacky, wonderful supporting characters who turn out to be gay in the last reel. Thanks, Hollywood! We feel included!
The article’s author, Dave White, alludes breathlessly to
the year of the Big Gay Lug, the manly, lumbering brute or squat, rotund male who—surprise!—got caught checking out the dudes instead of the chicks.
White’s “brief, mostly butch list” includes such films as Saving Silverman and The Mexican. The latter featured James Gandolfini (Big Dave in The Man Who Wasn’t There) as “a hit man who gets clocked cruising another guy.” White also gives a nod to the sexually oriented diversity found in Man:
Character actor and Coen brothers staple Jon Polito [Creighton Tolliver] tries to seduce Billy Bob Thornton [Ed Crane] by grabbing his crotch with one hand and his own toupee with the other. Thornton [Crane] is not amused.
Apparently, the advent of explicitly gay supporting characters is just recent enough that any deeper analysis of Thornton’s character, not to mention Tolliver’s, seems beside the point, at least to White. Two other reviewers that do bother to evaluate the film’s gay characterizations also inadvertently point to another difficulty with gay “visibility”: It tends to rely on “positive” or “negative” assessments, which several scholars (e.g., Stam and Spence; Gray; Jhally and Lewis) have shown to be fraught with ideological peril. One of the main problems with such value-laden judgments, namely, their relative nature, is foregrounded in the two following reviews: Filethirteen.com’s openly gay film critic, Lodger, credits The Man Who Wasn’t There for not depicting “gay minor characters” in “a sort of negative homophobic stereotype” but instead offering “a simple sideline moment that gives the film color and interest.” In contrast, SPLICEDWIRE’s Rob Blackwelder complains,
Is it really necessary [for Tolliver] to come on to Ed for us to understand the character is gay?
Even MovieMom.com, a culturally conservative web site that provides advice to parents seeking suitable entertainment for their children, falls into the gay “visibility” trap. While offering traditional cautions about representations of sex and violence in The Man Who Wasn’t There, the site also lauds the film in its “Tolerance/Diversity Issues” category for portraying a “non-stereotyped gay character.” Whether a sleazy salesman vain enough to fuss over his balding head and wear a fancy toupee should be considered non-stereotypical is, as Lodger’s and Blackwelder’s reviews remind us, debatable. But the erotophobic criteria employed by the Movie Mom (the “pen” name of Nell Minow) keeps her from considering the sexuality of the film’s other characters. She limits herself to the immediate concerns of what she constructs as a typical, if non-stereotypical, anxious parent, whose notion of political correctness can disarticulate homosexual identity, at least of the gay male variety, from the thought of sex itself.
In this light,
a curious double standard emerges when we contrast the Movie Mom’s review
of The Man Who Wasn’t There with the one she provides for Mulholland
Drive. In the David Lynch film, the “explicit lesbian encounter”
is relegated to the category of “Nudity/Sexual References,” while
all that is included about Mulholland Drive in “Tolerance/Diversity
Issues” is that “All lead characters are white,” a fact the
reviewer had overlooked in the Coen brothers’ film. All in all, the Movie
Mom finds the sexual references in The Man Who Wasn’t There so
“safe” that her review actually compares the film favorably with
those from the “halcyon days” of the Production Code. The Movie
Mom conveniently disavows the Code’s “sex perversion” clause
which forbade all references to homosexuality so that she can praise Man
for its relative conformity (“with the exception of one jolting moment
in a car”) to the Code’s encouragement of “morality tales
for uncertain times” in which “evil could not triumph.”
NO TOUGH GUY, NO FEMME FATALE
As Klawans and a preponderance of film critics and historians point out, “reticence about its subject matter” is clearly in the classical noir tradition. However, reticence about Crane’s self-closeted gayness is not concomitant with either the aesthetics or thematics of neo-noir. To the contrary, another of the prime differences between these generically related forms is neo-noir’s reveling in explicitness toward sexuality, violence, and off-color language made possible by the dissolution of the Production Code and its subsequent replacement by the Ratings system. Several post-classical noirs were remade or reworked at least partly for this reason.10 Michele Aaron makes the classical/neo-noir distinction in relation to homosexuality specifically:
The linking of homosexual potential with danger…has existed throughout the history of the Hollywood film [noir], either as the absent yet deadly potential of an often subtextual homosexuality [in the classical period] or as the overt exploitation of its deadliness in numerous [more recent] films from Cruising …to Silence of the Lambs …to Basic Instinct  (72).
in the The Man Who Wasn’t There, have we returned—counterintuitively,
it would seem—to subtextuality with a vengeance, not only in regard
to homosexuality but to sexuality as a whole? One possible generic explanation
for the constriction here in gay representability is that Man is more
an homage to classical noir than a full blown neo-noir. The film is set in the
1940s, after all, not in the contemporary period favored by the bulk of neo-noirs.
Also it is shot in black-and-white, something not even the few neo-noirs that
remained true to the classical time period allowed themselves.11
It paradigmatically relates its twisted tale through flashback and dutifully
creates through character, situation and ambience “an exotic milieu of
crime and corruption” (Krutnik 42). Indeed, Man seems to emulate
the dominant classical noir form, the “tough thriller,” in every
way except two: the “tough guy” protagonist himself, and his adjunct,
the femme fatale.
Ed Crane’s cynical, unsmiling demeanor and “epigrammatic, controlled” voice over may elicit comparisons with those of the hard-boiled protagonists of Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and McCoy. But these attributes hardly function, as “a sign of the hero’s potency,” as Krutnik sees them doing for the “tough thriller” (42). To the contrary, Crane seems “unmanly” in his (in)actions in relation to Big Dave (his disinclination to “sock him in the nose”), to Doris (his seeming sexual disinterest in her), and to Birdy (his exclaiming “Heaven’s to Betsy!” as she goes down on him). And these plot situations stand in marked contrast to Crane’s “virility” in his voice over, which itself is “feminized” by its coded connection to the written rather than spoken word.
the “tough” hero’s putative potency, as Richard Dyer and Jonathan
Buchsbaum have shown, is only a cover in any case. According to Dyer, it covers
an internal conflict “over the existence and definition of masculinity
and normality” (115) and to Buchsbaum, a “core generative anxiety
about passive homosexuality” (41). The classical noir hero’s testing
or rehearsal of “aggressive masculinity” is a means of denying these
conflicts and anxieties. Thus he often relies on “masculinized language,”
on the one hand, and need for the femme fatale on the other (Buchsbaum 41).
Ed Crane may indulge in the former, even though reluctantly—he’s
only writing his story at the behest of the men’s magazine. But the film
consistently ignores if not pointedly resists the femme fatale.
Both of the “women in his life,” Crane’s wife Doris and the teenager Birdy, qualify as would-be femme fatales. From the introductory shot’s voyeuristic gaze into the bedroom, in which Crane’s wife slips on her stockings and pads her bra, to the leg-shaving and dress-zipping scenes, Doris is displayed, for the viewer’s benefit at least, as a brazen, if somewhat vulgar, seductress.12 The outwardly more refined Birdy’s Lolita-like qualities emerge more gradually but build to an even cruder climax. She makes an abrupt but abortive attempt at fellatio on the open road. Also, true to the black widow’s mythical modus operandi, both women do serve in some fashion to “lure the man to his doom.” Doris is indirectly responsible for embroiling Crane in the blackmail and killing of Big Dave. Crane’s desire to boost Birdy’s musical career and her misguided attempt to bring him oral-genital pleasure lead to a near-fatal car accident.
the women’s resemblance to the archetypal Evil Temptress ends. As we have
shown, Crane is not aroused by Doris, and his enthusiasm for Birdy is purely
inspirational. The romantic triangle he forms with Doris and Big Dave functions
as an inversion of the Cainsian Clytemnestra model. Instead of the wife and
male lover’s teaming to kill the husband, often through a mock accident,
here the husband inadvertently “avenges” his wife’s adulteries.
As for his obsession with Birdy, in contrast to film noir, it does not lead
to Crane’s moral depravity but instead to his near redemption. As for
sexual attraction, Crane’s desire for Birdy operates by another logic
entirely: He feels a need to change his unsatisfying life. In this regard, his
interest in helping Birdy realize her dreams, or what he imagines her dreams
to be, suggests not desire but identification. He needs to see both their respective
ambitions fly, fulfilling the promise implied in both their birdlike names.
In the end, Crane seems at least partially like the British detective hero to which the hard-boiled American version was concocted as an alternative. That kind of hero is a man, in Gilbert Seldes words, of “effeminate manners, artistic leanings, and elaborate deductions” who compares to a “real man” like “a shop-window full of dummies” (quoted in Krutnik 42-43). The flamboyant lawyer, Riedenschneider, seems a perfect role model for Crane in this regard, with his epicurean tastes, foppish manners, and connection to the arts (the Da Vinci’s Restaurant he frequents, the Turandot Room he books13). Crane begins emulating the ace lawyer’s “elaborate deductions” and even starts speaking Riedenschneiderese when he says to Birdy that the French piano teacher Carcanogues is “the best…I made some inquiries.”
One could counter that not all classical noirs have “tough” protagonists. Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street (both 1945), for instance, are rare but prominent examples of noirs with decidedly non-“tough guy” leads (both played by Edward G. Robinson, cast against type). In Woman in the Window, Robinson plays a sedentary, middle-aged professor; in Scarlet Street, quite similar to Crane, a hen-pecked bank clerk and Sunday painter. Tellingly, however, neither of these non-“tough” noirs feature first-person, voice-over narration. More significantly, both have sinister femme fatales to whom the male protagonists are strongly attracted sexually. An irresistible yet forbidden sexual urge drives both films’ main characters—indeed most noirs’—and establishes the films’ narrative and thematics.
Yet just the
opposite is the case with Man: Crane’s lack of libido is paradoxically
what moves the story forward (at a snail’s pace) and it is what the film
is ultimately about. The Desire That Wasn’t There becomes an
apt post-facto working title for this anti-“tough” thriller in which
canonical noirs’ prime character motivations—financial greed and
sexual lust (Martin 105)—have been replaced by a devastating repression.
HISTORICIZING A PERIOD NOIR
While the period setting of The Man Who Wasn’t There is anomalous for neo-noirs in general, it is less the exception than the rule for the Coen brothers’ films. Only three of their nine films overall and two of their six noirs (Blood Simple and Fargo) have been set contemporaneously. What sets Man apart from the filmmakers’ other period work is its comparative historical groundedness. In contrast, Barton Fink (released in 1991, set in 1941), The Big Lebowski (1998/1991), or the non-noir The Hudsucker Proxy (1994/1958-59) all seem “out of sync with the times in which they were placed” (Bergan 135). The historical coordinates of Man’s diegetic setting give its (homo)sexual subtext a resonance that goes beyond fidelity to its genre.
Whether overseas or on the home front, large numbers of men and women in the 1940s found the war’s homosocial environments quite hospitable for expressing same-sex eroticism, a collective self-assertion that carried over into peacetime for many gays and lesbians. Writes historian John D’Emilio,
In particular, they swelled the gay population of port cities or centers of the war industry, such as Los Angeles, New York, and the San Francisco Bay area, to which the war years had exposed them (31).
Man Who Wasn’t There, the effeminate music teacher Carcanogues resides
in San Francisco, which is also where Tolliver’s hairpiece came from.
Crane, meanwhile, who has lived in the small town of Santa Rosa without ever
going overseas, nevertheless readily recognizes the interloper Tolliver’s
The 1948 Kinsey report had mixed effects on homosexuals. It legitimated the idea that homosexually inclined men were indistinguishable from their heterosexual counterparts and that homosexual acts were not uncommon among the general populace. While reassuring psychologically to many gays and lesbians, Kinsey’s findings, according to D’Emilio,
served not to ameliorate hostility toward gay men and women, but to magnify suddenly the proportions of the dangers they allegedly posed (37).
Congressional testimony in 1950 acknowledged that many State Department employees
had been dismissed on grounds related to homosexuality, Republicans began attacking
the Truman Administration with the charge that undetected “sexual perverts”
as much as Communists threatened national security (D’Emilio 41).14
Gender roles, on the whole, were being renegotiated during this period in the United States in the workplace and the home alike, as war veterans returned to civilian employment to find more women in the workforce. Man illustrates this situation not only in Doris Crane’s job as chief accountant at Nirdlinger’s department store but in the dissatisfaction expressed by Ed and Big Dave over their “less than manly” occupations (described further below). Additionally, in response to both a burgeoning consumerist ethos and an expanding corporate business structure, shifting notions of masculinity increasingly stressed domesticity and cooperation in contradistinction to entrepreneurialism, initiative and independence (Corber 5-6). Crane’s voice-over chronicling creature comforts ironically articulates the postwar discourse of prosperity that increasingly defined men as consumers within the private sphere (6):
We had an electric ice box, gas hearth, garbage grinder built into the sink…you might say we had it made.
the western and the war film, classical film noir broke with the emergent socio-cultural
discourse of masculine passivity but also, singularly and paradoxically, with
the Cold War etiquette of gay invisibility. The hard-boiled hero, in his macho
posturing and contempt for material comforts associated with the domestic sphere,
expressed a desire to reclaim a form of male identity now displaced by commodity
culture (Corber 9, 28). His taciturn toughness and seeming self-sufficiency
acted to allay male panic by providing identification with a hyper-masculine
subjectivity. That subjectivity, nostalgically drawn from the pre-corporate
capitalist period, was also discursively akin to post-World War II heroes John
Wayne and G.I. Joe.
In its “visual economy,” however, film noir also posed a threat to emergent Cold War discourse. In its emphasis on style at the expense of narrative coherence, film noir can be seen as “subversive, for in reversing the hierarchical relation between spectacle and narrative that normally prevailed in classical Hollywood cinema,” it encouraged at least a partial “homosexualizing” (in Robert Corber’s terms) or “de-masculinizing” (in Laura Mulvey’s) of the spectator’s gaze.
The hyper-stylization once associated more exclusively with male gay camp has become in the intervening decades a hallmark of the postmodern condition in general and the Coens’ oeuvre more specifically. Such a “homosexualization of society,” while creating an interesting conjuncture between camp and postmodernism, would also seem to remove from the latter some of the former’s subversive sting. Already in the “modern” era, however, noir’s oppositional mode of spectatorship at the level of form lent itself to co-option on the level of content, now with gay, or at least gay-coded, characters.15 Functioning, as with the femme fatale, to contrast with and therefore to highlight the hard-boiled hero’s masculinity, gay-coded male characters appeared more frequently in film noir than in most other classical Hollywood films and developed a distinctive iconography in opposition to that of the “tough” protagonist: upper-crust (or foreign) accent, prissy mannerisms, impeccable taste, and a soft or corpulent body (Corber 10; Buchsbaum 38).
The tropes of gay representability as seen in classical noir interface with those in The Man Who Wasn’t There in ambiguous and contradictory ways. First, in Man, not only is gayness made visible in the explicitly gay Creighton Tolliver, but when combined with other “coded” and “possible” homosexuals, queerness in some form confronts Crane at every turn. Tolliver passes the queer baton to the epicurean Riedenschneider, who hands it off to the fleshy, French-accented Carcanogues. Then there’s Crane’s brother-in-law, Frank, the “principal barber,” who besides being another “soft body,” lives alone.
Even Big Dave’s heterosexuality, despite his affair with Doris, is called into question through his corpulence, his blubbering in front of Crane, his delicate snipping of cigar ends (with the “dame’s weapon”), his handing of his lighted “Romeo and Juliet” brand cigar to Crane during his crying bout,16 and his turning out to be another “phony.” Crane levels this same epithet at Carcanogues and at the androgynous medium he visits after Doris’s suicide, a suicide prompted by her discovery that Big Dave, for all his macho talk, wasn’t the man she thought he was. Far from being a war hero, it turns out, Big Dave actually served in the Navy as a lowly clerk and spent most of his enlisted time in the brig, for fighting.
Crane’s gay connection to Big Dave is enhanced through two major parallels: one having to do with business, the other with flying saucers. As for the first, both men have married into businesses owned by their wives’ families, and both rebel against their financial dependence on women by resorting to “passive” crime and pursuing “unmanly” careers as venture capitalists. Crane takes up blackmail and acts as the “silent partner” of the acknowledged homosexual Tolliver; Big Dave takes up embezzlement and attempts to establish a department store annex featuring women’s clothing with Doris as comptroller.
The extraterrestrial motif is introduced explicitly by Big Dave’s wife, who confides in Crane, after Big Dave’s death, that her husband showed no sexual interest in her after their alien encounter on a camping trip. The extent to which UFOs were generally penetrating the late-1940s U.S. imaginary is evinced in a later scene in the barber shop. There, a Life magazine article Crane is reading on dry cleaning (“Dry Cleaning: The Wave of the Future”) is followed by one on flying saucers (“Mysteries of Roswell, New Mexico”)— two displacements of sexuality in one mass-cultural volume. Skeptical of the alien angle at first, Crane, bolstered by the increasing sense of his own alienation, ultimately becomes a “believer,” but in the hopeful sense, not in the paranoid sense of Big Dave’s wife.
Henceforth flying saucers, previously evident only in the set design’s suggestive light fixtures and the aforementioned Life article, begin to crop up “for real.” They become a possible figment of Crane’s fevered imagination: first, as visual prologue and coda to his apparent coma/near-death experience following the car accident; later and most notably, in his prison-yard vision shortly before his execution, when an alien craft hovers overhead, for his benefit alone.
Perhaps the strongest link between Crane and Big Dave is the killing of Creighton Tolliver. Big Dave is the one who kills “the pansy.” Yet Crane is the one who is ultimately tried and convicted of the crime. Ironically, this is the lone crime in the film that he didn’t commit. Or didn’t he? His execution is excessive even by the punitive logic of the Production Code since his only “wrongdoings” were blackmail and a failure to notify the police of his self-defense killing of Big Dave.
But Crane’s execution is also a form of poetic justice. If Crane’s hyper-alienation and deep depression are indeed manifestations of his latent homosexuality, then his conviction for murdering the gay salesman is an irrefutable sign that the reluctant barber is guilty, symptomatically rather than implicitly, of violently suppressing his own gay impulses. And Crane’s earlier, seemingly deranged rant against barbering becomes an illuminating self-indictment:
This hair, it’s a part of us, and we throw it away.
In discussing the relation of their earlier film Blood Simple (1984) to classical film noir, Joel Coen observed that he and brother Ethan were trying
to emulate the source those movies came from [meaning noir’s literary canon] rather than the movies themselves (quoted in Martin 33).
The primary literary source for The Man Who Wasn't There, as for the Coen brothers’ other pre-Man noirs—Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink, Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski—may have been the usual suspects: Cain, Hammett, and Chandler, with a touch of Elmore Leonard (Bergan 48). As for the queer connection, beyond the homoeroticism clinging by definition to the “man’s world” of film noir, overtly gay characters or references have appeared in most of the Coen brothers’ neo-noirs. Bernie Bernbaum, Mink, and Eddie Dane are clearly identified as gay in Miller’s Crossing. Jesus Quintana is arguably so in The Big Lebowski. And the eponymous Barton Fink is suspected of being “a little fruity.”
The films incorporate queer characterizations and references, as with those of the “pansy” Creighton Tolliver, that are generally invidious. But such political incorrectness is excused if not redeemed by the fact that the Coen brothers are equal opportunity offenders. Their defamations of character extend to class, gender, and ethno-racial and religious groups—including the brothers’ own, Jews. In their films, defamatory language functions to demean the subject rather than the object of the opprobrium, to expose rather than to exploit racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia.
The persistence of gay representation in the Coens’ work is partly attributable to genre, as already discussed. Another, neo-auteurist explanation derives from the brothers’ intense fraternal relationship. Ronald Bergan’s biography of the filmmakers begins, as if in homage to the brothers’ impishly macabre sensibility, with Joel’s slaying of Ethan, and then himself, as described by the brothers’ pseudonymous film editor and alter ego, Roderick Jaynes:
The motive for the killing is still unclear. Some say that Joel could not tolerate the duality of their existence.
Jaynes writes this, then appends a quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s doppelganger tale of murder and suicide, William Wilson, which allegedly was scrawled on a note found on Joel’s desk:
You have conquered and I yield. Yet, henceforth art thou also dead—dead to the World, to Heaven, and to Hope! In me didst thou exist—and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself (2).
Bergan justifies this curious—and, of course, fictitious—opening to his biographical subjects by stating,
I hoped to suggest that they were abnormally close (3).
Later, Bergan quotes George Clooney, co-star of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), the Coen brothers’ film before The Man Who Wasn’t There, who indicates how this “abnormal closeness” might relate to queerness:
They are not brothers at all, and Ethan is really a woman. Don’t let the whiskers fool you (5).17
Bergan fails to pursue this queer strand, leaving it on the level of mischievous (fore)play. Neither do we intend, at this time, to put the Coen brothers, their work in general, or The Man Who Wasn’t There in particular “on the couch.” However, in light of Freud’s suggestion that jokes, and other strategies of “humorous displacement,” are the “highest of the defensive processes” and a preeminent path to the unconscious (233), a psychoanalytic approach appears to provide a fruitful basis for further investigation. For now, suffice to say that an uncanny connection between Crane’s “killing” of a part of himself and Joel and Ethan Coen’s being more than “brothers under the skin” can be drawn from the following lines from the brothers’ pet noir The Postman Always Rings Twice, which Bergan has chosen to close the first chapter of his biography:
There’s a guy in No. 7 that murdered his brother, and says he didn’t really do it, his subconscious did it. I asked him what that meant, and he says you got two selves, one that you know about and the other that you don’t know about, because it’s subconscious. It shook me up. Did I really do it and not know it? (3-4)
The Movie Mom, of all sources, may be on to something. The alternately mild and oblique homosexual aspects of The Man Who Wasn’t There on the whole appear quite retrograde, certainly in comparison to the more forthright revisionism of recent cable-TV offerings and another contemporary neo-noir, Bound (1996). Again, appearances can deceive. First, the perils of “positive” and “negative” evaluation are strikingly evident in regard to Bound. While Hirsch finds the Wachowski brothers’ tale of successful lesbian revenge killers “revolting” (209), Aaron applauds the film for “its sane and sexy stars and happy ending” (82).18 Second, in its focus on lesbian as opposed to gay male sexuality, Bound only reinforces the double standard in gay “visibility” already noted with regard to Mulholland Drive.
Admittedly, by depicting eroticism between women rather than between men, films such as Bound and Mulholland Drive can appeal to lesbians and bisexual women and to others who feel similar political allegiance. Yet at the same time, by providing attractive women as sanctioned points of interest, such films promise crossover appeal by accommodating the homophobia of some heterosexually identified men, who might feel threatened by the depiction of sexual passion among members of their own gender.19
Gay men in the few Hollywood films that depict them tend to remain, if not incidental, relatively chaste and often exterior to the subjectivity of the main protagonist. Even the fairly explicit male homosexuality represented in Todd Haynes’ homage to Douglas Sirk, Far from Heaven (2002), is symptomatic here. That film emphasizes the revelation of a man’s same-sex desires from the standpoint of his heterosexually oriented wife. Furthermore, such apparent Hollywood breakthroughs as Haynes’ neo-melodrama and the prestigious meta-literary adaptation The Hours (2002)—the latter dealing more with lesbians in relationships than with women in the heat of passion20 —have relied on generic patterns different from those of neo-noir in pursuit of their commercial objectives. Neo-noir, in contrast to these other genres, has kept sexual temptation a central and foregrounded narrative catalyst, particularly as it pertains to the hypersexualized legacy of the femme fatale. Yet even here the same-sex double standard is in operation. As Hirsch states,
As in straight pornography, where gay men are rigorously excluded and lesbianism is a fetishized, acceptable aphrodisiac, so in mainstream neo-noir lesbianism, either explicitly named as in Basic Instinct (1992) and Bound (1996), or not-so-subtextual, as in Black Widow (1987), is more admissible than [male] homosexuality (207).21
(Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, from 2002, further supports Hirsch’s point, given this neo-noir’s extended lesbian-tease opening.) As a result, the disparity in gay male and lesbian representation has tended to be exacerbated.
Selectively returning to the strictures of the Production Code, as the Movie Mom reminds us, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a neo-noir that, in its homage to classical noir, aesthetically limits representation of Crane’s homosexuality. By attempting to reconcile noir conventions with the sexual interests of its male protagonist, The Man Who Wasn’t There speaks only its generic name. And by complying with or relying on generic traditions, commercial pressures, art-house aesthetics, and queer readings to alternately disclose and disavow its deeper meanings, the film is guilty of suppressing its more subversive instincts. Even retrospective attributions of repressed homosexuality to Crane, if left with him, ultimately displace onto the protagonist much of the repression that characterizes the whole film.
The question only partly is one of art versus commerce, classical noir versus neo-noir, explicit meaning versus implicit meaning. For those concerned with the constitutive link between gay representability and gay life in the United States today, subtextual resonance notwithstanding, The Man Who Wasn’t There signifies, a liberatory road looked down but not taken.
Thanks to Jump Cut editors Julia Lesage, Chuck Kleinhans, and John Hess for their generous and thoughtful contributions to this essay, and to Matt Gatlin for his assistance in image retrieval.
1. “None Know My Name was another of their favorites,” writes Jaynes about another title considered by his ostensible employers, “rejected only because it had too many n’s and m’s” (viii). Jaynes is also credited as the author of the introduction to the screenplays of the Coens’ films Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing.
2. The authors of this essay are quite aware of the unresolved issue of film noir’s generic status, and of the fact that it has variously been referred to as “a period, a genre, a cycle, a style, or simply a ‘phenomenon’” (Naremore 106). Since this question is outside the purview of our analysis, however, we will refer to noir as a genre for the sake of convenience.
3. The authors made attempts to interview the Coen brothers but were unable to secure their participation.
4. Two other magazines we get a good look at on Crane’s prison desk are Stalwart and Wonder, featuring article headings proclaiming “After 10 Years of Married Life…I Discovered I Was an Escaped Lunatic!” and “I Was Abducted by Aliens,” respectively.
5. Naremore takes the noir-consciousness notion to its most extreme, arguing quite persuasively that film noir should be looked at less as a generic category than as part of “the history of ideas.” Essentially “a creation of postmodern culture,” noir, in Naremore’s revisioning, becomes little more than “the projection of an idea onto the past” (106, 107).
6. The Man Who Wasn’t There was actually shot in color, as commercial insurance, before being transferred to black and white for the film’s final cut. This decision was soon vindicated at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, where Joel Coen shared the director’s prize with another celebrated film maverick, David Lynch, who won for Mulholland Drive.
7. The lesbian-identified web site Dyxploitation lists both Foxfire and Gia in its section titled, “Movies with Dyke Appeal,” where readers can contribute film suggestions of possible relevance to a queer woman. The list is annotated, with Jolie’s presence noted not only on account of her explicitly queer characters in those two films but also for the perhaps more ambiguously queer role she plays in Girl, Interrupted (1999). Writes one contributor,
Her cool, dykish character had me captured in the movie and there’s even a scene where Winona Ryder’s character reaches over to Jolie’s character to give her a kiss. In my opinion, this was one of those films with ‘hidden’ gay content. I loved it!
Protests against the 1980 film Cruising had been part of an earlier
wave of gay activism. As for Basic Instinct, protests included revelations
in advance of the film’s release that Sharon Stone’s bisexual character
would turn out to be the elusive serial killer (not necessarily borne out by
the film itself, of course, given its famously ambiguous ending). Gay protests
were also mounted in 1991 against Oliver Stone’s JFK, for its
implicit assumption of a gay Mafioso’s involvement in the killing of President
9. Recent developments have somewhat reversed, or at least complicated, the TV/movies relation in regard to gay representability. The Los Angeles Times reported at the start of the 2002 TV season that, contrary to an earlier trend,
this year’s prime time line-up will actually witness a sharp decline in the number of recurring gay, lesbian and transgender characters (Lowry F1).
In May 2003,
the same newspaper backtracked, however (spurred by All My Children’s
first-ever same-sex kiss in network daytime television), claiming that at least
“smooches between women are no longer taboo” (Rosen E28). As for
the movies, 2002 saw an increase in major same-sex characters, several in high-profile
offerings such as Far From Heaven and The Hours (discussed
later in the essay), in addition to Frida and Femme Fatale,
as well as in the lower-budget independent Kissing Jessica Stein and
Rules of Attraction. As for the first half of 2003, lesbian kissing
scenes have been featured in Anger Management and The Real Cancun.
10. Prominent noir remakes include the following: Body Heat (1981, based on Double Indemnity); The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981, 1946); Against All Odds (1984, based on Out of the Past, 1948); No Way Out (1987, based on The Big Clock, 1948); D.O.A. (1988, 1950); Cape Fear (1991, 1962); Guncrazy (1992, based on Gun Crazy, 1949); The Underneath (1994, based on Criss Cross, 1949); Kiss of Death (1995, 1947). For a more complete list of noir remakes, see Martin 30-33, and Smallman, Smallman and Bohrer (1994).
11. Prominent period neo-noirs, other than those mentioned by the Coen brothers, include: Farewell, My Lovely (1973); Chinatown (1974); Thieves Like Us (1974); The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981); L.A. Confidential (1997). Partial and/or idiosyncratic uses of black and white in neo-noir include: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1981); D.O.A. (1988); Dead Again (1991); and Memento (2001). For a more complete list of period neo-noirs, again see Martin, and Smallman, Smallman and Bohrer.
12. The (hetero)sexual thrust of the bedroom scene is literally undercut when the scene’s apparent last shot, a close-up of Crane seemingly gazing up at Doris, is actually the next scene’s first shot, which is followed by a low-angle tilt up to the true “object of his gaze,” a scantily clad Jesus on the cross—part of the church setting for the Cranes’ weekly bingo game.
13. Additional gay significance can be attached to Da Vinci and Turandot, and thus, by association, to Riedenschneider: Leonardo Da Vinci, after whom the restaurant was presumably named, was famously “diagnosed” by Freud (posthumously, of course) as a homosexual; Turandot refers, as Riedenschneider tells Crane, to the Puccini opera, a cultural form stereotypically popular among gays.
14. Gays were far from the only minority group linked to Communists. Jews, from the earliest Socialist stirrings, had been openly chastised for their “disproportionate” involvement with radical leftwing causes. Jews and gays, meanwhile, have their own discursive historical bond, with Jewish males persistently having been characterized, in Europe and the United States, as effeminate. Joel and Ethan Coen, it bears noting, are Jewish. For in-depth discussions of the origins and ramifications of the Jewish-gay connection, see Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: Jewish Masculinity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), and Sander Gilman, The Jew’s Body (New York: Routledge, 1991).
15. Prominent examples of such characters include Peter Lorre’s Joe Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Laird Cregar’s Ed Cornell in I Wake Up Screaming (1942), Douglas Walton’s Lindsay Marriot in Murder, My Sweet (1944), Charles Laughton’s Earl Janoth in The Big Clock (1948), and Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944).
16. The bit with the cigars seems a nod to the homoerotic cigar- and cigarette-lighting scenes between Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) in Double Indemnity.
18. Bound was also warmly recommended by two contributors to Dyxploitation’s aforementioned internet list, “Movies with Dyke Appeal.” In addition, published “sexpert” Susie Bright, an openly bisexual woman, served as an advisor on the film’s sex scenes. Her own account of her involvement can be read at http://www.susiebright.com/
19. Similarly, journalist Lisa Rosen, noting the increase in lesbian kissing scenes on U.S. television in 2003, asks: “But are they a sign of society’s acceptance or a rating’s ploy based on straight-male fantasies?” (E28).
20. In The Hours, the character Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) gives a passionate and desperate kiss to another woman. But her story, set in the 1950s, focuses more on what she is giving up in order to come out as a lesbian, particularly her relationship with her son (who, not incidentally, figures prominently in the contemporary portion of the film, as an esteemed gay poet who eventually dies from AIDS).
21. 2002 seemed to mark some redress of the imbalance in gay male and lesbian romantic depictions in Hollywood films. While lesbian sexual interaction was featured in The Hours, Frida, Femme Fatale, and Kissing Jessica Stein, signaling an uptick in queer representation generally (see Note 9), gay male kissing also took center stage, in Far From Heaven and Rules of Attraction. Even here, however, a caveat is in order: Far From Heaven’s gay embrace did not include the film’s protagonist, and Rules of Attraction’s could be interpreted as occurring in a dream. As for indications of a possible trend toward increased queer subtext in recent Hollywood films, see Stephen Farber’s commentary “Are They or Aren’t They?” (Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2003: E12).
Aaron, Michele. “’Till Death Us Do Part: Cinema’s Queer Couples Who Kill.” The Body’s Perilous Pleasures: Dangerous Desires in Contemporary Culture. Ed. Michele Aaron. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999. 67-84.
Bennett, Tony. “Texts and Social Process: The Case of James Bond.” Screen Education 41 (Winter/Spring 1982): 3-14.
Bergan, Ronald. The Coen Brothers. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2000.
Alan. “Homo Confabulans: A Study of Film, Narrative, and Compensation.”
Presented as a paper at the Society of Cinema Studies Conference, New York City,
March 1995 (revised June 1996).
Blackwelder, Rob. “Nuances in Noir.” SPLICEDWIRE, 2001. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/click/
Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
--- Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Bright, Susie. “Sex Consultant to the Stars.”
SusieBright.com, 1999. http://www.susiebright.
Brownfield, Paul. “As Minorities’ TV Presence Dims, Gay Roles Proliferate.” Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1999: A1, A16.
Buchsbaum, Jonathan. “Tame Wolves and Phony Claims: Paranoia and Film Noir.” Persistence of Vision, nos. 3/4 (Summer 1986): 35-47.
Corber, Robert J. Homosexuality in Cold War America: Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.
D’Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Community in the United States, 1940-1970. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Doty, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Dyer, Richard. “Postscript: Queers and Women in Film Noir.” Women in Film Noir. New Edition. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: BFI, 2000. 123-129.
Ehrenstein, David. Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-1998. New York: William Morrow, 1998.
Erickson, Todd R. “Evidence of Film Noir in the Contemporary American Cinema.” Unpublished Master’s Thesis: Brigham Young University, 1990.
“Are They or Aren’t They?” Los Angeles Times, May
25, 2003: E12.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Freud, Sigmund. “Humour.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XXXI. London: The Hogarth Press, 1964.
Hirsch, Foster. Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo Noir. New York: Limelight Editions, 1999.
Gray, Herman. Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for “Blackness”. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
Gross, Larry. Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
Jaynes, Roderick. “Introduction.” In Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. The Man Who Wasn’t There. London: Faber and Faber, 2001. vii-ix.
Jhally, Sut, and Justin Lewis. Enlightened Racism: “The Cosby Show,” Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992.
Johnston, Claire. “Double Indemnity.” Women in Film Noir. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: BFI, 1978. 100-111.
Klawans, Stuart. “Static Electricity.” The Nation (December 24, 2001): 44-45.
Krutnik, Frank. In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Lodger. “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”
Lowry, Brian. “Number of Gay TV Characters Plummets.” Los Angeles Times, September 16, 2002: F1, F10.
Maltby, Richard. Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
The Man Who Wasn’t There (DVD). USA Home Entertainment, 2002.
Mann, William J. Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910-1969. New York: Viking, 2001.
Martin, Richard. Mean Streets and Raging Bulls: The Legacy of Film Noir in Contemporary Cinema. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1999.
“Movie Mom, The” (Nell Minow). “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” MovieMom.com, 2001.
“Movie Mom, The” (Nell Minow). “Mulholland Drive.”
“Movies with Dyke Appeal.” Dyxploitation, 2000
(last updated July 24, 2001).
Naremore, James. “American Film Noir: The History of an Idea.” The Film Studies Reader. Joanne Hollows, Peter Hutchings, Mark Jancovich, eds. London: Arnold, 2000.
Neale, Steve. “New Hollywood Cinema.” Screen 17, no. 2 (Summer 1976): 117-122.
William Preston. The Big Lebowski: The Making of a Coen Brothers Film.
Tricia Cooke, ed. New York: Norton, 1998.
Rosen, Lisa. “The Kiss That Isn’t Just a Kiss.” Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2003: E28.
Silver, Alain, and Elizabeth Ward, eds. Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. 3rd Edition. Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 1992.
Smallman, Shirley, Kirk Smallman, and George F. Bohrer, Jr. “Films Noir and Their Remade Versions: Shifts in Sources of Evil, Women’s Roles, and the Power of Fate.” Echoes and Mirrors 1, no.1 (1994): 40-71.
Stam, Robert and Louise Spence. “Colonialism, Racism and Representation: An Introduction.” The Film Studies Reader. Hollows, Joanne, Hutchings, Peter, and Mark Jancovich, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 315-321.
Tyler, Parker. Magic and Myth of the Movies. New York: Henry Holt, 1947.
Vidal, Gore. United States: Essays 1952-1992. New York: Random House, 1993.
Walters, Suzanna Danuta. All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2001.
Weeks, Jeffrey. Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present. London: Quartet Books, 1977.
White, Dave. “Big Gay Twists.” The Advocate, January 22, 2002.
White, Patricia. Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
“The World According to Jolie.” Entertainment Tonight Online. 8 May 2001.