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Rock Hudson's Home Movies

1992. Written and directed by Mark Rappaport. With Eric Farr.


This provocative work is a collaboration between director-writer Mark Rappaport, actor Eric Farr, and a video duping machine. Farr appears as a posthumous, out-of-the-closet Hudson, narrating a program of clips from his Hollywood films. Rock Hudson's Home Movies maintains that, in a long-running joke on square Hollywood, Hudson's homosexuality was always "in plain sight--like the 'purloined letter'" to anybody who knew what to look for.

As evidence, we get an hour or so of carefully-culled Hudsoniana. Scenes and lines are taken out of context, juxtaposed in ways that create new meaning, sometimes manipulated optically to change the emphasis. The Hudson oeuvre has been thoroughly mined: No lifted eyebrow, no enigmatic smile, no snappish exchange with Tony Randall or show of indifference toward Doris Day goes un-smirked-at. Lines like "There's something strange about you" and "I'm not interested in marriage" are played over and over again.

As "proof" of anything, it's unabashedly tendentious. But as commentary on the ambiguity of movie images--the images of stars in particular--it's ingenious and ultimately quite moving.

Rock Hudson's Home Movies offers the tantalizing notion that a hidden subtext, visible only to the cognoscenti, may lurk beneath the most public of surfaces. People better qualified than I have written about "encoded texts" and the gay sensibility. But all of us, I think, are intrigued to think that something the culture-at-large interprets one way can be looked at in completely different contexts and can reveal radically different meanings. The very conceit of presenting these widely-exhibited products of the studio system as someone's "home movies" tells us that for Hudson and his crowd, they documented something quite different from their "official" meanings. An image of a handsome man saying the words, "I'm not interested in marriage" can belong to a farce about a playboy bachelor, or to a documentary about a gay actor, or, as I hope Rappaport would acknowledge, to any number of other "stories" one might want to construct around it. The point is that it has little inherent meaning in itself.

(I'm reminded that in the very early days of motion pictures, "filmmakers" sent around packages of individual shots--views of Niagara Falls, for example-- that exhibitors were free to assemble in any order they chose.)

Rappaport's method falls into a tradition that begins, as far as I can tell, with a cartoon called Daffy Duck in Hollywood that weaves in bits of silent-movie footage as comical counterpoint to a pompous narration. This 1938 Tex Avery work is an early example of what we might call the cinema of appropriation-- seeing pieces of film as raw materials that can be recycled, given a new meaning (usually ironic) in a context different from their original one. This has become a common strategy in the 80s and 90s, from Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid to Oliver Stone's Nixon, TV's "Dream On" and that commercial where Fred Astaire dances with a mop. Filmed images have a new kind of existence in the digital-video age: they can be sampled, rearranged, and repackaged into something quite new. In fact, I'd speculate that our pleasure is proportional to the distance between the knowingness of the re-assembled version and the naivete of the original.

Rappaport's inexpensive, dupe-heavy "found art" assemblage of second-generation materials raises these issues more provocatively than any other movie I can think of.

But it's not one of those intellectualized essays on signifiers and texts. In the end, Rock Hudson's Home Movies can't help adoring what it debunks. Despite its often-accusatory tone (though in what sense was Rock Hudson victimized? He was very successful, and if he had to hide his "true nature," well, what star didn't?), it ends up celebrating Hudson's career. His stardom may have been a joke on middle America, the movie says, but it was glorious even so. Stardom transcends politics, even sexual politics.

Nothing makes this clearer than Rappaport's decision to put pouty, uncharismatic Eric Farr on-camera as Hudson, often sharing the frame with images of the real Hudson. Talk about unfair competition! The contrast puts the Hudson alchemy--his astonishingly photogenic good looks, his physical grace, his nice voice, his likeability, his talent for light comedy--into stark relief. This movie sends Hudson's screen image through the ringer, and yet it emerges intact.

Rock Hudson's Home Movies opens with a clip of actor Jon Hall (from The Hurricane), a beautiful man displaying himself quite erotically and executing a breathtaking dive from the rigging of a ship. "Hudson" tells us that Hall was an early crush and inspiration for him, and right off the bat introduces some of the conundrums of stardom: it was later revealed that a stunt man made that dive; within a few years Hall had lost his looks. And yet, that piece of film comes back again and again, with Hall always young and beautiful and certainly appearing to be diving. At the end, through a trick of editing, Hudson and Hall greet each other and appear to meet in a kind of shot/counter-shot embrace. It's a strangely moving moment. Surely it can be seen as a triumph of gay love on several levels, and also a triumph of beauty over death, of stardom over cynicism, of romanticism, of illusion.

(3/7/97)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein