Wayne Koestenbaum is an author/auteur extraordinaire, the creator of a string of unique, erudite classics such as “Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting An Icon”, and the biography “Andy Warhol”. He also wrote “The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire”, an influential and enterprising look at, well, opera, homosexuality and the mystery of desire.
Now, “An Anatomy of Groucho Marx” has been released.
Wayne teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He spoke with me way back in May 2005.
MARK ADNUM: Are you following the Michael Jackson trial?
WAYNE KOESTENBAUM: I read the latest Jackson tidbits every day in The New York Times. I am a big Michael Jackson fan and it hurts me to see perverts scapegoated. Whatever he did wrong, it’s still a fact that he is being treated by the media and by the court as a latter-day Oscar Wilde–a public figure of questionable gender and questionable sexuality, pilloried and humiliated for the pleasure of a public who won’t admit that its desire is to see shame inflicted on the mighty.
MA: Do you think star fucking, even in the form of worship from afar, is a form of psychic invasion, negative capability that impacts and informs the star’s psyche?
WK: No. Stars are insulated from our projections. Stars go about their own starry business. Stars wear blinders. Stars live in bell jars. (Or so I imagine.) There are exceptions. Mae West. But she was her own star-fucker; Mae West star-fucked Mae West. And if she was “cut off from reality,” that was a result of her own incestuous self-fucked condition, a mise-en-abyme. It wasn’t the fault of her fans.
MA: Fame and pop culture are serious subjects that deserve serious study. Yet in academic culture, pop is generally treated as something frivolous, and–if it is studied at all–is buried under mounds of inappropriate and arcane, multisyllabic theory. Has this been your experience?
WK: Speaking of mise-en-abyme! Well, Mark, part of me loves theory. And I love multisyllabic words. And I love arcane approaches to the obvious and the ordinary. I agree that we don’t need to plaster Lacan over Liz Taylor to understand her magnificence. But theory–itself pilloried and scapegoated, like Michael Jackson–is just a set of tools or metaphors. If used nimbly and cleverly, theory can be thrilling.
The problem is that some academics who rely on theory are tone-deaf.
MA: Yes, I’ve met many of them. Now, the oblique approach to homosexuality and homosexual themes, deployed with such resonance by Tennessee Williams and Pedro Almodovar, is rarely used by present-day gay filmmakers. For example, the filming of the Matthew Shepard story should have yielded a haunting cross between Ode to Billy Joe and Deliverance but instead, we got the arm-twisting, cake-baking atmosphere of The Laramie Project. Do you see a bright future for gay-themed movies? What films or film makers from the past or present do you think offer clues and direction?
WK: Fassbinder. Warhol. Sirk. Waters. Anger. Cornell. Burckhardt. Ozon. Others, too.
Like you, I’m all for the oblique. Suddenly, Last Summer is my idea of a great gay film. I can’t bear uplifting messages. I think Todd Solondz, in Happiness, Storytelling, and Palindromes, is doing great work for gay filmmaking, whether or not he is queer. Palindromes, by multiplying and splintering the identity of its protagonist, offers lots of lessons for queer filmmaking: split up the subject, hash it up, mess with the audience’s perceptions, find freaks and cast ‘em, offend everyone. Diane Arbus could have been a great gay filmmaker.
Fassbinder: what he does with women (Brigitte Mira, Ingrid Caven, Irm Hermann) is extraordinary and strange. Brigitte Mira in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul gives a magnificent performance of queer love, inappropriate desire, scapegoated passion. And I’ll see anything by Almodóvar. He can do no wrong. His title sequences! His scenes of simply watching (voyeurism, bedside vigils) remind me of the great thwarted star turns of a Vivien Leigh or a Montgomery Clift–the mute stare of the schizoid, the closeted, the unrepresented.
MA: Speaking of Tennessee Williams, favorite gay-themed films of mine are Suddenly Last Summer and Reflections in a Golden Eye. They’re like a lovebird pair of angsty, extravagant films about jealousy, secrecy and deeply hidden homosexual desire. They both starred Elizabeth Taylor. It’s the snake-basket of the closet that’s the dramatic engine of both films. What dramatic potential do you think waits to be found in present-day, post-closet, gay culture?
WK: I agree with you that Reflections in a Golden Eye is a great gay-themed movie, especially the scene where Liz horsewhips Brando.
Ditto with Boom! When Liz shouts “Injection!”, my heart floods with pleasure.
The dramatic potential in present-day post-closet gay culture? I think there’s a lot of energy in amateur porn, and the closer that aboveground mainstream filmmaking gets to amateur porn, the better. The chance to glimpse the sexual secrets of others is an endlessly riveting pastime, and I’d trade a few Montgomery Clift films for the chance to see a samizdat video of him sprawled naked and stoned on a pool table in a bar near Sutton Place in the late years of his checkered career.
Among the newbies, Antonio Banderas has an interesting star-text–metamorphosing from Almodovar’s pin-up to Melanie Griffith’s bouncer. Plus he’s cute.
MA: Would you give a Best Gay Film award? What film would you give it to?
WK: Fox and His Friends. Warhol’s Couch. Warhol’s Blow Job. Law of Desire.Taxi Zum Klo.
Taxi Zum Klo still blows my mind: its happy explicitness, its cheerful liberatory politics. Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour. (I realize that these are obvious choices!) Anything and everything by John Waters. I Could Go On Singing. Queen Christina. The Rock Hudson-Doris Day films. What about that TV film that Liz made about a gay son? It had a pony in the title. It was terrible but it might be worth re-seeing.
MA: Sebastian Venable, Sister George and the ensemble of The Boys In The Band are on their way over to your house for dinner. Are you nervous?
WK: Not in the least. Sebastian and I go way back. And Sister George is a real ice-breaker. The pock-marked fruit–I’ve always loved his company.
MA: Do you have a thing for the two great Davises – Bette, and Brad?
WK: Brad Davis I don’t have much knowledge of, though he appeared to great effect in Fassbinder’s Querelle, a film I love more in the abstract than in the actual. (The best thing about Querelle, as I remember it, is Jeanne Moreau singing Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol”.)
Bette Davis, on the other hand, defines the world for me. Her largeness of gesture, her idiosyncracy of manner, her flashing eyes, her demands, her circumlocutions, her insistence on hypocrisy as the higher sincerity–these are indispensable resources. As a child I saw Dead Ringer on TV’s “Dialing for Dollars”: her split-screen twinship gave me an early lesson in bifurcation’s necessity, divisiveness’s charm.
Joan Crawford, too, reigns in my heart, right next to Bette: it upsets me how thrilled these women still make me. (I’m fresh from seeing the immortal Lypsinka live in The Passion of the Crawford.) Isn’t it too late in history to get excited about Joan and Bette?