Out Takes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film

Ellis Hanson, Editor
Duke University Press, May 1999
ISBN: 0822323427 (paperback)
reviewed by Michael Walker

Over the past decade, queer theory has become an area of study of its own, borrowing material and methodologies from literary studies, art history, and the other humanities and social sciences. Growing out of women's studies and the piece-meal arena of gay and lesbian studies represented by modes of scholarship in various fields, queer theory is certainly not a unified theory any more than, in example, feminism is a unified movement, but instead queer theory has become the catch-all pantheon for how gay men and lesbians approach subject matter conventionally considered in heterocentric terms. Also over the past decade, queer cinema has grown in leaps and bounds, with major forays from the fringe to the mainstream by the likes of Gus Van Sant and Gregg Araki, plus scores of lesser-known but equally valuable films. It would only be logical that queer theory and queer cinema would converge at certain points, not only in the creative catalysts for film-making, but also in the critical discourse that grows up and around such films.

Out Takes is one of the first comprehensive anthologies of essays to cover analysis and commentary on films from a decidedly queer perspective. This book is not so concerned with contemporary efforts labeled outright as queer cinema as it is with queer themes and overtones in films from earlier times, exploring the historical legacy that today's gay film-making enjoys. Edited by Ellis Hanson, a professor of English at Cornell University and featuring essays from some of the leading scholars active in queer studies today, Out Takes ÷like any good anthology÷ offers quality essays that focus independently on narrow, well-defined subject matter while they are linked together via their common basal interpretations on a general subject (film, in this case) and the discernment of the editor. Professor Hanson has done a commendable job in selecting essays that offer both a broad spectrum of perspectives on what is queer in cinema (like I said, queer theory is a loose and rambling area of critical thought) while connecting these varied interpretations together in such a way that they comprise a cohesive book that offers the reader a thorough introduction into queer readings of cinema. The balance between gay male and lesbian examples and well-known (even classic) films and lesser-known independent productions is also admirable.

Having offered up that much praise for this book, I do have a few criticisms. While I understand the need and value in producing an anthology that considers queer theory in relation to film retrospectively and provides the lion's share of its examples from older movies, I would have liked to have seen a little more attention paid in at least one of the essays to contemporary film-making and directors, writers, and actors who self-identify as queer. Gregg Araki deserved to be included in this discourse and some mention of Sally Potter's rather recent version of Virginia Woolf's Orlando could have fostered useful comparisons between literary and cinematic presentations of gender. Several of the essays simply did not take the points they raised far enough; in particular, Steven Cohan's "Queering the Deal" ÷while an excellent and methodical piece of writing÷ seemed as if it could have been expanded in the interest of linking into broader themes approached elsewhere in the book. However, the inability for independently authored essays to relate to each other in the context of an anthology is the nature of any anthology or textural reader, whether the subject matter is queer theory or environmental management.

The production values of the book itself deserve specific mention: much like any mainstream film these days is judged largely by its cinematography and special effects, books tend to be judged nearly as much by their design and printing quality as by their content. In the case of Out Takes, the design concerns of the book have been well met all the way from the composition of the cover to the quality of the film stills and screen captures included to illustrate some of the essays. For a paperback (the edition I reviewed), this book is sturdy and of a highly archival quality. This is no small concern given that this book is likely to find its primary market serving as a textbook for film studies and queer arts theory/history courses, as well it should. Duke University Press (along with Routledge and New York University Press) has done a commendable job in publishing a prolific and diverse assortment of well-written and evocative books on gay and lesbian issues, and Out Takes joins the ranks of these efforts much to Duke's credit. This book will be especially useful to students of film and performance arts as well as those generally interested in the application of queer theory to the arts; it will also serve as a viable reference work for those writing about queer theory in America and cultural studies in general. Despite a few flaws, Out Takes is the preeminent work on queer theory and film-making available and stands to be such for years to come.

Michael Walker is the interim Science and Medical Editor of Oasis Magazine. His poetry, commentary, reviews, and fiction have been featured in the magazine since 1996 and he contributes to a variety of other publications. His own favorite films run the gamut from Gregg Araki's Nowhere to the Streisand classic On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. He may be reached at: MCWalker@hotmail.com

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