Rock Hudson’s Home Movies

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After a pleasant weekend at the Philadelphia Comic-Con, for whatever reason, my mind wandered to Mark Rappaport’s film Impostors (1979). It was refreshing and encouraging to remember a film which encompasses all the possibilities and romanticism of making a film on one’s own. To recall the potential all filmmakers have if they are just inventive and creative enough to see a project through. That is what Rappaport demonstrates, that is what he represents with his intimate and quirky little cinema.

Just when I fear the worse for film in America, when it seems that American audiences prefer to think of the cinema not as a means to challenge their assumptions and intellect, but as a way to bypass reality into the superficial realm of petty escapism, I recall a filmmaker so driven and obsessed by his vision that he accomplishes his goal with no compromise. Thus, I feel I must prescribe Impostors to any filmmaker suffering a crisis of faith in the American Cinema.

We must all remember how fortunate we are to have so many opportunities to actualize our cinematic vision without the constraints that plagued our counterparts in the first three quarters of the twentieth century. That we have come so far in technical quality with so much accessibility is astounding, and certainly very different then when Rappaport shot Impostors. Yet, that he was able to make it anyway should be of constant encouragement.

Since his debut feature in 1973, Mark Rappaport has focused his cinema on the camp artifice of old Hollywood films and the techniques of low budget movie making. Of Rappaport’s tremendous output, it is Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) that is the film that has surpassed all of Rappaport’s other works in terms of mainstream acceptance, primarily because of its appropriation by the American New Queer Cinema of the 1990s. General sociological concerns and sexual politics aside there is little about Rock Hudson’s Home Movies to associate it with The New Queer Cinema; from a technical standpoint there are no affiliations at all. In fact, Rappaport’s interest in Hollywood artifice, and his low budget manipulations of film technology have a much closer resemblance to the avant-garde films of Werner Schroeter, Jack Smith and the Kuchar Brothers. Thus placing his aesthetic development on an alternate track from the New Queer Cinema filmmakers.

The very purpose of Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies is to expose the homoerotic innuendo within Hudson’s films, as well as to dramatize Hudson’s own psychological turmoil as he sought to navigate a homophobic Hollywood; two of the same themes that defined Werner Schroeter’s early work which appropriated the “camp” vernacular of fifties melodrama to give a voice to West Germany’s queer counterculture. Rappaport departs from Schroeter, Kuchar and Smith with his own style in his depiction of camp and the importance attributed to it as a style choice. Where a figure like Smith revels in the artifice of camp, the Dadaist absurdity of its drama, Rappaport accepts camp as a circumstance of Hollywood cinema, a symptom of America’s contemporary socio-political condition (homophobia). The costumed dancing and singing of Jack Smith’s Normal Love (1963) severely juxtaposes antithetically with the slow moving scenes of a Douglas Sirk film that occurs in Rappaport’s film as rear projection. This difference in technical style and motivations place Rappaport’s film as a work of investigative anthropological filmmaking as opposed to activist filmmaking.

Consider that in Rock Hudson’s Home Movies that Eric Farr (playing Rock Hudson) addresses the audience directly; that Rappaport’s camera becomes a sort of vehicle for Hudson’s confession. Farr’s narration dominates the film, illuminating both the mechanisms of Hollywood studio politics and productions, as well as Hudson’s own personal struggle as a homosexual. The manner of this engagement between the film subject and the audience is one of the most intimate ever filmed outside of the documentary genre. Even the clips Rappaport has appropriated from the filmography of Rock Hudson are first introduced as being those that Hudson himself compiled into a reel to share with his friends to pinpoint where in his films the screenwriters and directors were suggesting his homosexuality to the audience. In this way, the montage of scenes that Rappaport has cut into his film become just as intimate and desperate as the continuous monologue delivered by Farr.

These clips of Hudson’s films often begin as stills or loops projected behind Farr as he addresses the camera before eclipsing him entirely. The technique of rear projection that Rappaport uses dates back to his first films in the seventies, the most successful of which being the heavily plotted Impostors (1979). Shot entirely in his own loft apartment, Impostors achieves the same intimacy as Rock Hudson’s Home Movies due to the close proximity of the actors to Rappaport’s camera and a sense on enclosed space. It was against the largest wall in his apartment that Rappaport projected the images of the film’s locations for Impostors, which had the effect of isolating the live actors from their environment. Though achieving this technique for relatively little cost was new in the seventies, the technique in itself had long been established in Hollywood, beginning in the 1920s. Knowing this, Rappaport purposefully employed the trick of rear projection not only to recall the technology of old Hollywood, but the excess of its artifice. In Impostors, the technique worked to create a post-modern classic studio film. With Rock Hudson’s Home Movies Rappaport expanded the vernacular of his device to encompass a multi-layered reflexivity.

Rappaport’s films have a wonderful playfullness and humor, as does much of Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, particularly the section where Eric Farr’s voice over analyzes the innuendo undercutting the scenes between Rock Hudson and Tony Randall from the ever-popular films Hudson made with Doris Day in the late fifties and early sixties. But Farr’s dismissive tone and airy playfulness in the first two-thirds of the film are designed to contrast the issue of AIDS in the third act. In the last portion of the film, Farr gives voice to Hudson, revealing the fear and desperation of Hudson’s battle with AIDS. Even the clips have changed mood, shifting away from the comedies like Pillow Talk (1959) and to the stylized dramas of Douglas Sirk (a pseudo-father figure to Hudson). Farr, giving voice to Hudson, articulates the feeling of abandonment that went with “coming out”; the disappointment that so many of Rock Hudson’s fans could not stand by him knowing that he was in fact a homosexual. But Rappaport also expresses the important part Rock Hudson played in bringing the AIDS epidemic to the popular consciousness of hetero-mornative mainstream America. If a celebrity such as Rock Hudson can contract and die from such an illness, who is to say that anyone is safe?

The linking of histories then becomes the objective of greatest importance in Rappaport’s films. At first, Rappaport presents the audience with the means to understand how the old Hollywood studio system shaped and molded the popular psyche of modern America. Movie stars in the post-war period of Hollywood were as mythic and as essential to American myth-making as Daniel Boone, Pocahontas, and Davy Crockett. But Rappaport transposes these myths out of their post-war climate and into the post-Reagan and post-Vietnam eras of the late seventies through to the early nineties, where the myths assume a fragility as Romantic and hopeless as the narratives that movie stars such as Rock Hudson often inhabited. Each stage of Rock Hudson’s celebrity illuminates the hypocrisy and flaws of the other’s contemporary environment. In Rappaport’s own script it is articulated best when the character of Hudson says, “When they look back at my films they’ll remember the movie star, the promise of Hollywood. But when they think of me now, they’ll just remember a man, a homosexual”.

This article was first published in June, 2017.