The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender Review
Color Me Lavender, in a nutshell, is Mark Rappaport’s The Celluloid Closet. As with Vito Russo’s 1981 book (and subsequent documentary ‘adaptation’ by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman) it concerns itself with the representation of homosexuality on the big screen, predominantly by Hollywood. Yet coming from the director of those quirky, idiosyncratic documentaries Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg, this particular film clearly isn’t going to be taking the conventional approach. If The Celluloid Closet represents the official version, then Color Me Lavender is its subversive companion piece, tackling the subject with curiosity, humour and more than a little irreverence. It asks questions, whereas Russo was more inclined to draw conclusions.
Early on Rappaport - through the on-screen voice of host Dan Butler - declares his film “an incomplete sampling”. He isn’t interested in creating a definitive work, nor is he overly concerned with received wisdoms. His history of Hollywood homosexuality may read similarly to that of The Celluloid Closet, with its fixation on the Hay’s Code and finding undercurrents within film noir, say, or the musical, but it’s also slightly off the beaten path. Color Me Lavender is more a record of the “insinuation and innuendo” that found its place in mainstream American cinema in post-war years, although the word ‘record’ is perhaps misplaced. That would suggest something definitive with strong reasoned arguments and plenty of evidence backing them up. Rappaport’s approach is more along the lines of ‘Hey, have you noticed this?’ or ‘Hey, take a look at that, isn’t that interesting?’ - in other words positing an idea rather than proving it.
It’s a method that turns out to be rather freeing for Color Me Lavender insofar as there are no sacred cows. Given that it doesn’t have to adhere to the guidelines of the popular history of gay cinema and the representation of homosexuality onscreen, it can therefore take a look in some intriguing directions. Rappaport breaks his film down so that it devotes chapters, as it were, to particular performers. Thus we find a section devoted to Bob Hope, another to Danny Kaye, and others for Clifton Webb, Walter Brennan, Wendell Corey and Randolph Scott. Gene Kelly, Jerry Lewis and Cary Grant also prompt some discussion, though not quite to same extent. Each of the actors, according to Color Me Lavender, sums up an archetype - in the case of Brennan he’s indicative of what Rappaport labels “the Walter Brennan phenomenon” - or certain commonplace traits and tropes in their given genres. The Western, the gangster film, the musical - all have a “squeamish fascination” with homosexuality, but approach it in slightly different ways.
Brennan in particular might prompt the odd gasp, or maybe just raise an eyebrow, but this is also the perfect demonstration of Rappaport’s approach. He isn’t worried about perceived views or to provoke them; he’s simply found something interesting and decided to share it with all of us. More importantly he does so with masses of film clips. In Brennan’s case there’s excerpts from Rio Bravo, Red River, Meet John Doe, To Have and Have Not, and more. That is to say he isn’t making these things up. His theories about the “coffee maker” in the Western - as Brennan is in Rio Bravo and Red River - are brilliantly made and oftentimes hilariously so. The tongue is most definitely in cheek, but that’s not to say such theories are flippant. On occasion Rappaport will ‘pause’ a scene on a particular look or wink and, of course, this is exactly what Color Me Lavender is doing with the audience. Sometimes I sensed that Rappaport was trying a little too hard to draw out his insinuations, but more often than not he seems bang on the money. The proliferation of ass jokes in Bob Hope films, for example, now appears massively obvious thanks to a shrewdly edited montage or two, likewise Danny Kaye and his personification of the “soft man”.
Of course the significance of the edit should not be underestimated and it would be easy to construct plenty of innuendo from isolated scenes or, indeed, isolated glances. I’m not saying that this is what Color Me Lavender is doing, though its open manipulation (using then-cutting edge video technology that now feels somewhat cutely of its time) does perhaps leave him a target for such accusations. Nevertheless the good humour shines through, especially when he has Dan Butler literally enter the scenes for some playful, though never mocking, interaction. Once again Rappaport - and the overall tone of Butler - is telling us not to take the whole thing too seriously. These are just a few things the director has noticed over the years and a few theories he’s developed. You’re not being asked to commit to them fully, but you are being asked to be entertained by them. And on this count the film certainly works.
So why the 7/10 rating? Sadly, Rappaport lets the film down slightly when it goes for a 25-minute sojourn through European cinema during its final third. Here the subjects aren’t the macho word of the Western and the gangster flick, wherein any queer dimensions must be smuggled, but rather the films of such openly gay directors as Jean Cocteau and Luchino Visconti. A Méliès clip at the very start of Color Me Lavender demonstrates that there are European examples on a par with the Hollywood clips, but the likes of Cocteau and Visconti are surely free of the “squeamish fascination” noted elsewhere? Watching an extract from Ossessione, say, whilst Butler draws out various homosexual connotations is the equivalent of being told something we already know - and, consequently, all the enjoyment suddenly disappears. My suggestion is that you skip these couple of chapters on the disc; once he’s done with Europe Rappaport is straight back to My Favourite Wife and Cary Grant having fantasies about Randolph Scott in his trunks, in other words back to the real deal. Had he stuck with Hollywood then Color Me Lavender would have come highly recommended, as it is we have a flawed but mostly terrifically entertaining little doc.
The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (to give the film its full title) was released in the summer via Eureka’s Bounty arm. This single-layered, region-free disc is presented in the NTSC format and as such suggests a straightforward port of the old 2003 disc issued in the US by Water Bearer. Indeed, the pair of extras are identical (a trailer and a short film by Rappaport on John Garfield in much the same vein as the main feature, although here it’s Garfield’s being Jewish which proves central). The film itself comes in its original 4:3 aspect ratio and in a quality that is hard to judge. Owing to Rappaport’s use of video this obviously has an affect on the films he’s excerpting, plus of course there’s the quality of his sources to be taken into account as well. Certain clips look (and sound) in rather poor shape, others are much better. The video element also prompts chroma and the like from the black and white images, although again this is unavoidable. Looking at the 1997 elements of the film - Butler’s voice over, his bits to-camera - here we find a crisp soundtrack and as good an image as we should possibly expect which suggests that the actual transfer of Color Me Lavender onto disc hasn’t prompted any additional issues. Rather any flaws are inherent in the original materials. But then this is a blight that affects many clips-heavy film-centred documentaries, especially as new restorations surpass the quality of the excerpts used so that even prestigious docs such as Visions of Light or Scorsese’s cinematic guides begin to look less sumptuous with age.